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Religious verse

CLEANNESS

Cleanness is a religious poem that retells the Old Testament stories of the Flood, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and Belshazzar's feast. That these three stories highlight a rather cruel side to the God of the Old Testament is perhaps part of the poet's intent. Medieval satire? Read and judge for yourself. It is likely to have been written by the same Cheshire-born poet who composed Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Both these poems are found in only one surviving manuscript, British Library MS Cotton Nero A.x. dating to the very early-fifteenth century. Along with Pearl and Patience, which are also found in this manuscript, these poems were composed in the late-fourteenth century by a poet whose identity remains unknown.

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Clannesse who-so kyndly cowthe comende· and rekken up alle the resouns that ho by right askes, · fayre formes myght he fynde in forthering his speche · and in the contraré kark and combraunce huge. – The person who chooses to praise cleanness fittingly and reckons up all the reasons for recommending her will find excellent terms in which to dress his arguments and great difficulty in supporting an opposite viewpoint. For the creator of the heavens and the Earth gets incredibly angry with men who follow him when they are wallowing in filth, and in particular, respected officials of the Church, who read and sing and approach into his presence and are called priests. They think that they enrich his altar with their reverence when they handle his body and take it into themselves, and if cleanness envelops them and if they truly belong to him, then they will reap a great reward, but if their virtue is counterfeit and if they lack all integrity by appearing outwardly honest when inside they are mired in filth, then they only sink themselves further into sin and sully both God and his sacraments, provoking God to great anger. For he is so clean in his court, this King who rules over everything, and so honest to all those around him, and so scrupulously served by angels in bright clothes exuding all that is clean, that if he was not fastidious and fussy and hated all wrong it would be a marvel indeed!

Christ shows this in a passage of the Bible. He numbers eight virtues and explains their rewards, and I will refer to only one of these, mentioned in Matthew, the one that deals explicitly with cleanness. Matthew says: “The noble person with a clean heart will find good fortune, for he will look cheerfully upon the Lord.” Which is as much as to say, the person who has any uncleanness about him will never see the Lord. For God, who has expelled every filth from his heart, cannot bear to be near a person who is unclean. Therefore, don't hasten to heaven with torn clothing or in a scoundrel's hood, with your hands unwashed! Can you think of an Earthly nobleman, one who holds high honour, who would like it if a man came into his hall wearing his dirty travelling clothes when the nobleman was seated in all his finery, surrounded by dukes and being served with the finest cuisine? What if the ruffian rushed to the table with torn leggings and a filthy coat and with his toes poking out through the holes in his shoes? He would be seized, given an earful of bad language, a blow perhaps, hurled to the hall door and thrown out. He would be forbidden to return, threatened with imprisonment or the stocks, and his life will be ruined because of his arrival in shabby attire, even if he is always found to be well-dressed thereafter. And if unwelcome to a worldly prince, then the High King of Heaven is harsher still.

As Matthew explains in his gospel: a rich man put on a wedding feast once for his son and heir and sent out invitations to people to attend this feast in their finest and most marvellous attire. "For my cattle and my boars have been rounded up and killed, my hens and my partridges have all been fattened, there are shoulders of wild pig, swans and cranes, everything is poached and roasted and ready for the table. Come quickly to my hall before it all spoils!"

When all those who were expected to attend had received this invitation, each one of them thought up an excuse that he hoped might be most likely to get him out of having to go. One had bought himself a large amount of property – he swore this on his honour – and had to go to inspect these buildings at once. Another gave the excuse that he had just bought some yokes for his oxen, and since his servants had purchased them, he had to go quickly to see them in action and to make sure that they were satisfactory. "I have just got married," insisted another. "So please excuse me..." Thus they all firmly declined, citing reasons and excuses. None of those who had been invited was willing to come to this feast.

The noble lord was very upset. "This is an insult!" he shouted. "They will all come to regret it! Go out onto the main roads throughout the district, get all the people you can find there, on horse and on foot, men and women, rich and poor, and invite them all to come to my feast. Ask them in the most civil terms you can, bring them here as quickly as possible and invite them into my hall as though they were noblemen. Let my palace be filled. These other wretches are worth nothing!"

So they all did as they had been instructed to do and brought knights that they found on the road, young squires who had been galloping through the countryside, many people on foot, both free and bound to the manor, and when they came to the court they were all graciously received, welcomed by the steward, shown appreciatively into the hall and found appropriate seats by the marshal, each according to his rank. Then men said to the lord: "Sir, we have brought to you many people who are unaccustomed to being in this hall, but there is room for plenty more still."

"Search more widely, then!" the lord replied. "Go further out into the countryside and fetch more guests. Look on the heathland and in the woods, see if anyone is there and whatever kind of people you find, bring them here. Bring them all, whether they are strong and eager, timid and weak, healthy, crippled, one-eyed, even if they are blind! I want every corner of my house filled. Certainly, those noblemen who have shunned my hospitality and done me this dishonour shall never again sit in my hall and eat with me. They will not have one single mouthful of my food, even if they are starving."

So the sergeants filed out and did as they had been asked to do, and soon the hall was filled with all sorts of people, from every walk of life. Whether they were worthy or not, they were seated in comfort, the more highly-ranked and better dressed and those deemed to be the fairest at the top table, with men enough to fill out the lines of tables below.

Everyone was appropriately dressed for the occasion and looked very smart. The hall officials served them and honoured them, the well-born were respected as they should be, but the lowliest person there was given everything he requested. With great honour and with fine food, excellent music and all the sport and entertainment that a lord ought to provide, those who were inclined to sample the wine began to get merry and everyone started to chatter and relax with those around them.

Halfway through the meal, the lord decided to go around the tables and personally greet all the people who had come, both rich and poor, to make them feel welcome and brighten their mood still further with his own good humour. So he went from his chamber into the large hall, walked up to those he deemed to be the noblest and encouraged them to be merry, joked with them and sailed around the room, going from table to table, laughing and making everybody feel jolly. But as he walked over the floor he spotted, sitting with some other people, a workman who was not at all dressed for the occasion. The man was in very plain work clothes, besmirched and dirty and in no fit state to be in good company. The lord was mortified. He wanted to punish him.

"Tell me, my friend," said the lord, menacingly. "How did you find your way into this hall in such filthy clothes? The overalls you are wearing are no special attire for a holiday, man! These clothes you are wearing are not those to celebrate a wedding in! What made you so brave as to come near this house in such a ragged robe, all torn at the sides? You look an ungodly sight in that vile garment and you bring discredit upon my household, although I imagine you were quick enough to come here for a free meal! Did you think that I was a beggar and I would admire this garment of yours?"

The man was taken aback by these stern words, hung his head and looked at the floor. His thoughts were in such a spin, fearing violence, that he couldn't think of a word to say. The lord shouted to his hall officials: "Seize this man!" he instructed. "Tie both his hands behind his back, fasten shackles onto his feet and stick him firmly in the stocks at once. Then take him into my dungeon, where tears and clenched teeth rule, to teach him to be gracious and respectful."

Christ likens the kingdom of heaven to this – a free banquet to which all are invited. For all are asked pleasantly to come along, the good and the bad, and whoever has been baptized at the font has received their invitation already. But make absolutely sure, if you will, that your clothes are clean and that they are appropriate for the festival, lest you incur harm, for that noble Prince hates hell no more than those who are soiled.

Which, then, are the clothes that are white and clean and of the very best and that you should wrap yourself in? They are all the things that you have done in your life, lined with all your thoughts and desires. If you are found to have been noble and generous throughout your life, your hands and feet draped in pleasing garments and if you are a delight to behold, then you may see your Saviour and his rich throne. But a man may forfeit this bliss in many ways. Sloth is one way to do it. Ostentation and boastful pride is another. These will push a man quickly down the devil's throat! Envy, villainy and deviousness, wicked lies and manslaughter, drinking too much, housebreaking, arguing, theft and licentiousness, holding onto false beliefs, disinheriting folk unjustly, depriving widows of their dowries, having sex with other men's wives or keeping a mistress, deception and trickery, throwing your weight around and behaving like a tyrant, spreading false rumours, making unjust laws – all these receive little applause in heaven. Men may miss the wonderful party for sins such as these, and instead, have to endure pain and torment and never see the Creator or his wonderful hall.

I have listened and heard from many learned clerics, and also read for myself, that God is displeased with anything of this nature. But I have never yet heard that he ever took such vengeance nor punished so severely any hateful vice or sin, nor has risen to such great anger nor ever as quickly desired to lash out so wildly, as he has in his hatred of the filth of the flesh that some fools indulge in. For then he forgets all his love and forgiveness and becomes incandescent with rage. For don't forget the very first great felony that God had to deal with, the one the devil committed while he was still elevated to a high place in heaven and honoured as the fairest among the angels. He thought of nothing but himself and how beautiful he was, and ignored his Sovereign. "I shall raise up my own throne in my own high place and be just like the Lord who made the heavens!" he declared arrogantly. And for this utterance, revenge was swift. But it was measured. Drighten cast the devil down into the abyss, but he only flung down with him a tenth of those who had allied themselves with him in that rich tower. Although the devil's glorious radiance made him look so impressive, shining brightly in his fine clothes, as soon as Drighten's judgment reached him, he and countless thousands more were thrown out, black fiends tossed from the firmament, launched at the first blow like snowflakes in a blizzard, hurled into the mouth of hell like a swarm of bees. The purge lasted for forty days before that stinking torrent of fiends ended. Like grains of malted barley toasting beneath a fine sieve, that hateful company fell from heaven down to hell, all over the world. It was a strong blow and a huge punishment, and yet the devil was unrepentant and refused through his wilfulness to acknowledge merciful God, or to ask for mercy, and still does.

Another vengeance fell upon everybody on Earth, this time through the fault of a man who betrayed God's trust. Disobedient Adam, ordained to occupy his days in bliss, was given a private paradise to live in, destined to spend a happy period there before inheriting that heavenly home that some of the angels had so recently vacated. But through the encouragement of Eve, he ate from an apple that poisoned them both and everybody who descended from them, for Drighten had forbidden them to do this thing. They knew the penalty. God did in response only what he had said he would do. The fruit that Adam touched was forbidden, and the punishment that ensued is the death that hangs over us all. This punishment was carried out only in accordance with what had already been explained, without any anger or malice; and now ameliorated, anyway, by a maiden who was a mother, although she was a virgin.

But a third punishment that God inflicted was accompanied by great anger and everything that lived on the Earth was destroyed. This was fury without mercy and much malice was shown, because of the filth of the flesh that all the people indulged in then, those who lived on the Earth without any authority set over them. These people were the fairest to look at, the strongest and most handsome that had ever been created, the mightiest and most excellent that had ever stood on feet, and the longest-lived that had ever walked the Earth. For it was the first life that the Earth produced, the illustrious sons of Adam, to whom God had given everything that is good, everything that a body might have to enjoy without blame.

Those who were immediately descended from Adam were the fairest, those who came afterwards only a little less so. And there was no law given to them except for this one: 'Act according to your nature, be true to it and do everything that it requires.'

But then they discovered filthy things they could do with one other, things that went wholly against nature. They indulged themselves wantonly in these perverted acts, amongst themselves and with other creatures as well. So corrupted was their flesh that the devil looked on, saw how pretty the daughters of mankind were and played with them as though he was human. This caused them to give birth to giants. Men on Earth at this time were powerful and aggressive, and famed for their offensive pursuits. The most violent were given the most power and the strongest and cruelest was deemed to be the best.

The evils on Earth multiplied and grew so bad that God grew very angry. He saw the whole world tainted, with the strong corrupting the weak and every person straying far from the right path, and his heart burned with rage.

"I bitterly regret starting this!" he said to Himself. "Why did I make mankind? I shall destroy all these creatures that act so wrongly on this Earth. I shall wipe out everything that lives, all the humans and all the animals, even the birds and the fishes! All shall die and be driven out of the Earth, everything that I put a soul into. I am sorry that I ever made any of them. I shall keep a close eye on their cunning and their depravity for a while, and choose my moment to strike.

There was a man living in the world at this time who was eager and respectful, who lived his life well, spent his days in fear of Drighten and walked with his God; and much grace he received because of this. His name was Noah, as is well-known and he had three, vigorous sons. One of them was called Sem, another Cam and the third was a good-humoured man called Japheth. Each of these sons had a wife. Now God, furious and in a mood for vengeance, spoke wild, angry words to Noah.

"I have been weighing in my mind whether or not to destroy every living thing on the Earth, and I am now resolved to do so. Their disgraceful conduct grieves my heart. Their filthy behaviour makes me angry. Their vileness sickens me. I shall alleviate the distress I feel by killing them all, mankind and everything that has life. I shall destroy the world.

"Construct for yourself a dwelling-place, this is my desire, a box of planed timber, and inside it put places for every kind of creature. Line it with clay inside and caulk every joint of the timberwork outside with daub. It shall be three hundred cubits long and fifty in breadth, and see that it is thirty cubits high and that it has a window a cubit square, high up in the vessel, a window that can open and a well-sealed door on the side. Then build halls inside with lots of stalls and cubicles and well-constructed pens, for I shall awaken such a deluge that it will wash clean all the world and kill everything that lives with its billowing floods. All that slithers or runs, glides, climbs and has a soul, I shall obliterate. But I shall make a covenant with you, for you have lived moderately and have never done any wrong. You will enter into this ark with your wife and with your three noble sons and with their wives, and of mankind, these eight lives alone shall be saved. I shall exterminate all the rest.

"Choose a few from every kind of living creature you can find, a pair from each unwholesome species, seven pairs from the wholesome ones, and so save the seed of all the various creatures that I intend to eradicate. Always pair a male and a female together and fill your ark with food, for your own sustenance and for that of your animals."

Quickly, Noah began to do as God had instructed, in fear and apprehension, not daring to do otherwise. And when the ark was built and finished and fully prepared, then Drighten spoke to Noah once more:

"Are you all ready?" asked Our Lord. "Have you sealed your ark everywhere with clay?"

"Yes Lord, with your permission," said the man. "All is done as you have instructed, as best as I can."

"Then go inside, and take your wife with you, your three sons and their wives and all the animals as I told you to, get everything inside and when you are ready, close the door and fasten it shut. Because in seven days time I shall summon the most ferocious storm that will ever have been seen. I will send rain down in sheets and wash the world of all its filth. Nothing will remain alive at the end of it except for the eight of you in this ark, and the seed of all these different animals."

Noah set to work at once. He began that very night and didn't stop until all was stowed as God had instructed. And when the seventh day arrived, all the animals were safely inside the ark. Then the clouds massed, earthquakes shook the ground and made it rise in great ridges, forming springs that sent water gushing out in mad cascades, and thunderclouds poured down torrents of rain until there was no river or lake that had not burst its banks. Great flowing waters rose towards the sky as the blanketing clouds threw down their rain in violent torrents, cutting everything to rags and drenching the ground. The flood rose, covering forests and fields and when the water from the sky met with the world, everything that was capable of death was drowned and met its end. It did not stop for forty days.

There was terror when people realised what was happening. Nothing to look forward to, it seemed, but death in the deep waters that grew wilder and more ferocious, destroying houses, rushing through buildings, taking all those who lived there. All who could, ran from the flood, looked for higher ground, searched for safety on the steepest slopes; women with children in their arms fled quickly, searching for refuge. But it was all wasted effort. The rain poured incessantly, the water rose, the waves grew larger and larger until each valley was full to the brim and the water overflowing into the next. The highest mountains were no longer a safe refuge, but here the people flocked, for fear of this vengeance. Wild creatures of the forest floated on the flood, some swimming in an attempt to save themselves, others climbing to the highest peaks to gaze into the sky, roaring and bellowing pitifully. Hares ran to the high ground, deer also, stags, badgers and bulls all rushed to the hilltops, and all howled in terror to the King of Heaven, pleading for respite. But his mercy was exhausted. His pity had gone for these men and women whom he hated. The water lapped to their feet and everyone could see that there was no choice but to drown. Resigned to this dreadful destiny, lovers said their last farewells and friends came together, hugged one another and died in fellowship.

At the end of forty days, nothing moved on the Earth that the flood had not taken with its billowing waves. The water had risen fifteen cubits over the highest mountain and all was left to rot in the mud, all that had once had life. Except, that is, for Noah under his hatches and his strange menagerie; eight people in an ark, kept dry and warm, and pleasing to God.

Noah cried out the name of God again and again, but the ark was tossed up and down on the waves, rolled on the raging sea and carried to unfamiliar regions close to the clouds. It drifted where it wished, floating over the deep water without mast or ropes, with no cable or capstan to take the strain of any anchor, no helm or tiller to control a rudder and no billowing sail to carry them to safety. They drifted wherever the winds and currents took them and would often roll and plunge as the waves buffeted the ark. If the Lord had not had them in his care, they would have had a harsh time of it indeed!

This happened in the six hundredth year of Noah's life, and began on the seventeenth day of the second month. The flood lasted for a hundred and fifty days and at the end of this there was not a mountain top that did not have waves of water passing over it. Every single creature that had lived upon the Earth was dead. Everything that had walked, flown or swum had been destroyed.

The ark, packed with every kind of creature and floating at the mercy of the weather, was all that was left. But when it pleased the Lord of the heavens to consider the man who was awaiting his mercy, he sent a calming wind to blow upon the water. He abated the torrents and closed up the springs. He commanded the rain to stop, and it did so immediately. Then slowly, the flood began to subside, after one hundred and fifty fearful and terror-stricken days. The ark lifted in the swell and lurched about, bound for wherever the wind and the weather chose to take it.

At last, the ark settled onto hard ground, coming to rest one calm day on a ledge of rock on Mount Ararat, in the Armenian hills, which in Hebrew is called the Thanes. But although the ark became safely cradled in the crags, the flood had not fully receded. Only the highest of the mountain tops and ridges were exposed. But Noah and his sons found themselves looking upon dry land once more. Noah threw open his window and sent out a raven with instructions to look for land and to return to tell them what he had found. The bird took to the air, a black raven, always deceitful and rebellious; he fanned his wings, soared high like a vulture and when he spotted some carrion on a cliff top he landed there at once. And with the smell of rotting flesh in his nostrils he fell upon the putrefaction, filled his stomach and soon forgot the mission that Noah had given to him. The raven flew about cawing, with little concern for anything in the ark, so long as he could find food for himself. Noah waited in the ark, cursing him bitterly, and so did all the other animals as well. Then he sought another scout and chose a dove, brought that excellent creature up onto deck and said: "Go forth, worthy creature, and find us somewhere to stay. Fly over this barren water and if you discover any land, bring some token of it to this ark and joy to us all. That raven is useless, but you, I know, will be true and reliable."

The dove flew swiftly up into the sky and stayed airborne all day, never daring to alight anywhere. And when she could find no ground to land upon she circled around and went back to the ark. She returned in the evening, perched on the superstructure and Noah brought her back inside. And on another day, Noah bade her fly over the water once more to look for land. She soared beneath the sky and searched about until the evening was drawing in, and then she sought the ark, alighted on the prow and waited for Noah. What has she in her beak? She has brought back a lovely branch of olive! It was covered all around with green leaves and was a sign from the Lord that his anger had passed and that they were safe, now, from his wrath. Then there was joy in that vessel and comfort in that clay-daubed container!

Merrily, one fair morning, the first day of the year, men laughed in that ark, looked about and saw how the waters were receding and that the world was drying. Anxiety and discomfort gave way to praise for their Lord! But they remained in that vessel until they had received word from he who had caused them to be there, and then God's word reached them, much to their joy. He told them to open the door. It was soon open and Noah and his sons went out. Their wives walked with them and all the animals followed, delightedly shoving and pushing one another in a great mass.

Noah picked an odd one of each animal that it was lawful to eat, built an altar, consecrated it and set a sacrifice upon it, one of each animal that it was permitted to sacrifice – God allowed no others. And when these beasts were burning fiercely and the smoke arose, the smell went up to where he who saves and destroys at his pleasure lives, and he spoke reassuringly to Noah:

"Never again, Noah, will I ever have to curse the world, not for any man's sins. For I can see that it is the truth that all men are by their nature driven to excess and prodigality and that this has always been the case and will continue to be so, in every man from his childhood onwards. The mind of man is always inclined towards wrongdoing. Therefore, I will never again strike such a blow that it will destroy everything on account of mankind's sins, for as long as the Earth shall last. But go forth now, increase your numbers, prosper in this world, multiply, and achieve honour. For you shall work the seasons, the sowing and the harvest, suffer the heat of summer and the cold of winter, the rain and the drought, the night and the day, the years as they begin afresh and ever restless, and all this is yours to rule over."

With this, He blessed every animal and gave them this Earth. Then there was a clamour and a kerfuffle as all the creatures sought to escape at once into the open. Each bird that had feathers took quickly to the air, every fish with a fin to the water, every grazing animal to the plains and meadows; snakes slithered to the places that they like, foxes and polecats to the woodlands, deer to the high heaths, hares to the scrublands, lions and leopards to the lakeside plains, eagles and falcons to the high rocks, wading birds to the marshes and estuaries. Every creature went to where it liked best. And the four men had sovereignty over it all.

See, what terrible retribution for such dreadful deeds the High Father inflicted upon the creatures that He had made! Those whom he had lovingly cherished he cruelly chastised, in order to eradicate the crudity, the licentiousness and disobedience that went so much against his laws. Therefore, any man who desires the honour and privilege of being summoned to the blissful court of the King of Heaven, may you never be found engaging in the filth of the flesh, to the extent that the waters of baptism may fail to cleanse you. No man can be so sure of his virtues, and if he is stained with a sin that has not been cleansed, then one single speck of filth may be enough to prevent him from getting even a glimpse of the Sovereign who sits on high. To gain entry into that hall a man must be as clean and bright as polished beryl, perfect on every side with not a stain anywhere, without spot or blemish, like a pearl.

II

So the King of Heaven bitterly regretted that he had ever made man to walk upon the Earth, for he had fallen into filth, and he took a fierce revenge when he destroyed all the creatures that he had made. He rued having ever raised them up and given them life, and then he regretted having had to destroy them so harshly. And so he made a covenant with mankind, in accordance with his true intentions and through the generosity of his heart, that he would never again destroy every living creature on the Earth, whatever sins had been committed. And that vow has never been withdrawn, however wonderfully he has punished wicked men thereafter for this accursed evil, this poison and vicious filth that corrupts a man’s soul with error and prevents him ever from seeing his Saviour with his own eyes, or in the fury of his anger fiercely destroyed a wealthy land for that very same fault, as you shall shortly hear. God hates all sin like the stink of hell, but none distresses him so much as perverted sex, prostitution, permissiveness and contempt for oneself. Whoever indulges in sex for pleasure and feels no shame, must be killed mercilessly!

Consider, man, although you are foolish, but reflect sometime, if you will, whether he who put such a glint in everyone's eyes was born blind? Or if he gave everybody ears when he can't hear anything himself? Wouldn't it be a wonder if this was the case? Then don't assume it. Believe it to be untrue. Accept that there is nothing so secretly done that it escapes his notice and that there is no man so careful and so discrete in what he does that the perception of his actions does not carry at once to God. For he is a searching deity and the foundation of everything, probing at all times to the very core of his creation. And where he finds a man to be fair and clean inside, with a wholesome and honest heart, he honours that noble person and shows him his calm and steady side. But with the others he deals harshly and expels them from his world. And concerning the punishment for those who have indulged in deeds of shame, God is so disgusted by this particular sin that he wastes not a moment, shows no mercy and kills quickly, as will be seen shortly, when I tell you of a tragedy that once took place.

Old Abraham was sitting on the ground outside the door to his house beneath an oak tree one day. The sun was shining brightly and Abraham was resting there in the heat, beneath the shade of the leaves, when he became aware of three men approaching on the road. They looked noble and generous and were of handsome appearance, and how much so will be evident in a moment, for Abraham, as he lay under the leaves, when he saw them, quickly got up and went to greet them as though they were God himself.

"Noble Lord," he said to them all. "If ever your man on Earth deserved a reward, then stay awhile, I humbly beseech you. May I dare ask that you don't pass by this poor wretch before you have spent some time with your man and rested in the shade. I shall quickly have water fetched so that I can wash your feet. Rest here on this root and I shall hurry off and get you a morsel of bread to comfort your heart."

"Let it be as you wish," said the three men. "We will wait for you by the roots of this great tree."

So Abraham hurried into the house and called to his wife Sarah to be swift for once: "Get three measures of flour and make dough, divide it quickly into naans and put them under the hottest cinders to cook. Then, while I get something ready for the slaughter, fan the fire so that we can prepare a meal."

Then Abraham went to his cowshed and brought out a calf that was bound to be tender, asked that it be skinned and told his servant to cook it quickly. And as the man hurried off to do this, Abraham took the cloth off his head, cast a clean cloth over the ground, placed the three naans upon it and set some butter beside them. Then he placed jugs of milk upon the cloth, the meat on a platter, with accompanying sauces, and like a servant of high standing, he served his three guests with a calm and courteous disposition, with the best food that he was able to bring to them.

God made good cheer. He was pleased with his friend and they praised the meal, the three of them as one, while Abraham, his head bare and in all humility, served food to the men who possess every divine power. Then, when the food had been removed and it was customary to make conversation:

"I shall come here again, Abraham, before your life's light has dimmed on this Earth." they said. "And then Sarah will conceive and bare you a son, who will be your heir and shall be the father of a worthy people who will be held in great honour and respect, a people who shall hold as their heritage all that I have granted to men."

Then Sarah, hiding behind the door, laughed to herself in derision and thought: "Do you believe that through sex we might bring this about? Are you advocating that we have sex, and I so far beyond that age, and also my husband?" For Scripture says that both Sarah and her husband Abraham were very old indeed, and their attempts to have a family had long failed. Sarah was barren.

Then Our Lord said, where he sat: "See! Sarah laughs, not believing what I say. Does she think that there is anything at all that is hard for me to achieve? I can tell you with certainty that what I have said to you is true. I shall return to you shortly and prove the truth of it, by sending Sarah a son and heir."

Then Sarah burst out into the open and swore, in all honesty, that she had not laughed at the things that had been said. "Now, enough! Do not lie," said Drighten. "You laughed aloud, but let it pass."

With that, they quickly got up, as though intending to depart, for it was in their mind to travel to Sodom, a city nearby that was set in a valley, no more than two miles from Mambre, where Abraham lived. Abraham travelled with Our Lord, answering his questions and showing him the way. God went along and Abraham went with them, guiding them towards the city of Sodom, that had sinned greatly in the matter of this filth.

"How can I conceal from you the thoughts that lie in my heart, when you are chosen to be the ancestral father of my chosen people, and when your descendents shall fill the Earth and be blessed through you?" asked God, turning to Abraham. "I will show you how angry I am with Sodom, and I'll tell you what I intend to do about it. For the din of that city blares into my ears, and the guilt of Gomorrah is no less. I shall go amongst these people and see for myself whether the sounds that I can hear in heaven truly reveal the extent of their crimes. For they have taught themselves things that I do not like at all; they do the most evil things imaginable with their bodies! Each man takes as his sexual partner another man like himself, and they do things together that only a man and a women should do. I have made for them a natural practice, taught it to them in secret and made it a lynch-pin of my creation. I filled it with sadness but dressed it in the sweetest of miseries, fashioned vicissitudes for lovers and made a passion that could reach to the very heights of ecstasy. And when two people of the right gender are coupled together in this way, a man with his woman, such happiness can come that Paradise itself might bring them little more in the way of bliss! But unless they can honestly play with each other in a quiet, stolen moment, unwatched by anybody, the passion between them might grow so hot that nothing can quench it. And now they have twisted my intentions entirely and scorned nature by their filthy acts. I will strike at them quickly, so that the generations to come will be warned for evermore."

Abraham became frightened when he sensed the hatred in God's voice and anxiously said: "Sir, by your leave, will everybody suffer then, the guilty and the innocent? For has it ever been the custom of he who created us all that the good and the bad should be weighed on the scales in the same pan, and that the wicked and the good should suffer the same punishment? I have fifty good friends in this city, and also in Gomorrah, who have never disobeyed you, but loved honesty. They have behaved reasonably and righteously and have always been ready to serve you. Shall they fall for the crimes that other people have committed and be punished for them? That was never your way, and may it never become the way of such a mild and good-natured God."

"For these fifty," said the Father, "and for your fine words, if they are found to be clean of this filth, I shall show forgiveness, through my grace, and leave them unharmed."

"Ah! Blessed may you truly be!" said Abraham. "So kind and considerate. You hold within your hand the heavens and the Earth. But, as we are on this subject, please don't take it wrongly if I say a little more, I, who am but mud and ashes. But what if five are guilty amongst these fifty and the rest are innocent as I have said; how would this change things?"

"If it is only five short of fifty," said God, "I shall forgive everybody and prevent my hand from hurting a single person."

"And what if forty are innocent and everybody else guilty? Will you do as you threaten and destroy them all?"

"No, if forty are free of all guilt, then I shall stay my hand and remove all thoughts of vengeance, although what they do sickens me.

Then Abraham bowed low and humbly thanked God: "Blessed may You be, Saviour, so gentle in your anger. I am but rotten earth and black dirt, to speak with such a master whose power is infinite; but I have begun with my God and if he thinks it pleasing, and though I may seem like a fool, your magnanimity may serve: so what if thirty men are unjustly punished in those cities? What should I believe of my God then, if he chooses to destroy them?"

God answered: "For thirty together I shall stay my hand, calm my rage and refrain from this carnage, because of your courteous intercession."

"And what if twenty are innocent?" asked Abraham. "Will you unravel them all then?"

"No, if you desire it, I shall give them all grace, if those twenty are honest, and forgive those two cities their foul practices."

"Gracious Lord," said Abraham. "One more word and I shall endeavour to help these men no further. But if ten trusty men in these cities are busied about your business, will you moderate your anger and wait to see if reconciliation is possible?"

"I will," said God.

"Thank you," replied Abraham.

Then Abraham stopped and walked no further. God continued along the grassy path and Abraham followed him with his gaze, and as he watched Our Lord he called out anxiously: "Gentle master, if you would take heed of your servant, my dear nephew Lot lives in that city. He lives in Sodom, your lowly servant, among those men who have committed all these heinous crimes. If you destroy this city, please allow your rage to abate enough to have mercy upon him."

"Then Abraham turned back towards the lake of Mambre, weeping in sorrow. And there he lay all night at home, unable to sleep for worry, while God sent his spies into Sodom. He sent two angels into the city, that very evening. They had the appearance of two young men walking about together. Lot saw them from a porch door that he was sitting against, alone, near to the splendid city gates. He was dressed in fine clothes and as he stared into the street, which was a main thoroughfare, he saw these two handsome young men laughing and joking together. They seemed strong and noble young men, with beardless chins, hair like raw silk, hands and faces as white as the wild rose and with intelligent eyes. Their clothes were white and fitted them perfectly, with not a stain nor a blemish upon them, for they were angels and the man watching them from the porch realised this. He rose at once, hurried over to them, bowed low and said:

"Sirs, I urge you, please come and stay with me at my house tonight. Come to your servant's humble abode, please do, and I will send for a bath so that you can wash your feet. Come just for this night and you can be on your way tomorrow morning."

But the two young men said that they had no plans to lodge in any house for the night but wished to remain in the street, and that the stars would make a good enough roof for them both.

But Lot was persistent and so courteous that at last they agreed to stay the night with him. Lot brought them quickly to his house, which was richly furnished for he was a wealthy man, and they were generously welcomed by his wife and by his two lovely daughters who were pretty, good-natured and dressed in very fine clothes. Lot quickly summoned servants and arranged for food to be prepared: "And make sure that whatever you cook is unleavened and that there is no salt or anything like that in anything you serve," he instructed.

Lot's wife became a little angry, I think, when she heard these instructions. She thought to herself: "This displeasing servant is ordering me to leave the salt out of the sauces, but it seems completely unreasonable that others should go without, just for the sake of these two ignorant young men!" So she added salt to all her dishes, against her husband's instructions, and scorned these guests, who knew well what she was doing.

Why did this wretched woman so anger Our Lord?

Everybody at the table was quickly served, and the happy, well-mannered guests pleased everyone with their courtesy. They made delightful conversation until it was time to wash, and then the trestles and boards were stacked against the wall. But then, when the guests had been sitting only a short while after the meal and had no thoughts yet of retiring to bed, the whole town was roused. Everyone who could wield a weapon, weak or strong, began to surround Lot's house with the intention of seizing the two strangers. They arrived in great numbers at Lot's gateway, beat at the walls with great clubs and shouted into the building: "If you wish to stay alive, Lot, then you will deliver to us those two handsome young men whom you have inside, so that we can get our dicks into them and give full vent to our desires, for it is the custom in Sodom to do this to passing travellers."

God! They spat and shouted such offensive filth! They boasted so openly of what they would do that the wind and the air and the entire world still stinks with the breath of it! Lot was disgusted and distressed, his heart shrank within him and he cringed in shame. He knew the perverted habits of these people, but never before had his sorrow run so deep. "Alas!" he cried, and rose up from his bench and hurried to the wide gates. God! He gave no thought to his own safety as he rushed through his doorway to challenge these people. He went through the door and shut it firmly behind him. Then he spoke reasonably to the men who were gathered there, hoping that through courtesy and in a quiet tone he might go some way to cooling their ardour and quenching the flames of their terrifying lust.

"My generous friends," he began. "Your conduct is too unfriendly! Stop this bold clamour! Stop menacing my guests. For shame! You bring harm upon yourselves. If this is all a good-humoured joke, then it has gone on long enough. Let me introduce you to the pleasures of a more natural occupation. I have a treasure in my house, my two fair daughters. They are unmarried maidens and virgins both of them, the prettiest two girls in all of Sodom. They are attractive girls, sexually mature and ready to be introduced to men. If you will play with these pretty girls it will bring you more pleasure. I will give you my two daughters, who I am sure will be happy, inventive and accommodating. Play with them as you please, and leave my guests alone."

But this hot and licentious crowd made such a screaming din that their noise thrust itself unwelcomely into Lot's ears: "Don't you know that you live here as a stranger," they cried menacingly, "a foreigner, an outsider? We will smash your head in! Who appointed you to be our judge and to criticise our behaviour? You were not born here, although you have taken our money to make yourself rich."

They clamoured and shoved, yelled into his ears and frightened him with the sheer weight of their numbers until suddenly, the two young men ran boldly to the door, knocked it open and raced towards the crowd. They took hold of Lot and bundled him back through the doorway, securing the door stone-tight behind them with heavy bars. Then they blew a spell towards these cursed people so that they all staggered about blindly, losing all memory of where the doors were; but they stayed all night searching nonetheless. But at last, each of them made his way towards the place of sleep that was closest to hand, having failed to find any release for his sexual urges. But they were soon awakened, all those who lived there, by one of the ugliest catastrophes that the Earth has ever suffered.

When the darkness of night began to give way to the first glimmer of dawn, the two angels woke Lot with some urgency and told him to get up as quickly as he could. Lot swiftly got dressed, his heart racing. Then the angels told him to gather up everything of value that he had:

"Bring your wife and your servants and your two fair daughters, for we invite you, Sir, to make a bid to save your life. Get quickly out of this district before you are caught up in something awful. Take your household and find a hill, go on foot, keep looking ahead of you and don't turn around for one moment to look behind you. Don't pause for anything at all but go as quickly as you can, and don't stop until you come to a habitation. For we intend to make this city suffer. We are going to vigorously exterminate all these wicked people and ruin the land, and everybody within it. Sodom will sink into the ground, the rocks beneath Gomorrah will collapse into hell and every part of this region will be reduced to rubble."

"Lord, what can I do?" cried Lot in fright. "If I try to escape on foot, how can I hide from God? How can I shelter from the fierceness of his blast, which will burn everything? Should I creep away from my Creator towards I know not where, only guessing whether his enmity will attack me from the front or from the rear?"

"Our Father shows you no enmity, Lot. Rather, he has raised you safely above all that he condemns. Now choose for yourself a place to go that might protect you, and he will save it for your sake. You are the only one who is going to be saved amongst all this filth, for your uncle Abraham has pleaded for you."

"Lord, may your adoration grow on this Earth!" cried Lot. "There is a city hereabouts called Segor, lying at the summit of a round hill. I would like, if God would allow it, to escape to this place."

"Then go quickly," said the angel, "and don't stop until you get there. Take those you wish to take, your wife and your dependants, and make your way there without looking back. For this land shall be destroyed not long after sunrise."

Lot awakened his wife and his daughters, and the two men whom his daughters were to marry, but the men thought it all a joke, couldn't take it seriously and wouldn't get up. So the angels urged forward the four of them with fearful threats and shepherded them through the outer door: Lot, his wife and his two daughters. And these were the only ones to be saved from the five noble cities. These angels guided them by the hand past the gates, assured them of the danger and urged them to hurry: "Get going as quickly as you can, or you will be caught up in this catastrophe!"

With no further delay, they left quickly and reached the hill long before the sun had risen. Then God in his anger began to stir some wild weather in the sky. He called upon the winds; they rose up in a rage and wrestled loudly together, coming from every direction at once. Clouds gathered and rose in great towers, lightening flashed all around and a kind of rain beat down, a thick torrent of red-hot fiery flakes and lumps of sulphur mixed with a smoke that stank like the devil. All around Sodom and the land surrounding it, as far as Gomorrah, the ground trembled with this rain. Abdama and Syboym as well, these fair cities, all was enveloped by this rain. Everything was roasted and scorched by it, and the skin of all the people in these cities began to peel from their flesh. And when hell heard the hounds of heaven, God was wonderfully pleased and quickly opened the great bars of the abyss, and the whole district collapsed into ravines, and all the cliffs shattered into little pieces, like a book falling apart with all the pages scattering everywhere. And then a smell of sulphur engulfed everything and the cities and all the districts around them began to sink into hell. There was nothing the people could do when they realised what was happening. They began to scream for mercy and wail so much that the clouds resounded with their cries. Lot and his wife and daughters heard this sound as they made their way towards Segor; the women were terrified by it and hurried away as fast as they could, never daring to turn around. Lot and his two lovely daughters kept their faces fixed firmly ahead of them, but his wife did not do as she had been told. She glanced behind her for a moment to see what was happening. She looked over her left shoulder towards Sodom and at once she was turned into stone, a rigid statue of salt, and her form can still be seen.

Lot and his daughters continued onwards, unaware of what had happened, and soon arrived at Segor. At once they praised God for protecting his servants from such anger, and loved him with joyful arms held aloft. The disaster was over by then. All those in the cities had been burned and damned and totally destroyed. The men of Sodom had run out to see what was going on, straight into that sea of ash and terror, and quickly suffocated. Nothing was saved except for Segor, which lay on a hill. Lot's wife had been transformed on the hillside, reduced to a stone statue that had the taste of salt, because of her two misdemeanours. Firstly, she had served salt before God at the supper, and secondly, she had looked behind her although expressly forbidden to do so. For the one misdemeanour she was reduced to rock, and salt for the other, so that all the animals of the plain could take their pleasure licking her.

Abraham rose early that morning. He had spent a sleepless night worrying about Lot and now went quickly to the place on the road where he had parted from God the previous day. Looking towards Sodom, which had been of all cities on Earth the most pleasant, approaching even to the Earthly Paradise which God had created, he saw that it had fallen into a pit that was as black as pitch. A stench arose out of this blackness and ashes flew about on updraughts of air in the way that happens when a furnace full of light cinders suddenly boils into conflagration when the fuel underneath it is poked into life. It was a violent vengeance that annihilated these places and wrecked such a fair folk, when the land sank around them.

The place where these five cities were once located is now a sea, one that is murky and grey and completely static and lifeless. Dark, seething and turbid, unpleasant to be near, it is like a stinking stench intended to put a stop to sin – a sea that always reeks of sin and causes one to recoil. It is called the dark Dead Sea, for its deadly deeds haunt it still; it is broad and bottomless and as bitter as gall and nothing that lives can remain in that lake. Moreover, it contravenes all the rules of nature, for if you throw a lump of lead into it, it will float, but if you place a feather on its surface this will sink down through the water. And where the waves roll to the shore and wet the ground, nothing green can ever grow, no grass, no trees and no shrubs. And if any man is sentenced to death by drowning and is thrown into that water, even if he might spend a month beneath the surface he will still be alive in that lake, for it is an evil place and he can never drown. The place is cursed by nature and the clay and the soil of its shores is caustic and harsh, like bitumen and soda, sulphur and horrible things like that. And the water casts up great frothy lumps of waxy asphalt, like the stuff that apothecaries sell. Such is the shore beside this sea, a corrosive soil that eats away flesh and rots bones.

There are trees beside this lake of deceit, beyond the reach of the water, and they flourish and bear beautiful blossom and the most wonderful fruit that it is possible to see on Earth, such as oranges and pomegranates and other delights, more richly-coloured than anyone can imagine. But when they are squeezed or bitten into or cut in half, there is nothing inside them but dry ashes. All this is a lesson and a sign of the wicked work that Our Father took vengeance for, because of the filth of these men, so that every person may understand, who loves this Lord.

If our gracious Lord likes His amusements to be clean, and if you wish to be accepted in His court, to see Christ on His throne and look upon His sweet face, then I can give no clearer council but that you pursue a clean life. Jean de Meun in his Romance of the Rose has written a speech for a man who would like to further his chances of winning the lady he loves, and advises us to: "Study her and observe how she behaves and what pleases her the most. Then copy her in everything she does, in her mannerisms and in the way you conduct your life. Follow her every step. And if you dedicate yourself to this, however evil she may be, she will admire your conduct when it is so much like her own."

So if you will have love-dealings with God, and love your Lord faithfully, then make yourself clean and conform to Christ's ways, he who is forever polished as smoothly as a pearl. Remember that from the very first he was carried inside a Virgin, and remember by how wonderful a circumstance he was enclosed there. No virginity had been lost, no violence used, and her body was made even cleaner by the presence there of Our Lord. And afterwards, when he was born in Bethlehem, recall the purity in which he came into the world. Was there ever so blissful a refuge as that feeding-trough or any sacristy as bright as that stable? There was no one so happy under God as the woman in that stable, who should have been in such pain. The ordeal that should have been so dreadful was no suffering but a joy, a smell of roses where rottenness is usually found, comfort and singing where screams of pain are usually heard. Angels with musical instruments, organs and pipes, royal ringing lyres, triangular psalteries and the worthy fiddle, in fact everything noble that might gladden a heart, were surrounding my Lady when she was giving birth. Then her beautiful baby was polished so clean that both the ox and the ass worshipped him together. They recognised by his cleanness that his nature was kingly, for nothing so clean had ever been born in a stable before!

And if he came in cleanness, then he continued thereafter and everything that smacked of dirt and wickedness he hated with a passion. He would never touch anything that was steeped in uncleanness or that smelt bad. Yet unclean people came to him, many who were chronically ill, some of them lepers, others who were lame or blind, some with infections, with a palsy or hot with fever, some with dropsy and one or two even who were already dead! All of these came to this courteous man, by themselves or through others, to claim his grace, and he healed them of the things that afflicted them by his gracious speech, for whatever he touched he quickly made well again, and much better than any physician could achieve. For so clean was his touch that it removed every odour and the dexterity of his fingers never needed to use a blade. He could break bread without a knife for this same reason, it parted better in his hands and divided more evenly when he went to apportion it than one could achieve using all the sharp knives of Toulouse! This God and man, whose court you aspire to, is very clean. So how can you hope to arrive in his land unless you are clean? When we are terribly sinful and cruel, every one of us, how can we hope to see this Lord seated upon his throne? Yes, he is merciful, even if you are covered in filth and excrement while you live here on this Earth, and you may shine through confession even if you have lived a life of shame, and purify yourself through penance until you become like a pearl. For the pearl is praised when jewels are on display, although she is not judged to be the most valuable, when gemstones are sold.

The pearl is praised for her clean appearance, which places her foremost above all white stones. For this round precious gem shines brightly, without any blemish or stain – provided it is a good one – and however much she is worn, in this world, she remains unblemished if she is left in peace. If she is consigned to a dusty drawer, unloved and neglected, one need only wash her carefully in wine and by her nature she shall become clean again and whiter than ever she was before. So if someone is fouled by the vicissitudes of fortune, if his soul is stained, he should seek confession and have himself cleansed by a priest, by taking penance, and in so doing obtain a shinier polish even than beryl, or a string of pearls. But beware, if you are washed by the water of absolution and are polished as smoothly as finely-prepared parchment, don't dirty your soul again, for you will displease him sorely if you do, and rouse him to grief and hatred in far greater degree than if you had not been washed in the first place. For when a soul becomes sacred to God, he holds it to be his entirely and regards it as his property. Then if this soul later reverts to crime, he takes it badly, as though it had been stolen by thieves or taken from him unjustly. Beware, then, the terrible vengeance! His anger is ignited when a soul that was once his is found to be unclean.

Although it is but a basin, a bowl or a chalice, a dish or a platter that once served God, to defile it on this Earth is forbidden by Drighten. He is sickened by this, as was made plain a long time ago in Babylon in Belshazzar's time, when a swift and terrible calamity overtook this king. For he defiled the vessels that were kept in the temple and that had been used in the service of God.

If you will let me, I will tell you the fate of this man who would not cherish those vessels, and how it was more dreadful than that of his father, who stole them from the Israelites in the first place.

III

In the Book of Daniel it is told how the nobility of Israel and the people of wealthy Jerusalem were once brought to grief and utterly annihilated, and this was because the people were found to be untrue to their faith. For they had given their word to God that they would worship him and no other, and God had blessed them and helped them out of many dangerous misadventures, so many that it is a wonder to hear them related. But then they strayed from their faith and followed other gods, and that awakened his anger and made him so furious that he aided those who were faithful to a false law, in order to destroy those who were false to the true.

This happened in the days that Zedekiah ruled in Judea and reigned over the Jewish kings. He sat in dignity and splendour on Solomon's throne, but he had abandoned his loyalty to his noble Lord, he practiced abominations of idolatry and gave scant regard to the religious laws that he owed allegiance to. And for these reasons, Our Father upon this Earth awakened an enemy. God quickly provoked Nebuchadnezzar into entering Palestine with an army. This king levelled villages and waged cruel war, seized the whole of Israel, carried off all its wealth and laid siege to Jerusalem where the noblemen of Judea had all fled to, surrounded the walls with men of strength and valour and set at every gateway a brave duke. But Nebuchadnezzar feared the men inside, for the city was large and well-defended, with walls and battlements, and it was full of powerful warriors well able to resist a siege. But the army was set about its walls, and the assault began. Fighting broke out at once, skirmishing and much harm dealt and received. At each gateway a siege engine on wheels was built and each made an assault on the gates seven times a day. Brave men fought hard in towers of timber, the two sides attacked, fended off and contended with one another for two long years, and at the end of this, they had still not taken the city of Jerusalem.

But at last, the city began to run out of food. Famine struck. Hunger began to distress those inside more than any blow from the army that was camped outside. There was no food and everybody was growing thin. The siege was so complete that they had no way of getting even a foot beyond the walls, anywhere, to hunt for anything to eat. Nobody had any idea what to do.

The king called an assembly of all his finest men to discuss a new strategy. Soon afterwards they sent out a party, secretly one night, and all the warriors within it rode as fast as they could through the host before anyone in the enemy camp realised what was going on.

But before they could clear the sentries that had been set outside the city to watch, a cry was raised to the heavens, a loud alarm, repeated everywhere. Noblemen, aroused from their sleep, rushed to their clothes. They seized their helmets and ran to their horses, the sound of trumpets rang out and by this time a great company was hurtling forwards after the escapees and quickly caught up with them. They overtook them easily and knocked them out of their saddles until every besieging nobleman had brought his besieged counterpart to the ground. The King of Israel was caught by some Chaldean princes. All his noble warriors were brought down off their horses onto the plains of Jericho and presented to the magnificent Nebuchadnezzar as his prisoners. He was delighted to have captured his enemy in this way, and ordered that the King of Israel's sons should be killed right in front of him. Then he hooked out both of the king's eyes, as he poured out a torrent of abuse at the other warriors before having them executed as well. He commanded that the blinded king be brought to Babylon and put in a dungeon, where he could endure a lingering death.

Do you see how God has had his revenge? None of this was brought about through any love for Nebuchadnezzar or his noblemen, but the Israelites have been humbled and put through a terrible time for being disrespectful to their Lord. For had God, whom this Israelite king once worshipped, still been his friend and if the king had not offended God by neglecting his religion, then Chaldea and all of India, and throw in Turkey as well if you like, but none of these together would have been able to subdue the Israelites!

Nebuchadnezzar was not satisfied with capturing the entire Israelite nobility, however, and turned his attention towards Jerusalem itself, intending to level the place to the ground. He sent into the city one of his noblemen, a duke named Nebuzaradan, to sow terror amongst the Jews. He was a fine leader and a valiant warrior and had commanded every cavalry attack that Nebuchadnezzar had ever sent towards an enemy. He quickly broke through the defences around the gates and then forced his way into the city of Jerusalem with dreadful intent. God! The captives were worth little, though. The men were like skeletons!

The strongest were led away by Nebuzaradan, and those who remained were so starved by hunger that four amongst the fittest of them couldn't have found the strength of one woman. Nebuzaradan showed no mercy but put them all to the sword. He killed all the women too, bathed children in blood and sliced through their brains. Priests and prelates were crushed to death, women had their bellies cut open and their bowels spilled out over the ditches. Those he came across were ruthlessly killed. And those the sword failed to murder were captured and bound naked to ponies, their feet tied together with ropes passing under the pony's belly.

And so the Israelites were taken to Babylon, to suffer the evils of slavery. Those who had once been noble and entertained lords and ladies in their chambers would now become menials and be given the most hateful work to do, carts to load and cows to milk. And yet Nebuzaradan had not finished yet. He made his way to the temple with all his men, beat at the barricades, broke through the doors and killed everybody that he found inside. He pulled priests by the hair and cut off their heads, slew deacons, cut down clerics and slaughtered the temple maidens with a single sweep of his sword. Then they ran to the relics like frenzied thieves, piled up everything of value that they could find, pillars of brass with decorations picked out in gold, a platform for offerings, silver goblets engraved with artwork, bases of pillars and shining basins, gold dishes and platters, bowls for incense and some stone vessels with marvellous properties. Nebuzaradan seized all of these valuable things, including a candleholder that was responsible for a miraculous light which shone forever before the Holy of Holies, a place where marvellous things often happened. They took away this candleholder and also a golden crown that was resting on the altar and all the gold from the treasury, and threw it all into a great heap.

It did not take Nebuzaradan long to perform this desecration; all the things which Solomon had taken so many years to accumulate, fashioned with such care and ingenuity, the vessels, the fabrics, all made through the science of his craftsmanship in the worship of his God, everything was gathered together into one large pile and carried away. Then Jerusalem was demolished and set fire to.

Nebuzaradan rode through the outlying districts of Israel, pillaging, burning and destroying whatever he could find. Then, with his chariots stuffed with booty, he returned to Nebuchadnezzar and presented to him all the treasure that he had plundered. He gave over to his king all the prisoners he had captured as well, many a fine nobleman and worthy maiden, many sons of fine fathers – when they had been free – the proudest in the land, the children of prophets, dear Daniel included, that noble and gifted child. A great number of excellent captives. Nebuchadnezzar was delighted. He had conquered the land of Israel, killed all its finest warriors and its principal men of religion and taken prisoner all of its most acclaimed prophets. But his joy at seeing the shining treasure when it was shown to him, so excellent and so valuable, well, he was simply amazed. He had never seen anything like it in his life before! He handled it with wonder and praised the god whose artifacts they were, the God of Israel. Such objects, such gowns, such delightful vessels. Never before had such things come as plunder into the land of Chaldea. He placed them safely in the strongest part of his treasury and treated them with every respect; which was a sensible thing for him to do, as you will see shortly, for if he had treated them carelessly he would have paid a high price.

Nebuchadnezzar reigned in great magnificence all his life and as a conqueror of every land he was called sultan and Emperor of all the Earth. And all because of the advice of Daniel, for this prophet had explained to the king that all good things come from God, and had expounded this clearly in analogies so that the king came to understand at last, and wielded his absolute authority with care and moderation. But everything on Earth is destined to die, however highly a man is placed. He expires at last and so with Nebuchadnezzar; the inevitable happened and, for all his magnificence, he was put into the soil.

Then the valiant Belshazzar, Nebuchadnezzar's eldest son, assumed power and ascended to the throne. He established his seat in Babylon and took upon himself a mantle of great splendour, imagining that he had no equal upon Earth. He assumed to himself all the glory that his father had wisely turned away from. So fierce a king had never before been seen in Chaldea, but he gave no place of honour to the God who dwells in heaven. Devilish phantoms, carved by hand out of wood and stone were raised aloft, called mighty gods, adorned with gold and clothed in silver. Belshazzar knelt before these idols, worshipped them and asked for their assistance, promising to reward them if they would help him; and if they refused, he would take up a great club and smash them all to pieces!

He governed his empire in pride and arrogance, in luxury and lechery, and with every disgrace. He had a lawful wife, a worthy queen, and many mistresses as well, although they were called ladies. And for the beauty of his concubines, his extravagant clothes and his epicurean tastes, for his love of high cuisine and high fashion, his mind was so distorted and focused upon worthless things that at last God had had enough, and decided that it must stop.

Belshazzar conceived a desire to display to the world his splendour in all its glory. It is not enough to these stupid people that they practice every wickedness and abomination there is, but they need the whole world to know of it! Belshazzar commanded that an edict be cried out throughout Babylon, throughout the whole of Chaldea, in fact, that all the wealthy and the noble should gather together on an appointed day when he would put on a great feast for them all. It would be a grand occasion that the king of every subject land should make it his business to attend, every duke with his retinue and every nobleman, so that they could all swear fealty to him and show him reverence.

So rich men made the journey to Babylon, and many a splendid nobleman, to applaud Belshazzar's magnificence, admire his concubines, call them ladies and generally have a good time. A great number of men made their way to this city. Kings and emperors arrived at the court, and many brought their wives along. To put a number on the people who came to attend this banquet would be a hard task indeed.

The city of Babylon was extensive and well-constructed, built in the most beautiful place under the stars, standing proudly on a flat plain among seven beautiful rivers, with a huge outer wall of dressed stone reaching to the sky, with battlements and wooden paling between towers every twenty spear lengths apart enclosing a city that was completely square. Each side measured seven miles and the sultan's palace was in the very centre of this city, a magnificent palace, surpassing all others that have ever been built, both in the building itself and in what it contained. It had an outer wall that enclosed many fine houses and a great hall that was in keeping with all this splendour, broadly-built, curved and open on one side so that horses could gallop before it.

When the time to begin the feast drew near, the rich and the noble began to cluster upon the raised platforms. Belshazzar was shown to his seat on the high dais; a great raised stone stairway with a throne at the top. Then the entire hall filled with knights and barons, congregating around the side tables, for the high table was reserved for the sultan alone and for his beautiful concubines, dressed in all their finery.

When all the people were seated, food was brought to the tables. Trumpeters along the walls blasted out an immense sound, with gold-embroidered banners hanging from their instruments. Men brought in roasted meat upon huge, silver platters, sauces as well, enclosed in extravagant paper decorations that towered over the food, embellished with gold and cut out into the shape of great monsters above, animals below and birds fluttering among foliage between them, all picked out in azure and indigo. These platters were carried in by men on horseback as drums beat, pipes played, cymbals crashed and bells rang out in reply; and always the drums rolled and clattered in frenzied celebration. The guests were served many times in this way, in front of the sultan, and were delighted with the dishes. The sultan and all his concubines sat at the high table and the wine flowed so freely that it warmed his heart, breathed fumes into his brain and befuddled it, weakening his powers of reason and making him act like an idiot: for he looked around and saw his concubines and all the barons seated around the hall and a really foolish idea came into his mind. And with a loud voice he gave expression to this wicked thought, he called to his marshal and instructed him quickly to open the chests and bring out the vessels that his father the noble Nebuchadnezzar had seized from the temple of Jerusalem and brought back to Babylon in all reverence.

"Bring these golden vessels to my table," he instructed. "Fill them with wine and let these ladies, whom I love so much, drink from them. Present these cups courteously and my ladies will soon recognise that there is no goodness in any man the equal of Belshazzar's."

The treasurer was quickly informed of the sultan's desire and he unlocked many of the chests and coffers. And shortly there came into the hall a stream of beautiful objects, shining with gold and silver, so many that they had soon completely covered the side tables that were draped in white cloths. The noble brass altar was manhandled into the hall and the magnificent gold crown placed on top of it. All the treasures of Jerusalem were put out on display, the sacred things that had been blessed by the hands of bishops and anointed with the blood of animals in the solemn sacrificial rites that were deemed good by the Lord of Heaven and done in his name; all these were now set out to serve Satan, placed before Belshazzar to augment his ostentation and his arrogance.

Up onto the altar were heaved vessels of strange and antique design, objects that Solomon had spent seven years and more creating with all the art and artistry that God had gifted to him, striving to see that they should be made perfectly. There were basins of burnished gold, enamelled with azure, and golden ewers to match. There were goblets with lids, worked into the likeness of castles with corbels and battlements and fashioned into the most wonderful shapes. The lid of each goblet was in the form of a tall turret, adorned with pinnacles and carved with branches and leaves; magpies and parrots were pecking at pomegranates, all the blooms on the branches were shining pearls and all the fruits were sparkling gems: sapphires and sards, beautiful topaz, almandines and emeralds, amethysts, peridots, chalcedony and perfect rubies. Interspersed between all these gems were exquisite pearls and along the edge of every vessel was a trailing design of three leaves repeated around each bowl and cup. The golden goblets were engraved all over and the bowls for incense were decorated with flowers and golden butterflies.

Everything was piled up haphazardly upon the altar and soon the great candleholder appeared. It and the brass bases that supported it were placed above the pillars of the altar and received the admiration of everybody. Each branch of this candleholder was of gold, with smaller branches stemming from each of them, and upon these perched many small birds of different kinds and of various colours, looking as though they were moving their wings. Among the leaves of the branches was an adornment of lamps and other lovely sources of light that shone beautifully, numerous wax-holders of pure gold and decorated with the images of fearful beasts. This candelabrum was not accustomed to wasting candles in a hall but to stand faithfully in the temple of God, before the inner sanctum where trusted Drighten delivered his spiritual ordinance to his chosen prophets. Have no doubt that the Lord who governs the heavens was not pleased to see this desecration of his holy things in this strange hall, not pleased to see those fine objects, that had once been so precious in his presence, now so dreadfully abused. Some had been consecrated in his own name, according to his own instructions. And now a conceited braggart sits unsteadily on a bench slurping wine from one of these sacred vessels like a pig, belching, farting and muttering profanities, and becoming as drunk as the devil. The Lord who governs this world was so disgusted by this behaviour that he decided to act. But before harming them all with the full force of his fury, he resolved to sent them a marvellous warning.

By now all the objects had been taken up to use to serve to these gluttons, found a use in this ostentatious hall as common tableware.

"Serve us with these vessels!" cried Belshazzar. "Let the wine flow, and good health to all!"

Men hurried energetically to carry out these instructions, grabbed goblets to serve to kings, carried bowls obediently to their own lords with a clattering and clanging as men scrambled to get at the finest objects, a counterpoint of ringing as ladies tossed the lids of the vessels down onto the stone floor – it was like hearing music from the strings of a dulcimer! The fool at the high table drank freely from a rich vessel, then those on the lower tables were served, dukes and princes, knights and concubines, all caught up in the game; each man drank as his age allowed, and drained his cup.

These lords entertained themselves with wine for a long while, called upon their gods, gloried in them, and all of these were lifeless gods that were just wood and stone and had never uttered a sound. The guests at the feast enthusiastically cried out to Belfagor, Belyal, Beelzebub, worshipped these gods depicted as golden statues as gloriously as though heaven was theirs; and the God who wields everything was entirely forgotten.

But then a marvel happened. Many people noticed it. First the king saw it, then everybody else. On the wall of the great hall near where the candleholder stood, where the light from it was greatest, there appeared a huge hand clutching a pointed instrument, a stylus, and it began slowly to write, just a hand without any wrist, inscribing letters into the fabric of the wall. When valiant Belshazzar glanced at this hand, he was awestruck and overcome by such a numbing fear that all his limbs tensed, his face dropped, his knees twisted together into his hams and he pulled down his cheeks grotesquely with the palms of his hands as he gave out a distressed cry like that of a bull, his eyes fixed upon the hand until it had finished rasping runes into the rough wall. When it had scratched these words with an unsubtle pen, as a ploughman cuts furrows into clay, it vanished, leaving the letters behind on the plaster.

As soon as the king had recovered his powers of speech, he ordered his men to seek out those who were learned in books, so that they might tell him what this writing on the wall meant: "For it made my flesh crawl to watch those grim fingers!"

Scholars hurried into the hall to view the writing, but there was not one wise enough to be able to understand a single word of it, neither the dialect nor even the language, let alone what utterance or what prophesy the letters conveyed. Belshazzar became very angry and instructed everybody to search the entire city to find men who knew about witchcraft and sorcery, who could deal with portents and divine writing.

"Summon every Chaldean cleric to my court," he commanded. "Make a proclamation that the man who is able to explain to the king what these words mean and can do so in a convincing and intelligible way, so that I can fully understand what the message is saying to me, then he shall be clothed magnificently in purple gowns and given a collar of gold to wear around his neck. He shall be made the head of all religion in this city, and of my foremost noblemen he shall be made third in line, the richest of them all and shall ride with me wherever I go. Except for two, he shall sit at my right hand."

So the cry went out and many came to the palace, Chaldean clerics and scholars, those who had the finest reputations for wisdom and intelligence, well-known sorcerers, witches and valkyries, they all made their way to the king, diviners and readers of portents, interpreters of dreams, exorcists and many such clerics. And all of them looked at that writing as though they had never spent a single day at school, or as though they were looking into the leather of my left boot! Then the king cried out and tore his clothes! God! He cursed all his clerics and called them ignoramuses. He threatened to hang them all!

This harangue came to the ears of the chief queen. She was told what had prompted this uproar, and the nature of the unfortunate occurrence in the great hall. It enters the lady's mind to give her lord some assistance. So she glides down the stairway and goes to the king, kneels on the cold ground, speaks to him with respect and offers him some words of wisdom:

"Great king," she said, "Emperor of the Earth, may your life last forever. Why have you torn your robes in despair because these clerics have not proved themselves to be equal to the task you gave them? For you have a gentleman in your land, as I have often heard, who can converse with the spirit of a god who knows all things. This man is wise and skilled at interpreting signs. He can reveal every hidden thing and explain every chance occurrence. It is he who often assisted your father and brought him out of many an anxious rage with his inspired words. When Nebuchadnezzar was angry and troubled, this man interpreted his dreams for him and set his mind at rest. And he steered him away from many a wretched fate by his wise council. Everything your father asked of him he soon explained to the full, through the achievement of the spirit that enters this man, the spirit of the finest of gods to exist anywhere.

"Your valiant father commanded that this man be called Belteshazzar because of his deep spirituality and his valuable advice, but now he is called Daniel, this man of secret abilities. He was captured in Judea, in the land of the Jews; Nebuzaradan captured him and now he is here, a prophet of that province and the best one in the entire world. Send word into the city and find this man quickly! Complement him, praise him, offer him rewards if he will explain to you what is happening, for although this matter may seem occult and shrouded in mystery, he will soon reveal to you what is scratched into that plaster."

The queen's advice was acted upon at once and Daniel was soon found and brought before Belshazzar. When he came before the king and had bowed properly, Belshazzar embraced Daniel affectionately.

"My dear Sir!" he cried. "I have been informed that you are a faithful prophet of that province that my father conquered and that your soul possesses a sacred wisdom and the rare ability to divine the truth. God's spirit has been granted to you I have been informed, the spirit of he who moves all things, and I am told that you can solve every conundrum that he throws at us. Well, here is a puzzle that has presented itself to me. I would gladly know the meaning of these words that have been scratched into this wall here. For every Chaldean scholar who has tried to interpret them has failed miserably. If you are able, through your skill and your knowledge, to read them correctly, I shall reward you as I have already announced. For if you can interpret them with intelligence and understanding and are able to explain to me what they mean – if you can first tell me what each word signifies and then what it all means together – I shall be true to the promise that I have already made and clothe you in purple cloth, of the finest quality, place a collar of bright gold about your neck, and I shall make you the third baron of importance in the land, the third to follow in my retinue, the third in honour to sit at my table. I offer you no less than this."

Then Daniel confidently delivered these words: "Noble king of this realm, be advised by Our Lord! It is undeniable that the Sovereign of Heaven was a friend to your father and that he always looked after him here on Earth and raised him above all other kings, to rule the world as he liked. Whoever was obedient and good received from your father the things that he desired, and whoever your father wanted destroyed was soon killed. Whoever he wished to promote found themselves in high office and whoever he wanted to fall was brought low. This was the nature of his reign, recognised by all and powerfully underpinned by the mighty Drighten; for your father believed in his heart that from the God who sits in heaven all things are derived and are controlled, and while he held onto this belief there was nobody on Earth who could match him for power.

"Until, that is, it happened once that pride took a hold of Nebuchadnezzar. For by the absolute power that he wielded and through the enormous wealth that he possessed, he became so absorbed in his own achievements that he forgot about God. He would not shrink from blasphemy or from castigating God even, and considered himself to be equal with the Almighty.

"'I am the god of the Earth,' he once declared, 'and I can do there what I choose, just as he is God of heaven and can wield the angels as he wishes. And if he has created the Earth and all that lives upon it, then I have created Babylon, the richest city in the world. I have made every stone of it secure by the strength of my army and no power but mine could ever make another one like it.'

"Hardly had these words left his mouth when God's own words sounded in his ears:

"'Nebuchadnezzar has said enough! Now all your wealth and sovereignty is at an end! You shall be removed from humanity to live on the moorland, to walk in the wilderness with wild animals, with angry wolves and feral asses, to feed on the field, on bracken and on plants, as an animal.'

"And so at the height of his power Nebuchadnezzar was snatched away from the comforts of his high position, from his life of indulgence, and thrust miserably as an outcast far into a forest where men never ventured. He lost his mind, became convinced that he was an animal, a bull or an ox and went about on all fours eating grass and leaves, and when these failed him he ate hay like a horse. He thought he was a cow, this man who was a king.

"Things continued like this for seven summers I believe, until many a massive thigh and shoulder glistened with drops of water from a dew, matted hair hung in a tangle from his shoulders to his knees and fell in a plaited knot down to his toes, where it hardened with the mud and the dung. His beard hung across his chest down to the bare earth and his brows spread like heather over his broad cheeks.

Then he altered, his eyes became sunken, his eyebrows unkempt and he became as grey as smouldering charcoal, the colour of an eagle with no bare skin to be seen anywhere at all, except on terrifying talons, curved and sharp like a falcon's; and he remained like this until he acknowledged without doubt who it is who wields all the power and can bring a kingdom to its knees and restore it again when he likes.

"God restored his wits to him then, after Nebuchadnezzar had suffered such terrors, so he remembered things that he had forgotten and knew who he was. And he loved God with renewed vigour and believed in the truth that there is no other god but he who holds everything in his hands. And soon he was allowed to return, his rank restored; his noblemen bowed to him happily as he was set back onto his throne, pleased that their king had returned, his head no longer grey. And you, Belshazzar, his son and his noble heir, saw this but set no store by it, but have always set your heart against the high Drighten and cast boasts at him with pride and with blasphemy. And now his vessels are being used for unclean practices, those that once, in his house, were raised up in his honour. You bring them before your nobility, pour choice wine into them for your wenches to drink in what you consider to be enlightened times. You bring wine to your table in cups and goblets that were first blessed by the hands of bishops, and you use them in adoration of false gods who are made of wood and stone and can never have life. And for this the Father of Heaven has sent into your hall an apparition, a hand that has scratched renouncingly upon the wall with a harsh pen and terrified you to death. And these are the words that are written here: 'Mane, Tekel, Peres', written three times and these warn you of impending harm in three ways. So let me explain:

"'Mane' means that Almighty God has decided that your kingdom has run its course. And as regards 'Tekel', this word means that the achievements of your luxuriant reign, having been thrown onto the weighing scales, have been found wanting of any true worth. 'Peres' follows from this woeful judgment and I can see that this word carries a dreadful prophesy, for your kingdom shall be taken from you, you shall be stripped of all your possessions and your titles shall be removed. The Persians shall inherit them and the Medes will be masters here. You shall be shoved out of the way of every honour!"

The king commanded at once that Daniel should be clothed in garments made from the finest cloth, as he had promised, and soon Daniel was adorned in purple and a collar of precious gold was placed around his neck. Then Belshazzar made a decree that all people should bow before this wise man, in the city and in the countryside, all the commons of Chaldea who owed allegiance to himself, and treat Daniel as the third most important prince in the kingdom, highest of all after Belshazzar, save for only two. This was immediately cried out and made known throughout all the court and everybody was very pleased for him.

But however splendidly Daniel might now be dressed, the day draws to a close and night approaches, one that contains many harms and dangers. For another day will not follow this night before the doom that Daniel has foretold is played out to the full.

The delights of that magnificent banquet continued until the sun had set and the light was gone. The bright clouds became dark and foreboding, the sky blackened and a fog descended. The people of the city hurried to their homes, keeping to the edge of the mist by the low meadows, where they sat at their supper and joked with their friends, then hastened to their houses as the evening drew to a close. Belshazzar was carried happily to his own bed. Let him enjoy as much sleep as he wants, for he will never wake again. His enemies are all around him in great numbers, those who have long sought to destroy his lands. They have assembled outside the city and nobody is at all aware of it. It is an army of Medes, led by the noble Darius, Prince of Persia, and Porus of India. They command innumerable battalions of armed men and have already spied out a strategy to bring the Chaldeans to grief.

The Persians advanced through the darkness and through the mist, crossed the rivers, raised long ladders and scaled the walls. They made entry into the city and stole through it without any cry of alarm being raised. They made this entry within an hour of the city having fallen into silence and they disturbed nobody but made their way quietly to the royal palace. Then they attacked it in a rush, great companies of men! Blasts of sound came from bright trumpets and fierce cries rose to the sky, to the terror of many. Those who were asleep were killed where they lay, before they could escape. Each house was searched and ransacked. Belshazzar was beaten to death, his blood and his brains smeared across the bedclothes. Then his feet were tied to the bed curtains and he was dragged ignominiously through the palace, his body kicked and spat on and disgracefully abused. He who had been so proud and had drunk from the sacred vessels is now no more highly regarded than a dead dog lying in a ditch.

The commander of the Medes arose the next morning, noble Darius, and he was quickly installed upon the throne. He had seized the city without causing any destruction at all and quickly arranged terms with all the noblemen, who honoured him as their new sovereign. And thus was this land taken for Belshazzar's wickedness, for the filth of that man who had defiled the ornaments of God's house, which were sacred. He was cursed for his uncleanness and it caught up with him; he was done in and his dignity destroyed for these unpleasant goings on! Thrust from the world's acclaim forever, shut out from the delights of heaven, any joy he may feel at the sight of Our lovely Lord will be a long time coming, I shouldn't wonder!

And so I have shown you, with three good examples, how uncleanness will separate a person from the noble heart of that gracious Lord who rules in heaven and cause him to be spiteful and angry. For cleanness is his comfort, he loves intricacy and ornament and those who are delightful and lovely shall see his face. May he send us the grace to go about very smartly in our attire, so that we might serve him in his presence, where bliss never ends.

Amen.

Translation and retelling of Cleanness copyright © 2009, 2016 by Richard Scott-Robinson

references

Pearl Poet – Wikipedia

Cleanness – Wikipedia

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