In medieval and later Christian theology these sins were usually identified as Pride, Covetousness, Lust, Envy, Gluttony, Anger, and Sloth. They were called “deadly” because they were considered to put the soul of anyone manifesting them in peril of eternal perdition; such sins could be expiated only by absolute penitence. Among them, Pride was often considered primary, Since it was believed to have motivated the original fall of Satan in heaven. Sloth was accounted as a deadly sin because it signified not simply laziness, but a torpid and despondent spiritual condition that threatened to make a person despair of any chance of achieving divine Grace. Alternative names for sloth were accidie, “dejection”, and “spiritual dryness”; it was probably a condition close to that which present-day psychiatrists diagnose as acute depression.
The seven deadly sins (or in an alternative term, cardinal sins were defined and discussed at length by such major theologians as Gregory the Great and Thomas Aquinas and served as the topic of countless sermons. They also played an important role in many works of medieval and Renaissance literature sometimes in elaborately developed personifications- including
- William Langland’s Piers Plowman (B, Passus 5)
- Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Parson’s Tale, “
- William Dunbar’s “The Dance of the Sevin Deidly Synnis,”
- Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene (Book I, Canto 4).
- Morton W. Bloomfield, The Seven Deadly Sins (1952).
The seven deadly or cardinal sins were balanced by the seven cardinal virtues. Three of these, called the “theological virtues” because they were stressed in the New Testament, were Faith, Hope, and Charity. This Charity is also called the virtue of love. The other four, the “natural virtues,” were derived from the moral philosophy or the ancient Greeks: Justice, prudence, temperance and fortitude.