Sinful Priests Through the Eyes of a Middle-English Poet: Dr. Campbell's Book Launch

Graphic by Bernadette Berdychowski

Graphic by Bernadette Berdychowski


“It could have been ‘Dirty, Filthy Priests’” Dr. Ethan Campbell joked about his new book “The Gawain-poet and the Fourteenth-Century English Anticlerical Tradition”.

“I know it doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, but at least I didn’t do what many academic authors do and put a colon in there,” Campbell said.

Campbell launched his new book at The King’s College on Friday, September 14, filling rows of chairs and standing room in the City Room.

The Gawain-poet is an anonymous Middle English poet whose works are limited to four long-form poems in a single manuscript. From these, he is best known for the Arthurian tale “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” the story from which the Gawain-poet’s name is derived.

“Anticlerical tradition dates back as far as priesthood,” he said. “The minute Moses establishes a priesthood, the priests are making golden idols.” Campbell said. Anticlericalism, according to Campbell, is “any type of critique, satire, sermon, or polemic leveled against the priesthood.”

By exploring anticlericalism, Campbell believes that readers may better understand the Gawain-poet’s writing.

|| Photo Credit: Wesley Parnell

|| Photo Credit: Wesley Parnell

Campbell’s journey with this genre of Middle English began in college.

“I had some experience reading Middle English poetry because I was an English major at Yale, and everybody had to take a course called Major English Poets,” Campbell said. “The first poet that you read in that class was Chaucer.”
In keeping with his roots, Campbell read to his audience some of Chaucer’s work in original Middle English—an excerpt from “The Canterbury Tales”, which he cited as a source of inspiration for poets of the period, as well as for authors like J.R.R. Tolkien.

Campbell’s first encounter with the Gawain-poet came in a course that he took as an undergraduate, but it wasn’t until studying under Medievalist Nancy Black at Brooklyn that Campbell realized his passion for medieval literature.

From this point, Campbell went on to City University of New York to earn his PhD. It was there that Campbell began reading texts by writers like John Wyclif and the Lollard writers.

Campbell’s book, which was first published in March of 2018, specifically analyzes how the Gawain-poet criticizes the priesthood, both directly and indirectly.

He cites the opening lines of “Cleanness”, a poem emphasizing God’s wrath against the impure, which the Gawain-poet believes will be exemplified upon hypocritical priests, as well as the retold story of Jonah, “Patience”, in which the prophet who shies away from his duties is likened to a priest.


“It could have been ‘Dirty, Filthy Priests’”

-Dr. Ethan Campbell


At the book launch, Campbell cited the concerns about corruption and sexual vices that were prevalent in the 14th-century church.  Like William Langland and even Chaucer, Campbell draws comparisons between the recent scandals in the Catholic Church today to those of the Gawain-poet’s day.

“I didn’t get into [those works] until I was in graduate school,” Campbell said. “But then once I started reading them, I started saying ‘wow, this really resonates with some of what I’ve read in the poetry of Chaucer or of the Gawain-poet.’”

|| Photo Credit: Wesley Parnell

|| Photo Credit: Wesley Parnell

The book is based on Dr. Campbell’s Ph.D. dissertation which, Campbell estimates, took nearly four-and-a-half years to write.

“My dissertation was 120,000 words long, and my publisher asked me to cut it down to 90,000,” Campbell said. “Even once the book was shortened and accepted for publication, it went through a peer-review process, and I made a few minor changes based on that. Then I had to go through the process of copyediting and proofreading and choosing a cover design, so there was a lot of time that passed, even though, effectively, all my work was done.”

Campbell noted afterward that talking about the book, which is already on its third printing, seemed strange.

“It’s funny, since as I’m giving this talk, it really does feel like a walk down memory lane, because I’m talking about things that I wrote years ago,” Campbell said.

Though college students are not the primary market for a book like this, especially with a running price of $99, Campbell noted that he was very pleased with the event.

“It’s a reminder of why I love teaching so much,” Campbell said. “People enjoyed this talk, even on such an obscure topic. I hope it touches on other issues that aren’t so obscure. Look at how similar the ways that people talk about the priesthood today to how they talked about it in the Middle Ages. The more things change, the more they stay the same.”