Category Archives: Journal of the Plague Year, A

A Thousand Years of Forbidden Knowledge

In Dr. Faustus, Lucifer entertains with “some pastime” (Marlowe A2.3: 99) as he parades the various sins of hell in their corporeal forms before their host, Faustus. Lucifer is giving a performance, in effect telling the story of how he, Lucifer with his crew believe they will succeed in corrupting humanity – or at least in corrupting Faustus. In this essay I wish to take on the role of Lucifer and examine seven texts which explore the idea of forbidden knowledge as it appears in its various forms over a thousand years of English literature from the Old to the Modern period.



“For fifty winters,” (Beowulf 129) Beowulf ruled his people well yet what could have caused it all to go so wrong? Early in the tale we learn of Hengest’s vengeance when “the flashing sword” (Beowulf 102) is placed in his lap. Though peace had persisted through winter, now that it was spring and his people were no longer required to keep the peace, he sought his vengeance. Hengest’s revenge is a clue as to why a dragon has begun to terrorize Beowulf’s people. This dragon had “for three hundred winters,” (Beowulf 131) guarded a treasure which remained buried in a barrow far from man, yet because of a slave who was “escaping from men’s anger,” (Beowulf 130) happened to stumble upon this treasure and carry it off into the world caused the dragon’s vengeance was loosed upon Beowulf’s kingdom.

Yet what is this treasure and why was it buried? The contents are no doubt of great earthly wealth, but it’s doing little good just buried in the ground. What we learn of this treasure is that it had been deliberately buried by someone who was the last of his people, perhaps an ancient king like Beowulf and Hrothgar since he is described as “the protector of rings” (Beowulf 130). Yet like Beowulf who also has no heir, this protector of rings does not use his wealth to forge any new alliances and thus enrich his fellow man as was custom, instead he greedily hides it away from man where it can do no good. In effect the treasure becomes symbolic of greed itself and the dragon becomes the consuming consequences of pursuing this greed; the treasure is literally cursed. Hidden away this treasure is a forbidden knowledge best left untouched, yet Beowulf, perhaps wishing to provide for his people financially since he has no heir to provide them with, but more importantly for the fame it might bestow our epic hero, seeks the treasure, a knowledge of sorts, that is not his in hopes of securing a prosperous future.

And perhaps if Beowulf had acted more like Hrothgar (who also had no heir) and allowed for a champion to slay this dragon then maybe events would have turned out better. However, “the giver of gold [Beowulf] disdained / to track the dragon with a troop / of warlike men,” (Beowulf 133) because his own pride (ofermod) has convinced him that only he is capable of the feat (Beowulf 137). Like the man who buried his treasure in the earth and does not share his wealth, Beowulf does not allow for his own people to share in the chance at glory. Glory, the ultimate goal for the epic hero, must be all his just as wealth is the ultimate goal for a man who buries his riches in a barrow.

Beowulf thus is ultimately consumed by the dragon’s fire and dies. His obsession with the cursed treasure, a quest for what amounts to obtaining a forbidden knowledge, coupled with his pride, a theme we will see repeated again in Milton, is his ultimate undoing.



The Breton lai of Milun not only explores instances of secrets and forbidden knowledge, but it also carries over the theme of genealogy and an heir from Beowulf. Milun is a story about the family, specifically the legitimacy of family and at this point in English literature we see the shift in identity towards the family and away from Beowulf’s clans, and how the women now, not the men, are central to this new identity even though we have not yet reached the point where we actually learn these women’s names.

Central to the story is our heroine’s pregnancy with the “fine” knight Milun. Fearful that she “would be severely punished: tortured, or sold as a slave,” (Marie 98) she must hide her condition less she forfeit “her honour and good name,” (Marie 98). Her father has plans for her to be betrothed to “a very wealthy man from the region,” (Marie 98) and if he were to find out what his daughter has been doing in the bedchamber near her garden then nobody would have her. THe irony being that as she fears becoming a slave, she is being bought and sold as a slave.

Her insistence on attracting Milun and exploring her sexual passions with him places her in an almost impossible situation. She cries that she “never realized that things would turn out this way,” (Marie 99) apparently because nobody told her of the consequences of sexual intercourse. Yet her situation is not entirely impossible either. Her’s is a true love, unlike that with her betrothal to the nobleman, and as we know from the genre of romance, true love will prevail even if it takes awhile and some scheming to see it through.

The final scheme in the lai involves murder. Milun and his (newly reconciled) son plan how to reunite the family and the son suggests that “I shall kill her husband and marry her to you,” (Marie 103). And had the lai not followed the conventions of the genre and the son really had carried out the murder we would not have had a nice family reconciliation but rather perhaps the terrible consequences of tasting the forbidden knowledge of murder. Yet divine providence stepped in and we learn that “[H]er husband was dead,” (Marie 104). True love won out and the nobleman whom she had been married to just conveniently dies. In fact her husband dies because he was ignorant to the forbidden knowledge of her (lack of) virginity. As we will explore in A Journal of the Plague Year when hundreds of thousands die to the ignorance of what was causing the plague, so too does this nobleman pay the price for this hidden and forbidden knowledge.

Thankfully for the son, he does not have to taste the forbidden fruit of murder and the family is affirmed in love and the legitimacy of the son is secure.


The Miller’s Tale

Sexual intercourse with a woman who (currently) belongs to another is a theme explored not just in Marie de France, but also in Chaucer. Yet while our genre remains that of love, unlike Milun which is a romance, here Chaucer writes a fabliaux, a dirty story focusing more on the genitals than it does the heart. And here too we explore the consequences of forbidden knowledge, only this time with much more levity and mirth than in Beowulf of Milun.

Our first clue as to what Chaucer is up to is in the Miller’s prologue when the Miller says to the Reve, “Who hath no wyf, he is no cokewold,” (Chaucer 3152). Right away we know we are going to be in for a tale about cheating wives and all the trouble that can bring. This contrasts with Milun in that Marie de France writes tales for the court about the importance and bonding of family and ennobled love, whereas Chaucer, speaking as the drunken Miller to the sickly Reve, is basically giving his 14th century audience the equivalent of porn.

One thing to keep in mind here however, Chaucer isn’t completely straying out of the genre because line in Milun the Miller’s Tale also focuses on a young woman married to an older man who doesn’t deserve her. Yet whereas the heroine in Milun was at least betrothed to someone she shared the same class with, the old and uneducated carpenter, “He knew nat Catoun, for his wit was rude,” (Chaucer 3227), is here mismatched to his 18 year old wife and he is incredibly jealous, “And demed hymself been lik a cokewold,” (Chaucer 3226). And so this mismatch and jealousy is the opportunity for someone like the learned, youthful, and horny scholar, Nicholas to take advantage of this carpenter so that he can sleep with the young wife: “‘A clerk hadde litherly biset his whyle, / But if he koude a carpenter bigyle,” (Chaucer 3299).

Nicholas’ plan preys on the carpenter’s ignorance and uses his “forbidden knowledge” as power to get what he wants because he knows it will impress the old man; “This man is falle, with his astromye,” and the carpenter believes, “Men sholde nat knowe of Goddes pryvetee,” (Chaucer 3454) and so is convinced that the knowledge Nicholas has about a second “Noes flood,” (Chaucer 3518) is true and imminent and goes along with the outrageous plan to hang bathtubs from the rafters, “Men may dyen of ymaginacioun,” (Chaucer 3612).

In the end the carpenter is completely humiliated, “That he was holde wood in al the toun;” (Chaucer 3846) and, “Thus swyved was this carpenteris wyf,” (Chaucer 3850). The carpenter had bought into the supposed authority of the the young clerk, Nicholas and because he was so blinded with jealousy that anyone with even the remotest ability and education (power) was able to take advantage of him. The carpenter’s desire to trust in a forbidden knowledge, even though he said man shouldn’t pry into the mind of God, turned out to be his undoing.

Yet how was it exactly that Nicholas was able to pry into the mind of God, or at least appear to posses such knowledge? Perhaps in Christopher Marlowe’s play, Doctor Faustus is a clue.


Doctor Faustus

In the Miller’s Tale, Nicholas is a literate man; he can write and read, and so he has access to knowledge that someone like the carpenter does not have. In short learning has moved on from being an oral tradition, such as in Beowulf, or Marie de France reading her lais to a baronial court or the pilgrims in Chaucer’s tales passing the time with each other telling their various stories, and can now be found written down in a book whose barrier to entry is the ability to read. This literacy, coupled with more and more people moving to the cities to find work, work that required an education, institutions arose to train young people, like Nicholas, in the required curriculum of the day. And so no longer was the bible the only book that contained what you needed to get along in the world. The bible may contain the providential word of God, but it could not teach you much about law, logic, or how to be a doctor. Yet just as conservative religion had grown out of the teachings found in the bible, an orthodox curriculum of the new secular knowledge, a new providence, had arisen.

But what exactly was in these books? According to Faustus, “O, what a world of profit and delight, / Of power, of honour, of omnipotence / Is promised to the studious artisan!” (Marlowe A1.1:55) can be found in books, but not just any books, but rather “necromantic books,” (Marlowe A1.1:53), and anything containing not the boring orthodoxy of the standard curriculum but which, “try thy brains to gain a deity,” (Marlowe A1.1:65). Faustus is not interested in being a clerk, he wants to be a 16th century Oppenheimer and unlock the mysteries of the universe and he is willing to dig, like Beowulf looking for a dragon’s horde, to find, “all the wealth that our forefathers hid / Within the massy entrails of the earth,” (Marlowe A1.1:148).

Not surprisingly this quest for knowledge has its consequences in that Faustus eventually must relinquish his immortal soul to Lucifer, but it also reveals a shift in literature from the medieval and into a (early) modern world of science and rationalism. In one scene Faustus tells Lucifer that he believes, “hell’s a fable,” but to which Lucifer replies, “Ay, think so still, till experience change thy mind,” (Marlowe A2.1:127). This focus on experience is important because it contrasts with a world view consisting of authority coming from the revealed word of God. God’s authority is being challenged by the possibility of the forbidden knowledge of experience in the hopes of gaining a power that could perhaps make oneself a God. But this choice between authority and experience also gives rise to doubt because now what is someone to believe? Who really has authority? Our author, Marlowe, was born a generation after Martin Luther challenged the church’s authority and so now people have the freedom to choose between letting the church tell them how to find salvation or to try and figure it out for themselves. Yet what are the real consequences to all this freedom?


Paradise Lost

While we do not learn of what becomes of Faustus after Marlowe’s Lucifer comes to collect his soul, we might imagine it could be something similar to what Milton’s Lucifer experiences once he’s kicked out of heaven; “look on me, / Me who have touched and tasted,” (Milton IX:687) Satan says to Eve as he attempts to seduce her into eating the forbidden fruit. And from Eve’s pre-fall point of view, Satan seems to be making a convincing argument, “Yet rung of his persuasive words, impregned / With reason, to her seeing, and with truth,” (Milton IX:737).

But just as Faustus vacillates with doubt and wonders if it’s not too late to repent, “‘Tis thou hast damned distressed Faustus’ soul. / Is’t not too late?” (Marlowe A2.3:75), Milton’s Satan soliloquizes his decision to rebel against God. Satan reflects that “nor was his service hard,” (Milton IV:45) so then why did he ever decide to rebel? Basically, Satan is jealous of the Son of God, “with envy against the Son of God, that day / Honoured by his great father, and proclaimed / Messiah king anointed,” (Milton V:662) because Satan is no longer the most important angel in heaven and must be subordinate to someone else and be subject to “new laws thou seest imposed; / New laws from him who reigns,” (Milton V:679). From Satan’s point of view God is a tyrant and so like a child who first discovers they can say “no” when they don’t want to do something, he rebels. He acts like the drunken Miller from Chaucer who speaks out of turn and upsets the hierarchy.

This decision to rebel raises an important question as to why Satan, and later Eve and Adam, is free to even make such a choice in the first place. Wouldn’t God have saved everyone a whole lot of time and trouble had he not given anybody the freedom, “free to fall,” (Milton III:99), to make such terrible decisions? Herein lies the paradox of the freedom we have to either be freely obedient to God’s rule and his hierarchy, or to use our Godlike freedom to be like Faustus so that we too “shall be as gods,” (Milton IX:708). What God wants is not robots who “had served necessity, / Not me,” (Milton III:110) but beings who are obedient because they also understand that only God can truly handle ultimate freedom. By breaking our obedience to God we overreach and attempt to gain the knowledge that God has, a knowledge which has literally been forbidden to us by God.

And the consequences of this overreach is dire. In book XI, Milton describes the angel Michael’s prophecy of humanity’s fate in great detail, and pretty much all of it is graphic and tragic, “A lazar-house it seemed, wherein were laid / Numbers of all diseased,” (Milton XI:479). Our overreach of knowledge and disobedience leads to nothing but suffering, a theme we see explored in great detail in Daniel DeFoe’s novel about the Great Plague of London in 1665.


A Journal of the Plague Year

While Adam and Eve know perfectly well why they had been banished from Eden and have had the consequences their offspring will endure due to their decision to rebel against God literally revealed to them, the people of London in 1665 have no such clear knowledge. As we have explored above, humanity has the freedom to choose whose authority he wishes to serve: he can rely on the revealed word of God, or he can look elsewhere, to books and experience to make sense of the world. Yet what good can either of these do in a world that, “for many People that had the Plague upon them, knew nothing of it; till the inward Gangreen had affected their Vitals and they dy’d in a few Moments,” (Defoe 77). Worse still were those who supposedly possessed the authority of God who instead of offering hope, “those Ministers, in their Sermons, rather sunk, than lifted up the Hearts of their Hearers,” (Defoe 26). All is in confusion, society has broken down and nobody possesses the knowledge to defend themselves from death.

And so where do people turn? Some turn to looting (Defoe 85), some to homeopathic remedy, “his Wife’s Remedy was washing her Head in Vinegar,” (Defoe 87), or succumbing outright to despair, “for People that were Infected, and near their End, and delirious also, would run to those Pits wrapped in Blankets, or Rugs, and throw themselves in,” (Defoe 59). In effect all knowledge has been cursed, like a dragon’s horde, and it leads to a systematic collapse of civilization. The very top of man’s society, the wealthy, abandon the poor which leads to commerce and trade either being taken over by criminals and swindlers (Defoe 27-28) or just falling apart entirely (Defoe 141), which leads to the political and religious authorities deteriorating (Defoe 226). Marie de France wrote of God’s Providence guiding the family towards reunion and a restoration of ennobled civilization (Milun), but in the modern world there only seems to be tricksters like Chaucer’s Nicolas taking advantage of a confused situation.

Thus it would seem civilization is doomed and there is nothing man can do to improve his standing in a world where he is free to indulge in any and all knowledge and where there seems to be no real authority. However, just as Adam and Eve put Eden behind them, “The world was all before them,” (Milton XII:646), perhaps then it might be possible to make the best of a terrible situation to rebuild civilization.


The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano

In our previous examples the pursuit of forbidden knowledge has only led to despair; Beowulf, Milun’s lover, Chaucer’s carpenter, Dr. Faustus, Milton’s Lucifer and Eve, and Defoe’s London society have all suffered the consequences of reaching beyond their limitations. Yet is the pursuit of “forbidden knowledge” and a desire for freedom only a path leading towards destruction? When we think back to the paradox Milton explores in Paradise Lost where real freedom is actually in obedience to God and rebelling against it leads to destruction, perhaps we can look to Olaudah Equiano’s life as a slave as a counter-example to how he used his pursuit of freedom and knowledge to better himself and society.

A religious allusion to Jesus turning water into wine so that the masses could hear the word of God (revelation) cannot be understated when Equiano meets up again with Dr Irving and was then “daily employed in reducing old Neptune’s dominions by purifying the briny element and making it fresh,” (Equiano 172). This process of turning undrinkable seawater into fresh, life-giving water contrasts with Faustus’ greed for power by use of “magic, magic that hath ravished me,” (Marlowe A1.1:112), and also contrasts with Defoe’s London society who wrongly thought so many were dying of the plague because, “the Calamity was spread by Infection, that is to say, by some certain Steams, or Fumes,” (Defoe 73). Yet Equiano seemed to have tapped into a forbidden knowledge that previously could have been thought of as a sort of alchemy, a knowledge he has perhaps gained through some of the very same books (Equiano 68) Faustus and Chaucer’s Nicholas used in their greedy and manipulative abuse of power.

Equiano also seemingly contrasts with our previous examples in his quest for freedom. Milton has taught us freedom is obedience to God and obedience will keep our freedom in check lest we try to overreach and become like God, but Equiano experiences almost constant mistreatment at the hands of those he’s supposed to be obedient to: his owners. Yet Equiano is not seeking freedom from God’s rule, but from the tyranny of men. Equiano writes, “Christ is my pilot wise, my compass is his word,” (Equiano 199) because not only is God a literal guide in the scientific and secular sense where Equiano must navigate his way on a ship, but also in the spiritual sense of his own obedience to God in guiding him through a chaos, much like the one Lucifer travels through (Milton II:910), so that He will, “save me in the trying hour,” (Equiano 199). Like Lucifer, Equiano rebels, but what he rebels against is an actual injustice, not against a just obedience that wasn’t really that hard anyway (Milton IV:45). Even Equiano’s pride contrasts with Milton’s Lucifer in that he posses a self-worth, but not an overabundance that blinds him into believing he can become like God.

Equiano then makes for a fitting conclusion to our exploration of forbidden knowledge in that he uses his reason to seek only that which can improve him and his fellow man, but does not go beyond that. He understands his limitations but is perfectly happy with such restrictions. He has “put [his] ears to,” (Equiano 68) forbidden knowledge, but like the books that remained silent when he was illiterate, has been practical in his application of what knowledge he eventually learns through his experiences