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Sin, Mother of Monarchy? Medieval Allegory and Republican Polemic in Milton’s Paradise Lost

About the Author: Jonathan Andrews

Jonathan Andrews studies English Literature and Language at King’s College London, and has just reached the end of his third and final year. His academic interests include the role of Christian allegory in poetry, particularly Anglo-Saxon and Renaissance poetry. This essay was originally written over Christmas 2014 for a third-year module, Reading Paradise Lost. Jonathan hopes to pursue a career in commercial law; he has secured four vacation schemes at top firms and will be undertaking a GDL (Graduate Diploma in Law) following graduation. He is also a prizewinning poet, and hopes to publish an anthology in the near future.

By Jonathan Andrews | General Essays

For characters that appear only briefly within Paradise Lost, Sin and Death have caused a surprisingly large amount of academic controversy. During the eighteenth century, critics considered them an ‘aesthetic flaw’ (White Jr, 337-341); even today, from whatever lens critics view the pair, they never seem to fit. Those who view Paradise Lost as non-allegorical nonetheless view them as an aberration; as Fallon asks: ‘What are these insubstantial beings, these abstractions, doing in a mimetic epic… why is this extended allegory in an otherwise non-allegorical epic?’ (168). Those who, conversely, argue that allegory abounds in Paradise Lost still find fault in them – whilst the poem’s allegory is generally viewed as uncertain and constantly changing (Fowler, 1-48), Sin and Death stand apart as honourable exceptions. There is, consensus holds, no ambiguity here –Sin, the woman, must represent sin, the concept, alone, Death likewise. Her serpentine features merely mark her as Satan’s daughter, and the incestuous trinity she is party to serves only to contrast her with Jesus - ‘The Son’ of the true trinity who defeated original sin (White, 338). However, this is too simplistic a view to take. Sin is not only an allegory for sin; in addition, her identity is derived from medieval legends of Satan’s daughter, the half-serpent Melusine. Through this, Milton also positions Sin as a ‘founding mother’ of monarchy, facilitating a second allegory in which monarchical/hereditary rule is compared to demonic fratricide.

First, it is important to consider Sin’s biology; or more specifically, her introduction as ‘woman to the waist and fair’ and ‘a serpent armed/With mortal sting’ below the waist. (Milton, II.650-654).1 Although it is tempting to assume that Sin’s serpentine features are a reference to her descent from Satan, or as a result of God’s curse during Book X, close reading scuppers these interpretations. Satan remains disassociated with serpents until Book IX, when he possesses the serpent. And this is not a merger of equals; the serpent is a ‘Fit vessel, fittest imp (meaning instrument or tool, according to Richardson)’, whom Satan ‘enters’ (89). Moreover, Satan ‘enters’ the serpent to ‘hide/From sharpest sight’; becomes ‘enclosed/in Serpent’ (494-495); and specifically controls both the upper and lower half of the serpent, entering ‘in at his mouth’ (189) and moving ‘on his rear’ (497). The merger is characterised as one where Satan’s mind overrides the serpent’s, and Satan takes complete control of a serpent’s full body while retaining his demonic/angelic mind. The later ‘Transform[ations]/Alike, to serpents’ (X. 519-520) reduce Satan and his council to ‘monstrous serpent[s] on [their] belly prone’ (514), for whom ‘Hiss for hiss returned with forked tongue/To forked tongue’ (518-519); their entire bodies are transformed, from ‘belly’ to ‘tongue’. Satan is at one point a humanoid fallen angel fully controlling a serpentine body; he then actually becomes a physical serpent. Never is he simultaneously humanoid and serpent at once.

Sin, furthermore, is absent during this scene, having already fled through the open gate beyond the gates of hell, to complete the bridge across Chaos – just like Death, who remains untransformed (X. 410-412) – so her serpentine nature cannot be traced to the curse. Even were this not the case, her serpentine nature is unique within the poem – she is both human and serpent from her first appearance. Moreover, her serpentine features cannot be solely traced back to her Satanic parentage; Sin was conceived from a thought, not sexually/biologically, long before Satan’s possession of the serpent and his eventual transformation. (II. 758 – ‘Out of thy head I sprung’). Her birth has been noted as an allegory for a popular Biblical quotation, James 1:15 – ‘When lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin; and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death’ (Blomberg and Kamell, 72) - but while there are strong grounds to view Sin’s name and attributes, along with those of Death, as referencing this quotation,(Reisner 40) the Book of James never once views ‘sin’ as a humanoid, sentient being, only as an abstract concept (hence the lowercase). Furthermore, if we attribute Sin’s serpentine nature to heredity, why are neither Death or ‘Discord/First daughter of Sin’ (X. 706-707) – who by logic should be almost as serpentine as their mother, being born from the union of Satan and a half-serpent – not depicted as such? And why are Sin’s other children hell-hounds? The only conclusion one can reasonably draw is that Sin’s serpentine features represent something else – a signpost for an allegory. Several critics have grappled with the question of Milton’s inspiration for Sin, given her apparent originality – The concept of Sin as a sentient half-women, half-serpent does not appear within any Biblical text or canon;2 and though she is briefly compared to Scylla by Milton, their backstories are completely different.3

During the twentieth century, both John Tatlock (239-40) and John H. Fisher (163) posited an origin for the character in late medieval folklore; specifically, the Mirour de l’omme, ‘in which the Devil conceived the maiden Sin… and begat Death upon her’. Later research by Robert White suggests this is extremely improbable; though written during the late medieval era, the Mirour was not openly published in print until 1899, and ‘the chance is infinitesimal that Milton ever heard of the poem’ (337). Furthermore, the Mirour never only refers to Sin as a humanoid ‘maiden’, never half-serpent. Unfortunately, attempts by critics to link Sin’s origin to medieval folklore appear to have stymied following this, perhaps due to a misconception that, since the Mirour was not Sin’s origin source, no medieval legend could be; Milton’s own apparent dismissal of medieval literature (IX. 27-41) likely also played a part. It is true that Milton likened himself to renowned poets of the past, such as in Book III where he compares ‘Blind Thamyris and blind Maeonides/And Tiresias and Phineus prophets old’ to himself, denoting the first two ‘equalled with me in fate’ and ‘renown’ (III. 32-36). Others also compared Milton to such figures, such as John Dryden in his epigram added to the fourth (1668) edition of Paradise Lost, comparing Milton to Homer and Virgil.4 But all are ancient poets, from a very different ‘medieval’ era than I discuss here, if their era can be termed ‘medieval’ at all (Fowler 470);5  Milton’s attack upon tales of ‘long and tedious havoc, fabled knights/In battles feigned… or tilting furniture, emblazoned shields… gorgeous knights/In joust or tournament’ (IX. 30-37) is, like my analysis, squarely aimed at late medieval European tales. Yet there is another tale, so far mostly neglected by Paradise Lost critics, which fits far better and fully explains Sin’s serpentine features - the legend of Melusine. Melusine’s backstory differs greatly depending on variations to the tale, but there are two particular narratives which dominate – Jean d’Arras’s Roman de Melusine, published 1393, and a folklore tale popular in the 12th and 13th centuries among the Counts of Anjou, ancestors to the Plantagenet Kings of England. In the d’Arras telling, Roman de Melusine (1393), Melusine is the daughter of a human and a serpentine fairy, leading to Melusine’s appearance as ‘half-woman and half-snake’ (Brownlee 18-36). The Anjou Melusine, by contrast, is the ‘daughter of Satan’, who seduced and married a Count of Anjou, bearing him children before fleeing once her true nature was revealed. She ‘dragged two of her children with her’ (much as Sin takes her son Death and daughter Discord with her when fleeing Hell); but another two remained, and from these descended the Kings of England (St Bernard, 124). This legend was widely shared at the time, encouraged by the Plantagenet Kings, who were often heard to remark: ‘Do not deprive us of our heritage; we cannot help acting like devils’ (Warren 124), and recorded by contemporary scholars (Gerald of Wales, 101) and historians (Castor 170-173); though Milton never directly mentions the tale, as a historian with a keen interest in monarchical history,6 it is highly likely he was aware of it.

Superficial parallels between Melusine and Sin are obvious enough. The language used to describe both is notably similar – Melusine has several variations, including Melusin and Melusina, but all contain the word ‘sin’. It’s striking too that Sin is referred to as ‘fair’ numerous times - ‘Sin his fair enchanting daughter’, ‘Fair daughter’, ‘Woman to the waist and fair’; despite also being described as ‘foul’ and literally representing the complete antithesis of Christian morality (Baylor 27).7  Unless Milton was, in fact, ‘of the devil’s party’ and knew it – which the rest of the poem does not support – he cannot mean ‘fair’ in a moral or aesthetic sense. Yet the d’Arras Melusine was specifically half-fairy – also known as ‘fay’ – and the Anjou Melusine was often described as such. So ‘fair’ refers to her race, ‘foul’ to her character. But the links run far deeper. The heredity of both Melusines is alluded to within Paradise Lost, most blatantly the Anjou Melusine who, like Sin, is literally Satan’s daughter. Moreover, just like Sin’s conception – ‘Out of [Satan’s] head [she] sprung’ (II. 758), without a mother – the Anjou Melusine has only Satan for a parent, with no mother featuring. The d’Arras Melusine’s conception is also alluded to, though less bluntly - her parents were a human and a fairy/spirit, the latter specifically characterised as a ‘flying snake’ (Brownlee 19). Such a description alludes to Milton’s depiction of Satan-in-the-Serpent, who firstly moves ‘not with indented wave/Prone on the ground’ but ‘on his rear’ (IX. 497-498) – always upstanding, since the Biblical curse which forced the Serpent to ‘crawl… upon thy belly’ has not yet taken effect (Genesis 3:15) – and who flies numerous times during the poem, the only serpentine figure bar Sin to do so. The d’Arras Melusine could also transform into a flying snake herself (Brownlee 20), while Sin is the only serpentine figure who can still fly following the curse. When Satan ‘dismiss[es] her in Book X, she ‘with speed/[her] course through thickest constellations held/Spreading [her] bane’; later, her ‘wings growing’ (244), she ‘hover[s] over the waters’(285). Moreover, it is when Satan is an upright snake in body and flying angel/demon in mind that he triggers Sin’s ‘second birth’ – the arrival of original sin into Eden – which requires a second parent, Eve, the female of the ‘human pair’ Satan approaches (IX. 197). Satan instigates Eve’s ‘disobedience…Which brought into this world… Sin’ (8-12), and remains partly culpable – evidenced by the serpentine curse God places upon him – but the ‘disobedience’ is Eve’s. As such, by giving Sin two births Milton is able to allude to the parentage of both the d’Arras and Anjou Melusine.

Furthermore, both Melusines stand as the founder of a dynasty, whether Lusignan or Angevin, and her status as ‘founding mother’ is as intrinsic to her identity as her serpentine features and ancestry. Kevin Browntree even goes so far as to classify Melsuine as ‘both inside and outside history’, in much the same way the Antediluvian world was to 17th-century Christians (Brownlee 19); although clearly fictional to modern eyes, she functions as a progenitor in every variation of her story, and several royal houses considered themselves to be descended from her.8  Sin, likewise, is heavily associated with motherhood. Milton dubs her an ‘incestuous mother’ (X. 602); she is the first child of ‘the race/of Satan’ (385-386) and the literal mother of numerous children, including Death, Discord and countless, ‘never ceasing’ dogs who are ‘hourly conceived/And hourly born’ (II. 654-797). Linguistically, too, the word ‘womb’ is used to describe Sin a large number of times, second only to the word ‘gate’. It’s the last word of Sin’s introductory sentence – a sentence which explicitly talks of her children ‘creeping into’ it. Within Book II lines 766-798, ‘womb’ is used a further three times; and throughout this passage, Sin refers to herself in terms which express her motherhood at the exclusion of all else. When discussing her “seduction” by Satan, she never once refers to herself as his daughter, but as a potential mother – speaking only of how her ‘womb conceived /A growing burden’. She similarly refers to herself as ‘His [Death’s] mother’, even when, given she is describing him ‘overtaking’ her, describing herself as his rape victim would be more appropriate. Even Milton’s comparison of Sin to a ‘Lapland Witch’ serves only as an opportunity for him to speak of her ‘charm[ing] a ‘labouring moon’ (665); placed at the end of the line ‘moon’ to act as a rhyme for ‘womb’, likewise with the ‘labouring’ pun. But more than mother, Sin is also a founder – a progenitor of a race. She is the poem’s first depiction of a creature not directly formed God, and was chronologically conceived long before God’s creation of Eden; she is ‘dominion given’ over human life, and as original sin is a ‘parent’ of sorts over everyone living (excepting Mary and Jesus). Her ‘hovering over the waters,’ is an allusion to God’s same act in Genesis 1:2; just as God The Father first visited to create life, Sin the Mother visits to corrupt it and found a race of cursed humans.

Having established Sin as a synecdoche for Melusine, specifically the concept of Melusine as ‘founding mother’ of monarchy, it is important to also consider the implications of this upon Sin’s children. As ‘founding mother’, Sin/Melusine also acts as a perverted inversion of the pure linage monarchs liked to trace for themselves; and as White notes, ‘Many critics seem to agree that Milton has made of hell… a diabolical imitation of heaven, a grotesque parody in which all virtues have been inverted’ (White 338), generally termed a demonic parody (Lim 115). I’d certainly agree; the infernal council is constructed in the same vein as God’s council, Satan declares himself a king numerous times to rage ‘against the throne and monarchy of God’. Yet White goes on to argue that Sin, Death and Satan represent a parody of the Holy Trinity, with Sin playing the role of son. If Sin is a ‘grotesque parody’ of any theological individual, then she parodies Mary, Mother of God. Mary’s entry into the world was viewed by Catholicism as an Immaculate Conception, born uniquely purified from original sin (Cummins 767-771). By contrast, Sin’s birth triggers original sin, while her “second birth” brings this into Eden. Likewise, the Catholic doctrine of Perpetual Virginity necessitates that Mary died a virgin; so, while Mary acted as a ‘founding mother’ through Jesus, her motherhood was purified of sexuality, with Jesus as her only child (Miravelle 56-64). But Sin is the polar opposite; she has Death, Discord, and ‘never ceasing children... hourly born’ – each and every hour, ad infinitum. She has multiple sexual partners – her father, her son, and ‘Misery/Death’s Harbinger (IX. 12-13). And where Mary represents a dynasty forged upon righteous sexual abstinence, Sin represents a dynasty forged upon sexual misuse (Forsyth 169).9  All Sin’s pregnancies are the result of incest – and incest of the closest degrees, a severe and direct contradiction of 17th-century Christianity’s consanguinity laws. And the characterisation of her womb – large enough for countless hell-hounds to ‘kennel there’ (II. 658), which conceived a ‘growing burden’ (767), and which, since the ‘[tearing] through [of her] entrails’ (783), has multiple entrances – connotes sexual promiscuity.

Sin’s character, too, is strongly associated with the motif of gates; ‘gates’ is the word most used in association with her. She is introduced as ‘A formidable shape… before the gates’ (648-649), a characterisation which strips her of all attributes expect a gatekeeper. Soon after, Milton dubs her ‘Portress of Hell Gate’, the term ‘Portress’ literally meaning ‘doorwoman’.10  The gates of hell even sandwich her re-introduction in Book X: ‘within the gates of hell sat Sin… in counterview within the gates’; and when she then speaks, Milton characterises this as ‘Sin opening’ (230-234), her mouth taking on the gates’ key characteristic. Firstly, the gate motif acts as yet another Melusine signpost – the character is frequently hidden behind a gate, until at some point her husband breaks this gate and she ‘flies away’ like Sin (Brownlee 27). But more importantly for the characterisation of Sin as an Anti-Mary, it also contrasts Sin’s open gate with the Closed Gate of Ezekiel, a Biblical concept which Augustinian Christianity held to represent Mary’s womb. The Gate is one which ‘shall be shut’ and ‘no man can enter’ save ‘The Lord’ (Ezekiel 44:2), and since virginity in the era was strongly associated with an intact hymen (Brabcova), this concept was used to explain how Mary could have given birth to Jesus while retaining hers. (Beckwith 213-217 and Khan 185-201).[11][12]  But while Sin is similarly charged ‘to keep/these gates for ever shut… without my opening’ (775-777), her ‘gate’ is corrupted by Satan – both literally and metaphorically, via sexual intercourse, leading to the birth of Death.

Though at first glance this line of fault may seem purely religious, without relevance to 17th-century monarchism, it is closely linked to the Divine Right of Kings. The Plantagenet Kings’ claiming of Melusine as their ancestor did not suggest a crisis of legitimacy because at this point in English history, the Divine Right of Kings did not have a significant foothold. But James I heavily propagated this view (James I &IV and Greenleaf 36-48) and his son Charles I adhered incredibly strongly to it; the concept became associated with the pre-restoration monarchy, and Charles’s ‘personal rule’ in particular (Dzelzainis 32-49). Such a belief was often supported with claims of holy descent from Jesus – even into the 17th century – and thereby from God via a purified, Marian line (Dolan Jr).13 But Milton’s intent here is to provocatively suggest the total opposite – that the monarchical bloodline is tainted. Descended from God, true, just as every creature is; but descended from God through Satan, and through a line tainted with incestuous promiscuity.

Milton’s characterisation of Sin’s demonic offspring, moreover, is extremely monarchical. Death is introduced as ‘If shape it might be called, that shape had none’; an ethereal creature, with no defining qualities beyond the ‘likeness of a Kingly crown’ (666-673). Several critics have argued that Milton’s particular reference to ‘head’ here recalls the beheading of Charles I, and that Death allegorises his reign (Fox 354-64). But while Death in part represents Caroline absolutism, he also allegorises a wider concept –monarchy itself. As Coleridge notes, the passage is ‘powerfully indistinct’; if Death is indeed shapeless, then any ‘crown’ must be shapeless too (Coleridge 455). But the crown need not be a physical reality; it may well also refer to the legal concept of the crown, which in Milton’s recent past had experienced ‘Death’ by abolition, ceasing to exist (Worden 171-172).14  Yet by law, ‘The Crown Never Dies’; it passes to the next-in-line upon a monarch’s death, living an eternal existence, albeit one filled with the death of kings (Dorsett and McVeigh 49).15  And it is not until Judgement Day, that Jesus shall ‘Defeat… Sin and Death’ (XII. 431) – Death, then, cannot die until the apocalypse itself, for he is not only the king, but also the crown. Moreover, within Book X Sin declares Satan ‘monarch reign[ing]’, asking for him to ‘divide’ this with her and death (375-379). In response, Satan allows them to ‘reign in bliss… dominion exercise… on man, sole Lord of all declared’(399-401), and informs his council - promised ‘poss[ession]’ of ‘Thrones, dominations, princedoms, virtues, powers’ – that Sin and Death have ‘paved the[ir] broad way’ (460-473).

Sin’s hell-hound offspring, too, are just as monarchical as demonic. Milton’s specific reference to their ‘wide Cerberean mouths’ (655) – a classical reference to the three-headed Cerberus – suggests we are to think of these dogs as a trinity, or in packs of three.  Given Milton’s particular focus upon heraldry – in his account of creation in Book VII, for example, his references to ‘Lions passants’ and ‘Libbards’ are held by several critics to represent the heraldry of English and Scottish monarchs (Woodcock and Robinson 235) – he must have realised the similarities between a trinity of dogs and the English coat of arms, which depicted (and still depicts) three lions, stood in a canine-like pose, mouths agape. Strengthening this analogy, Milton is insistent upon depicting the Lion and its brethren in groups of three, with ‘the ounce (lynx or large feline)/The libbard and the tiger’ grouped together – just as on the coat of arms – which act as the final image imprinted upon the reader’s mind. And as well as a heraldic figure, the lion passant/libbard was also a mythological figure, ‘considered borne of the adulterous union of a lioness and a pard/panther’ (Fowler 418); a union associated with the ‘degeneration of the species’ (Manley 399). In its rejection of consanguinity, condemnation of its offspring, and mixing of species, this union bears great similarity to the ‘second birth’ of Sin and of the d’Arras Melusine, as well as matching similar attacks against the monarchical bloodline Milton had made within pre-restoration literature (Campbell and Corns 101). Read as such, Sin’s ‘Cerberean’ dogs, the Libbard and the monarchy are depicted as one. Anne Bradstreet, a contemporary of Milton’s, spoke of ‘intestine wars’ during a similar monarchical critique in her publication The Tenth Muse, exposing a key strategic weakness of hereditary rule: potential successors have every incentive to kill their close relatives to become king (Bradstreet 179). And in a grotesque pun perfectly befitting Milton, when the hell-hounds ‘[tear] through [Sin’s] entrails’, the hell-hounds literally commit this, declaring war against Sin’s intestines.

In conclusion, it is clear that Sin – far from the one-dimensional character she is often painted as – is in fact an incredibly multi-faceted character representing a myriad of concepts; chiefly, a ‘founding mother’ as both Melusine and an Anti-Mary, facilitating a further allegory between Sin’s offspring and 17th-century English monarchism. Furthermore, rather than existing in isolation, these allegories signpost and support each other; reading Sin as “mother of monarchy”, for example, provides a new light to many ofher comments. Her references to three-person kingship in lines such as ‘Such fatal consequence [referring to sin-corrupted monarchy] unites us three’ (X. 364) become more obviously relevant to the English monarchy, her supposed descendants, and a more tangible link between this and the ‘three estates’ model of Kingship, propagated by supporters of Charles I, can be drawn (Dzelzainis 38). Until very recently, it was thought Milton had abandoned political displays of republicanism upon the restoration; but now we know better (Smith 251-67). He was just as committed as ever; so committed that he allegorised monarchy as incestuous wraiths and hell-hounds, and a fundamentally corrupt system doomed to defeat at the last Judgement at the hands of their claimed progenitor; Jesus himself (XII. 431).


[1] All further references to this edition are given after quotations in the text. And to ensure accuracy, I’ve also sourced the original 1667 version of Paradise Lost – no significant differences in these passages exist.

[2] There is a single, arguable reference to sin as something approaching humanoid in Genesis 4:7, where Sin ‘Lieth at the door’ for Cain (KJV). This may have helped inspire Sin’s status as ‘Portress of Hell Gate’, but it doesn’t mention a serpentine visage or gender Sin as female.

[3] None of Scylla’s origin stories have her descended from a demonic figure; and, while tentacled below the waist, she is never referred to as serpentine. Lowe, 260-264.

[4] Dryden, John. “Dryden’s Epigram” in: Milton, John. Paradise Lost. Edited by Alastair Fowler. Oxford: Routledge, 2013. Print.

[5] Thamyris was a semi-mythological Thracian poet from an era before Homer; Maeonides is Homer’s surname. Tiresias and Phineas also originate from the same era. Historians believe Homer lived around 850BCE at the latest, almost two thousand years prior to the era discussed here.

[6] Milton wrote several history books including ‘The History of Britain’, focusing on monarchy in each. He published this in 1670, suggesting it and Paradise Lost may have been written concurrently.

[7] ‘Sin.. [is] contempt for God’.

[8] Multiple other Melusine legends exist; she founds the Royal Houses of Luxembourg, Rohan and Sassenaye among others: Baring-Gold 127. And in Czech and Slovak, the term ‘meluzina’, meaning ‘wailing wind’, etymologically refers to Melusine ‘wailing for her children’: Pynsent 20-34.

[9] As a Protestant, it is unlikely Milton personally believed these concepts; but since absolute monarchical rule was strongly associated with Catholicism, it makes perfect sense for Milton to parody these dogmas to attack monarchical legitimacy.

[10] “Portress”. Merriam-Webster Dictionary. [accessed 3rd January 2015].

[11] ‘What is it, but that the Virgin Mary ever remained a virgin?’ – Augustine, quoted by Beckwith.

[12] As Victoria Khan notes, Milton frequently references Augustinian philosophy within Paradise Lost, particularly regarding Sin and Death, so this reference to the closed gate is perfectly plausible.

[13] Dolan notes the justification of descent through a ‘Davidic Line’ continued until the Glorious Revolution.

[14] The ‘Act Abolishing the Kingship 1649’ effectively legally ‘killed’ the monarchy; yet later law held that this law itself was illegal; so the monarchy was arguably both extant and extinct at this point, just like Death.

[15] ‘In 17th century England it was common to draw a distinction between the Crown’s immaterial and immortal political body and the King’s material mortal body.’

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