Now is it bihovely thyng to telle whiche been the sevene deedly synnes, this is to seyn, chiefaynes of synnes. Alle they renne in o lees, but in diverse manneres. Now been they cleped chieftaynes, for as muche as they been chief and spryng of alle othere synnes. 
-Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales

People have always been immoral, shiftless, and self-gratifying. But for ages, humankind struggled to find a conceptual system to operationalize their spiritual shortcomings. The challenge was formidable: the system had to be complex and inclusive enough to implicate a vast range of disgusting behavior, yet simple and memorable enough to inspire guilt in an illiterate peasant.

According to Sacred Origins of Profound Things, by Charles Panati, Greek monastic theologian Evagrius of Pontus first drew up a list of eight offenses and wicked human passions:. They were, in order of increasing seriousness: gluttony, lust, avarice, sadness, anger, acedia, vainglory, and pride. Evagrius saw the escalating severity as representing increasing fixation with the self, with pride as the most egregious of the sins. Acedia (from the Greek "akedia," or "not to care") denoted "spiritual sloth."

In the late 6th century, Pope Gregory the Great reduced the list to seven items, folding vainglory into pride, acedia into sadness, and adding envy. His ranking of the Sins' seriousness was based on the degree from which they offended against love. It was, from most serious to least: pride, envy, anger, sadness, avarice, gluttony, and lust. Later theologians, including St. Thomas Aquinas, would contradict the notion that the seriousness of the sins could be ranked in this way. The term "covetousness" has historically been used interchangeably with "avarice" in accounts of the Deadly Sins. In the seventeenth century, the Church replaced the vague sin of "sadness" with sloth.

Throughout the Middle Ages, Church hierarchy emphasized teaching all lay people the Deadly Sins and Heavenly Virtues. Other spiritual manuals embellished on this tradition. Gerson presents a list of Contrary Virtues in his ABC des simples gens, which was derived from the Psychomatica, or Battle for the Soul, a fifth-century epic poem by Prudentius. He believed these virtues would help counteract temptation toward the Deadly Sins.

According to The Picture Book of Devils, Demons and Witchcraft, by Ernst and Johanna Lehner, each of the Sins was associated with a specific punishment in Hell. The punishments are included on the descriptions of each sin found on this site. I once saw a set of 16th-century engravings by George Pencz that used animals in their depictions of the Sins. The prints also used women to symbolize all the Sins, which was probably okay in the sociopolitical climate of the 16th century but probably wouldn't be encouraged nowadays.

Summa Theologica

[Kindle edition] The Summa Theologica (Latin: "Summary of Theology" or "Highest Theology") is the most famous work of Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274). It was intended as a manual for beginners as a compilation of all of the main theological teachings of the time. The Summa's topics follow a cycle: the existence of God; God's creation, Man; Man's purpose; Christ; the Sacraments; and back to God. It is famous for its five arguments for the existence of God, the Quinquae viae (Latin: five ways). Throughout his work, Aquinas cites Augustine of Hippo, Aristotle, and other Christian, Jewish, Muslim and ancient pagan scholars.

[Print edition]