Shannon Gayk

title.none: Little, Confession and Resistance (Shannon Gayk)

identifier.other: baj9928.0705.005 07.05.05

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Shannon Gayk, Indiana University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2007

identifier.citation: Little, Katherine C. Confession and Resistance: Defining the Self in Late Medieval England. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2006. Pp. vii,196. ISBN: $27.50 (pb) 0-268-03376-5 (pb).

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 07.05.05

Little, Katherine C. Confession and Resistance: Defining the Self in Late Medieval England. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2006. Pp. vii,196. ISBN: $27.50 (pb) 0-268-03376-5 (pb).

Reviewed by:

Shannon Gayk
Indiana University

The relationship between medieval confessional practices and the emergence of discourses of subjectivity and interiority is a widely assumed and often repeated one, thanks to Foucault's influential discussion of the topic in his History of Sexuality. In her recent book, Confession and Resistance: Defining the Self in Late Medieval England, Katherine Little troubles this paradigm and offers an alterative reading of the development and discourses of what she prefers to call "self definition" in late medieval England. Rather than focusing on the instructional literatures produced in English and Latin after the Fourth Lateran Council, she turns to a set of admittedly unlikely sources: Lollard writings and late medieval vernacular poetry. In so doing, she seeks to show the ways in which engagement with or rejection of the exemplary and identificatory narratives central to confessional discourse mark the emerging possibilities of alternative modes of self-definition in late medieval England.

Drawing on the theories of subjectivity, confession, language, and narrative set forth by Michel Foucault, Emile Benveniste, and Alasdair MacIntyre, Little argues that while self-formation is intrinsically linked to ritual language, resistance to traditional discourses also plays an equally (if not more) important role in the development of subjectivity. In other words, the self develops not only in the voicing of interiority mandated by the institutional discourses of catechism and confession but also in its resistance to and negotiation of these discourses. This is an ambitious and provocative claim that rests upon Little's sometimes unorthodox, but generally persuasive, readings of familiar texts.

The book's four chapters are divided into two thematic halves. The first examines a selection of Lollard writings, reading them as disruptions and subversions of the institutional discourses of self- definition, specifically the linking of narrative and religious instruction in genres such as sermon exempla. The book's first two chapters argue that Lollardy represents a particularly resonant, if extreme, example of the period's "crisis in the language of self- definition" (79). The second two chapters examine the orthodox response to this discursive disruption in three contemporary narrative poems: Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, Gower's Confessio Amantis, and Hoccleve's Regiment of Princes.

In the first chapter of the book, "Narratives and Self-Definition," Little seeks to establish that Lollard writers reject the discursive patterns and practices of orthodox confessional literature just as they reject the narrative exempla and hagiographies of contemporary sermons. Comparing the English Wycliffite Sermons with Mirk's Festial and the anonymous collection of Middle English sermons edited by Ross for EETS, Little suggests that Lollard writers and preachers focus on institutional (rather than personal) sin in their exegesis of scriptural passages commonly interpreted in light of confessional practices. The efficacy of orthodox sermons, she argues, relies on connecting lay instruction to extrabiblical narratives (which represent literally the figural interpretation of the biblical theme, mediating it through church practice). These extrabiblical narratives serve both psychological and ideological ends. Psychologically, the narratives prompt lay identification, functioning as mirrors of the self and providing a language for self-definition. Ideologically, these narratives tie ecclesiastical instruction and practices to an individual's life narrative, calling the lay person to view his or her life in relation to church practice, thus bringing the penitent under the church's authority. But, Little asks, do these discourses allow the possibility of personal or social reform? To answer this question, she turns to the confessions of the seven deadly sins after Reason's Sermon in Piers Plowman, which she reads as a reformist bridge between orthodox and Lollard texts insofar as it employs institutional penitential discourses while representing an anxiety that institutional modes of reform may be insufficient.

Lollard texts, in contrast, both critique the identificatory practices of extrabiblical narrative and offer an alternative: a reinterpretation of biblical narratives in terms of social and structural rather than individual sin. Little argues that in moving away from narrative to an emphasis on scripture, Lollard sermons disrupt the process of identification so central to institutional discourses and call attention to the inadequacy of the traditional languages of self-definition. Further, where orthodox sermons use biblical exegesis to prompt self-examination, confession, and reconciliation through identification with an accused sinner, Lollard exegesis of the same biblical sources create psychological distance between accused and accuser, frequently interpreting the accused as the corrupt church. Although these Lollard sermons do encourage identification with Christ, they represent Christ primarily as a critic of institutional sin. Thus, in this self-validating identification with Christ, Lollards come to understand persecution and resistance as central modes of self-definition. The traditional modes of self-definition are seen by Lollard writers as inherently flawed because interior sins (unlike exterior sins interrogated by the categories of confession) are not rendered visible or even known as easily as the institutional discourses suggest.

The second chapter, "Confession and the Speaking Subject," moves from a discussion of sermon literature to devotional and polemical tracts and treatises, and from narratives to auricular confession. In this chapter as in the first, Little begins with readings of orthodox texts to establish the traditional discourse of confession that Lollard writers wish to reform, in particular the assumed efficacy of speech. Institutional texts (most notably penitential manuals) provide potential penitents with a standardized language for identifying, defining, and articulating their sin. Yet, this linguistic standardization cannot acknowledge the limits of language in representing interior states--a point that is not lost on the Lollard critics of confession. Indeed, Lollard texts, Little claims, frequently critique language as incapable of properly investigating and representing interiority. Confessional speech also is problematic for Lollard writers because it is only considered efficacious in the context of the assertion of institutional power. In the face of this power, resistance to language itself may be the most authentic way of investigating the interior. To this end, Little reads Thorpe's Testament as a confession, which in both its representation of speech and conspicuous silences emphasizes that "interrogation provides a context in which true speech cannot be discerned as true" (71) and that suggests martyrdom as a new model for speaking.

In the second part of the book, Little considers the effects of Lollard critiques of confessional discourses on contemporary, "orthodox" writers (Chaucer, Gower, and Hoccleve). If, as Little proposes, Lollard discourses reveal a crisis in the confessional language of self-definition, then responses to Lollardy necessarily engage with and offer their own, more clearly orthodox, answers to this crisis. Beginning with Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, Little argues that "The Parson's Tale," a translation of a penitential handbook, demonstrates one way in which penitential language might be both reformed and orthodox. Like the Lollard texts she considers in earlier chapters, "The Parson's Tale," in its rejection of "fables" or narrative exempla, enacts a separation of narrative from self- definition. Little contrasts the reformed language of penitence of the Parson with the language of the corrupt Pardoner who does not separate the confessional and the narrative modes. In the concluding paragraphs of the chapter, Little examines the fragmentation of the Parson's voice and reads the shifting "I" and the sometimes awkward integration of his two sources as a sign of "the difficulty of finding a language for confession" (98). Thus, Little argues, while not nearly as extreme as his Lollard contemporaries, Chaucer's Parson is arguably sympathetic to their critique of traditional discourses of confession.

The book's final chapter, "The Retreat From Confession," examines the approach to confession taken by two writers arguably more hostile to Lollardy than Chaucer: John Gower and Thomas Hoccleve. Both Gower's Confessio Amantis and Hoccleve's Regiment of Princes employ auricular confession as a structuring device; both poems teach through narrative exempla; and both poems contain attacks on Lollardy. In addition to these similarities, Little argues that both poems represent confession as a "threatened practice" (102). However, the two poems provide different responses to this threat: Gower retreats into confessional discourse; Hoccleve retreats from it. In the Confessio, Gower uses confession as a means of rebutting Lollard critiques of confession. For example, Gower's use of the seven sins and narrative exempla to structure the lover's confession firmly locates the process of self-definition within traditional discourses and in so doing, enables the penitent's reform, absolution, and return to the social world. Thus Gower's insistence on confessional discourse is a mode of negating the social threat represented by Lollardy. Hoccleve, on the other hand, resists the traditional discourse of confession. Indeed, Little argues, the Regiment looks quite Lollard at least on this topic; it resists and retreats from the traditional discourses of confession. For Hoccleve, exemplary narratives replace confessional discourse as the most effective site of self-definition. The old man to whom Hoccleve confesses in the prologue represents the possibility of confession without institutional authority, and their informal dialogue emphasizes the importance of confession as a voluntary act. This, Little reminds us, is entirely consistent with Lollard revisions of confession. Even though Hoccleve is hostile to Lollardy, he observes and responds to the same "crisis" in the traditional discourse of confession. Thus, Hoccleve's Regiment, represents a pivotal moment in the shift from the institutional discourses and literatures of religious instruction to the censorship of vernacular religious literatures by Arundel's 1409 constitutions. In other words, Hoccleve's poem reflects both the prevalence of and dissatisfaction with confessional discourses in the first quarter of the fifteenth century.

Confession and Resistance concludes with a gesture toward the implications of reading fifteenth-century literature in light of the propagation, disruption, and reformations of confessional discourses. Little also suggests throughout the book that she seeks to provide a corrective for a perceived scholarly blind spot around the issues of confession, the written text, and subjectivity. While the book does indeed present a compelling reevaluation of contemporary understandings of the relationship between confessional discourses and interiority, as I have suggested at points through this summary, it is not without its shortcomings. The language Little employs throughout of "crisis," "threatened practices," and even "disruptions," sometimes overstates the situation: while Lollard texts certainly resist traditional discourses, more traditional, confessional literatures continued to be produced and used throughout the fifteenth century. Little's reading of the English Wycliffite Sermons often generalizes. For example, in arguing that the depiction of sin in Lollard sermons is always redirected to the institutional other, Little notes the absence of "you" and "we." This simply is not the case in many other sermons in this specific cycle, let alone Lollard sermons more generally. There are also some conspicuous absences in Little's bibliography. An example of one such absence: the book lacks any acknowledgement of Helen Barr's discussion of these texts and closely-related issues of Lollard antagonistic or "reverse" discourses in Signes and Sothe. Finally, the book itself is marked by a few more pedestrian infelicities, including inconsistent translation of Middle English quotations (all of the Middle English in the introduction is translated, but translations are rarely provided in the following chapters), and the relegation of much important background information and even evidence for her claims to the endnotes. Still, even with these reservations, the ambition of the book is compelling and entirely outweighs its flaws.