17.04.02, Kramer, Sin, Interiority, and Selfhood in the Twelfth-Century West

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Sarah Spence

The Medieval Review 17.04.02

Kramer, Susan R. Sin, Interiority, and Selfhood in the Twelfth-Century West. Studies and Texts, 200. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 2015. pp. xii, 171. ISBN: 978-0-88844-200-0 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Sarah Spence
The Medieval Academy of America
sspence@themedievalacademy.org

Susan Kramer's recent book ends on a tantalizing note: "To objectify interiority through speech, to carve out an inner autonomous space for individual action, and to define passivity of action as an internal sin results in a further entangling of the Christian subject in a disciplinary net. But laying out these processes does allow us to see that for those weaving the net, self and its internal attributes were understood as much more than fictions of their own making" (137). Where fiction fits in this argument--whether it reflects a reality or creates one--is a topic for another day, though one this reviewer would love to see discussed further. Yet Kramer's point is a good one and the book demonstrates well how the twelfth-century self that negotiates skillfully between internal and external realities, sin and redemption, can be found not only in the fictional texts of the self that blossom in the twelfth century but also in the actions and extra-literary representations of that time.

Neither a "history of penitent theology or practice" nor a survey of "twelfth-century conceptions of inwardness" (10), this book strives rather to elucidate assumptions about selfhood that undergird twelfth-century understandings of sin and penance. Issues of contrition, rather than satisfaction, are shown to run through works of the twelfth century, along with discussions of penitence, influenced largely by Lateran IV's imposition of confession in 1215 and the double characterization of confession as both disciplinary and self-reflexive.

The first chapter provides the context, focusing on the Carolingian dichotomy between public and private sin and confessions: "If they have sinned publicly, let them repent publicly. If they have sinned privately, let them repent privately" (23). Crucial to this chapter is the discussion of Augustine's earlier meditations on the sign. While Augustine presents language as essential to exploring the inner life, he also deconstructs that notion by denying any intrinsic connection between word and thought. This is the trope that cannot be troped, yet it also establishes a seemingly unbridgeable rift between what is knowable from within and from without. Language for Augustine keeps the private private, as it forces or enables the inner self to remain inscrutable. As Kramer concludes, for Augustine, "[v]erbal signs were necessitated by the Fall, but they are inadequate for expressing what is most in need of being understood" (36). Yet in the twelfth century penitential theory and practice invade--or in Kramer's words, "embrace"--the private space of conscience. In what may be Kramer's most important section this work shows how writers in the twelfth century strive to repair the break: Bede and Heloise are two figures Kramer turns to in order to explore the how the "veil of privacy" can and must be pierced (53). Through authors such as these, secrecy becomes redefined, and part of the redefinition is the capacity of secrets to become known.

In what is to my mind the most extraordinary chapter in the book, the discussion of tears bears witness to this redefinition. Investigating "twelfth-century alterations and adaptations to common biblical tropes" (59) this chapter studies the role of tears as an atextual representation of the interior self, especially in strife. Tears are "treated as a visible, external expression of some type of internal process or sentiment" (68). Ultimately, however, they are paired with words, which were deemed necessary since, "determined by their potential to deceive, words were assertions of autonomy that could express more than the universal truths... Unlike tears, words permitted articulation of particular thoughts, sentiments, and intentions" (81). Tears provide evidence of an individualized interior space that becomes externalized and particularized through language.

The chapter on tears gives evidence of the crossing of the formerly unbridgeable divide between inner and outer, secret and public, a crossing crucial to the foundation of the twelfth-century self. As Kramer argues in the chapter that follows, "the mandate of individual confession correlates with changes in western views of the self, especially as related to the value placed on such internal experiences as thoughts, intentions, and sentiments" (87). Once these views are deemed expressible, pressure mounts to insist they be revealed which, in either a penitential or secular context, changes the assumptions and blueprint of the self. Kramer's focus is on the penitential and her argument is well made; yet it is only a small step to seeing this mandate as at least a partial explanation for the flourishing of both love poetry and poetry in the vernacular: both start from a similar acknowledgement that private space, the space of thought, spirit, emotion, can--and maybe even must--communicate with the public. My own work on this has emphasized the importance of the exterior world--the extraordinary flourishing of the sensual in the writings of the twelfth century--but the result is the same: comparing the flowering of the trees, or the songs of the birds, to the rise of love asserts a likeness between internal and external worlds that is rooted in a conviction that our inner lives are knowable and, more to the point, that these inner lives--comparable to, yet separate from, the life of the body--must be revealed in situations of love and friendship.

Kramer's focus on the penitential leads her to explore the likeness between the soul and God, the soul not the body being the site of man's resemblance to God. Personhood, in these writers, derives from an ability to turn away from God: the joining of body and soul in a person entails an autonomy available in neither the body or the soul. This autonomy is problematical and leads to a discussion in the final full chapter of the contamination and disease such private space becomes associated with, as the bridging of Augustine's untropable trope opens a path that goes both ways: inner life is comparable to the outer, but the outer can also--and in religious groups, must--reshape and reform the inner. Inaction can lead to disease, to a decadence of the soul and self, and while confession can purge the soul, it also depends on a belief that the soul can be invaded: "interiority was a touchstone for culpability" (134), but it was also a "created object and ongoing process" (136).

The book ends with a discussion of the complexities and contradictions that underlie the evolution of confession and the self, and a reiteration of the long-term goal of the argument, "to situate analysis of confession and twelfth-century selfhood within other contemporary areas of intellectual discussion" (137). The role of fiction in creating object and process, in expanding the reach of this new inner self, made knowable by its accessibility and similarity to the external world, is one such area. Yet the crux of the argument, focused as it is on the possibility and contradictions confession affords, is illuminating for anyone working on any aspect of selfhood, particularly, but not exclusively, in the twelfth century. As I have indicated above, troubadour lyric in particular, and the courtly tradition in general, clearly belong to this evolution, and scholars of those and other twelfth-century texts will gain much insight from the arguments of this book.

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