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Confession and Resistance: Defining the Self in Late Medieval England.

Confession and Resistance: Defining the Self in Late Medieval England. By Katherine Little. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 2006. viii + 196 pp. $27.50 paper.

Katherine Little's relatively brief but learned book makes an original argument that should change the ways in which medievalists and early modernists alike think about religious reform as well as about the workings both personal and historical of self-definition. Little contends that Wycliffite writings and the controversies sparked by them "should be understood in terms of the history and the sources of the self" (1). Wycliffite texts do not simply set out to reform the institution of the established church and its doctrine; they also endeavor to reform the languages and practices through which the self is crafted, through which interiority is shaped and understood.

In her introduction, Little prepares the reader to accept her initially unlikely seeming claim that Wycliffite writings, which do not overtly attend to matters of subjectivity, are in fact "central to the history of the self" (2). She provides a clear presentation of, and revision of, Foucault's work on confession and the subject. Bringing to bear the ideas of Emile Benveniste, she argues that we should not "accept the link between the medieval practice of auricular confession and speech about the self ... as historically uncomplicated" (14).

Little's first chapter, titled "Narratives and Self-Definition," explores the ways in which Wycliffite texts redefine "the relationship between narrative and self-definition" outlined in works of orthodox lay instruction (19). Orthodox sermons, for instance, provide a range of biblical and extrabiblical narratives with which the laity are encouraged to identify and in which they are to recognize themselves psychologically and ideologically. Turning briefly to Piers Plowman as a "bridge between orthodox and Wycliffite texts" (25), Little explores the limitations of penance, the traditional means of reform; such limitations are a consequence of lay instruction's dependence on the aforementioned identificatory processes. In view of these limitations, Wycliffite sermons maintain an interest in narrative and self-definition, but they redefine the relationship between the two, discouraging psychological recognition and emphasizing sin as it concerns an individual's institutional allegiance rather than an individual's psychology. Wycliffite writings on sin furthermore manifest an anxiety that personal sins cannot be described in the language provided by the established church; the interior remains "unknowable except to God" (47)--a belief underlying Wycliffite rejection of auricular confession.

In her second chapter, "Confession and the Speaking Subject," Little turns to debates about auricular confession. Examining such texts as the Boke of Penance and Jacob's Well alongside vernacular sermons, Little notes that, while the focus in discussions of confession for priests is on discerning sin and in those for the laity on speaking it, the interior remains, from the orthodox perspective, something accessible by and through traditional language of sin and contrition. Wycliffites, on the other hand, emphasize the problems of speaking the interior, and accordingly redefine and retheorize the very term "confession." Little claims, "in Wycliffite writers, the openness of confession has to do with its publicity rather than with its capability to manifest ... what is contained inside" (59). She reads The Testimony of William Thorpe as staging a confrontation between Archbishop Arundel's traditional view of confession and Thorpe's revised, Wycliffite understanding of it. The Testimony is at once "a Wycliffite confession and a rejection of the traditional confessional self" (65). Little closes the chapter with a fascinating, but brief, exploration of Nicholas Love's Mirror of the Blessed Life of Christ that highlights the ways in which Love's efforts to recuperate the traditional take on confession is complicated by his efforts to respond to Wycliffite critiques.

Little's third chapter is titled "Chaucer's Parson and the Language of Self-Definition." She begins by setting out the need to consider the impact of Wycliffism and the debates it engendered on a range of later medieval writers who engage in diverse ways with "lolleres." We should not simply attempt to classify later medieval writers as pro- or anti-Wycliffite. Rather, Little argues that we should consider what such writers as Chaucer, Gower, Langland, Lydgate, and Margery Kempe do with "lolleres"; we should explore "the authors' embrace or rejection of interpretive concerns that the Wycliffites brought into focus" (80). By way of illustrating this methodology, she sets out an extended, persuasive reading of Chaucer's Parson. Her aim is not to revive the debate about whether or not this character might be a Lollard, but rather to take seriously the contradictions presented by this figure, who, she argues, is "meant to evoke both sides of the contemporary religious debate" (80).

Little's final chapter continues her putting into practice what she preaches in chapter 3 regarding the need to see later medieval writers through a new lens. In "The Retreat from Confession" she juxtaposes readings of Gower's Confession Amantis and Hoccleve's Regiment of Princes. Both of these works "vilify Lollards in the context of confessions" (101), yet both are confessional poems. Furthermore, they are markers on a "pre-Wycliffite and post-Wycliffite spectrum"; they reveal "the shifting fortunes of the confessional genre in the later medieval period, fortunes tied particularly to Wycliffism" (101). For Gower, confession may have been under threat, but it retained its ability to reform and to console. Gower retreats into confession, which enables a "retreat from the present threat of Lollardy and schism into a self solipsistically concerned with love" (108). Indeed, Gower suggests that the dangers and divisions of Lollardy "can be answered and disarmed by confession" (112). In contrast, Hoccleve, writing in the early fifteenth century when the boundary between heterodoxy and orthodoxy was much firmer, finds confession much more problematic. Little explores the dynamics of resistance to confession in Hoccleve's poem--the resistance of despair and the resistance of heresy--and argues that, paradoxically, Hoccleve's confessional poem enacts a retreat from confession and "ultimately ends up being 'Lollard' in its approach to self-definition" (117).

Confession and Resistance is a well-written, persuasively argued book that should interest and inspire scholars of medieval as well as early modern texts. My main criticisms of the book both relate to its brevity. Given Little's interest in matters of self-definition and her focus on lay, vernacular religious cultures both heterodox and orthodox, I would have welcomed greater attention to questions of gender, questions that are, rather surprisingly, given little attention. Furthermore, in light of the originality of Little's readings of Chaucer, Gower, and Hoccleve, I wish she had included more extensive discussions of Love's Mirror and Piers Plowman. Additionally, a chapter or two more including readings of some of the other writers she mentions in chapter 3 would not have come amiss. But these limitations simply leave one wanting to see what Little does next, and wanting other scholars to follow the paths her work opens.

Nancy Bradley Warren

Florida State University
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Author:Warren, Nancy Bradley
Publication:Church History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 1, 2007
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