Gower Bibliography

Confession and Resistance: Defining the Self in Late Medieval England

Little, Katherine C. "Confession and Resistance: Defining the Self in Late Medieval England." Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 2006 ISBN 978-2503547770


As the latter half of her title makes clear, Little's concern is to demonstrate that "the history of the medieval self . . . is bound up with the history of auricular confession" (3), an argument she grounds theoretically in those of Foucault ("History of Sexuality") and Emile Benveniste ("Problems in General Linguistics") regarding the inseparability of the "self" and language, as the latter defines and shapes the former: "To read the self in this way is to understand it as subject to the possibilities and limitations inherent in the language into which one is born; one does not preexist that language and shape it to reflect oneself." (4) The "resistance" in her title is Wycliffism/Lollardy, terms she uses nearly equivalently: "I shall investigate the Wycliffite reform of lay instruction, focusing on its consequences for self-definition" (13) as she seeks to show that "Wycliffism is . . . a disruption in the languages and practices of self-definition" (14)--especially as, following Foucault, that defining of the self takes place in confession. Hence her interest in literary texts especially related to confession: the "Parson's Tale," Hoccleve's Regiment of Princes", and the "Confessio Amantis." "The Wycliffite disruption," she argues, "can be understood largely, though not exclusively, in terms of debates around confession as a means of self-definition." (14) The "Confessio", like the "Parson's Tale," represents for Little texts that "can be mapped onto a pre-Wycliffite . . . spectrum," while Hoccleve's "Regiment," written in 1410-11, evinces a "post-Wycliffite" development of confession (102-03). "I shall argue that Gower's text stages a pre-Wycliffite confession, despite his awareness of and anxiety caused by the Wycliffite threat. For Gower, Lollardy might threaten the context of confession (the world in which it takes place), but it does not threaten its structure or its capacity to describe human experience and console the penitent." (102) Gower's awareness of the state of disruption in English society is manifest in the Prologue, and his trust in "traditional" forms of language, self, and normativities in the confession he provides for Amans, one apparently untroubled by the "topical concerns [that] interrupt and affect traditional languages, such as the exempla." 107) For Little, that the "estates satire" of the Prologue and the Lover's confession of Books I-VIII are never causally connected "suggests that confession is at this moment a kind of retreat from the present threat of Lollardy and schism into a self solipsistically concerned with love." (108) Yet "the lover's confession cannot eliminate the threat of the contemporary world completely, and there are moments in which the world of the Prologue interrupts the confession. These moments are important precisely because they signal the way in which the poem can no longer conceal or integrate the divisive forces of the present that it has attempted to set aside" (108-09). One such moment is brought about by the discussion of Homicide (III.2525-29); another--predictably--is Gower's inclusion of the "new Secte of Lollardie" amongst the "Religions of the World" section in Book V (1788-1830), passage which Little discusses in full, in order to argue that "For Gower . . . the danger of Lollardy cannot be combatted only by rejecting its 'lore' but by ensuring that one defines oneself according to examples that are undoubtedly orthodox--in this case following the saints and ancestors. Indeed, Gower not only opposes Lollards to saints but compares them--in stating that the saints are 'betre,' he underlines that what is at stake here is whom to imitate" (111). Little calls attention to "a choppiness in Gower's thinking" (111), noting that both in the awkward interpolation of Christ into his description of the dangers of Lollardy and in the presentation of Lollards as a "rownyng" in men's ears he inadvertently invokes Lollard positions (111-12). Ultimately, because of "how carefully Gower has crafted this confession to respond to the division described in the Prologue . . . the divisive power of the Lollards is nullified: although they appear in the Prologue as a threat to the social world, they do not reappear at the end in Amans/Gower's return to the world from the confession. In this way, Gower suggests that the dangerous influence of Lollards and the division they represent can be answered and disarmed by confession" (112). [RFY. Copyright. The John Gower Society. eJGN 35.2]

Item Type:Book
Subjects:Language and Word Studies
Confessio Amantis

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