Title Background

<i>Ethics and Power in Medieval English Reformist Writing </i>

Ethics and Power in Medieval English Reformist Writing 

This book argues that the practice of fraternal correction of sin provided authority and rhetorical strategies for reformist speech and writing from the B-version of PPl down to The Book of Margery Kempe. First, it traces how the thirteenth-century pastoral movement to describe and extirpate sin moved fraternal correction out of religious communities, especially the new preaching orders, where it was rooted in the Augustinian Rule, into the wider Western Church, universalizing it as a religious practice. All Christians were obligated by Jesus in Matt. 18 (‘If your brother sins against you, go and correct him’) to reprove others for sins that injured them, guided by a charity that seeks to amend the offender’s life. The sermons, confessional literature, and distinctiones that construct this practice thus confer pastoral power on lay people and clerical subordinates (both subditi or disciplinary inferiors), the power to discern evil and provide salvific remedies. These texts also work to guide reprovers who faced seemingly contrary goods: the imperative of Matt. 18 and prohibitions against peering into others’ lives, the common good threatened by sin and the sinner’s reputation, the reprovers’ awareness of their own sins and the spiritual welfare of others, charitable speech and words sharp enough to move the recalcitrant. The principles pastoralia developed to adjudicate these competing ethical claims and thus to demonstrate the correctors’ charitable intentions also became constraints on them, ways of containing corrective speech and writing so that, for example, they confront only individual, not corporate, sin and always exhibit reverence to clerics. In the hands of vernacular reformist writers, however, this ethical discourse became a means to expand the practice beyond the limits pastoral texts often set.

At the heart of Ethics and Power lies Lewte’s defense of subordinates’ correction of superiors and his expansion of the practice to institutional evils. First, however, its third chapter examines how Lady Meed discredits Conscience’s public accusations of her sins by accusing him, in turn, of slander, insult, and hypocrisy (as a sinner himself), an exchange that questions both the authority and efficacy of corrective speech. Then it traces how Clergie begins a sequence of exchanges about correction by trumpeting it as a mode of the Dobest Will seeks, but also by insulating clerics from lay reproof. Lewte, by contrast, uses biblical texts, standard in pastoralia on fraternal correction, to counter Will’s reluctance to rebuke his friar/confessor and his convent for their mercenary approach to pastoral care. Disciplinary inferiors must expose the sins of superiors, Lewte argues, if religious law is to bind Christians at all. By slyly adapting his authorities, Lewte also extends correction to religious communities as a whole and brings it into the public realm. Why, then, does L follow up Lewte’s advocacy of fraternal correction with Will’s mis-made reproof of Reason? The chapter concludes by arguing that Will’s hastiness and hypocrisy work, in the third dream’s whole sequence on correction, to indicate what can make corrective speech impotent. Taken all together, these episodes in B 10 and 11 do much more than explore, as critics have insisted since the 70s, L’s anxieties about writing satire: They provide the ethics and authority that can move readers to deliver urgently needed effective reformist speech. The fourth chapter begins, and ends, by reading the C version’s severe paring back of Lewte’s, and even Clergie’s, advocacy of fraternal correction as a reaction to John Wyclif’s radical re-conception of it as disciplinary action. Wyclif’s treatises and sermons from the late 1370s and early 80s claim that the clergy’s failure to restrain its greed and abuses of pastoral care opens the way for grace-filled lay lords not just to admonish but also to discipline clerical sinners. Thus, they may—indeed, ought to–seize the clerical power, preserved assiduously in pastoralia on fraternal correction, of punishing sinners, even depriving them of their offices. Since all possessioners are inherently sinners, Wyclif thus envisions fraternal correction as a tool to return the whole English clergy to apostolic poverty. The next chapter turns to Wycliffite vernacular writing, especially Pierce the Plowman’s Crede and tracts from the ’80s and ’90s, that jettisons traditional pastoral restraints on corrective speech and writing. Jesus’ harsh rebukes of the Pharisees justify insults, while Wycliffites’ confidence in their ‘truth’, their fidelity to Scripture, obviates any worries about committing slander, having uncharitable intentions, or even writing and speaking hypocritically. In this way, harsh fraternal correction becomes a marker of Wycliffite identity and a sign that pastoral power has passed from institutionalized clerical groups to those who live by Scripture.

Ethics and Power closes with a study of reformist rhetoric after Arundel’s Constitutions were promulgated in 1409. It pairs Mum and the Sothsegger with The Book of Margery Kempe because they promote similar strategies for practicing bold fraternal correction amid Lancastrian repressive manoeuvers. Both Mum’s envisioned truth-teller and Margery Kempe deliver impeccable reproof of authorities by explicitly cleaving to the constraints demanded by pastoral writers and preachers before Wyclif—and by non-Wycliffite texts in the early fifteenth century. At the same time, they cleverly extend fraternal correction, Mum into the political arena, with offenders as national and local officeholders (always legitimate in pastoral texts since disciplinary authorities are lay as well as clerical), the Book into clerical institutional life, with its resistance to female pastoral power and moral authority, a resistance contrary of the pastoral movement’s promotion of lay apostolic action.

A postscript moves beyond recent scholarship stressing the limits on pastoral teaching imposed by those clerics who viewed the laity as puerile and prone to heresy. It argues that pastoral discourse on fraternal correction indicates the extent to which pastoralia aimed to induce all Christians to become ethically reflective and, then, to assume, in specific situations, the power to correct the conduct of others on the basis of pastoral social ethics. (EC)

Rev. by:
  • Sarah James, Review of English Studies, 61 (2010), 809-10;
  • Matthew Giancarlo, Studies in the Age of Chaucer, 33 (2011), 317-21;
  • Anne Hudson, Medium Ævum, 80 (2011), 142-43;
  • David W. Lavinsky, The Medieval Review, 11.06.02 (http://hdl.handle.net/2022/13336);
  • Derrick Pitard, YLS, 25 (2011), 197-201;
  • Nicholas Watson, Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 63 (2012), 608-09;
  • Rebecca A. Davis, Journal of Medieval Religious Cultures, 38 (2012), 118-22.