Memory and Confession in Middle English Literature
Tracy explores the traditional relationship between the act of confessing and the act of remembering as it is represented in Middle English literary texts, and argues that this relationship informs other accounts of memory as described by authors in a variety of genres. Medieval authors invoke memory or recollection when they describe emotional or behavioural change, in part because memory was connected to confession, which had the ability to transform the soul. This study argues that L, Chaucer, Gower, and the Gawain-poet employed the devices of recollection and forgetfulness in order to indicate changes in the conduct and mindset of their narrative subjects. Three types of recollection are of primary interest: first, recollecting past behavior and attitudes, especially, but not confined to, those which were sinful or transgressive; second, recollecting the self, as in how one should act or think in order to maintain, refine, or transform personal identity; and, third, recollecting God, that is with the intention of either restoring a relationship with a deity or defining one’s faith. Through the catalyst of memory, authors can represent transformation in emotional or intellectual understanding that lead, or are intended to lead, to transformations in attitudes or behavior. Conversely, the absence of memory, forgetfulness, can lead either to stasis, the absence of change, or to a flawed identity.
In chapter 3, ‘Langland: Piers Plowman, Recollection, Confession, and the Penitent,’ Tracy reads the confessions of the sins and of Haukyn in the B-text of PPl. These episodes, she argues, reveal the transformative function of memory in the context of confession. They also illustrate positive and negative types of forgetfulness, and the reinvention of identity through remembering the past. The confessions of the Sins and the confession of Haukyn offer contrasting representations, ideal and flawed, of the memorial process at work in confession; they also reveal how recollection, or the lack of it, can lead towards salvation or spiritual corruption. This chapter also reads the speeches of Anima and Ymaginatif, which provide further evidence of L’s understanding of the role of memory in confession. For L, memory functions as a catalyst, which allows characters to transform from sinners to penitents. Yet, the combined imagery of memory and confession found in the descriptions of the Deadly Sins and Haukyn also indicates how difficult it is for penitents to engage in proper recollection and achieve a successful confession. PPl explores the nuances of recollection in confessional contexts, and demonstrates the pitfalls penitents can encounter. In particular, forgetfulness, in both its positive and negative forms, is shown to be an intricate concept that can define the ideal stage of repentance or the impediments to achieving that stage.