For scholars of medieval literature, confession, with its language of sin and contrition, has often provided the basis for our understanding of medieval selfhood and subjectivity. Confessional texts, whether penitential manuals or literary depictions of confession, suggest ways that people spoke about themselves and how they understood their interiority.
In Confession and Resistance, Katherine C. Little cautions that medieval selfhood should not be understood merely in terms of confessional practice. She points to the controversy over confession and, more generally, lay instruction that was generated in late medieval England around the heresy known as Wycliffism (or Lollardy). This controversy, she maintains, reveals the contested nature of the language of medieval selfhood.
Through her readings of Wycliffite sermons and polemical writings, Little argues that the Lollard resistance to confession should be understood as a debate over self-formation. For the Wycliffites, traditional confessional language had failed in its expected function—to define the self and to reveal the interior—and had to be replaced with new terms and new stories taken from the Bible. This new view of Wycliffism, as a crisis in the language of selfhood, allows the author to reevaluate the impact of Wycliffite ideas in Chaucer's Parson's Tale, Gower's Confessio Amantis, and Hoccleve's Regiment of Princes. Little finds in these texts, all of which include confession as a theme, a similar concern with the inadequacy of the traditional confessional mode.
"Our understanding of the intricacies of medieval thinking about the self is still less sophisticated than it needs to be, if we are ever to have a full history of the western subject. Built around a series of readings of Middle English theorizations of the self, confession, and community, this carefully-focussed and well-written book significantly advances our thinking on these closely related topics. On the way to its goal, Little's study also illuminates several other areas of current interest in medieval studies: the exemplum as a system of teaching and object of suspicion; the fault-line between Lollardy and fourteenth-century orthodoxy; and the impact of the Lollard controversy on the new patterns of orthodox belief and practice that emerged in the fifteenth century." —Nicholas Watson, Harvard University
"Confession and Resistance is a significant contribution to our understanding of late medieval Christianity and culture in England. Little shows the inventiveness with which Chaucer, Gower, and Hoccleve engage with Wycliffite textuality and ideology, often assimilating these as sources of a self-reflexive and vigorous orthodoxy cultivated by a learned, 'clerical' laity. Her focus should make the book of interest to those working in early modern fields as well as to medievalists."—David Aers, James B. Duke Professor of English and Religion, Duke University