From Kalamazoo Session to Essay Collection

After a few days of anxiety over whether my session at Kalamazoo was going to make, I am happy to report that it is settled and there were even extra proposals I, regretably, had to turn down. While normally I would have been disappointed if my session didn’t fill up, I would have been doubly so this time as I have a potential opportunity to publish a collection of essays based on the work of this session.This is a new type of venture for me, so I am attempting to conceptualize how to approach it.

As a reminder, my session is entitled “What We Have Here Is a Failure to Confess: Impediments to Confession in Medieval Literature.” For the full description, see my previous post. Briefly, it will seek to think about how medieval writers employ the device of failed confessions or explore impediments to confession, striving towards a more cohesive understanding of the purposes and significance of failed literary confessions.

The core of the essay collection is already settled – provided, of course, the presenters would like to be included, and they have all shown interest. The variations in their topics have proven to be quite interesting: Jean de Joinville’s fourteenth-century Vie de saint Louis, Crusade lyrics and sermons, and Margery Kempe. Already I am beginning to see relationships between their work – one being memory, much to my delight, and something I’ll come back to in a moment. I am particularly intrigued by the concept of texts constructing characters who resist confession, how an individual might be prevented, either consciously or unconsciously, from confessing for specific reasons. It’s a topic I look forward to considering further.

My intention is that my contribution to the panel will be a version of what will eventually become the introduction to the collection. Thus, over the next several months before the conference, I can work on this introduction and be able to use it to formulate the collection proposal to the publisher. Smart, eh? Yeah, I’m the queen of multi-tasking.

Of course, now comes the hard part – deciding how I want this collection to look. At this point, I have devised a few categories of impediments: physical (i.e. something that prevents an individual from getting to a confessor, etc.); spiritual (i.e. particularly egregious sins, etc.); lack of rhetoric; external; and mental (i.e. failure of memory, etc.). These are relatively arbitrary categories at the moment, and I am still devising more – and would welcome any help in doing so. What other potential categories come to mind?

On that note of asking (begging? pleading?) for help, please consider this an informal CFP. I am open to ideas – or kernels of ideas – for inclusion in this collection. I have quite a bit of time to collect interested scholars, so step up.

I said I would get back to the concept of memory – or, rather, forgetfulness – as an impediment to confession. Just a few thoughts and quotations on the subject, which may end up either being part of the introduction or my own essay in the collection.

First, with respect to forgetfulness, Mary Carruthers comments:

The whole matter of memory error seems to be quite differently conceived by the ancients from the one that fuels modern anxieties about “making mistakes.” For us, “making a mistake” of memory is a failure in accuracy, a failure exactly or “objectively” to iterate the original material. In antiquity and the Middle Ages, problems involving memory-phantasms are described as heuristic (recollective) rather than as reproductive problems, and are due to a failure to imprint the phantasm properly in the first instance, thus causing confusion and recollective loss.[1]

Carruthers is mostly concerned with defining forgetfulness only as it helps in understanding the process of properly training the memory – for instance, in how priests needed to have well-trained memories in order to recall sermons while preaching and the reasons for failing to have them.

With respect to confession, the confessor’s role as a prevention against sins being forgotten speaks to one of the main anxieties often expressed in works discussing the sacrament. They pose the question of how a penitent can ask forgiveness for sins that he does not remember. The late fourteenth or early fifteenth-century Myrour to Lewde Men and Wymmen is deeply concerned with the idea of forgotten sins. Forgetting is equated with blindness, indicating that the penitent cannot see into his conscience in order to discover the sins that he must confess:

Other sixe vices þere beþ þat letteþ amendement of lyf & bringeþ [it to] apeyrement, þat beþ these: tarienge, rechelesnes, forʒetyng, slownes, laches and faylinge.[2]

Þe þridde is forʒetyng þat comeþ of rechelesnes. For whoso is recheles & noght besily beþinkeþ him forʒetiþ lightly may synnes boþe grete & smale þat he haþ doo, of whiche he moot schryue him ʒif he wole haue forʒeuenes of hem. And so rechelesnes and forʒeting beþ to man ful gret periles, for þei makeþ him forʒete his synnes of whiche he schulde schryue him and aske forʒeuenes in his lyf. For wiþoute askynge he may not haue forʒeuenes; and hou schal he repente him and aske forʒeuenes of þat he haþ forʒete? And þere is no man þat resoun haþ, ʒif he wole wel examyne his owne conscience, þat he [f.52v] ne may eche day fynde inowh wherof to repente him & schryue him. But rechelesnes & forʒetyng makiþ a synful man so blynde þat he may no þing see in his conscience, & þat is ouergret perill.[3]

The passage is clear in that sins must be “schryue” (confessed), yet, if they are forgotten, a penitent cannot ask “forʒeuenes” (forgiveness) for them because he cannot feel repentance for sins he cannot remember. The Myrour calls this state an “ouergret perill” (great peril), emphasizing how serious of an issue it is, a concept further exemplified in the genre of quodlibets, popular in Paris and Oxford from around 1230 until the 1320’s, in which a concern is occasionally raised of what to do when a penitent has forgotten his sins. The Liber Poenitentialis, written circa 1215 by Robert of Flamborough, states that a priest should end a session of confession with the expectation that the penitent will confess at some future time any sins that he has lost to forgetfulness:

Multa alia exciderunt tibi a memoria; multa sunt occulta tua; multae sunt omissiones tuae. [. . .] Sed tu de omnibus petis veniam et paratus es confiteri et satisfacere si Deus reduxerit tibi aliquid ad memoriam, quidquid illud fuerit? (229)[4]

[Many things have passed from your memory; many are your hidden sins; many are your omissions [. . .] But are you prepared to ask forgiveness for all your sins and to confess them and to make satisfaction if God will return anything to your memory, whatever it might be?]

Robert acknowledges the problem of forgetting, and he instructs priests to address this issue and caution penitents to confess sins as soon as they are remembered. It should be noted that, in this text, the figure who “reduxerit [. . .] ad memoriam” (I love this phrase – quite literally “to lead back to the memory.” It appears everywhere in medieval texts, and, every time I find it, it’s tantamount to the feeling of finding the Ark of the Covenant.) forgotten sins is not the confessor, but God. The final step in the act of confession is an admonition to the penitent to continue to try to recall sins that might be “hidden” by forgetfulness, emphasizing that neglected sins remain a problem until they have been narrated to the priest.

I’ll forcibly stop myself there.

CFP: all proposals and ideas welcome!


[1] Mary Carruthers, The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1990), 61.

[2] A Myrour to Lewde Men and Wymmen: A prose version of the Speculum Vitae, ed. from B.L. MS Harley 45, ed. Venetia Nelson, Middle English Texts 14 (Heidelberg: Winter, 1981), 120.19-20. Emphases added.

[3] A Myrour to Lewde Men and Wymmen, 120.34-42, 121.1-3.

[4] Robert of Flamborough, Liber poenitentialis: A Critical Edition with Introduction and Notes, ed. J.J. Francis Firth (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1971), 199. Emphases added.

1 Comment

Filed under Conferences, Kalamazoo, Professional stuff

One response to “From Kalamazoo Session to Essay Collection

  1. Josh Eyler

    Have you talked to Sexton about contributing? This seems like the perfect venue for his oft-discussed paper on vomit in the penitentials.

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