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English 9107
Medieval Shame and the Confessional Subject

Professor Anne McTaggart
Full Year Course.

Confessional practices in Christian Europe changed after 1215, the year in which the Fourth Lateran Council made annual, private, auricular confession to a priest mandatory for all believers. In the wake of these changes, English writing turned remarkably inward, emphasizing the psychology and the shame of the sinner to an unprecedented degree. This late medieval poetics of penitence depicts a spiritual landscape shaped by the contritionist controversy in scholastic theology and by penitential handbooks and manuals—the instructional guides written for clergy and for laity so that all Christians would be able to understand the fundamentals of their faith and to perform the sacrament of penance truly and fully. This course will explore the concept of selfhood constructed in the confessional and reflected in the English literature of the later Middle Ages. We will consider the ideas of medieval writers and penitents themselves, who frequently address the phenomenology and the problematics of confession in highly sophisticated and self-reflexive ways, alongside (sometimes in tension with) Foucault’s work on confession, Benveniste’s work on subjectivity in language, Tomkins’ work on affect and shame, among others. Our discussions will be organized into four general topics, around which we will read clusters of thematically-related texts in Middle English, in translation, and in theory: shame and guilt; confession and subjectivity; shame and speech; sacrifice and forgiveness/the ethics of shame and guilt.

View the course syllabus here: 9107.


Department of English - The University of Western Ontario
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