Manuals for Penitents in Medieval England
KRISTA A. MURCHISON
Thank you for taking part in the Medieval Herald! Can you please begin by giving us a brief overview of your book?
Thank you for discussing the book with me! My book is the first full length overview of a widely popular group of works from medieval England known as manuals for penitents.
Can you explain what ‘Manuals for Penitents’ is?
Absolutely. Manuals for penitents were guidebooks designed to help penitents prepare to confess their sins. Confession was an important part of life in medieval England, especially after the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, which mandated that everyone who had reached the age of majority (usually between 7 and 14 years of age) had to confess their sins to a priest at least once a year or risk excommunication.
After this council, there was a marked interest in guidelines about how to confess properly. The stakes were high; the Church insisted that a single forgotten sin could ruin the immortal soul. This led to a wave of manuals designed to translate complex theological topics into a form that the general public could understand. So, for example, the Manuel des péchés (c. 1260) and its English translation, Handlyng Synne (c. 1303-17), both explain that using foul language is a type of lust, and they illustrate this notion using the story of a nun who was punished for using foul language.
To make the idea of sin accessible to the general public, these manuals use many of the features of medieval romance, including verse forms and narrative sequences. Manuals for penitents became incredibly popular—so much so that they became the subject of parody and literary adaptation. John Gower’s Confessio Amantis is one famous example. One of my personal favourites is the Speculum Gy de Warewyke, which uses the popular romance figure of Guy of Warwick to teach its readers about sin.
Your book is the first full-length overview of this body of writing and its material and social contexts, why do you think that is? Do you think this genre has been overlooked? Why do you think that may have been?
I explore this very question in the book! I think the main reason stems from a long-standing confusion about what these texts actually are. Much of the terrain of England’s literature was charted by scholars in the nineteenth century who, due to a discomfort with what they considered the more ‘Catholic’ aspects of medieval religion, tended to overlook or misclassify works of popular religion from medieval England. Linda Georgianna has an excellent book chapter about how Chaucer’s more ‘Catholic’ works have traditionally been side-lined due to an inherited discomfort about medieval religion. It’s a shame because these popular religious works are often valuable witnesses to everyday life in medieval England, and to the kinds of textual experiences that were available to women and others who tended to be excluded from centres of power.
Has this work always been of interest to you?
On a conceptual level—yes. I think I’ve always been interested in the more ‘popular’ literature from medieval England, and that’s what led me to the subject. At one point I was looking at a number of vernacular ‘bestsellers’ from medieval England and started to notice some patterns that fascinated me.
What does the image on your cover represent?
I’m so glad I get to answer this question! It’s actually a fourteenth-century depiction of a woman confessing to a priest. I think it’s striking because today we tend to think of confession as happening in secret, in a confessional box. But confession in the medieval period was done directly in front of a priest. Not everyone knows this; even great scholars of medieval religion have made mistakes about this.
In the book, I posit that a tendency to view medieval confession as something that happened in the darkness of the confessional is part of a broader tendency to view medieval confession as impersonal—and to view medieval penitents as unthinking subjects muttering dimly through the dark rituals of medieval religion. But while confession happened firmly within the control of the medieval Church, medieval penitents were far from unthinking subjects. Manuals for penitents show that confession quickly became a process through which medieval penitents were experimenting with new forms of thought—ones that, in some cases, raised considerable concerns for the Church. This is one of the key findings of my book. To me, this lively image of a woman confessing directly to her (evidently beleaguered!) priest, with its character and depth of expression, is a good representation of the highly personal and complex nature of confession that we see in manuals for penitents.
What do you have planned next?
I was recently awarded a grant by the Dutch Research Council to work on a project about medieval manuscripts that were destroyed during World War II and I’ve been working on a book related to that project. I’ve also been working on a quantitative-based study of the circulation of French literature in medieval England, and on a new edition of the French version of a popular thirteenth-century guidebook known as Ancrene Wisse.
What has your experience been of online conferences over the last two years? The hybrid model (online andin-person) seems likely to spread, at least in the short-term. What are your thoughts on conference formats these days?
I’m really optimistic about these new conference formats and have enjoyed the online conferences that I’ve participated in. I think each format (fully online, fully in-person, and hybrid) has its advantages. One big advantage I see to the online and hybrid formats is accessibility. In-person conferences can be challenging for people with disabilities, or people who have childcare responsibilities, or who live far from a given conference venue. I think online options can help remove some of these barriers, and I hope that we will keep these as options even after the pandemic is over. But these kinds of technological shifts are often tricky. And as I show in my book, that problem is nothing new.
KRISTA A. MURCHISON is an assistant professor of medieval English and medieval French at Leiden University, in The Netherlands. At present (2020-2024), she is leading an individual Dutch Research Council-funded project on medieval manuscripts destroyed during World War II. Her previous grant-funded research projects include a digital analysis of French manuscripts produced in medieval England (2018).
Cover Image: Confession before the confessional booth: a fourteenth century depiction of a woman confessing her sins before a priest. © The British Library Board, Royal MS 10 E IV, fol. 270v. Reproduced by permission.