Manuals for Penitents in Medieval England: from Ancrene Wisse to the Parson’s Tale

We are thrilled to share this guest blog post written by Krista A. Murchison, where she discusses her newly published book Manuals for Penitents in Medieval England: from Ancrene Wisse to the Parson’s Tale.

The last of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales has traditionally presented something of a mystery. It is told by the high-minded Parson, who insists he will not tell a ‘tale’ at all, but embarks instead on a lengthy tract about confession and the seven deadly sins. The tract draws on some Latinate penitential theology, including guides for priests about how to interrogate penitents during confession. The inclusion of this Latinate penitential theology has led some to view the Parson’s Tale as an anomaly among works of medieval English literature. Indeed, some have suggested that, given the growing suspicion around theological writing in English at the time, the Parson’s engagement with Latinate theology is laced with subversive potential. This model, in which The Parson’s Tale brings the restricted theology of the clergy into the hands of the laity, is part of a broader tradition of viewing Chaucer as a fundamentally modern, proto-humanist thinker.  

But how much of an anomaly is The Parson’s Tale exactly? This is one of the key questions that motivated my study. Until now, the question has been difficult to answer, because there has been no comprehensive study of the genre in which the tale participates: the manual designed for penitents. Such manuals, designed to help penitents prepare for confession, explain the notion of sin using familiar, everyday examples. Many of them are written in the vernacular and they were among the ‘bestsellers’ of their day, judging from the remarkable number of them that survive. Shedding light on this body of writing, which is one of the aims of this book, is important because manuals for penitents, their development, and their material and social contexts, offer key evidence for the history of popular reading, grassroots education, and the development of self-awareness in the medieval period.  

Exploring these manuals chronologically and within their transnational and multilingual contexts, this book shows that manuals for penitents served as a form of educational outreach about the topography of the human heart and the language of sin. They brought some of the theological material that traditionally had been reserved for priests into the hands of the laity. Indeed, the Latinate theology of The Parson’s Tale, which appears so striking when the tale is viewed in isolation, is, in fact, a rather typical aspect of the genre in which the tale participates. 

While this body of texts developed under the careful eye of the established Church, it nevertheless created new and urgent concerns for the Church by allowing medieval readers to explore new ideas without supervision. The Church worried that these manuals might inadvertently introduce their readers to new sins, or that they might start to get used as a replacement for in-person confession. As this book shows, developments such as this one are crucial for contextualizing some of the key literary works from medieval England that participate in this body of writing, including Ancrene WisseHandlyng Synne and the Speculum vitae. 

This guest post was written by Krista A. Murchison, assistant professor of medieval English and medieval French at Leiden University, in The Netherlands.

Manuals for Penitents in Medieval England
by Krista A. Murchison
9781843846086, Hardcover, £39 or $64.35

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