Producing the Middle English corpus: confession and Medieval bodies

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Meyer, Cathryn Marie

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In Producing the Middle English Corpus: Confession and Medieval Bodies, I suggest that confessional discourse played an important role in creating the Middle English canon. I show how late-medieval literature employs the discursive strategies of confession in innovative yet often unrecognized ways. My dissertation explores confession as a form or structure organizing four late-medieval texts: John Gower’s Confessio Amantis, Geoffrey Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women, The Book of Margery Kempe and Robert Henryson’s Testament of Cresseid. I find that in these medieval texts confession functions as a discourse for producing truth and for constructing or inventing textualized bodies. Therefore, in part, I approach confession through the popular medieval analogy of a “the body” to “the book” and thereby consider how confession works to represent “truth” via the figure of a Christian body divided between inner and outer space. In each of the four texts I discuss, memorable bodies emerge as effects of confessional discourse: the senex amans in the Confessio; the suffering women of the Legend; the chaste body of Margery Kempe; and Cresseid’s leprous body in the Testament. These problematic bodies all bear out the difficulties and frequent failures of confessional representation. Ultimately, during a period of institutional collapse and social, religious, and political upheaval, I demonstrate that desire—for truth, renewal of faith, recuperation of the fallen body, stability, closure—underlies the need to confess. I approach confession as a discourse and apply to the confessional situation Michel Foucault’s theories of power, knowledge, and “subjectification.” I supplement Foucault with both psychoanalytic theory and work of Judith Butler whose theories of gender, identity, and performance offer a way of thinking about confession as a performance and also about the role of the body within confession. Whereas Foucault assumes that confessional discourse extracts “truth” from bodies, I suggest that confession actually produces textualized bodies that are required to perform lack—bodies that are required to represent via their surfaces an invisible truth. Hence, my dissertation’s overarching thesis that confessional discourse contributes to the production of the Middle English corpus—that confession produces both authors and stories.