Background Resource
UNC Writing Center: Abstracts

Examples
  • Examinations of historical documents and literary texts reveal that images of the medieval city are frequently juxtaposed with images of death. Death is often necessary in defining the identity of the city, whether this definition includes emphasizing a city’s unique individuality or validating accounts of foundation or establishing a new, emerging urban character. Historical texts disclose examples of public performances in which death plays a prominent role – such as the Gesta Episcoporum Cameracensis, which relates the details of a ceremony in which deceased bishops and community members were physically interspersed with the living in order to confirm the political authority of Cambrai’s leaders – as well as the value of cemeteries as memorial devices in city settings. Simultaneously, literary texts from wide geographic, chronologic, and stylistic ranges – including such examples as the Old English poem The Ruin; the Middle English St. Erkenwald and Piers Plowman as well as the works of Hoccleve and Lydgate; the Old French Roman de Thèbes and the Roman d’Enéas; and the chronicles of Geoffrey of Monmouth, Wace, and Layamon – use the metaphor of death or depict images of death in conjunction with their particular needs regarding the narrative construction of their respective cities. Considered together, historical and literary analysis paints a vivid picture of how death, far from being a simply static idea, is indeed a dynamic part of medieval urban space, confirming – not denying – the vigorous energy and historical significance of the city.
  • In his Confessions, Augustine states: “Let me still confess my sins to you for your honour. Allow me, I beseech you, to trace in my memory in the present my past deviations and to offer you a sacrifice of joy” (IV.1). Here, we find a succinct description of the relationship between the concept of confession and the concept of memory in medieval texts, emphasizing how it is essential to recollect sins in order to relate them to God within confession. It is in the recognition of past transgressions, made present within confession, that a penitent is allowed, ideally, to comprehend how to proceed to a virtuous and forgiven existence in the future, thereby changing his perceptions or even his identity. Confession manuals and religious treatises from, in particular, the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries demonstrate that recollection plays a role in every stage of confession, beginning with initiating the desire to participate in the sacrament. Confessors were responsible for leading sinners through the memorial traces of their sins; as a result, confession manuals show a distinct interest in memory and forgetfulness. Recollection is described in these texts as a means by which an individual recalls the sacrifice of Christ or the disadvantages of sin and as a catalyst causing contrition. Several confession manuals and religious treatises portray how a penitent must search his past for any instances of spiritual failing before his confession is considered complete. The Latin phrase “reducere ad memoriam,” which appears in a significant number of these works, expresses the active process of deliberately searching the memory for recollections of sin. In this paper, I will explore the theological practice, as discussed in manuals and handbooks, of revisiting and evaluating the past during confession.
  • In his Confessions, Saint Augustine states: “Let me still confess my sins to you for your honour. Allow me, I beseech you, to trace in my memory in the present my past deviations and to offer you a sacrifice of joy” (IV.1). Here, we find a succinct description of the relationship between the concepts of confession and memory in later medieval texts. This relationship emphasizes how it is essential to recollect sins within confession in order to comprehend how to proceed to a virtuous and forgiven existence in the future. Considering the concern in medieval texts with forgetting sins during confession, what happens, then, when penitents are unable, as a result of aging, to recall their sins? In this paper, I will explore this question, both through the historic tradition of concern with forgetfulness during confession and its implications for aging as well as more specifically through the literary lens of John Gower’s fourteenth-century Confessio Amantis. Two pivotal scenes in the Confessio – the first expressing a fear of forgetting past sins and the second identifying the moment after confession when recollection of sins is no longer necessary because the central character, Amans, accepts the realities of growing older – frame the narrative of the fictitious confession. In this literary context, recollection of sin is depicted as being replaced by a recognition and recollection that the penitent has reached too advanced of an age for earthly love, the kind represented by Venus, and should, instead, focus on prayer. An anxiety with forgetting past transgressions is transformed into a concern with forgetting this newly-recognized truth. I will argue that Amans’ realization culminates in a moment when recollection of his sins, and his potential inability to do so, is no longer significant. Gower’s Confessio seems to provide a form of reconciliation between aging and forgetfulness of sins.