restricted access Penitential Discourse in Hoccleve’s Series
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Penitential Discourse in Hoccleve’s Series

Had I be for an homicide iknowe Or an extorcioner or a robbour, Or for a coin clipper as wide yblowe As was my seeknesse, or a werriour Aᵹein þe feith, or a false maintenour Of causes, þouᵹ I had amendid me, Hem to han mynged had ben nicete.

. . . But this is al another caas, sothly. This was the strook of God; he ᵹaf me þis. . . . In feith, frende, make I thenke an open shrifte, And hide not what I had of his ᵹifte.1

In this passage from Thomas Hoccleve’s Series, the narrator makes several important claims: he has not committed a serious crime or sin; God was the root cause of his illness; he should not, therefore, hesitate to advertise—to confess—his recovery as widely as possible. In explaining his situation, Hoccleve refuses to identify himself as a sinner in absolute terms.2 Instead, he redefines confession: the rhymes “shrifte” [End Page 277] and “ᵹifte” suggest the possibility that confession—shrift—might comprise an explanation of what God sends, rather than a laundry list of transgressions. The entirety of the Series, in fact, supplies us with a complex response to and engagement with late medieval confessional discourse, which Hoccleve neither embraces nor rejects. He rejects, instead, the idea that confession enables the expression of the self only in terms of sin. In the Complaint and Dialogue, the narrator’s primary concern is not with examining or justifying his behavior, but rather with what he is: “Uppon a look is harde men hem to grounde / What a man is. Therby the sothe is hid” (C 211–12; my emphasis). That shrift facilitates the expression of God’s grace and individual identity inverts the widely accepted idea that the medieval “sinner recognizes himself not by what he is but by what he has done.”3 Hoccleve’s narrator, rather than rejecting confessional discourse outright, wishes to recognize himself for and confess what he is.

It will be the argument of this essay that in the Series, Thomas Hoccleve appropriates penitential discourse to argue for the narrator’s sanity and sinlessness—and that this confessional project dovetails with the narrator’s desire to protest his innocence.4 A group of five poems composed between 1419 and 1422,5 the Series consists of the Complaint, in which the narrator laments that in spite of his recovery from mental illness, his friends reject him; the Dialogue, which dramatizes a conversation between the narrator and a friend, centering on whether to circulate [End Page 278] the Complaint; the Tale of Jereslaus’ Wife, a translation of a narrative and moralization from the Gesta Romanorum; Learn to Die, a translation of Henry Suso’s Ars moriendi in the Horologium sapientiae (c. 1334);6 and the translation of another tale and moralization from the Gesta, entitled Jonathas and Fellicula.7 This poem has been regarded both as a “loose anthology”8 and as a more unified whole;9 but there has yet to be a sustained discussion of how elements of the confessional form pervade and link the Series. Hoccleve’s use of penitential language demonstrates both the unity of this poetic work and its dogged commitment to self-expression.10 Confessional motifs not only unite the poems of the Series—they also reveal the work to be organized around the narrator’s [End Page 279] impulse to communicate his inner self to a wide audience. It is simply not the case that Hoccleve “bows to the demands of his accuser,”11 abandoning his original intention to circulate a written defense of his sanity. Instead, in deploying elements of the confessional form throughout the poem, Hoccleve yokes together the tales from the Gesta with the Complaint, Dialogue, and Learn to Die, revealing the poem as a whole to explore not only the problem of identity—a topic many have taken up with respect to the Complaint and Dialogue, but seldom the rest of the Series12—but also to suggest the difficulties with some conventions of mainstream penitential discourse. Forms of confession were hugely popular in late medieval Europe, particularly in fifteenth-century England, where...