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Paul D. Stegner, Confession and Memory in Early Modern English Literature
by Susannah B. Monta

Stegner, Paul D. Confession and Memory in Early Modern English Literature: Penitential Remains. Palgrave Macmillan, 2016. viii + 232 pp. ISBN: 978-1137558633. $69.00 cloth.

“Every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future,” declares Lord Illingsworth in Oscar Wilde’s A Woman of No Importance. In the Reformation era, it was not always clear how a sinful past might be shaped into a hopeful future. Paul Stegner’s Confession and Memory in Early Modern English Literature considers how memories of past sin and hopes for future restoration were managed in post-Reformation England. 

Stegner’s first chapter traces practices of confession from the later Middle Ages into the Reformation era. For Protestant reformers, confession was no longer a sacrament, though confessional rites in communal worship were valued. Because private confession to a minister was biblically authorized (in James 5.16), it continued as a practice among some Protestants, especially of the godly sort, as an “exceptional means” (18) for those who couldn’t settle their consciences on their own. Catholics of course maintained sacramental confession, though it was increasingly difficult for English Catholics to avail themselves of a priest to administer the sacrament. Stegner’s first chapter puts to rest the long-dominant reading of confession as primarily a means of social control—influential for earlier generations of literary scholars who followed historian Thomas Tentler’s cues.[1] Instead, Stegner proposes to study what late Medieval and Early Modern people seemed to think confession, in its various liturgical, private, or sacramental forms, was about: spiritual benefits for individuals and community.

Stegner focuses his study on memory, in two senses: he is interested in the lingering memories of confession in literary culture and in the uses (and misuses) of memory in confessional practices.  On his account, confession and memory should work together to reconcile the sinner to herself, her community, and God. Confession was to help the penitent reprocess memories of sin, to distance and cool them, so to speak, through a “performative forgetting that enables spiritual progress” (32). A leitmotif in the book is the problem of delectatio morosa, or the taking of pleasure from memories of sin. Sexual sins, for instance, could frustrate confession’s performative forgetting, as memories of such sins might reactivate temptation.

His remaining five chapters turn to literature where, he argues, memories of traditional confessional practices linger long past the Reformation. In Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, Stegner finds a tension between Faustus’s heterodox and penitential impulses, between his Ovidian sexual desires and his persistent reliance on traditional penitential structures. In Hamlet, Stegner argues, the lead character adopts the role of a father confessor intent on studying others’ consciences in order to fulfill his purpose as a revenger. Stegner reads Shakespeare’s Sonnets in the context of A Lover’s Complaint, printed with the sonnets in the 1609 quarto, in which a young maid makes an unsatisfactory confession (the term here used loosely) about her affair with a faithless young man. (Stegner does not follow Vickers’s contention that A Lover’s Complaint was written by John Davies of Hereford).[2] One might quibble that in this chapter’s reading of the Sonnets, “confession” sometimes gets collapsed with simple lyric address. For Stegner, the Sonnets and A Lover’s Complaint together reveal how “the lingering attraction to sin infects and destabilizes the penitential process” (130).

In his chapter on Book I of The Faerie Queene, Stegner argues that Spenser attempts to salvage the benefits of ritual confession for the post-Reformation world, and that Spenser imagines sexual sins as especially damaging since memories of them remain temptingly charged. His emphasis on a literal reading of Redcrosse knight’s sexy dream (inspired by Archimago’s machinations) and his eventual sexual transgression with Duessa may not persuade all Spenserians. For Redcrosse’s transgression with Duessa has allegorical dimensions which make it different from, say, Augustine’s concern in the Confessions with the ways in which literal sexual sins delay his conversion: Redcrosse’s dalliance with Duessa glances towards biblical passages about whoring after idols and resting in the midst of one’s spiritual race, figuring infidelity writ large. The problem is not simply sexual sin, then. At other points, the reading becomes a bit rigid. In the House of Holiness, for instance, Fidelia doesn’t direct Redcrosse’s “attention to the time before his sexual transgression” (59). She speaks “Of God, of grace, of justice, of free will” (I.x.19.6), though we simply don’t know exactly what she says about these topics. Faith remains, for Spenser, something of a mystery.

A final chapter on Robert Southwell is one of the book’s strongest. Stegner reads the Humble Supplication in the light of treason laws that criminalized the act of being reconciled to Rome. In his account of Saint Peter’s Complaint, Stegner takes a cue from Nancy Pollard Brown’s reading of the poem as concerned with sacramental confession, but then argues—I think rightly—that since Peter never explicitly receives Christ’s forgiveness, the poem “indicates … the inherent limitations of a penitent to overcome independently”—that is, without a priest—“the effects of sin” (169). One wishes that Stegner had had time and space to work with Southwell’s shorter poetry as well. 

As it stands, the book accomplishes its primary aim: to demonstrate that lingering uncertainties about how to manage the memory of sin persisted in post-Reformation literary culture. The range of Medieval and Early Modern theological materials it reads, especially in the first chapter, yields a rich account of confession, after which it will be impossible to reduce the practice, in its many forms, to simple power dynamics. And Stegner’s demonstration that literary texts constitute a valuable archive of religious thought, worthy of study in its own right, is warmly welcome.


Susannah Brietz Monta
University of Notre Dame

[1] Thomas N. Tentler, Sin and Confession on the Eve of the Reformation, Princeton UP, 1977, reissued 2015.

[2] Brian Vickers, Shakespeare, A Lover’s Complaint, and John Davies of Hereford, Cambridge UP, 2007. 


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    Faith remains, for Spenser, something of a mystery.

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Cite as:

Susannah B. Monta, "Paul D. Stegner, Confession and Memory in Early Modern English Literature," Spenser Review 47.3.50 (Fall 2017). Accessed May 23rd, 2024.
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