Secrecy and confession in late medieval narrative: Gender, sexuality, and the rhetorical subject
A prominent feature of each of the four texts on which the four chapters of this thesis focus--Heldris of Cornwall's Roman de Silence, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Margery Kempe's Book, and Chaucer's Pardoner's Prologue and Tale--is the way in which secrecy frames the question of "authentic" gendered or sexual identity (but with important differences in each case). Yet because these texts do not represent any single literary tradition, they defy the existing critical treatments of secrecy that are limited in scope almost exclusively to the tradition of courtly love poetry. This dissertation therefore presents a new analysis of secrecy, one that seeks to historicize the emergence of the idea of the "secret" in late medieval narrative as a rhetorical trope that calls attention to, and complicates, the relations among gender, sexuality, and truthfulness.
The Introduction examines the Proem of Petrarch's Secretum (c. 1347) as a paradigm for the use of the idea of the secret as a rhetorical trope for asserting the "truth" of private, sexual experience, and shows that in fourteenth-century English the word "secret" emerges with the same senses as Petrarch's use of its Latin root. Against this reading, the Introduction then discusses the shortcomings of the existing critical treatments of secrecy as a structural device and/or theme in literature. Chapter One argues that in Le Roman de Silence Silence's secrecy about her/his transvestism creates a moral quandary that complicates the relations among femaleness, "Nature," and virtue. Chapter Two, on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, employs Foucault's view of secrecy as a feature of disciplinary power to illuminate the relation between sexual desire and an emerging sense of "trawpe" as that which is objectively real. Chapter Three discusses how Margery Kempe's claim to be one of the Lord's "secretarijs" draws connections among secrecy, the female body, divine authority, and the written word. And Chapter Four demonstrates how the "secret" is used as a trope in twentieth-century criticism on the Pardoner's Prologue and Tale for locating the "authentic" Pardoner within an essentialist view of homosexuality.
0297: Middle Ages
0453: Womens studies