115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Performing Shame: The “Unmentionable Vice” in Late Middle English Penitential Manuals

Sunyoung Lee, Arizona State University

The confessant's shame remains performative in the late Middle English penitental manuals when the confessor needs to be ignorant of what constitutes "the unmentionable vice" or deviant sexual behavior. The confessor is advised to elicit a "faithful" confession about secret sexual sin by evoking shame, but the veracity of confessions cannot be confirmed.


In the History of Sexuality, volume 1, Foucault claims that the development of confessional inquiries and the production of pastoral manuals after the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 allowed the church to exert the most control over the discourse on sex and sexuality. The sacramental confession requires the confessant to participate in the multiplication of discourses on sex to be judged, punished, and forgiven by the confessor. Interestingly, in such uneven relationships between confessors and confessants, the veracity of individual tales cannot be fully confirmed by the confessor who is not supposed to know and obliged to conceal the confessant’s secrets. From such secrecy, the confessant is able to gain certain pleasure of accessing and disclosing the truth. This paper will explore further the dynamic relationship between the confessor and the confessant by focusing on the function of shame in the discussion of the “unmentionable vice” in penitential manuals for confession in late medieval England, in particular various versions of Middle English translation of Somme le Roi which reformulated the original French text and Latin manuals for lay communities. In the medieval confession, along with “sodomy” and the “sin against nature” “unmentionable vice” was one of topoi which the medieval theologians used to characterize sexual deviance including homosexual behavior. Among sexual sins, it was emphasized that this vice can never be known or discussed by the confessor; but only the confessant has to reveal it. This distinctive characteristic of the vice had often been associated with shame that misbehavior arouses. In order to urge confessants to speak “faithfully” about their sexual experiences to the confessor and to eliminate the pleasure of speaking secrets, “shame” needs to permeate a confidential space. In this context, shame functions differently in different penitential manuals. This paper will show that shame remains performative, and ultimately unknown to the confessor in the discussion of the “unmentionable vice.” The confessor’s attempt to evoke shame about the “unmentionable vice” or deviant sexual behavior in the confessant is doomed to failure. Even though the confessor is advised to induce the confessant to confess faithfully, in actuality the confessant’s voluntary confession either by virtue of his or her “natural” capacity for feeling shame or by the power of Nature’s instruction on shamefulness of sin is necessary when the confessor needs to remain ignorant of what specifically constitutes the sin. By promoting the confessant’s capacity for contrition or establishing Nature’s authority the confessor can be relieved of the burden of interrogating and even stimulating sinful behavior. Confessants are allowed to exercise their discretion in disclosing their secrets by performing shame or when the suspicion of the individual’s discretion arises, the individual’s sense of shame is displaced by Nature’s power to expose the shameless performance. In either case, the confessant’s shame becomes performative in this ritual confession. When the confessant is urged to speak about their shame in the confession, the effect of shaming is not discernible to the confessor.