Accounting for Salvation in Middle English Literature

Rosemary O'Neill, University of Pennsylvania


The literature of late-medieval England often figures the process of salvation through imagery of fiscal accounting: the recording, weighing, and tabulation of sin, merit, and intercessory acts. This dissertation situates such rhetoric within two traditions: the personal accountability of the steward in manorial accounting procedure, and the system of intercession by which merit was transferred between sinners in the literature of purgatory visions and indulgences. The overlap between the systems, I argue, offers a space of negotiation where the possibilities and limits of human community could be re-imagined. Each chapter pairs preaching materials with literary texts to show how writers across genres imagine the terms of accountability. The first chapter traces the changing imagery of the account-book of conscience in the sermon exempla tradition from Bede's Ecclesiastical History (731) to Jacob's Well (c.1440), arguing that this codex of sin was increasingly figured throughout the Middle Ages as a negotiable record kept by the penitent himself, rather than by God. Thus Cleanness, imagining a world where bargaining fails to win salvation, presents the pronouncement of God's judgment through writing as especially terrifying. The second chapter explores the ideal of 'stewardship' as articulated in estate management manuals, and attempts by literary writers to harness the rhetoric of manorial accounting – either to imagine a perfect Final Reckoning, as in Wimbledon's 1388 'Redde rationem' sermon, or to despair over the possibility of human stewardship, as in Piers Plowman. The third chapter argues that a socializing model of 'friendship', rather than a hierarchical model of stewardship, is central to purgatorial intercession in the popular didactic poem the Prick of Conscience (c.1350), and explores how the rhetoric of accounting in the Syon Pardon Sermon allows medieval penitents, including Margery Kempe, to think of pardon as something that can be acquired for others. The final chapter considers how authors of self-consciously literary works position their labors within the models of stewardship and intercession, arguing that Chaucer uses purgatorial accounting to dodge the imperatives of stewardship, instead writing himself into a relationship of mutual intercession with his readers in his Retraction.