Title

Trials of Conscience and the Story of Conscience

Abstract

This essay analyzes the trials of conscience presented in two medieval interrogation narratives, the Testimony of William Thorpe and the Letter of Richard Wyche. Written by followers of the radical theologian John Wyclif, these are the only surviving texts from medieval England that describe heresy inquisitions from the perspective of the accused. Despite similarities between the two authors and legal proceedings, the texts are strikingly different. Thorpe produces a competing public narrative to the official account of his movement, embracing his chance to share his conscientious convictions. By contrast, Wyche’s cautious text reflects distaste for the legal technology used to test his conscience, a loyalty oath. He considers public oaths inadequate vehicles for coming to grips with his inner life, or for conveying his religious beliefs. The broader implication is that trials of conscience prompt conscience to tell its story, defining itself in relation to the demands of public, coercive forces. In particular, oaths — pointed and memorable — are useful not only to narrators such as Wyche and Thorpe, but also to officials creating public narratives of a heresy defeated. Oaths produce coinciding narrative, personal, and political crises, in which the conflicting demands of public and private open to view and enter into negotiations.

Document Type

Article

Publication Date

2012

Notes/Citation Information

Christopher G. Bradley, Trials of Conscience and the Story of Conscience, 24 Exemplaria 28 (2012).

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)

10.1179/1041257311Z.0000000003