- Connoisseurs of Sin: The Perils of the Confessional in Fabliaux and Marian Miracle Stories
Stavvi Minòs, orribilmente, e ringhia: essamina le colpe ne l’intrata; guidica e manda secondo ch’avvinghia. Dico che quando l’anima mal nata li vien dinanzi, tutta si confessa; e quel conoscitor de le peccata vede qual loco d’inferno è da essa; cignesi con la coda tante volte quantunque gradi vuol che giù sia messa.(Inferno V, lines 4–12)
[Minos the dreadful Snarls at the gate. He examines each one’s sin, Judging and disposing as he curls his tail: That is, when an ill-begotten soul comes down, It comes before him and confesses all; Minos, great connoisseur of sin, discerns For every spirit its proper place in Hell, And wraps himself in his tail with as many turns As levels down that shadow will have to dwell.]1
The fifth canto of Dante’s Inferno begins with a process familiar to thirteenth-and fourteenth-century Christians.2 Sinners come before an agent of God, confess their sins, and are given a penance. This is the Sacrament of Confession but with a horrible twist: the confessor does not give absolution, but damnation. This hellish confessional is a place of despair and perpetual penance, far from the traditional locus of hope and renewal. Significantly, the confessor, Minos, is described as a “connoisseur of sin,” and this very knowledge makes Minos, along with all confessors, [End Page 27] morally ambiguous figures. An encyclopedic knowledge of sin is necessary to allow a confessor to select and impose the appropriate penance, but that knowledge itself can be dangerous. Minos’ position at the entrance to the circle of the lustful implicitly links confession and penance to sexuality, as is demonstrated in the story of Paolo and Francesca, told in the same canto in which Minos is introduced. The fate of these damned souls points to the fact that theoretical knowledge about sexuality often leads to empirical research, putting both the connoisseur and the “innocent,” the confessor and the penitent, in peril of sin.
This essay examines representations of confession in two genres of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries: French comic tales known as fabliaux and French and Italian Marian miracle tales. While bawdy comic stories might be expected to have little in common with religious didactic texts, the fabliaux and miracles discussed here share a preoccupation with the Sacrament of Confession, especially with respect to the confession of sexual sins. A pervasive uneasiness about the role of the confessor, great scholar of sin that he must be, underlies the representations of the confessional in both genres. Both fabliaux and Marian miracle tales are skeptical about multiple aspects of the act of confession, display an acute awareness that confession can easily be abused by confessors or penitents, and reveal that the confessional is not necessarily a private or sacred space. The confessor may turn out to be a woman, a husband, the devil; the penitent lies; inappropriate penances imposed may lead to mortal sin rather than to salvation; the absolution and pardon offered by various fraudulent confessors are revealed to be invalid. Fabliaux and miracle tales seem to agree that interaction with confessor priests or friars is so risky that it should be avoided, although the solutions proposed are divergent. In the fabliaux, lay confessors are shown to be more effective than the clergy; in the miracle tales, the Virgin Mary is the safe and infallible route to pardon.
In the early thirteenth century, three factors contributed to making both the clergy and the laity increasingly mindful of the Sacrament of Confession: the institution of the mendicant orders, the Fourth Lateran Council, and the creation of new kinds of manuals for confessors. The Franciscan and Dominican orders were established in 1209 and in 1216, respectively. The creation of these orders meant that confession was no longer only in the hands of the parish priest, a known quantity, but also available from strangers, the mendicant friars who wandered in and out of towns and villages, preaching and administering the Sacrament of Confession. At about the same time, the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 decreed that all...