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Reviewed by:
  • Sex and the New Medieval Literature of Confession, 1150–1300
  • Kim M. Phillips
Payer, Pierre J., Sex and the New Medieval Literature of Confession, 1150–1300 (Studies and Texts, 163), Toronto, Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 2009; cloth; pp. ix, 249; R.R.P. US$75.00; ISBN 9780888441638.

Pierre J. Payer’s latest book is billed as the third of a trilogy on sex in medieval Church thought, after Sex and the Penitentials (1984) and The Bridling of Desire (1993). Like the latter, Sex and the New Medieval Literature of Confession concentrates on the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, but shifts focus from theological works to the apparently more utilitarian confessional manuals produced to guide confessors on appropriate dialogue with confessing parishioners. Such works were especially needed after 1215, with Lateran IV’s requirement that all Christians confess at least once a year. Payer argues that sexual sins occupied a disproportionately large place in the confessional literature compared with other types of sin.

None of the twenty-six confessionals at the centre of the analysis is available in English translation. Payer’s guide to their treatments of sexual [End Page 267] sin will therefore be an invaluable introduction to confessional summae to newcomers with a particular interest in medieval constructions of sex. He thoughtfully supplies translations of one general confessional formulary and a sample interrogatory on lechery in the appendices, and readers would do well to take his advice and read those first. His substantive chapters deal with the genre under examination, confession, and lechery itself, before moving into close studies of the main sexual sins (grouped under ‘Fornication’, ‘The Vice against Nature’, ‘Incest’, and ‘Rape, Marriage and Adultery’). One of his chief tasks is to work out the semantic range of the confessionals’ sexual keywords such as ‘stuprum’, ‘sodomy’, ‘raptus’, and so on. It is through such careful analysis that we gain a more accurate conception of medieval sexual concepts. For example, the confessionals often treat the vice against nature (or sodomitic vice) in terms of non-reproductive acts between men and women, while incest is discussed largely with regard to impediments to marriage and rarely refers to illicit relations within the immediate family.

Payer pays little attention to the confessionals’ role in everyday lives of Christians. Questions of manuscript commission, ownership, and transmission are set aside, so it is difficult to judge the manner and extent of any real-world impact. Payer prefers a ‘common-sense’ outlook: why should the manuals have been written if not for their stated purpose of helping confessors deal with penitents? Perhaps so, but more might be ventured about specific readerships and contexts. Still, this scholarly and clearly-written study joins his other books as required reading on medieval sexual concepts.

Kim M. Phillips
Department of History
The University of Auckland


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pp. 267-268
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