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  • Master of Penance: Gratian and the Development of Penitential Thought and Law in the Twelfth Century by Atria A. Larson
  • Nancy Bauer O.S.B.
Master of Penance: Gratian and the Development of Penitential Thought and Law in the Twelfth Century, by Atria A. Larson. Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2014. Pp. vii–553.

Larson accurately describes her work as “a reconsideration and indeed the first comprehensive consideration of Gratian’s De penitentia” (2). It is a reconsideration in that the author, despite an abundance of canonical commentary to the contrary, attests to the significance of Tractatus de penitentia within the entire context of Gratian’s Decretum. It is a comprehensive consideration in that it provides a thorough examination of the specific questions addressed in De penitentia, what the treatise tells us about Gratian himself, and how it was used in the decades following its composition.

Master of Penance consists of two parts. The seven chapters of Part I provide textual analysis of De penitentia. The five chapters of Part II trace the use of the treatise in various contexts from 1140 to 1215.

The author reminds us that Gratian’s treatise on penance appears in his Decretum as quaestio 3 of causa 33, one of ten causae on marriage. The specific question is whether “a sin can be erased by confession of the heart alone” (35). In other words, is confessing to God, or contrition, sufficient for remittance of sins, or is confession to a priest also required? Beginning with that question, Gratian delves into seven distinctions in which he explores a number of issues related to penance. Larson devotes a chapter each to the first four distinctions, which address theological questions, and a single chapter to the remaining three, which address practical matters. [End Page 676] In chapter six, she searches the rest of the Decretum for Gratian’s canonical approach to penance.

In chapter seven, Larson concludes Part I with these observations about the author of De penitentia: the man we refer to as a “Father of Canon Law” was also a skilled theologian; not only was Gratian influenced by the school of Laon, but he probably studied in northern France, perhaps under Anselm of Laon himself; and Gratian was, above all, a teacher who composed the Decretum, including De penitentia, to educate priests to serve as pastors, preachers and confessors (308).

Chapter eight begins Part II with an examination of Peter Lombard’s extensive use of De penitentia. Chapters nine and ten look at the use of the treatise in the classroom up to the end of the twelfth century. Chapter eleven reports on the first commentary on De penitentia, produced by Huguccio. Finally, in chapter twelve, Larson tracks the influence of Tractatus de penitentia through the papacies of Alexander III and Innocent III.

Master of Penance, with its detailed exegesis, including extensive footnotes and four appendices, is a significant contribution to Gratian studies. It will appeal to scholars of canonical history and sacramental theology. It also makes an important segment of Gratian’s work accessible to canonists who do not have the opportunity to work through the Decretum on their own.

Nancy Bauer O.S.B.
The Catholic University of America
School of Canon Law
Washington, DC


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pp. 676-677
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