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  • Master of Penance: Gratian and the Development of Penitential Thought and Law in the Twelfth Century by Atria A. Larson
  • Rob Meens
Master of Penance: Gratian and the Development of Penitential Thought and Law in the Twelfth Century. By Atria A. Larson. [Studies in Medieval and Early Modern Canon Law, Vol. 11.] (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press. 2014. Pp. xx, 553. $65.00. ISBN 978-0-8123-2168-7.)

This careful study of Gratian’s thinking on the topic of penance reworks a dissertation written at The Catholic University of America into a rich and carefully argued book. The study of Gratian and his work has recently been transformed by Anders Winroth’s discovery of the original version of Gratian’s groundbreaking work, a version that differs in many respects from the work regarded by scholars as Gratian’s Decretum. This study considers results that help to refine the findings of Winroth in this field. [End Page 387]

The book is devoted mainly to the part of Gratian’s Decretum that we know as De Penitentia and was included in causa 33, a case that discussed a man who had become impotent as a result of magical means (maleficium). When the man confessed his sin to God alone, he was relieved of his impotence, and this formed the incentive for Gratian to discuss the efficacy of confession in some detail. The treatise is thus placed rather awkwardly in the conception of the whole work. This, together with a clearly more theological approach that contrasts with the more legal character of the rest of the work, has in the past led to doubts about its authenticity. Since De Penitentia is, however, included in the first recension that Winroth discovered, it must be regarded as an authentic part of the Decretum. Several parts of the text, however, found in the standard edition of Gratian as prepared by Emil Friedberg do not appear in the early recensions and must therefore have been added later.

Atria Larson carefully tries to reconstruct Gratian’s thinking about penance on the basis of the text of the first recension. In doing so, she establishes that Gratian composed his work in a systematic way, the economy of which is hardly visible in the edition by Friedberg because of the many accretions included in its text. Larson is able to demonstrate that Gratian composed his work with great care and diligence, and that it ties in neatly with the other parts of the Decretum in which penance is discussed. The author establishes Gratian’s reliance on many works that are associated with the school of Anselm of Laon and concludes that it would be unwise to deny the direct relationship between the two—that is, Gratian must have been a disciple of this school. That would explain the close affinities between Gratian’s work and that of Peter Abelard and Hugh of St. Victor, although there is no proof of any direct acquaintance with their works (or vice versa). The affinities are to be explained by the fact that all three men were indebted to Anselm’s teachings. Larson regards the Decretum first of all as a textbook, reflecting Gratian’s teaching in Bologna. His work was meant to instruct the clergy and should be considered as part of a broader movement for educational reform of the clergy.

After this convincing analysis of the text of De Penitentia, the author goes on, in the second part of the book, to investigate its influence. She starts with the use that Peter Lombard made of it for his Sententiae, a work finished in 1155–57. For his discussion of penance in book IV (distinctions 14–22), Peter relied on two main sources: Odo of Lucca’s Summa Sententiarum and Gratian’s De Penitentia. Peter did not always agree with Gratian, but he certainly valued him as a theologian, not only as a compiler of canons. It becomes clear that Peter Lombard preferred Gratian’s theological views over those of Peter Abelard. Early commentators on the Decretum—such as Paucapalea, Rolandus, or the author of the Summa Parisiensis—in Bologna and elsewhere did not pay much attention...


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