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  • Beyond the Penitentials:Early Medieval Discourse on Penance
  • Abigail Firey

Sometimes the most obvious questions are the hardest ones to answer. For historians of early medieval confession and penance, one of the greatest puzzles has been the cultural context of the penitentials that have dominated, as essential sources, most discussions of early medieval penitential traditions. While there is excellent scholarship on the question of their institutional context—that is, whether they should be located in monastic, parochial, or sacramental settings (or overlapping and evolving contexts of this type)—there is still much work to be done on other, contemporary sources that might help us understand more fully the breadth and depth of penitential culture in the early Middle Ages. This paper explores three ideas: how sources other than the early medieval penitentials are, in fact, necessary to understanding early medieval penance; how, for example, the Synonyma of Isidore of Seville illuminate early medieval penitential discourse; how the imprint of the Synonyma as a penitential and pedagogical text is visible in glosses in a manuscript (Vatican City, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Reg. lat. 849) of a Carolingian prose treatise on penance.

Since the nineteenth century, the sources most frequently consulted as evidence for early medieval practices of penance and confession have been the penitentials.1 These texts are concise descriptions of specific sins, with a corresponding prescription of specific penances, or 'remedies' for each of those sins. Their descriptions of sins includes such offences as losing a consecrated [End Page 1] object (which receives seven days of penance) or eating meat that might be carrion (which receives four months of living on bread and water and the rest of the year without wine or meat).2 The specified sins tend to be actions or events, usually in the areas of sex, food, violence, mishandling of sacraments or failures to conform to the rules for monastic or clerical life. Some penitentials do use a scheme of the seven or eight 'deadly' sins identified by John Cassian, to organize the sinful actions under an interior, spiritual vice, such as avarice, lust, hatred, anger, etc., but the format of the penitentials has sometimes led scholars to claim that early medieval Christianity was, in its apparent concern for external manifestations, primitive and lacking spiritual or theological depth.3

The penitentials have also been central to a powerful narrative about the history of penance and confession, because they were considered to be handbooks used by priests hearing confessions, that is, the precursors of the later medieval 'summae confessorum'.4 Their chronological position between the practices of penance in the centuries of early Christianity and the Patristic period and the practices after the Fourth Lateran Council (A.D. 1215) seemed to coincide with the change that many scholars perceived from public (ceremonial, once only) to private (secret, repeated) [End Page 2] penance.5 A further layer of interpretation was that this change must have been initiated by some new impetus, from some new, non-Roman, but Christian population. The Irish were identified as the 'missionaries' to continental western Europe who brought these new practices and texts sometime in the sixth century.6 [End Page 3]

This traditional narrative is now subject to new scrutiny, for a variety of reasons. First, scholars of the earlier centuries of Christianity now see much more variety in penitential practices than the simple model of a public ritual permitted only once after baptism and used only for the capital sins of adultery, idolatry, and homicide.7 Similarly, scholars of both the earlier and later Middle Ages see much more variety in penitential practices than the private confessions and formulaic penances assigned by priests.8 In addition, the manuscript transmission of the early medieval penitentials has received new attention, and raises new questions. None of the surviving manuscripts were written in Ireland; all were written on the continent during the eighth and ninth centuries or later. Recently, Michael Elliot has argued that the very term 'paenitentiale' occurs only after the mid-eighth century and that the texts we have been accustomed to think of as 'penitentials' are closely associated with [End Page 4] monastic communities and exceptionally devout laity, not with a general Christian...


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