This study starts in the sixth century and ends around the year 1200, stressing the role of ecclesiastical mediation and reconciliation.

1 Introduction

In the late seventh century an anonymous compiler of a penitential handbook included the following phrase: ‘If someone [is] a magician and is able to provoke storms, he should do penance for seven years, three on bread and water.’1 This short sentence can be an entrance into a world in which farmers fear for their crops because of heavy hail and thunderstorms and try to protect them by supernatural means. Some people, in the sources of the period referred to as tempestarii, a term that one could translate as ‘stormmakers’, apparently played on these fears and offered protection against such meteorological disasters in return for material rewards. A treatise composed by the ninth-century bishop of Lyon, Agobard, arguing against such beliefs, provides a useful background to this penitential canon.2 Agobard describes a belief in magical ships travelling through the sky coming from a land called Magonia and communicating with tempestarii as to where to land their ship, provoking a heavy storm and robbing the land of its crops by taking these aboard the ship. Farmers gave the tempestarii a material reward, which they called the canonicum, so Agobard informs us, and used this fact as an excuse not to pay the tithe that they owed the church. Thanks to Agobard’s treatise the terse formulation of the penitential text cited above reveals a broader context, yet there still remain unsolved riddles. One of these concerns the question who these tempestarii were. Were they pagan priests competing with Christian clerics, as has recently been maintained?3 Or are we dealing with independent village sorcerers, who were nominally Christian, yet dabbled in sorcery and witchcraft?4 One could even argue that Agobard was combatting Christian priests or monks offering liturgical protection against thunderstorms.5 The small number of source materials from this period makes it hard to provide definite answers to basic questions. Penitential texts do provide essential information regarding these ways to ward off bad weather, but it is hard to reach any definitive solutions. As we shall see, such uncertainty also characterizes the debate about medieval penance, particularly in the earlier period before c. 1200.

The debate about the role of penance and confession in the Middle Ages is closely linked to the debate about the nature of medieval religion. Historians have read the evidence for this period as indicating that many people were in fact only nominally Christian, and that their basic world view remained basically pagan for many centuries. The traditional forms of religion and the basic categories with which to interpret the world remained stable for many centuries and coloured the ways in which Christianity was interpreted and practised during the Middle Ages.6 A related view holds that Christianity as a Mediterranean religion changed profoundly in the period after 400 because of the influence of converted Germanic peoples. As a result Christianity became a religion of formalistic ritual supervised by kings of a sacral nature and dominated by an aristocratic ethical code.7 Both of these views regard medieval religion in the period up to the twelfth century as deeply influenced by pre-Christian, pagan attitudes towards the supernatural.

Lately, historians tend to see things differently, arguing that paganism for the early Middle Ages is merely a literary construct employed by ecclesiastical authors for their own purposes.8 That medieval forms of Christianity differed from what went on before and after is obvious, and it is surely problematic to interpret all change as the result of non-Christian influences. Nor does it seem helpful to speak about the archaization or rearchaization of Christianity, from an intrinsically ethical religion towards a purely formalistic one.9 While ritual and ethical aspects may receive more or less emphasis in particular circumstances, human life is always characterized by a combination of moral and ritual commitments. As it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to evaluate with any precision the importance of the moral versus that of the ritual, it seems not very helpful to characterize a religion from this perspective. The distinction between an ethical and a ritual religion is related to the influential distinction that Margaret Mead made between shame and guilt cultures. In the first wrongdoing leads to fear of disclosure and loss of honour, while in the latter the wrongdoer is not so much motivated by the reaction of others as by his own feelings of guilt. The former attitude would be more ritual and the latter more ethical. However, like the moral-ritual dichotomy, the distinction between shame and guilt seems too absolute and too difficult to measure in any detail to be a fruitful tool for historical analysis.10

The role of penance and confession has been central in the debate over the nature of medieval religion. The traditional narrative of the history of penance distinguished three major phases. In Late Antiquity a formal ritual of public penance was the norm, which, its ritual and public nature notwithstanding, is often seen as reflecting an ethical stance.11 In the early Middle Ages private penance was introduced and this new form of penance was associated with a new literary genre: the handbooks for confessors known as penitentials. These books contained long lists of possible kinds of sin together with the appropriate penance to make up for them. As many historians assumed that these lists were to be applied in a mechanical way – i.e. sin x was to be remedied by penance y – private penance, or tariffed penance as it is also known, was regarded as ritualistic, unethical and archaic. In the twelfth century, through the innovations of Peter Abelard, things changed for the better. Penance became less formalistic, the stress no longer fell on the proper kind of penance to atone for one’s sin, but on the feelings of guilt and remorse of the sinner. From an archaic ritualistic form of penance, a new interiorized ethical form of penance emerged, a development that was seen as intricately linked to the so-called ‘discovery of the individual’ in the twelfth century.12 In many studies regarding medieval religion, penance played a crucial role as an indicator of the formal, ritualistic and unethical, or on the other hand the individual, moral and ethical nature of Christianity in a specific period. The following study will argue that many of these assumptions are based on too-easy generalizations of the complex nature and history of penance and confession during the Middle Ages and that it is important first to describe in more detail what we know about medieval penance and confession, before presenting such challenging theses.

Another discussion among historians concerns the importance of penance in medieval culture at large. It has been argued that penance as such was only of minor importance and that penitential tariffs were not used in the everyday contact between a priest and members of his flock, but instead were part of formal proceedings supervised by bishops in their ecclesiastical courts.13 This has led to the conclusion that penance played a very insignificant role in medieval religion, at least up until the eleventh century.14 Such a view concurs well with the theory of a thoroughly pagan medieval society touched up with only a veneer of Christianity. In a way such views can be seen as a healthy reaction to earlier views propagating an all too smooth evolution of early medieval penance towards the form of private penance as it developed during the later Middle Ages and the early modern period.15 Yet the ‘minimal view’ on penance has been criticized in its turn. The juridical nature of penance has been called into question, while research into military uses of confession as well as into the codicological contexts of penitential texts, i.e. the texts with which they were combined in manuscripts of the period, have demonstrated that penance was more pervasive than the minimalists have been willing to admit.16 Although there are no easy answers to the question of the ways in which religious confessional ritual played a role in medieval society, simply because we lack any statistical information regarding such questions, this book will try to bring more precision to the question as to who exactly was attracted to penitential procedures or, sometimes, driven to accept them.

In the past the history of penance firmly belonged to the domain of church history. Many books devoted to the topic were therefore written from a confessional background or, as in the case of Henry Charles Lea, from a liberal anticlerical point of view.17 Particularly Catholic historians have studied the subject, among whom Bernhard Poschmann certainly was the most influential. In his work, published in two important studies of the history of penance in Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages in the years 1928 and 1930, Poschmann stressed the continuities of penitential practices and concepts as a form of legitimization of the Catholic tradition of auricular confession.18 For this reason his work concentrated on private penance as the cradle from which modern forms of auricular confession originated. By doing so, Poschmann neglected not only many other ways of doing penance, but most of all he devised the construct ‘private penance’, which is in many ways inadequate, as this book will contend.19

Lately, for a variety of reasons, other historians have developed an interest in the history of penance. They discovered the importance of handbooks for confessors as sources for social and cultural history and with the growing interest in social and cultural issues from the 1970s onwards, penance became of interest, if only because penitential literature provided a lot of information on topics which other kinds of source material hardly ever mentioned. Penitential sources were, for example, mined for the information they contained regarding religious practices that members of the church hierarchy denounced as forms of superstition. They also contain a lot of information on sexual behaviour or dietary habits.20 Historians, being less interested in a quest for the origins of specific institutions, came to the subject with a greater eye for the diversity that existed on the ground. This tied in with a greater distrust in the possibilities of reconstructing the past on the basis of normative sources, such as law codes or conciliar legislation. Historians became more interested in practice, i.e. the concrete ways in which specific conflicts were handled, and less in the way they should be solved through the application of specific laws. This distrust of normative sources was most obvious in the field of conflict settlement studies, a booming field that drew much of its inspiration from the branch of legal studies known as legal anthropology. In the field of penance this meant that it was no longer of great importance how penance should work according to the normative sources, but rather to try to figure out how it worked in practice.21 This interest in practice fostered the historical engagement with diversity on the ground. What mattered were no longer the norms and theories with which bishops and ecclesiastical authors approached penance and confession, but rather the ways in which penance and confession functioned in very specific social circumstances.22

The greater interest in diversity also led to a new approach to texts. Whereas in the past editors of medieval texts were at pains to reconstruct the original text as it was composed by the author, lately they have become more interested in the ways a text was read, used, interpreted and altered.23 Instead of focussing on the original text and eliminating all variant readings that did not reflect the original, they have seen the importance of textual variants, interpolations and omissions as forays into the world of the reader. Important in this context is also the codicological context. Many medieval texts were not read as independent publications, but were part of a manuscript also containing other kinds of texts. For the correct interpretation of a work it is often necessary to look into the other texts that are included in a specific manuscript, because we must assume that texts were not read in isolation, but as part of the codex in which they were being consulted.24 It matters, for example, if a handbook for penance is included in a liturgical manuscript, or in one containing ecclesiastical and secular legislation. When Archbishop Theodore of Canterbury in the second half of the seventh century proclaimed that menstruating women were not allowed to enter a church building, he clearly moved away from the counsel that Gregory the Great had given to his predecessor Augustine. Gregory had explicitly allowed menstruating women to enter a church and to receive communion, declaring that the Old Testament purity regulations concerning menstruation were to be interpreted in a spiritual way. Apparently Theodore felt he could neglect Gregory’s spiritual interpretation and proclaim a more literal or cultic one, but to conclude from this that Gregory’s more ethical approach remained uninfluential during the early Middle Ages and was superseded by the cultic interpretation of Theodore is too simple.25 If we look at the manuscripts containing Theodore’s statement, we can observe that they often included Gregory’s text as well. In some manuscripts Theodore’s regulations on this matter were glossed by a reference to Gregory’s views to be found elsewhere in the same manuscript, and sometimes they were even replaced by Gregory’s text.26 Only looking at the way these two texts were combined into specific manuscripts allows us to add nuance to the too simplistic view that Gregory still wrote from a late antique, ethical, point of view and that his views were quickly superseded by a cultic interpretation that was typical for the early Middle Ages.

Paying attention to the manuscripts containing penitential works will also help us to avoid too-easy generalizations. Thanks to a better understanding of early medieval palaeography – much of it indebted to the work of the late Bernhard Bischoff – we are in a position to date and locate specific manuscripts more accurately. This, in turn, may provide precious indications for the popularity of a specific text in certain regions or periods and thus contribute to a better understanding of the past. Earlier historians, sometimes, too readily assumed that a rule found in a specific text could be used to illustrate the medieval approach to a particular problem. Now we have the means to assess whether such a rule was disseminated over a wide region and known throughout the Middle Ages, or whether it was confined to a specific region and/or a specific period. To regard the sharing of a cup with a pregnant woman as a sin, for example, is a feature only found in Irish texts and can hardly be regarded as a general feature of medieval religion.27 In the ninth century within the Carolingian empire a wide spectrum of different opinions existed as to the question of what exactly constituted an incestuous marriage. This was of great social relevance, since it decided whether one was allowed to marry a person within a certain degree of consanguinity and when exactly a marriage had to be dissolved for reasons of consanguinity. Only a careful investigation of the different texts and their manuscript transmission will allow for an accurate picture of the diversity within the Carolingian empire.28

Although we are lacking the fullness of source material that would enable us to answer questions concerning the frequency with which people confessed their sins, the exact nature of their sins and the ways in which they atoned for them, when reading the available sources with an eye for the codicological context and the dissemination of the manuscripts there still remains a lot of documentation containing information on the practice of penance and confession. In this book many different kinds of sources will be used, such as treatises on penance, letters, saints’ lives, visions, liturgical texts, monastic rules or conciliar legislation, and many other kinds of sources could possibly be fruitfully employed as well. The basis of this study, however, is formed by handbooks for confessors, those texts meant to inform confessors on how to hear confession, how to assign a particular form of penance and how to reconcile the sinner with God and the Christian community. Although recent historians of penance have been reluctant to use these texts because of their repetitive and normative character, I think there are good reasons to use them as the backbone for a study of penance in the period between 600 and 1200.29 Although other sources contain a lot of valuable information, it would be foolish to shy away from those texts with which confessors were instructed and which they might even have held in their hands when hearing confession. Many of the manuscripts containing such texts were of a practical character, so it seems that we come close to the practice of penance by studying them.30 In recent years these texts have been subjected to meticulous textual scrutiny, particularly in German scholarship.31 Because of the rather technical nature of this kind of research, it has not always reached a general audience, and historians interested in penance or in penitential texts as sources for doing cultural history all too often use information that is out of date because a reliable guide to penitential literature is lacking.32

This book hopes to provide guidance through the thick forest of penitential literature of the period between 600 and 1200. This book therefore tries to follow the story of penance by charting first of all the history of penitential books in the Middle Ages. The manuscripts diffusion of particular texts is consequently presented as fully as possible. In doing so, this study relies mainly on existing scholarship and although by doing so many a lacuna became manifest, it withstands the temptation to do new research to fill these gaps. This book therefore offers a synthesis of recent research and does not aim to provide new information. Where it does something new, however, is in the interpretation of the material. As indicated above, historians of penance have long tried to fit their material into the mould of a pervasive taxonomy in which the distinction between public and private penance was central. This book argues that this distinction is anachronistic for the period before the late eighth century when it was introduced in Carolingian circles, and even then ‘private penance’ was not the term Carolingian bishops used. By parting from the concept of ‘private penance’ for this period, it becomes possible to interpret the existing sources in a new light. This new interpretation emphasizes the social function of penance, particularly in relation to lay people doing penance.

It has already been mentioned that conflict studies is a booming field of research. Historians have observed that rituals of deference and humiliation played an important role in the – often only temporary – settlement of disputes. It has been remarked upon that particularly those rituals in which a party in a conflict would abase himself before the other in order to reach a specific settlement, and which are generally known as a deditio, bear a strong resemblance to ecclesiastical rituals of penance.33 Nevertheless, such rituals of reconciliation are generally regarded as purely secular. This book will attempt to demonstrate that this need not always be the case and that ecclesiastical ritual and the procedures of confession and penance can be part of the reconciliation between secular parties.34 Once we leave the concept of ‘private penance’ behind, it becomes possible to see the role confessors played as brokers trying to settle disputes between conflicting individuals, families or other social groups. As such this book can therefore be seen as a contribution to the field of dispute settlement studies, stressing the role of ecclesiastical mediation and reconciliation.

This study starts in the sixth century and ends around the year 1200. The reason for choosing these dates is that it allows for an evaluation of two moments that have been regarded as moments of revolutionary changes. As indicated above historians have seen two major breaks in the history of penance, one occurring in the sixth century when late antique penance made way for private penance and one in the twelfth century when private penance evolved from a rather mechanical application of tariffs into an interiorized ethical procedure. In order to assess the exact nature of these changes, it seemed fruitful to look into these periods of change to see what exactly was new and which traditional elements persisted, although it must be stressed that for these ‘transition’ periods this study relies even more on existing scholarship than for the other periods dealt with here. Geographically this study concentrates on the Latin West. Following the trail of penitential manuals has as a consequence that only those regions where such texts were known will be discussed in this book. Nevertheless this study will treat a major part of Western Europe and over a long period, so that it warrants the title: Penance in Medieval Europe, 600–1200. (Pg.11)

“Penance in Medieval Europe, 600–1200” by Rob Meens.