This module concerns the place of confession, penance, and penitentials in the religious life of the Anglo-Saxons and (in less detail) in the later Middle Ages.


Part 1: The Importance and the Origins of Penance and Confession

Part 2: Penitentials and Penitential Practice

Part 3: Penance and Daily Life in Scriftboc and Other SEAFARER Texts

Part 4: Penance in the Later Middle Ages

You can skip to any one of these parts by clicking the appropriate hyperlink. Clicking "back" on your browser will bring you back here.

To learn about the LINKS and IMAGES that accompany this narrative, click on the appropriate hyperlink. We recommend that you consult "So What?" after you have read one or two parts of the narrative below. Note that the sources used in the narrative are listed in the Bibliography and are cited here only by author and page or by author, title, and page.

Part 1: The Importance of Penance in Medieval Culture

By Chaucer's time, all Christians were obliged to confess their sins at least once a year. This was the decree of the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, and scholars widely agree that it helped to transform medieval Christianity. This it did in two ways: first, by instilling a very high sense of the individual's responsibility for his or her moral life; second--and less admirably, many think--by intensifying clerical supervision of lay spirituality and bringing lay people more closely under the scrutiny of priests who were not always themselves free of corruption. Many discussions of penance in the Middle Ages take the Lateran Council as a starting point. This is a common but unfortunate mistake, for long before the Council, or the reform movements leading up to it, medieval Christians confessed their sins privately to priests and performed penances according to the severity of the sins. The Council made confession mandatory, but many people already observed it regularly. It is technically incorrect to speak of the "sacrament"of penance before the thirteenth century, however; the technical formulation of the sacraments that were the backbone of medieval Christian life (and are still in effect in some Christian churches today, the Catholic Church in particular) had not begun in early period. See LINK 1 on the theology of the sacraments and for general background on the sacraments themselves. Of the sacraments, penance was most closely connected to Baptism and the Eucharist.

It is difficult to think of a medieval institution of greater importance that penance, or an experience more charged with potential significance than face-to-face confession. Penance was the chief means of disciplining and educating both the laity and priests alike. This discipline was achieved by applying the Church's models for monastic conduct to the lives of ordinary people. Simultaneous with this somewhat intimidating expectation was the wholly positive belief that penance and confession created forgiveness, reconciliation, and absolution. Penance was the Church's chief means of restoring offenders to the fold and of demonstrating, on a practical, administrative level, the forgiveness and mercy made possible by Christ's death and resurrection. However, the Church always understood the importance of fear of God and shame as incentives to contrition. Almost any document used in the hearing of confession, especially in the early medieval period, will show that the Church saw confession as an process. First, the priest used fear to induce candor, making sure that the sinner told all and was moved through fear to contrition and prayer. The priest then heard the sinner's confession and assigned penance, and finally to absolve the sinner. Beneath the surface appeal of confession and penance as means of mercy and forgiveness is a stark, frightening vision of the Last Judgment, a time at which "open confession" will be made before the all creation assembled before God the Father.

Penitential practice had its origins in the lives of early monks, whose feats of self-denial and piety are described in the Monastic Life module. The asceticism of these devout men and women--described in hagiographies or lives of saints such as Cuthbert, Brigit, and others--could not be a model for those who lived in the working world, but the lives of the holiest did serve as models for others. Monks undertook penitential practice voluntarily, as a way of life based on self-denial; part of their discipline was confession of wrong-doing to their superiors or spiritual counselors. Monks were the first to spread confession among the laity, both to lay people who lived around the monasteries and to those who did not. Bede's Ecclesiastical History contains several stories that show us both the link between monasticism and early penitential practice and, more importantly, something about the informality with which confession and penance were undertaken.

Some of Bede's favorite stories describe the great piety and devotion of Irish missionaries in England, and their great success in inspiring others to penance. In Book 4, Ch. 27, for example, Bede writes that whenever a priest or a cleric visited a town, the English would gather to hear him preach. Already we see that the Church is not clearly organized into parishes, but rather into informal units attached to a church or merely to a preaching station. These monks wandered and preached; they did not have a fixed group of followers and they were not easily brought under the jurisdiction of a central ecclesiastical authority. There were efforts to restrain them already in 673, two generations before Bede wrote (see Bede, Book 4, Ch. 5). Cuthbert was such a preacher, but he "was so skillful a speaker, and had such a light in his angelic face, and such a love for proclaiming his message, that none presumed to hide his inmost secrets, but all openly confessed their wrong-doing." Here Bede gives us a valuable glimpse of how private penance probably worked: impromptu confessions, made in an open area near a cross, perhaps. In Irish monasteries the spiritual counselor was known as the "soul-friend," a term that indicates both fraternal companionship and spiritual guidance rather than judgment and punishment. It is important to keep that intimate, indeed friendly face in mind.

No one knows how the monastic custom of penance spread outside the monastery to the lay population, but as we emphasize in the Monastic Life and Monastery modules, religious communities were not cut off from the lay world. Instead the monastery was integrated into the economic and social life of the outside world. We see in Bede's account of Cędmon and his famous outbreak of singing that remarkable events outside the monastery were brought to the monastic superior's attention, in this case to the attention of the abbess, Hild (Bede, Book 4, Ch. 24). The idea seems to have been to make the lives of the laity as monastic as possible without making them into monks and nuns. Early handbooks of penance or penitentials (defined and discussed below) such as those of the Irish monks Cummean and Columbanus, devote more time to monastic offenses than to those of lay people, but you will see in any penitential from the Anglo-Saxon period (eighth to the eleventh century) that lay discipline far outweighs monastic considerations. At least in terms of the Irish and English records, therefore, it appears that penance was an extension of monastic life to the lay world, a way to bring the laity closer to the ideal of monastic behavior while recognizing that the laity could not live under the same restrictions that monks and nuns did. It is important to note that the early Christians whose lives set the pattern for monastic life, and for penitential practice for the laity, undertook their asceticism voluntarily. We see in the decree of the Lateran Council that in the later Middle Ages penance and confession were no longer voluntary acts.

The informality of confession to wandering preachers did not last, however. The Church in England was from the first concerned with bringing the new territory into close conformity with the customs of Rome. This centralization required texts--as you can see in the Manuscript Book module (third part of narrative), Christianity is "a religion of the book"--and fixed points of administration. Although the frequency of confession was not regulated in the Anglo-Saxon period, penance was encouraged and expected during the major holy seasons of the church year--Advent, Lent, and Pentecost. LINK 2 gives you an opportunity to learn about the shape of the liturgical year and the major fasting periods.

Three forms were practiced: private penance, public penance, and voluntary acts of pious devotion. Public penance, which in the early Church could be undertaken only once, was required for gravest sins; for example, fratricide or the murder of a cleric carried the penance of exile. Public penance required a bishop and a public ceremony of reconciliation; confession itself was private. Sinners did not own up to their faults before an assembly but in private; however, they accepted penance publicly and were identified as "penitents" thereafter.

Private penance, which could be repeated, entailed a wide range of penances. Private penance was assigned at the end of the confessional encounter between the priest and the sinner. We describe the process of confession below. The most frequent penance was fasting (for periods ranging from a few days to several years). For theft and crimes involving personal injury, restitution was necessary before absolution could be given, a requirement that suggests the importance of ecclesiastical penance in maintaining social order. The interaction of penance and secular law is apparent form the very earliest penitentials in England, written (possibly) at the end of the seventh century; for some of these documents, consult the volume of translations by McNeill and Gamer. (See the Bibliography.)

In devotional forms of confession the sinner confessed in prayer according to a ritualized list of sins that probably had little correspondence to his or her spiritual conduct. Such prayers were confessions since they used formulae such as "I confess," or "I am sorry for the sins of..." Such prayers can also be considered a form of penance or a penitential exercise. (LINK 3 describes one particular form of confessional prayer in which confession is made according to the parts of the body.) In fact, fasts and prayers became the most frequent forms of penance following the Middle Ages. Of the three types of penance, private confession to the priest eventually became the norm and was probably the dominant mode in Anglo-Saxon confessional practice.

The educational function of confession and penance is rarely recognized. The penitentials instructed both priest and penitent in many ways, shaping behavioral expectations, changing attitudes, and encouraging reflection and self-examination. All manner of ideas and actions came under new scrutiny and were held to new standards, and the list of sins in the handbooks give us a good idea of what they were. Some of the practices the Church wanted to discourage fall into the category of folk medicine. For example, women were not to put their children on rooftops to cure them of fevers.

The Church sought to exert control over many kinds of native traditions. For exampls, sons could not be sold into slavery without their consent after they had reached a certain age. If either a man or a woman was taken into captivity, his or her spouse had to wait six years before remarrying. Men were not supposed to see their wives naked (nothing is said about wives seeing their husbands in the nude, however). There are detailed rules for eating hunted animals and those found dead, for deciding when water is or is not clean, and there are dozens of other indications in the penitentials that the documents were indeed close to lay people's lives. Many aspects of medieval life that are discussed elsewhere in SEAFARER--labor, magic, medicine, and social status--are discussed in the handbooks of penance. See more about this text in the next section.

We can see that confession and penance taught people new ways to think about themselves, and not just by correcting them after they had sinned. Rather, penitential practice encouraged people to adopt new norms that were written down in books and to internalize ideas that the texts expressed. Such practices are obviously important to historical problems of literacy--the use of written texts in a society whose literature and legal system were primarily oral--remains unexplored. We outline some approaches below.

Part 2: Penitentials and Penance

Priests decided on penances in various ways, including custom and common sense. Their chief guide, however, was a unique text called the handbook of penance, or the penitential. These texts are catalogues listing sins and the penances assigned to them by the priest in confession. Penitentials are often called "handbooks of penance," but most penitentials survive in manuscript form as parts of larger codices rather than as small, self-contained booklets. A few handbook-sized manuscripts do, however, exist, and presumably they once were common.

Penitentials appear to have originated in Ireland, where they were written in both Latin and Old Irish. They seem to have reached England through the work of Irish missionaries. By the late seventh century the handbook had become an important pastoral text in England. Theodore of Canterbury was the first non-Irish authority to issue a penitential (c. 695), and early handbooks attributed to eighth-century English ecclesiastics (including Egbert of York and the Venerable Bede) show that the form was quickly assimilated into the disciplinary literature of the English Church. During the ninth century, penitentials of Irish origin were the subject of prolonged controversy on the Continent. Bishops objected to the power that penitentials invested in local priests, who were often poorly educated and presumably subject to corruption. At some church councils and synods bishops tried to ban the handbook, but they failed; the form was well suited to its function and could not be suppressed. There is no record of comparable controversy in England, where Theodore's early support gave the penitential lasting authority.

England was second only to Ireland in developing a vernacular literature of penance built around the private penitential system. This literature included--in addition to the penitentials--confessional prayers, liturgies, and other forms, such as homilies, laws, and clerical letters, all of which quote the penitentials or share textual sources with them. The Anglo-Saxons organized comprehensive collections which included penitentials, ceremonies for public penance, and confessional prayers, and made excerpts from these sources for devotional reading and instruction.

Penitentials in Anglo-Saxon England were written in both Latin and the vernacular (the Latin texts being more numerous). There are three Anglo-Saxon vernacular texts, more than produced by any other early medieval culture. All are anonymous but closely related to older Latin handbooks. The vernacular penitentials list penances identical to those found in eighth-century texts, a fact that cannot be overlooked when the social significance of these texts is discussed. We might expect that penitentials would have been revised as the handbooks passed from region to region and century to century, but that was not the case: the tariffs found in the surviving documents changed very little, and this complicates our assumptions about how closely penitential texts--the evidence that survives--is related to penitential practice--what people really did.

Because they index so much human behavior, from sexuality to deit, the penitentials have always been considered important evidence of medieval life. But what do penitentials really tell us? There are many kinds of evidence in penitential texts. The most frequently discussed is sociological. Penitentials are seen as indices to medieval behavioral codes, guides to what was considered most immoral and dangerous to one's spiritual welfare. This is a valid and central use of penance in historical research, but it complicated nevertheless. For we cannot be sure that just because a sin and its punishment are mentioned in the penitentials they were actually part of medieval behavior.

Penitentials are composed of two parts, an Introduction that tells the priest how to determine the spiritual disposition and sincerity of penitents, weigh the seriousness of their sins, and pronounce appropriate penance (sometimes omitted), and a set of tariffs (TRF) or lists of sins and penances. The penitential acts assigned by the priest according to the catalogue of penances contained in the penitential could require fasting for several years or long periods of prayer and sexual abstinence.

What about the penances? Social historians have long expressed interest in the "daily life" of the penitentials. Broad discussions of penitential practice have been written by Cyrille Vogel, Aron Gurevich, and Jacques LeGoff, although little of their work addresses Anglo-Saxon culture specifically. They have usually asked versions of a few direct questions: "How often did people go to confession?" "Did people really perform these penances?" These questions, however, important, cannot be answered, for we do not have first-hand descriptions of confession and penance in the period (although public penance as performed by some royal figures is described). Therefore we cannot make automatic assumptions that the penitentials "reflect" medieval life. Instead we have to try to connect the evidence of penitentials to other, contemporary sources. We also have to learn how to read penitentials as more than laundry lists.

Let us look at the experience of confession in order to appreciate the dynamic character of these texts: they are a script for experience rather than a record of experience, and we can find traces in their language of what that one-on-one encounter was like. The language of the handbooks is living language, socially embedded speech. What was confession like in Anglo-Saxon England? LINK 4 contains the preface that accompanies Scriftboc and another Old English penitential. Confession was an exchange in which the textual and the oral met. To study penitentials within this dynamic context, we must think of them as texts akin to dramatic texts--that is, as texts for performance within an interactive, socially-charged communication system. The instructions for the priest at the start of many documents describe parts of a dialogue between priest and penitent that is itself obviously dynamic. The priest is told how to anticipate and manage certain expected responses involving fear, reluctance to confess, and so forth. These instructions are followed by the body of the penitential, the list of tariffs specifying penances for individual sins.

Among the most striking provisions are those that concern sexual conduct. The first five chapters concern sexual sins; the next one concerns marriage and remarriage, two that follow concern baptism (7, 8), and five more chapters on marriage follow (9, 11, 12, 13, and 14). This quick analysis shows how basic to Christian life married life was. Obviously the well-being of the marriage was taken as fundamental to the spiritual care of both partners. Over half the text is taken up with the regulation of sexuality, but not all the sexual sins mentioned pertain to heterosexuals LINK 5 contains tariffs about homosexual acts. The great concern of these texts with sexual behavior has been pivotal in the reputation of penance in modern scholarship. The role of penance in instituting--not just institutionalizing--sexual norms is at the center of work by Michel Foucault, whose History of Sexuality (Vol. 1) should be consulted if you are interested in confession as narrative and in penance as "social control." See LINK 6.

Foucault writes revealingly about one aspect of penance that many people will recognize, the confession box or confessional. The development of the confessional in the later Middle Ages is one indicator of self-consciousness and material consequences--the definition of personal and professional space, for example--in the tradition of penitential practice. The box, designed to keep the priest from seeing the penitent (not vice versa) was unknown in the early period; it developed because relationships between priests and penitents were becoming suspect, as Bernasconi notes. Although few references to this concern with contamination appear in the Anglo-Saxon penitentials, we should suppose that the complications of the communication act that eventually led to this boxing in of the priest were present earlier. This is one of the ways in which the explicit problems of the later penitential tradition can help use see more in the scant and closed texts of the Anglo-Saxon period.

Part 3: Penance and Daily Life in Scriftboc and SEAFARER Texts

Many social and historical aspects of penitential discipline are manifested in the text called Scriftboc, an Old English word that means, literally, "confession book." We include a series links for this text; first we describe the connections between penance other texts in SEAFARER. In some of them, especially the Voyages and the Colloquy, penance plays no part; in the lives of Ceolfrith and Leofgyth it is more evident; in the Dream of the Rood penance is very prominent, and of course Scriftboc would not have existed without it.

The lives of Ceolfrith and Leofgyth

In the life of Ceolfrith we learn that Leonella left the body "with a martyr's confession." You should know that "confession" and "confessor" had both a general and a technical sense in the Middle Ages; here confession means a profession of faith (not a confession of sins). Ceolfrith, we read, "was a man of keen intelligence, energetic in action, burning with zeal for righteousness, glowing at once with love and fear of God, stern in reproving sinners, gentle in cherishing penitents" (Para. 19).

Leofgyth's life is also only indirectly informative. In the episode of the wicked nun, Leofgyth implores the nuns, "on behalf of the dead sister, that dismissing from the mind whatever sin she seemed to have done against any of them before her death, they should fall together with her in prayer, and invoke the divine clemency for her absolution." They fast and say prayers, and on the third day (highly significant, of course), their prayers are answered. Have they not, in a sense, done penance for the wicked nun?

The Dream of the Rood is suffused with penitential thought; from the very start we know that the dreamer is "stained with sin, wounded with sin" (13), "afflicted with sorrows" and afraid (20). Using the medical metaphor, the Cross stresses that "scars are visible," "open wounds of malice" (47). Having suffered the deeds of wicked men, however, the Cross can "heal those who fear me" (85) and help forgive "the many sins of man" (99). The Cross also refers to the Last Judgment (107) and describes it as a general confession (112-15) in which sinners "will be afraid there" (115). But no one need fear "who has borne on his breast the best of symbols" (145)--that is, who has lived the Christian life and confessed.

The text you will want to work with most closely in this module is Scriftboc, which offers social connections (also available in the commentary to the text in the Text menu). A significant intersection with magic is paragraph 16.04, which discusses the penance for those who dedicate food to the devils. All of chapter 23 concerns how dead animals may be used as food, and 23.04 addresses a concern of health ("Whoever eats the scabs of his body or worms, or drinks urine or eats feces"). The provisions concerning animals range from bestiality (sexual intercourse with animals, 05.03) to the use of animals as food (see LINK 7) In LINK 8 you will see how children are the treated: chiefly as product (of sexual intercourse, Chapter 2), but also as an unprotected status (e.g., Chapter 15 concerning the murder of infants). Slavery and servitude are particularly important in Scriftboc and serve to draw attention to the fundamental questions of labor relations in early medieval culture. The provisions on slavery concern everything from the welfare of the children of slaves to sexual intercourse with slaves. In LINK 9 consider paragraph 17.03 concerning payment of the physician's fee if one wounded a kinsman. We find that the offender also had to do the work of the person who was wounded. Scriftboc devotes a great deal of attention to the word and idea of "alms," a term close to our idea of "cash," We find that in the Middle Ages one could either render certain services or pay for them. Hence references to alms are important because they indicate the power of symbolic possessions. As we see, cash (shillings) was equal to "alms." Almsgiving is an idea--it means to be generous--but it is also a reality: cash. For further details, see LINK 10. Scriftboc also has numerous links to magic and superstition, discussed in LINK 11.

Part 4: Later Medieval Traditions and the "Literariness" of the Penitentials

Scriftboc is a short penitential; many contemporary (that is, tenth-century) Latin documents are quite a bit longer. But penitentials from the later Middle Ages dwarf those from the Anglo-Saxon era. As an example, we may consider the massive thirteenth-century Penitential of Robert of Flamborough, in which long conversations between priest and penitent are written out; it is, as its editor says, on its way to becoming not a penitential but a "formal treatise on canon law." One such treatise, the nearly-contemporary Summa of Thomas de Chobham (c. 1215-1216), is a mere 572 pages long. These texts were very far from the social reality of an intimate, personal encounter; their "literariness"--that is, qualities that suggest artificiality, careful organization, and a long textual tradition--is clear in their concern with scholastic and theological questions the likes of which appear nowhere in the earlier penitentials.

We may take this "literariness" as an index of distance between the text and the experience it referred to, and as we do so we may wish to reconsider questions about the practical application of early penitentials. When compared to later collections, the early texts would, by virtue of their scant literary features, seem to have been close to their social function. That social function--the experience shared by priest and penitent--supplies for the early penitentials what the later texts acquired through theology and scholasticism: the closer a text is to its cultic or ritual application, the more it is enriched by that situation, and the more the text is context-dependent. Conversely, the more "literary" text is more self-conscious and less functional, less dependent on context, and less tied to the confessional encounter, while saying more about it.

We can think about the "literariness" of the Anglo-Saxon documents, too. We should try to see the penitentials poised between several sets of contrasting and conflicting institutions: between oral and written textual production; between the secular and the sacred; and between personal, private history and public, institutional, professional history--between, in this last pair, the Church and the psychoanalyst. Describing how written codes generalize social norms, sociologist Jack Goody argues that "written statements of the law"--including the penitentials among them--"have had to be abstracted from particular situations in order to be addressed to a universal audience out there, rather than delivered face-to-face to a specific group of people at a particular time and place." (1986, 12-14). This change, from the particular, "face to face," to the general, can be witnessed in the Scriftboc, which mixes third- and second-person pronouns--that is, which switched from impersonal to personal (direct or face-to-face) modes.

In the early handbooks, questions and direct address are normally found only in the priest's reception of the penitent: "I ask that you tell me all that you have ever done that is evil" (a01.09.0). In the tariff sections, the normal mode is not direct address but the conditional use of the third-person pronoun: not "Did you commit fornication?" but "If a monk commits fornication...," or "If lay woman commits fornication..." Such questions are not found in the tariff section of any early handbook. The Scriftboc, in keeping with this norm, uses questions and the second person in the Introduction and third-person in the tariffs. But twice the text uses direct address in the tariffs, and these are opportunities for close linguistic analysis for those with some experience in Old English. LINK 12 gives the text.

Penance and confession were discussed and exploited much more freely in Middle English literature than in Old English. A famous example is the confession scene in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which can give us some idea of what confession was not like. (See LINK 13) There are comparable scenes in the Canterbury Tales but not in Old English.