The Very Basics About Medieval Penitentials

If you are Catholic (or were raised Catholic) you are almost certainly familiar with the concept of confession. And if you aren’t, I want to give a little context before I get into the main topic of this article. Confession (AKA penance/reconciliation) is one of the modern seven sacraments. (Depending on the time and place in medieval Europe penance might not be considered a sacrament just yet.) It is exactly what it sounds like: you are confessing what you’ve done wrong (i.e. your sins) to a priest and receiving penance so God will forgive you. This results in your soul being cleansed. In the Catholic faith, it’s extremely important that you confess before you die so you can eventually get into Heaven. Of course, people do not just confess on their deathbeds. Ideally, they go to confession throughout their lives. (Especially if they want to receive the Eucharist which is another sacrament.)

The Lord listening to confession | Add MS 42130 f.185v | The British Library

In medieval Europe confession was a major part of life. So much so, that religious figures actually wrote manuals on how it should be performed. These manuals are called penitentials. It was around the end of the fifth century the idea of previously designated penances started to become a thing. However, it was only at the beginning of the sixth century do the earliest penitentials start to appear in Ireland and Wales. From the seventh century onward penitentials start showing up in the British Iles and continental Europe. The attitudes towards penitentials changed over time. In the early ninth century, people were not super crazy about the idea of them. But this attitude shifted. Soon enough priests were actually required to use penitentials until around 1100 CE.

The texts themselves vary, but generally speaking a penitential would have two parts. The first part is called the ordo confessionis/the introduction. This part explained the different aspects of the ritual. It included “how to administer confession, interrogate penitents, determine their spiritual disposition and sincerity in repenting, and weigh the seriousness of their sins” (Frantzen). It might also instruct the priest to question the penitent about their faith and their beliefs. The second part was a list of sins and the penances for each sin. These were called tariffs.

Depending on the manual, the penitent’s social status, age, gender, job, health, etc. a penance could be harsher or more lenient. For example, if a member of the clergy murdered a person, how long they had to fast for depended on their position in the church hierarchy. A bishop had to fast for twelve years, a priest or monk had to fast for ten years, and a deacon had to fast for seven years. And no matter the clergyman’s status, they were defrocked. Another example is sodomy. (Sodomy here meaning any kind of sex act that cannot possibly result in the creation of a child.) If you were younger and confessed to committing to it your punishment would be significantly less long compared to an adult’s penance. The reasoning behind this was that if you were an adult you were supposed to know better. And if you were an adult over forty (and married!) you were really supposed to know better! That being said, it’s interesting to look at penances for sodomy and how much they varied. Different acts were given different penances in different penitentials.

There are a lot of penitentials out there. Here is a list of some of the existing ones. (Please note that this is not an exhaustive list by any means!)

  1. Old English Introduction
  2. Excarpsus Cummeani
  3. Penitential of Finnian
  4. Scriftboc
  5. Canons of Theodore 
  6. Old English Penitential 
  7. Egbert’s Penitential
  8. Old English Handbook 

Overall, penitentials are an excellent way to observe medieval attitudes towards aspects of social life and how they changed over time as well as in different parts of Europe.

Sources:

Frantzen, A. (n.d.). Introduction to The Anglo-Saxon Penitentials. Retrieved April 11, 2021, from http://www.anglo-saxon.net/penance/?p=index

Frantzen, Allen J. “The Tradition of Penitentials in Anglo-Saxon England.” Anglo-Saxon England, vol. 11, 1983, pp. 23–56. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/44510760. Accessed 11 Apr. 2021.

Oakley, Thomas P. “The Penitentials as Sources for Mediaeval History.” Speculum, vol. 15, no. 2, 1940, pp. 210–223. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2849050.

Quinn, P. A. (1989). Better Than The Sons of Kings: Boys and Monks in the Early Middle Ages (Vol. 2, Studies in History and Culture). New York: Peter Lang Publishing,.

Monks vs. Demons! Part 2: A Novice’s Demonic Dreams

Today I return back to A Monk’s Confession: The Memoirs of Guibert of Nogent for more stories about the fight between the holy and the demonic. In my last post about this topic, I shared a few stories about demons and the Devil tormenting dying monks. However, the dying were not their only targets. Demons seemed to be more than happy to target monastic children as well. Guibert of Nogent was one such monastic child. When Guibert was twelve, his mother moved to the Abbey of Saint-Germer-de-Fly. (Retiring to a monastery was all the rage in the Middle Ages.) He followed her there soon after. And surprise, surprise, when a young person is raised in a monastery, it increases the likelihood that they want to join the monastic life. (After all, it is what they know, they have a social circle there, and being raised in a monastery gives you an extremely limited amount of secular career options.) During his time as a novice, Guibert was tormented by the demonic.

***

Our first story comes from Book One, Chapter Fifteen. Here Guibert recounts an instance where the Devil tormented him in his sleep. How did the Devil do that, you ask? By giving Guibert horrible nightmares of course! Unlike other monks, Guibert didn’t dream of beautiful women. Instead, his dreams were plagued by images of dead men. Specifically, men Guibert had either seen killed or had heard about their gruesome deaths. (Guibert does not specify where he saw people killed in the first place, but evidently, it was something he witnessed in his childhood.) These dreams disturbed young Guibert so badly that his tutor often had to come into his bedroom to comfort him. In fact, if it wasn’t for his tutor checking up on him, Guibert insists that would have gotten out of bed, screamed, or perhaps even had a mental breakdown.

Guibert describes the massive amount of anxiety he felt during these occurrences. He acknowledges that his fears sound might silly and childish, but explains that unless you have gone through the terror yourself, you can’t understand or even imagine how overwhelming it is. Sometimes his nightmares were so bad that it was impossible for him to go back to sleep. To add to the horror of it all, even if he had someone with him it didn’t make the terror go away. When you are alone, the nightmares are either equally as bad or worse than before. I will note Guibert’s claim about having someone nearby contrasts with his previous statements about his tutor. Perhaps he meant that even if someone is there with you while you sleep, you’ll still have nightmares? Either way, the Devil plagued young Guibert’s dreams and nothing really seemed to help.

***

Our second story is also from Book One, Chapter Fifteen. It begins immediately after the first story. One winter night, young Guibert woke up due to “an intense feeling of panic.” At first, he’s not too scared because he has a lamp in his room and it allows him to see everything. Then things take a turn. Above his bed, Guibert hears whispers. A lot of whispers. And he does not know what they are saying, nor can he see who or what they are coming from. Suddenly Guibert falls back asleep. This brings him absolutely no peace. In his dream, he sees a dead man standing in front of him. According to one of the many voices Guibert hears, the dead man died (or was killed, depending on the translation) in the baths. Seeing another dead man is too much for young Guibert. He wakes up and jumps out of bed, screaming.

Now things become even worse for poor little Guibert’s psyche. His lamp suddenly goes out. Guibert is engulfed in darkness. That is when he notices the enormous shadow of the Devil. This really frightens him. Once again, he claims he would have gone mad if it weren’t for the help of his tutor. Apparently, his nightmares were frequent enough that his tutor started staying with him to comfort him when they happened. Luckily, the tutor was there that night and that is exactly what he did.

Guibert goes on to reflect why he believes the Devil targeted him. His conclusion is he was too devout and the Devil wanted to corrupt him. According to him, the Devil succeeded. Guibert spends a few sentences lamenting over how he would have been much more successful in life if he had only stayed true to God.

Main Source:

Nogent, Guibert de. A Monk’s Confession: The Memoirs of Guibert of Nogent. Translated by Paul J. Archambault, The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996. 

Other Sources:

de Nogent, Guibert. “Medieval Sourcebook: Guibert De Nogent (D.1124): Autobiography.” Internet History Sourcebooks, 2021, sourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/guibert-vita.asp.