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,.

Caesarius of Heisterbach’s Dialogue on Miracles: The Time an Angel Shamed a Prior for Not Listening to a Monk’s Confession

Today’s post will be on the latter half of Book One, Chapter Six of Dialogue on Miracles. I’ve decided to focus on the second half as it’s a fascinating story filled with angels, confessions, and some good old fashioned Catholic guilt. The first half discusses what is better for the soul, going on a crusade, pilgrimages, or becoming a monk. While it does give us this zinger:

“Novice.—You think then that the Order is a higher vocation than a pilgrimage?

Monk.—It is judged higher, not by my authority, but by that of the Church.”

(Caesarius of Heisterbach, pg. 13)

I’m more interested in a story about an angel than that debate. (And I have strong feelings about people forcing others to convert to their religion, so I’m not going to touch that, lest this becomes an angry rant. If you’re interested in reading exactly what Caesarius has to say on the matter, there is a link to this chapter at the end of the post.)

 

Harley MS 1527 f.4v

Pretty Sure This is Zechariah Being Struck by an Angel, But I’m Not 100% Sure. Either Way, That Angel is Really Letting Him Have It And an Angry Angel is Relevant to Today’s Article | Harley MS 1527 f.4v | Source: The British Library

 

Starting at the top of page 14, the Monk sets the scene by giving the Novice a bit of context regarding the setting of the tale. A man and his buddy Walter have become monks after listening to Saint Bernard preach. Oddly enough, Walter is given a name despite barely being mentioned again, while the man the story is actually about is never named. After living at Clairvaux Abbey for a bit, a group of monks is going to Aulne. The man wants to join them, however, he doesn’t want to ask permission to go because he thinks his abbot will think he only wants to leave for a change of scenery. But he really wants to go, so he prays on it.

Luckily for the man, God happens to be listening. “A voice came to him” (pg. 14), basically tells him to just ask, and he’ll get what he wants if he actually makes the request. So the man does. His abbot says yes and gives him his blessing. So off the man goes to Aulne with Walter. And it’s a good thing he went too as he’s made the convent’s prior soon after his arrival.

One day the new prior is saying sext. (One of the Divine Offices, not the other definition!) As he’s doing so, a monk signs to him requesting the prior listen to his confession. Because the prior is, you know, busy saying the service, he signs back telling him to wait until he’s done.

Eventually, sext is over. They go into the choir (the part of the church where monks sit/stand to pray, not a choir that sings) so the prior can listen to the monk’s confession.

However, not is all as it seems. The monk isn’t the monk. Instead, it’s his guardian angel in disguise. And it’s a good disguise too. He looks exactly like the man, from his physical appearance to the clothes he’s wearing. But the prior does not know this. Well, not at first. It’s only when the prior goes to help the angel up after he “prostrated himself” (pg. 14) at his feet does he realize it’s an angel. But only because the angel disappeared before he could do so!

It occurs to the prior that this God’s way of scolding him for making the monk wait a bit for confession. After all, confession is good for the soul. Denying people salvation isn’t a great look. To drive the point home, the narrator Monk offers this nugget of wisdom to the Novice:

“When our superiors refuse us that which they are bound to use for our soul’s health, and especially that which is suggested to us by our guardian angel for our help, it is as if the refusal were made to the angels themselves.

(Caesarius of Heisterbach, pg. 14)

(Emphasis mine.)

After the disappearing angel incident, the prior immediately calls the monk who wanted confession over so he can perform the sacrament. The monk, feeling guilty about asking while the prior is busy, basically tells him that it’s alright and he can wait until tomorrow.

This is not satisfactory for the prior.

Still feeling his own guilt thanks to the angel, the prior threatens not to eat until he hears the monk’s confession. It just happens to be dinner time, so if he misses that meal he can’t eat for a while. Sufficiently guilty (and probably quite alarmed!) the monk obeys.

Then the prior makes a vow to God that no matter the time, how busy he is, or even if he’s in an Extremely Important Divine Office, he will always hear confession whenever he is asked to do so.

 

 

 

Source:

Heiscerbach, Caesarius of, and G.G. Coulton. Dialogue on Miracles. Translated by H. Von E. Scott and C.C. Swinton Bland, vol. 1, Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1929, https://archive.org/details/caesariusthedialogueonmiraclesvol.1/page/n35/mode/2up

The Rule of Saint Benedict: Chapter Forty-Two, Medieval Monastic Bedtime Stories

While Chapter Forty-Two of The Rule of Saint Benedict is titled “That no one may Speak after Compline” (Saint Benedict pg. 57) the majority of the chapter focuses on what books a monastic community should (and should not) read before everyone goes to bed.

 

Harley MS 5431 f.69v beginning of chap42 rule of st. benedict

The Beginning of Chapter Forty-Two in a Medieval Manuscript | Harley MS 5431 f.69v | Source: The British Library

 

However, before Saint Benedict starts off his reading list, the first line of the text stresses that “monks should love silence at all times…especially during the hours of the night” (Saint Benedict pg. 57). Silence was also discussed back in Chapter Six, but it seems like Saint Benedict is reminding his monkish readers of this “traditional monastic value” (Kardong pg. 345). (Similar to the way Saint Benedict constantly reminds his audience about obedience and humility. You know, just in case the monks forgot.) In his commentary, Terrence G. Kardong notes that the language Saint Benedict uses implies that he knows the brethren won’t be quiet all the time. This idea is further proven at the end of the chapter with this quote:

“[In regards to talking] unless the presence of guests should make it necessary, or the Abbot should chance to give any command. Yet, even then, let it be done with the utmost gravity and moderation.”

(Saint Benedict, pg. 58)

I would also like to note that there is a difference in translation between my copy of The Rule of Saint Benedict and Kardong’s. The Latin word Saint Benedict uses when referring to a monk’s love of silence is studere. Studere is the present infinitive of the word studeo. Studeo has a few meanings, but one meaning is ‘to strive after.‘ Kardong’s translation is much more direct (“Monks ought to strive for silence at all times”) while my copy of The Rule, translated by D. Oswald Hunter Blair, is a bit more poetic in its phrasing (“monks should love silence at all times”). 

After this reminder, Saint Benedict begins discussing what the after supper routine should be. No matter if it’s a fast day “or otherwise” (Saint Benedict pg. 57) all the brethren are to gather together and listen to “four or five pages being read, or as much as time alloweth” (Saint Benedict, pg. 58). And yes, every monk is supposed to gather together to do this, “even those who may have been occupied in some work” (Saint Benedict pg. 58). The after supper reading is a group activity and it’s important monastic communities treat it as such.

If it’s not a fast day, then Saint Benedict recommends reading ‘”Conferences [of Cassian], or the lives of the Fathers, or something else which may edify” (Saint Benedict, pg. 57). He explicitly bans the “Heptateuch” or “the Books of Kings” (Saint Benedict, pg. 57) from being read. It can “be read at other times” (Saint Benedict, pg. 57) but not before bedtime. According to the footnote in D. Oswald Hunter Blair’s translation, these biblical texts were considered “too exciting to the imagination” (pg. 57) to listen to before going to sleep. In his commentary, Terrence G. Kardong explains that these parts of the bible are filled with “erotic episodes” and “violence” (pg. 347). Neither of which are great things to listen about just before bed. After all, the night time reading is supposed to enrich the monks’ spirits, not excite them. 

If it is a fast day then Conferences are also to be the text of choice. However, during fast days the reading will happen at a different time. Instead of being after supper, it will occur “a short time after Vespers” (Saint Benedict, pg. 58). This allows the brethren to take a short break between the services and to prevent exhaustion (Kardong, pg. 348).

After all these instructions, Saint Benedict finally discusses what the chapter is supposed to be about: Compline. And it’s only discussed within a few sentences. Because everyone is already conveniently together Compline is said after the reading. Once the service is finished, “let none be allowed to speak to anyone” (Saint Benedict, pg. 58). If anyone does speak he is to be “subjected to severe punishment” (Saint Benedict, pg. 58). Unless, of course, the exceptions mentioned at the start of this post occurred.

 

 

Main Sources:

  • Saint Benedict. Blair, D. Oswald Hunter, translator. The Rule of Saint Benedict, With Explanatory Notes. Ichthus Publications.

(I bought my copy of The Rule of Saint Benedict on Amazon. You can purchase my edition of it here.)

  • Terrence G. Kardong, OSB. Benedict’s Rule: A Translation and Commentary. Liturgical Press, 1996. Project MUSE muse.jhu.edu/book/46804.

(You can access it for free on Project MUSE during the COVID-19 pandemic.)

Other Sources:

Wikipedia’s overview of The Rule of Saint Benedict to double-check my interpretations of the text. Link to that article here.

The Rule of Saint Benedict: Chapters Twenty-Three through Thirty, So You (a Medieval Monk) Have Been Really Bad. Now What?

Despite being men of God, monks didn’t always act holy. Saint Benedict knew that his monks were only human and that humans slip up and make mistakes. This post will be discussing chapters twenty-three through thirty of The Rule of Saint Benedict. While there are other chapters focusing on disciplining bad monks, they focus on minor faults. Today’s post concentrates on what a superior should do if a monk commits a grave fault.

 

ms. Roy.10.E.IV f.187r

A Monk and Nun in the Stocks | BL Royal MS 10 E IV f.187r | Source: The British Library

 

Chapter Twenty-Three is titled “Of Excommunication for Offenses” (pg. 43). Here Saint Benedict lists out what actions are punishable by excommunication:

“If any brother shall be found contumacious, or disobedient, or proud, or a murmurer, or in any way transgressing the Holy Rule, and contemning the orders of his seniors…” (pg. 43)

However, just because a monk does any of these things, it doesn’t mean he should be immediately excommunicated. (Which I will note isn’t necessarily kicking the monk out of the monastery, never to return. I’ll go into more detail about that later on in this post.) Instead, Saint Benedict allows the Abbot to give the monk a little bit of leniency. For the first offense, a monk should “be once or twice privately admonished by his elders” (pg. 43). When you speak to someone privately about their wrongdoings, you can avoid the anger and defensiveness that usually comes out when someone is called out publicly. It also allows the monk some time to reflect and correct himself.

If a monk keeps acting out despite being privately spoken to, “let him be rebuked in public before all” (pg. 43). Unfortunately, some people only change their ways after a bit of public humiliation. That being said, sometimes neither of these tactics work. If the monk is still misbehaving, then “let him be subjected to excommunication, provided that he understand the nature of the punishment” (pg. 43). What happens if a monk doesn’t get why excommunication is so bad? Well, Saint Benedict recommends that the monk “undergo corporal chastisement” (pg. 43).

Chapter Twenty-Four is titled “What the Measure of Excommunication should be” (pg. 43). Here excommunication is a way to isolate the misbehaving monk from the community at large. (Verses permanently throwing the man out on the street.) Saint Benedict reminds his reader that the punishment should fit the crime. Depending on “the gravity of the offence [sic]” how severe the punishment is “left to the judgment of the Abbot” (pg. 43). This is a wise way of going about things. Needless to say, if one monk murders another monk in cold blood, privately talking to him isn’t exactly an effective punishment. Letting an Abbot make his own judgments allows him to look at the surrounding circumstances of the original crime.

The text goes on to describe the proper punishment for “any brother…found guilty of lighter faults” (pg. 43). Saint Benedict recommends that the bad monk “be excluded from the common table” (pg. 43). Not only does he have to “take his meals alone” but a bad monk has to eat “after those of the brethren” (pg. 43). However, the monk can’t eat immediately after his fellow monks are done. He has to wait and be hungry for a good amount of time before he can eat too. So if the community usually eats “at the sixth hour” the bad monk will “eat at the ninth” (pg. 43). And if they usually “eat at the ninth” the monk has to wait to “eat in the evening” (pg. 43). This goes on “until by proper satisfaction he obtain pardon” (pg. 43).

Being excluded doesn’t just mean being left out at mealtimes. It also means being left out of other group activities. This includes worshipping as well:

“And this shall be the rule for one so deprived: he shall intone neither Psalm nor antiphon in the Oratory, nor shall he read a lesson, until he have made satisfaction.” (pg. 43)

 

monks-singing-2635cc

Monks Worshipping | Source: PICRYL.com

 

Chapter Twenty-Five is titled “Of Graver Faults” (pg. 44). Here Saint Benedict goes into detail for the punishments suitable for monks who really mess up. Not only is the monk “excluded both from the table and from the Oratory” (pg. 44) like he would be if he just committed a lesser fault, he is also excluded from the monastic community at large. Meaning that “none of the brethren [are allowed to] consort with him or speak to him” (pg. 44). The monk is isolated in all things. He is to “be alone at the work enjoined him” as well as “take his portion of food alone” (pg. 44).

Because he has committed a grave fault, the monk doesn’t just eat a few hours after everyone else. Instead, his food will be “in the measure and at the time that the Abbot shall think best for him” (pg. 44). This means that the abbot may limit the bad monk’s food portions and make him wait all day until he is allowed to eat. This type of control could either be an effective enough punishment or something that a power-hungry (pun unintended) Abbot would take advantage of to the extreme.

The bad monk’s complete isolation is added to with the last sentence of this chapter:

“Let none of those who pass by bless him, nor the food that is given him.” (pg. 44)

If the bad monk isn’t even allowed to be blessed, then that means he really screwed up. But what happens if another monk talks to him anyway? Well, Saint Benedict covers that in the next chapter!

Chapter Twenty-Six is titled “Of those who, without Leave of the Abbot, Consort with the Excommunicate” (pg. 44). This particular chapter is insanely short. It’s only one sentence. That being said, Saint Benedict really only needs to make his point in one sentence:

“If any brother presume without the Abbot’s leave to hold any intercourse whatever with an excommunicated brother, or to speak with him, or to send him a message, let him incur the same punishment of excommunication.” (pg. 44)

One thing I find particularly notable about this passage is how Saint Benedict closes up any potential loopholes. I can imagine a monk saying to his abbot, ‘I only sent him a letter, I didn’t actually talk to him’ in an attempt to avoid getting in trouble himself. It’s also interesting that Saint Benedict is sure to specify that monks are only allowed to talk to their punished brethren with the permission of their abbot. Even if a monk is shunned from the community, eventually there will need to be communication between the two parties. By giving the other monks permission through the abbot, Saint Benedict is relieving the anxiety a monk might have about being punished themselves.

Chapter Twenty-Seven is titled “How Careful the Abbot should be of the Excommunicate” (pg. 45). Here Saint Benedict argues that while an excommunicated monk is still in trouble, an abbot shouldn’t treat him so harshly that the monk gives up on being good forever. Instead, an abbot should “show all care and solicitude towards the offending brethren” (pg. 45). One tactic includes “sending some brethren of mature years and wisdom” to “secretly, console the wavering brother” (pg. 45). The older monks are to “comfort him, that he be not overwhelmed by excess of sorrow” (pg. 45). This section of the text certainly gives a lot more context to the loophole about receiving an abbot’s permission to talk to the fallen monk!

While no one is allowed to bless the bad monk or his food, Saint Benedict encourages “all pray for him” (pg. 45). An abbot needs to “use the greatest care…not to lose any one of the sheep committed to him” (pg. 45). After all, an abbot “hath undertaken the charge of weakly souls” (pg. 45). It’s his job to make sure those who stray come back to the righteous path. If he doesn’t, he’ll face the consequences on Judgment Day.

 

Royal MS 6 E VI:1 f.57r

Judgment Day | Royal MS 6 E VI/1 f.57r | Source: The British Library

 

Chapter Twenty-Eight is titled “Of those Who, being Often Corrected, do not Amend” (pg. 46). Here the text details what an abbot should do if the bad monk refuses to behave himself. These punishments should be given to a monk who “has been frequently corrected for some fault, or even excommunicated” (pg. 46). If a monk has been told not to do something and he keeps doing it, then it’s time for “the punishment of stripes” (pg. 46), or corporal punishment. And of course, during this time it is vital for the monk to say “his own prayers and those of all the brethren for him” (pg. 46).

But what happens if a monk is still bad even if you hit him? What if he keeps doing the things he’s not supposed to despite the community’s prayers? What if he “even wish to defend his deeds” (pg. 46)? Well, it’s important to note that excommunication and hitting the monk is supposed to be “the last remedy” (pg. 46). So, if you’ve done absolutely everything that Saint Benedict has recommended these last few chapters and the monk is still misbehaving then it’s time for “the Abbot [to] use the sword of separation” (pg. 46).  If an abbot doesn’t remove the problem monk then he runs the risk of “one diseased sheep…taint[ing] the whole flock” (pg. 46). However, kicking out a monk is only supposed to be the last resort.

Chapter Twenty-Nine is titled “Whether the Brethren who Leave the Monastery are to be Received Again” (pg. 46). This is another relatively short chapter. This part of the text explains how a community should handle a monk returning after he has either “through his own fault departeth or is cast out of the Monastery” (pg. 46). Not all monks/nuns who left their monasteries did so because they were kicked out. Some simply ran away! (The monastic life isn’t for everyone.) So what happens if a monk regrets leaving and wants to come back? He most certainly can, but there will be consequences for leaving in the first place.

The returning monk must “first to amend entirely the fault for which he went away” (pg. 47). After doing so, he will be welcomed back, but he will “be received back into the lowest place” (pg. 47) in the order of seniority. This is so “his humility may be tried” (pg. 47). This is to test the monk’s dedication to the monastic life. It’s important that the monk is returning for the right reasons and not just because he has nowhere else to go/is hungry/what have you. Monks leaving then coming back several times is implied to be an issue by the text. Saint Benedict specifically says:

“Should he again depart, let him be taken back until the third time: knowing that after this all return will be denied to him.” (pg. 47)

I think coming back three times is a reasonable amount. After three times, it starts to get a little ridiculous. Clearly, the monk isn’t returning for the right reasons.

 

322

A Child Being Given to a Monastery as an Oblate |BL Royal 10 D VIII, f. 82v | Source: blogs.brown.edu

 

Our last chapter, Chapter Thirty is titled “How the Younger Boys are to be Corrected” (pg. 47). Once again, it is one of the shorter chapters in The Rule of Saint Benedict. Monasteries weren’t just full of men. Often times they had young children, called oblates, living there as well. Oblates were given to the monastery by their parents for various reasons. Here, it is explained how these boys should be punished.

The first sentence says that “every age and understanding should have its proper measure of discipline” (pg. 47). This is some good common sense. A five-year-old and a fifty-five-year-old should not be punished the same. Saint Benedict recognizes that if a child is “unable to understand the greatness of the penalty of excommunication” (pg. 47) he shouldn’t be excommunicated. However, Saint Benedict is also a product of his time and recommends that a naughty child “be punished by severe fasting or sharp stripes” so “they may be cured” (pg. 47).

 

 

Main Source:

The Rule of Saint Benedict, With Explanatory Notes. Ichthus Publications.

(I bought my copy of The Rule of Saint Benedict on Amazon. You can purchase my edition of it here.)

Other Sources:

Wikipedia’s overview of The Rule of Saint Benedict to double-check my interpretations of the text. Link to that article here. (Accessed on February 16, 2020.)

Solesme Abbey’s translation of The Rule of Saint Benedict can be found here as a PDF. I used this to cross-check my translation.

Christian Classics Ethereal Library’s translation of The Rule of Saint Benedict can be found here as a PDF. I used this to cross-check my translation. (You have to scroll down to see the text.)

EDIT: In case you can’t access the Christian Classics Ethereal Library’s translation, the Wayback Machine has a screenshot of the PDF I used. That PDF can be accessed here.