Dedicated to the writings of Saint Luke.

Monday, November 21, 2005

The Penitentials

When the Anglo-Saxon missionary monks arrived from Ireland on the Continent in 600 AD with their Penitential manuals, the people of Europe liked what they heard and read. This new system of forgiveness of sins provided the seeds of the private penance system that became the norm in the High Middle Age. I suppose one could also say that the deathbed penance, criticized by Augustine, also provided some seeds.

The Penitentials were short manuals that classified sins according to seriousness and made recommendations to the priests what penance should be imposed for the specific sin. Furthermore there was no longer a limit on availability of penance. Penance was privately imposed with no harsh disabilities and could be used frequently.
Since the Penitentials provided a way of restoration, open to all including the clergy, acceptance of this approach was guaranteed.

However, the Penitentials continued to emphasize an inordinately rigorous schedule of exercises[i] for serious sins. Since the examples presented invariably pertained to sins of sexual desire, the manual certainly demonstrate that such offenses occurred among the general population and the clergy as well over the centuries. A cleric whose adultery resulted in childbirth will do penance for seven years, but if it is without issue and not notorious, then he need only do penance for three years, one of them on bread and water.

Both the canonical and the penitential system insisted upon long periods of ascetism, fasts, abstinences, worship and charity with no access to the sacraments during the period of penance. The Penitentials, although they relaxed the requirements of the canonical system, would still be considered strict by current standards. Furthermore, both systems imposed the requirement of works of expiation upon the penitent, except in the instance of the deathbed penance.

[i] See generally Watkins, History of Penance.

copyrighted 2005


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