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Medieval Academy of America

The Penitentials as Sources for Mediaeval History

Author(s): Thomas P. Oakley
Source: Speculum, Vol. 15, No. 2 (Apr., 1940), pp. 210-223
Published by: Medieval Academy of America
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2849050 .
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AMONGthe many valuable results of recent research it is becoming recognized,

with increasing force, that rich and varied stores of information are offered to
mediaevalists by the penitential books.' These, together with other sources for
the history of mediaeval penance, had much broader connections and greater
influence than was formerly perceived; for penitential discipline was closely interwoven with social, political, and cultural areas of mediaeval life, as well as with
ecclesiastical institutions.2 By way of illustration, the study of the penitential
books and their connections has much to offer to students interested in the
history of the social work of the Church; the relations between national churches
and cultures; comparative religion;3 morals; missions; monasticism;4 the canon
and the civil laws; the sacraments;5 liturgy;6 theology; palaeography and linguistics;7 and civilization in general.
On many phases of penitential history and influence considerable research has
already been accomplished,8 but there are still many opportunities for the discovery of new facts, the revision of old interpretations and the making of new
ones, the unearthing and exploitation of new sources, and the tracing of new
connections. Some remaining opportunities for such research will be suggested
in this article, together with needed improvements in methods of investigation
applicable to the study of the penitential books.
Among such improvements in method, it is, first of all, necessary to recognize
more clearly the distinctions between the different types of manuals of penance,
which have been employed in the confessional of the Western Church at different
times and places.9 Although provisions for the performance of penance had be1 Manuals used
by priests in prescribing penances in the confessional.

2 For brief summaries of some aspects of such connections and influence, see 'Some
Aspects in the History of Penance,' a paper delivered by the present writer before a Luncheon Conference of the American Catholic Historical Association in December, 1937, published in Cath. Hist.
Rev., Oct., 1938, pp. 292-309.
E.g., in penances and other provisions concerning 'unclean' foods and acts, paganism among the
Celtic and the Germanic peoples, etc.
4 E.g., connections of penance with monastic leaders, ascetic teachings and practices, monastic
rules, etc.
5 The penitentials have valuable materials for the history of baptism, the Eucharist and extreme
unction, as well as of penance.
6 E.g., in penances for clergymen who have made mistakes in the liturgy or who have been guilty
of neglect therein.
7 See the editions of
the penitentials and the critical works enumerated by G. LeBras, art. 'Penitentiels,' in Vacant et Mangenot, Diet. de th6ol.cath.; and T. P. Oakley, English Penitential Discipline
and Anglo-Saxon Law (1923), passim. Cf. J. T. McNeill and H. Gamer, Medieval Handbooks of
Penance (1938), pp. 51-75, 432-450 and infra.
8 See the surveys and references in Oakley, op. cit., passim; his articles in CHR.
(Oct., 1938) and
Ir. Eccles. Rec. (Aug., 1938); and McNeill and Gamer, op. cit., passim.
9 Such distinctions are not clearly indicated in McNeill and Gamer,
op. cit.


The Penitentials as Sourcesfor Mediaeval History


come more systematic by the end of the fifth century, it was not until the beginning of the following century that there arose what may properly be called
penitential handbooks. Then, in Wales and Ireland, there were drawn up the
first examples of what have been designated as 'the penitentials,' in the narrow
sense of the term, i.e., systematic manuals of penance containing long schedules,
or tariffs, of specific penances for corresponding lists of sins. From the seventh
century forward these early penitentials found imitators in the British Isles, the
Continent, and Iceland, the movement reaching the latter country much later
than it did in Western Europe.' In the early years of the ninth century, the
penitentials met temporary opposition but it is believed that, thereafter, until
about 1100 A. D., priests were usually required to assign penances from such
tariffs. The resulting regime has been given the appropriate name 'tariffed
penance,' in contrast to the more general practices of the modern Catholic
Church, which allows much greater discretion to priests in imposing penances.2
The rise of such general practices and the accompanying use of indulgences are
well illustrated in the Summae confessorum,3immediate successors to the penitentials. But the transition from the tariffed penance of the penitentials to the
more generalized regime of the Summae confessorumwas by no means as abrupt
as the reader might infer from the short accounts of penance in the encyclopedias
of theology and in some other modern works. In the first place, even during the
period in which tariffed penance predominated, a few penitentials supplied precedents for allowing discretion to be employed by the priest by stating that the
latter may sometimes assign penances according to the age, sex, occupation,
physical condition, of the penitent.4 Moreover, the more lenient of the penitentials,5 which allowed penances to be commuted or redeemed through substitute
good works, supplied important precedents for the later development of indulgences.6 Again, even after the decline of the penitentials had proceeded far,
at least a few manuals7 of penance continued to contain detailed tariffs of penances resembling those of the penitentials or, at least, some long periods of
fasting borrowed from the latter.
From the above facts, it follows that the regimes of the penitentials and of the
Ibid., pp. 354 ff.
2 Cf. Oakley, English Penitential Discipline and Anglo-Saxon Law, pp. 14, 27 ff. and passim;
Boudinhon, in RHLR., IT,p. 497; and art. 'Penitence' in Vacant et Mangenot, Diet. de theol. cath.
3 Ibid.; LeBras, art. cit.; and J. Dietterle, 'Die Summae confessorum,' in ZKG., 1903-1907.
4 See the Bigotian Penitential, Prol.; Albers' alleged Penitential
of Bede, Prol.; another PseudoBede, can. ix; The Confessional of Pseudo-Egbert, can. i; the Penitential of Burchard, passim. The
references are to the edd. in F. W. H. Wasserschleben, Die Bussordnungen (1851), and in H. J.
Schmitz, Die Bussbiicher (2 vols, 1883, 1898); translations are in McNeill and Gamer, op. cit., pp.
148 ff., 221 ff., 235, 245, 323.
6 Many penitentials were severe, others moderate, and still others, lax. See T. P. Oakley, 'Commutations and Redemptions... in the Penitentials,' CHR., 1932, pp. 341 ff., and 'Alleviations of
Penance in the Continental Penitentials,' SPECULUM,
xI, pp. 488 ff.
6 See the same articles; and N. Paulus, Geschichtedes Ablasses (2 vols, 1922-23), I, 12 if.
7 See certain Icelandic penitentials of the twelfth and the fourteenth centuries; the thirteenthcentury Laurentian Penitential; the much later Milan Penitential of Cardinal Borromeo; and its late
abridgement. Both of the latter mingle ideas of tariffed penance with the allowing of considerable
discretion to the priest. Cf. the translations in McNeill and Gamer, op. cit., pp. 354 ff., 352 if., 363 ff.


The Penitentials as Sourcesfor Mediaeval History

succeeding, more generalized, manuals were not mutually exclusive at all points
but that, at certain points, they interwove; and consequently it is wise to be on
one's guard against overemphasizing the contrasts between the two regimes.
In addition to the need for distinguishing carefully between the different types
of penitential books, various difficult textual problems concerning the penitentials deserve more careful treatment than has sometimes been given them in
modern works. Serious mistakes concerning the authorship and provenance of
penitentials, in particular, have at times led to erroneous statements and interpretations. This is especially true in cases where modern writers have employed
materials from pseudonymous penitentials as if they were from a certain country
and time, whereas modern research has shown that they originated in another
time and country.'
Sometimes, too, even when a given penitential is allocated to the correct
country or region, some modern scholars have attributed it to the wrong author,
or have ascribed it to a certain author without sufficient evidence. Outstanding
examples of such mistakes have been especially common in regard to certain
manuals erroneously attributed to Archbishop Theodore of Canterbury, Bede,
and Archbishop Egbert of York.2 Concerning the sources for early Irish history,
too, serious errors still linger on in modern works: For example, the sixth-century
Irish Penitential of Vinnian, influential archetype for the whole series of penitentials, is frequently attributed, without adequate evidence, either to the
famous Finnian of Clonard or to him of Moville3 (Magh Bile); a certain penitential of Frankish origin,4from the eighth or ninth centuries, has often been ascribed
to the seventh-century abbot of a monastery in Ireland;5 and even St Patrick,
himself, has been erroneously credited with certain dicta on penance.6 Today,
however, mistakes of this kind may often be avoided by thorough use of the
excellent critical works which have appeared;7 although there are still many unsolved problems regarding the authorship and provenance of penitentials.
In view of the poor manuscript readings of some passages in certain editions
of these manuals, it has also been imperative, at times, to establish improved
readings by extended comparison of different manuscripts and by other methods.8
1 For examples, references and corrections, see Oakley, English Penitential Discipline and AngloSaxon Law, pp. 29-33, 195 if., 129, 135; cf. LeBras, art. cit.
2 In contrast to other, more probable ascriptions; see Oakley, op. cit., passim.
3 Ibid., pp. 40 f., for references and discussion; cf. McNeill and Gamer, op. cit., pp. 87 f., now the
principal advocate of authorship by Finnian of Clonard. J. F. Kenney, Sources for the Early History
of Ireland (1929), I, 240, and the present writer (in Ir. Eccles. Rec., Aug., 1938, pp. 159 f.) independently demonstrate that either ascription is based upon mere conjecture.
4 The Pseudo-Cummean, entitled Excarpsus Cummeani. See Oakley, English Penitential Discipline
and Anglo-Saxon Law, pp. 29 f.; McNeill and Gamer, op. cit., pp. 266 f.
6 Cummean of Iona, or he of Clonfert. For erroneous ascriptions, see an article by T. P. Oakley,
in Romanic Rev., xxv, p. 25, n. 10.
6 See T. P. Oakley, 'Cultural Affiliations of Early Ireland,' SPECULUM,
VIII,489 ff., which also notes
correct ascriptions.
7 For surveys and references: Oakley, LeBras, and McNeill and Gamer, opp. citt., supra.
8 See the editions and critical works on the penitentials listed in Oakley and in McNeill and Gamer,
opp. citt., passim; and the additional remarks in ibid., pp. 68 ff. For other textual problems, infra.

The Penitentials as Sourcesfor Mediaeval History


The task of translation, too, is sometimes quite difficultl because of corruptions in

vocabulary and grammar and the illiteracy of many compilers of penitentials,
the use of some terms not specifically defined in the dictionaries, the occasional
presence of obscure glosses or terms in the vernacular,2 and the rather frequent
employment of technical terms. For these reasons, scholars who are not specialists
in the history of penance will welcome the generally accurate translations of the
penitentials offered by McNeill and Gamer. But, in spite of their blanket characterization of the penitential texts as being 'in exceptionally forbidding Latin,'3
persons with a fairly good working knowledge of mediaeval Latin should have
little difficulty in translating large portions of the penitentials; for much of the
language of the latter is not obscure and the translator is further aided by the
repeated employment of relatively simple, set formulas for prescribing penances.4
These formulas frequently read 'Si quis (or "Qui) commiserit' (followed by the
name or description of the offense) 'peniteat' (or 'poeniteat,' followed by the
amount and description of the specific penance to be imposed).5
There is also need for more scientific use of penitential materials by modern
scholars.6 Standing in the way of such correct employment of, for instance, the
penitentials as sources have been certain unscientific practices of otherwise
scholarly writers. To begin with, just as with the study of some other institutions
of the Middle Ages and of modern times,7 overemphasis upon legalistic and dogmatic methods has frequently led to erroneous conclusions. In particular a few
penitential canons have, again and again, been arbitrarily selected as allegedly
representative of a large group or of all the penitentials, in order to prove preconceived theories and without thorough comparison with other penitentials. It
is obvious that such methods will naturally lead to very incomplete and prejudiced conclusions. Numerous examples of such misuse of penitential materials
may be found in various modern works on different phases of mediaeval history.
In modern writings on the history of penance, mistakes of this kind are especially common in connection with public penance, commutations and redemptions, the relative severity or laxity of penitentials, and the alleged
peculiarities of Celtic penance. Many articles and other treatments of public
penance in the early Middle Ages thus fail to reckon with existing variations in
penitential practices of a public nature in different times and regions.8 Blanket
statements often characterize as decidedly lax and demoralizing the rulings of all
penitentials by arbitrarily advancing, as alleged proof, passages from a mere
handful of penitentials out of the more than fifty of such manuals that have now
been published.9 Recent research by the present writer, however, has demon1

2 See, e.g., the Canones Hibernenses in Wasserschleben, Bussordnungen.

McNeill and Gamer, op. cit., p. 3 and passim.
See the various editions of the penitentials.
5 An alternative form uses a verb for the particular sin: E.g., 'Si quis occiderit,' etc.
6 Further textual
problems and research projects will be dealt with toward the end of this article.
7 E.g., feudalism, the manorial regime, and modern constitutional history.
8 See the references in Oakley, English Penitential Discipline and Anglo-Saxon Law, pp. 43 ff., 66
ff.; and art. 'Penitence' in'Vacant et Mangenot, op. cit.
9 See the lists of manuals of penance in McNeill and Gamer, op. cit., passim



The Penitentials as Sourcesfor Mediaeval History

strated that there was considerable variation between penitentials as regards the
allowing of commutations and redemptions, one group of penitential books being
severe, another, moderate, and a smaller group, lax.'
In some statements which concern the overlapping of the history of penance
and that of canon law, similar unqualified generalizations have been made. But
wide variations may be observed between the penances prescribed for the same
offense by different penitential authorities. For example, the penalizing of capital
sins is far from uniform. Certain canons of St Patrick, and others from the penitentials of Vinnian and of Cummean, prescribe one year of penance for murder
committed by a layman; while some other penitentials prescribe two, three, four,
seven, eight, or ten years2 for this offence. Some of the earlier penitentials do not
differentiate degrees of penance for different degrees of homicide according to
motive and attendant circumstances; while other penitential books do make
such distinctions. Similar variations between penances required for lesser sins
and between details in the penitential acts required also appear in the penitential
canons. Detailed comparisons of penalties prescribed for sinning clergymen also
show that some penitentials imposed, for the same offence, penances graduated
according to the rank of the sinner, while others did not.3
Again, other articles by the present writer4have demonstrated that a number
of modern scholars have exaggerated the uniqueness of the penitential beliefs
and practices in the churches of early Wales and Ireland. But it has now been
shown that the penitential regime of the so-called 'Celtic churches' was deeply
indebted to the doctrines and customs of the Church elsewhere; while the innovations made by the Celtic penitential canons were limited in number. From
such comparative study of the sources and affiliations of the Irish penitential
canons there have also emerged new conclusions and evidence on the relations
of Irish ecclesiastical culture with the secular culture of Ireland and the ecclesiastical cultures of Britain and of southern Gaul; while additional connections have
been traced between Irish monasticism, on the one hand, and patristic writings
and Egyptian monasticism, on the other.
For the history of secular law and of comparative law, it is only recently that
modern scholars have begun to realize the significance of mediaeval penance; and
there is still need for more widespread recognition of the important r6le played
by penance in mediaeval civilization.5 Secular laws and penitential canons constantly coiperated in combating crime, barbarity, and pagan superstitions. This
1 See T. P. Oakley, articles on commutations and redemptions in CHR., 1932, pp. 341 ff. and in
(1937), pp. 488 ff.; cf. his English Penitential Discipline and Anglo-Saxon Law, pp. 52 ff.,
69 ff., 88 ff. endorsed by G. LeBras, art. cit., and by P. Fournier, in RHE., 1925, pp. 300 ff.
2 See the edd. of
penitentials by Schmitz, or the Index of McNeill and Gamer, op. cit., under
3 See the same edd. and translations of the penitential texts, under various offences committed by
4 For the
following, see his 'Origins of Irish Penitential Discipline,' CHR., xix, 320 ff., of which the
principal thesis has been endorsed by Fr. P. Galtier, in RHE., 1937, p. 302, n. 2; and 'Cultural AffiliaSPECULUM

tions of Early Ireland,' SPECULUM, VIII, 489 ff.


See T. P. Oakley, 'Some Neglected Aspects in the History of Penance,' CHR., Oct., 1938, pp. 293 ff.

The Penitentials as Sourcesfor Mediaeval History

cooperation in maintaining law and order and in promoting the extension of
Christianity exerted profound effects upon the development of civilization;l and,
in these respects, the work of ecclesiastical and of secular penal law constitutes
an important phase of social history.
In certain of their provisions, secular laws and penitential canons of the Middle
Ages often throw light upon one another. Sometimes certain passages from the
secular laws, or allusions to their customs, are embedded in the penitentials,2 or
consultation of contemporary laws helps to enrich the connotations of a penitential canon;3 at others, passages in certain penitentials assist in the dating of
secular laws.4 Consequently, in a number of important respects, the history of
penance becomes clearer and more full of meaning by using secular sources in
addition to ecclesiastical ones; and the history of secular law, in its turn, may
often be enriched by knowledge gained from the history of penance.5 In addition,
interesting and valuable affiliations between certain passages in the penitentials,
on the one hand, and other sources of canon law, on the other, may be observed
with profit by students engaged in tracing the history of the canon law.6
Scholars who have treated the history of folk-paganism among the Germanic
peoples have frequently drawn upon the rich funds of penitential materials on
pagan beliefs and practices;7 but some of these historians have often used such
materials incorrectly. In the first place, historians dealing with mediaeval paganism have sometimes cited penitential canons, which actually originated in a
certain country, as if they came from another country; and similar mistakes have
been made in the dating of certain penitentials by such historians.8 It would seem
also, that there has been overuse of the comparative method, by which gaps in
the evidence on the folk-paganism of a given Germanic people have been filled
in by evidence drawn from the customs of another Germanic people or primitive
race. Actual comparison of provisions against paganism in the penitentials, however, shows quite a bit of variation between these manuals as regards the number
1 Ibid.; and Oakley, English Penitential Discipline and Anglo-Saxon Law, chaps. v-vi. Cf. the comments of G. Ficker, in ZKG., 1925, p. 122; of C. Brinkmann, in SchmollersJahrbuch, 1925, p. 164; of
P. Fournier and G. LeBras, Histoire des collections canoniques (2 vols, 1931), I, passim; of G. LeBras,
art. cit., (1933); and K. Latourette, The Expansion of Christianity (1938), ii, 355 ff., 377.
2 For
examples in Irish sources: Oakley, 'Cultural Affiliations in Early Ireland,' SPECULUM, VIII,
489 ff.; for Frankish examples: McNeill and Gamer, op. cit., pp. 352, 395, 399, 405.
8 E.g., the many secular passages on oaths throw valuable light upon penances for perjury; cf. T.
P. Oakley, 'Mediaeval Penance and the Secular Law,' SPECULUM,vII, 519 ff.
4 E.g., secular compositions for certain crimes, surviving in the Canones Hibernenses, are earlier
examples than those found in many extant manuscripts of the Brehon Laws.
6 E.g., as to the relative jurisdictions of Church and State in penal law, points at which secular
and canon law interpenetrated each other; see Oakley, English Penitential Discipline and AngloSaxon Law, pp. 136-141.
6 Such affiliations have often been
passed by in modern works in the history of canon law; see Oakley, op. cit., pp. 207 f.
7 E.g., J. Grimm, Deutsche Mythologie (1835), passim; E. Friedberg, Aus deutschen Bussbiichern
(1868); McNeill and Gamer, op. cit., Index.
8 See, e.g., A. Fischer, Die Aberglaubeder Angelsachsen (1891), passim, for misuse of the ninth-century Frankish Penitential of Pseudo-Theodoreas evidence for earlier English customs.


The Penitentials as Sourcesfor Mediaeval History

and kinds of pagan beliefs and practices for which penances were prescribed, the
amounts of penance required,l etc. But some of the general provisions against
paganism in a given penitential may have been directed against beliefs and
practices that are not definitely listed in that particular manual, although they
may be present in other sources.
Of special significance for the social historian, and closely connected with the
history of religion and of law, is the story of changes in moral conditions. For this
phase in the history of civilization, both the penitential canons and the secular
laws offer valuable materials, a considerable portion of which has been utilized
by modern scholars who have discussed the history of morals. But, in the employment of such materials, there are certain dangers against which scientific research
must constantly be on guard. In the first place, it is well known that writers on
moral conditions have frequently been very subjective, biased, and untrained
in scientific observation and evaluation. Compilers of penitentials and ecclesiastical and secular legislators would, at times, be men of the reformer type, far more
sensitive to infractions of the moral or penal codes than other compilers and
legislators might be. Hence, it follows that one is not justified in assuming an
increase in sins or in crimes simply because more of them were penalized in
certain codes than was done in others. Again, the less detailed treatment of sins
and their penalties in the earlier penitentials, as compared with others from the
ninth century forward does not necessarily mean that people were more moral in
the earlier period, but, more probably, that by the later period, moral theology
had progressed farther in differentiating the different forms of sin and its degrees.
Similarly, it is well recognized by historians of the secular law that progress in
the science of jurisprudence and in government renders possible more scientific
and detailed differentiation of offences and penalties; and, in consequence, more
crimes come to be recognized and dealt with as such, as the law becomes more
developed and efficient.2
In the absence of statistics on crime for the long ages before the relatively
recent development of statistical methods and of scientific research, it is also impossible to arrive at exact, quantitative measurements of improvement or of
deterioration in morals during such periods. Until recently, therefore, sources for
the history of morals can enable us to make only approximate judgments as to
the true conditions. On the other hand, judges and confessors, who possessed
long and varied experience with erring humanity, would undoubtedly know
which sins were the more prevalent in their own localities, and whether certain
of these sins were decreasing or increasing, even if they did not leave us statistical
tables on the crimes of their day.
We have now pointed out certain valid criticisms of the misuse of penitential
canons by some modern scholars, together with suggestions for correction. In
particular, many of the correctives for misuse of such materials lie in employing
better methods for arriving at generalizations and, at the same time, allowing for
1 See the pertinent heads in Schmitz and in McNeill and Gamer, opp. citt., passim.

Cf. A. C. Hall, Crime in Its Relation to Social Progress (Columbia University Studies in History,
etc., xv, 1902), passim.

The Penitentials as Sourcesfor Mediaeval History


different kinds of variations from a type or types. In connection with the penitential canons, one must also resort to more frequent use of inductive and historical methods,l as checks against the dangers of overusing legalistic and
dogmatic ones. Special care must be taken in regard to generalizations concerning
types of penitentials. As no council or pope or synod gave official sanction to any
particular penitential, there was no general norm; hence, one is not justified in
attaching to canons from any given penitential an official sanction for the whole
of the Western Church or even for the whole of a particular country, unless it
can be proven that the canons in question were derived from other canonical
sources possessing such authority,2 or there is other evidence for such an assumption. Moreover, there are often wide variations and contradictions between penitentials as regards the amounts of penance prescribed for the same sins; the
allowing or refusing of commutation and redemption; the extent of discretion
allowed to the priest in imposing penances; the degrees of relationship within
which marriage was prohibited;3 the degree of differentiation of sins and penalties; the presence or absence of liturgical prayers or formulae, and of public
penance; and other criteria of classification. Because of this marked particularism
of the penitentials, two of the great modern historians of canon law4 consider
that these manuals gave material aid to other contemporary forces which were
promoting ecclesiastical disorder and anarchy.
On the other hand, it is possible to exaggerate the lack of authority and the
particularism of the penitentials.5 Granting the validity of the preceding arguments, one still has to reckon with several facts which gave to the penitentials
a powerful influence.6 General decrees of some local synods, prelates, and monarchs required that a priest know and use a penitential;7 the wide diffusion of
manuscripts of a number of penitentials attest their extensive employment in
the confessional;8 very great prestige attached to the names of such authors, or
alleged authors, of penitentials9 as Columban, Theodore of Canterbury, the
Venerable Bede, Egbert of York, Halitgar of Cambrai, and Burchard of Worms;l0
1 In contrast to the legalistic and dogmatic methods of many writers on the history of penance, see
the frequent, but not consistent, allowance for variations in penitential practices, etc., by O. D.
Watkins, History of Penance (1920); B. Poschmann, Die abendldndischeKirchenbusse (2 vols, 1928,
1930); the articles on commutations and on cultural affiliations by Oakley, cited supra. FournierLeBras, op. cit., furnish the best examples of correct methods.
2 For such textual affiliations, see the edd. and critical works on the penitentials, supra; and Oakley, articles on 'Cultural Affiliations' and on 'Celtic Penance,' locc. citt., supra.
3 See the treatment of this
question in the various manuals on the history of canon law.
op. cit., I, 56 ff., 78 ff., 84 ff.
5 As has been done by McNeill and Gamer, passim.
6Differing in extent with the particular manual in question.
7 Oakley, English Penitential Discipline and Anglo-Saxon Law, pp. 14 f.; cf. McNeill and Gamer,
8 Ibid., pp. 51 if. and 432 ff.
op. cit., pp. 23 ff. for a few additional examples.
9 As well as to certain pseudonymous works erroneously ascribed to certain influential churchmen,
E.g., Theodore, Bede, Egbert, Cummean, St Boniface, and others. See under these persons in ibid.:
10For penitentials ascribed to such authorship, see Oakley, English Penitential Discipline and AngloSaxon Law, chaps. i, iii-iv.


The Penitentials as Sourcesfor Mediaeval History

while other authors of penitentials1 must have gained considerable repute through
manuals ascribed to them. Because of borrowing by other penitentials and, at
times, by other documents,2 a number of canons from some influential manuals
were spread throughout extensive areas of Western Europe, and occasionally
beyond that continent.3
Through such textual affiliations and for other reasons, the variations between
penitentials, as regards certain details, are often balanced by certain resemblances
in other respects. Thus it is possible to classify penitentials into groups and subgroups, the grouping naturally differing according to the principles of classification employed in particular cases. Some of these principles have already been
mentioned in this article; others employed by modern scholars are based upon
palaeographical, philological, geographical and chronological criteria;4 and still
other criteria might be used. Finally, the forming of such groups naturally makes
possible some important conclusions concerning the various subjects mentioned
at the beginning of this article, even if it is necessary, at times, to qualify such
conclusions by limiting them to certain groups of penitentials.
Besides the many researches that have been conducted concerning the penitential canons, there remain numerous problems for future investigation. Some
of these are textual; others concern further research into the influence and relations of mediaeval penance; and still others relate to further use of penitential
materials as sources for the fields and sub-fields of mediaeval history mentioned
at the beginning of this article.
In the first group there are certain needs and opportunities for discovering
better manuscripts of the known penitentials; for establishing improved readings
and translations of certain passages within these manuals; and for obtaining
fuller and more exact information regarding the authorship, provenance, and
affiliations of penitentials. Some of these problems are dealt with in the various
editions and critical works on the penitentials and on the history of penance,5
but a number of other textual questions still remain unanswered, or incompletely
There are numerous unsolved problems concerning the sources for certain
penitential canons. A few examples of such problems will be mentioned here.
Except for a few vague conjectures regarding the influence of the Scriptures,
Cassian and early monasticism, together with passing allusions to Welsh secular
laws, the sources for the Welsh6penitential canons have not yet been discovered;
nor can one be absolutely sure that some passages in other penitentials, that
have hitherto been listed as innovations of the authors, were not borrowed from
sources still undiscovered. Possible additional connections between penitential
1 E.g., Cummean and the author of the pseudonymous Excarpsus Cummeani; see Oakley, on the
Penitential of Cummean,Romanic Rev., xxv, 25 ff.
2 Cf.
3 E.g., in Iceland, ut supra.
supra, for such borrowings.
4 See the edd. and critical works on the penitentials,
5 See the edd. and critical works on the penitentials listed by Oakley, English Penitential Discipline
and Anglo-Saxon Law, and by McNeill and Gamer, op. cit., passim, which adds others.
6 Cf.
Oakley, 'Celtic Penance,' etc., Irish Eccles. Rec., Aug., 1988, p. 156.

The Penitentials as Sourcesfor Mediaeval History


canons and monastic rules' remain to be investigated. It is not at all likely that
the textual influence of penitentials upon one another and upon other mediaeval
documents has received as thorough investigation as it needs.2 Research on the
above problems might reveal new facts of significance for the history of culture,3
of monasticism,4 and of the ramifications of Irish5 and of English6 influence, to
cite a few examples. In these connections, it is interesting to note that very little
has been done towards ascertaining the specific scriptoria in which individual
manuscripts of penitentials were inscribed.7
In spite of the fact that the best critical scholars have established, at least with
strong probability, some of the general regions in which certain penitentials were
employed in the confessional, the details of such information are still rather
vague. Modern scholarship can not yet compile lists of specific dioceses in which
given penitentials were so employed. The difficulties of gaining such information
are further increased because of the apparent fact that employment of a certain
penitential in a given parish, or parishes, of a diocese did not preclude the employment of other penitentials in other parishes of that diocese;8 although it is
very probable that the recommendation of a given penitential by an influential
prelate9 would secure its employment in the confessional throughout the whole
of a diocese, or even beyond its boundaries.
The length of time during which given manuals of penance were used in toto
in assigning penances' still remains undefined, in spite of present knowledge
pointing to the relatively wide distribution in time of the manuscripts of some
penitentials.11 In this connection, particularly difficult problems exist regarding
the Welsh penitential canons, those of the Irish and of the Spanish,12and the
anonymous penitentials.
A number of possibilities for the discovery of hitherto unpublished manuals
of penance remain to intrigue palaeographers and researchers into the history
of the canon law or into that of penance; while it is also likely that such dis1 Penitentials frequently contain numerous passages for breaches of monastic rule; and some of
these passages have been recognized as influenced by certain regulae. But still other cases of possible
affiliations remain untraced; cf. Zettinger, in AKKR., Lxxxii, 501 ff.
2 Corrections of
former, erroneous ascriptions of penitentials and of incorrect dating would naturally make necessary new studies of textual affiliations.
3 The
possibilities along this line are suggested by discoveries regarding Byzantine influence and
the cultural affiliations of early Ireland, as seen in the penitentials. Cf. Oakley's articles on the latter
4 See the various articles by the same, cited supra.
subject, supra.
6 Ibid., passim; McNeill and Gamer, passim.
6 See the same references; and Oakley, English Penitential Discipline and Anglo-Saxon Law, passim.
7 For suggestions along this line seeMcNeill and Gamer, op. cit., pp. 51 ff. and 438ff.
8 Ibid.,p. 49.
9 E.g., Regino of Prim (ca 900) specifically recommends a penitential by Theodore the bishop, or
by the Venerable Bede, but there is some doubt as to which of the manuals attributed to these two
were meant. Cf. McNeill and Gamer, op. cit., p. 217 and passim; and Oakley, English Penitential Discipline and Anglo-Saxon Law, pp. 118 f.
10I.e., in contrast to indirect use, through borrowing by other manuals.
11Especially of the Hibernensis, the cycles of Bede, Theodore, and Egbert, the Pseudo-Cummean,
the Pseudo-Roman Penitential, and that of Burchard; see McNeill and Gamer, op. cit., pp. 432 ff.
Very few manuscripts are known in each of these groups; ibid., pp. 432 ff.


The Penitentials as Sourcesfor Mediaeval History

coveries may unearth materials of value for scholars interested in other respects
of mediaeval life.' Just recently, new evidence2 has been unearthed pointing, in
general, to the existence of some hitherto unpublished manuscripts of penitentials. But it would seem that the search for additional penitentials would prove
more profitable if specialists engaged in such research would concentrate upon
filling certain specific gaps that are of special importance for the history of
penance and that of canon law. Concerning these gaps, some of the more important problems center around the following questions.
What penitential canons were used in the confessional in Wales after the sixth
century, the probable date of origin3of the Penitential of David and of the Welsh
Synod of Brevi and the Wood of Victory? For answering this question, the
materials known at present are inadequate. Present scholarship knows of only
one late manuscript of these three sets of canons,4 a Breton copy from the
eleventh century,5 leaving a considerable period from which no Welsh penitential
canons are, as yet, known. Finally, the only possible reference in an original
Welsh source to the three sets mentioned above does not indicate that they were
still employed in the confessional in Wales.6
What manuals of penance did the Irish Church use in the confessional after ca
800, the probable date of origin for the latest of the known Irish penitentials?7 At
present that question cannot be answered satisfactorily, as the extant manuscripts of most of the Irish penitential canons8 are late Continental9 copies. For
Scotland, there are no known penitential books; although it is likely that Irish
missionaries may have carried one or more of the Irish manuals to centers of
Irish influence in what is now southern Scotland and northern England.l0 Perhaps
too, at least that version of the Penitential of Theodorewhich was edited by the
self-styled 'disciple of the Umbrians,'l may have spread north from Northumbria.
In this connection, it is interesting to note that certain Irish penitential canons
from the eighth12and the ninth13centuries borrowed passages from the Penitential
of Theodore,thus indicating that, by the eighth century, the current was being
reversed and penitential practices from England were flowing into Irish communities.
1 Just as the
study of known penitentials has already done.
Cf. McNeill and Gamer, op. cit., pp. 66 ff. and 432.
3 See
Oakley, English Penitential Discipline and Anglo-Saxon Law, pp. 33 ff.
4 As
distinguished from the non-penitential Canones Wallici; cf. ibid., op. cit., pp. 34 and 37, n. 2.
6 Paris. Bibl. Nat. Lat. 3182 (olim Bigot. 89); see McNeill and Gamer, op. cit., p. 434.
6 Rhygyvarch, or Ricemarch, son of Sullen, Bishop of St David's, Life of St David, written ca 1090,
transl. A. W. Wade-Evans (1923), p. 28.
7 The Old Irish Penitential, ed. and transl.
by E. J. Gwynn, in Eriu, viI, 121 ff.
8 Except for a few eighth-century copies of the Collectio Hibernensis. See McNeill and Gamer, op.
cit., pp. 432 ff.; and Kenney, op. cit., pp. 235 ff.
10Cf. McNeill and Gamer, op. cit., pp. 179 ff., 914 ff.
Ibid., loc. cit. and passim.
11Wasserschleben, Bussordnungen, pp. 14-37; and McNeill and Gamer, op. cit., pp. 179 ff.
12The CollectioHibernensis. Cf. ibid.,
pp. 139, 433; and Kenney, op. cit., I, pp. 247 ff.
13 Of ca 800, but
surviving in a fifteenth-century manuscript, the Old Irish Penitential borrows a
number of passages from Theodore, among other sources; see notes at the end of the Gwynn ed., and
Oakley, 'Cultural Affiliations of Early Ireland,' SPECULUM,VIII,499.

The Penitentials as Sourcesfor Mediaeval History


In the main, the penitentials used in the Low Countries have not yet been
definitely identified. But it is likely that centers of Insular influencel in northeastern France, Flanders, and Germany may have been bases from which Celtic
and English penitentials spread to the Low Countries.2
What manuals of penance were employed in the regions of Central Europe
stretching to the east and south of Bohemia? In southeastern Europe? In the
Eastern Church after the Schism?3 In connection with the Spanish penitentials,
it is noteworthy that, after the Penitential of Silos and that of Vigila,4 the only
manual of such a nature in the published editions and in translations by McNeill
and Gamer is the Penitential of Ciudad,5from early in the fifteenth century. What
manuals were used in Spain during the long interval between the late copies of
the penitentials of Silos and of Vigila, on the one hand, and the fifteenth century?
From the discovery of hitherto unknown manuals of penance and further research into the history and relations of those already published, there should
emerge additional evidence and interpretations of value for various phases of
mediaeval history. But, as with the search for unknown penitential books, it
would seem that more productive results may be gained by setting up certain
definite problems as objectives, while, at the same time, keeping on the alert for
other possibilities. Of the specific questions for which answers might be sought,
many are concerned with Church history and ecclesiastical institutions or with
comparative religion, while others are connected with comparative law, cultural
history, and various contemporary historical movements.
The first group of questions that comes to mind is naturally that which is
directly concerned with the history of penance. In that field, the following problems are especially significant subjects for further research. What were the
specific precedents for the peculiar forms of commutation and redemption offered
by some of the Irish penitential canons?6 What penitential canons formed the
missing links between commutations and redemptions in the penitentials,7 on the
one hand, and the rise of indulgences, on the other? Are there phases of Irish and
1 E.g., Fulda, Lorsch, Mainz, Corbie, Cologne, Wtirzburg, and Reichenau; McNeill and Gamer,
op. cit., pp. 64 f. Cf. Fournier-LeBras, op. cit., I, 84 ff.
2 Cf.
Watkins, History of Penance, II, passim, for the general influence of centers of Insular culture
on the Continent spreading tariffed penance and its penitentials.
8 A very incomplete account of penance in the Eastern Church is given by K. Holl, Enthusiasmus u.
Bussgewalt beim griechischen Monchtum (1898). Cf. J. Hormann, Untersuchungen zur griechischen
Laienbeicht, (1913).
4 The
originals of these manuals were of the ninth century, but they are known in copies from the
eleventh and the tenth centuries, respectively; see McNeill and Gamer, op. cit., pp. 285 ff., 291 f.,
5 Ibid., pp. 360 ff.
438 f.
6 The sources for the earliest of these have not yet been discovered, although some of the very general precedents for commutation and redemption reach far back into the history of the Church. See
A. Lepicier, History of Indulgences (Eng. transl., 1906), passim; art. 'Indulgences' in Vacant et
Mangenot, op. cit.; Paulus, op. cit., passim; and the articles on commutations and redemptions by
Oakley, ut supra.
Although it is known that these alleviations furnished one of the chief roots for the rise of indulgences, modern scholars have not yet accounted for the detailed differences between such commutations and redemptions, on the one hand, and the later indulgences, on the other.

The Penitentials as Sourcesfor Mediaeval History

English influence upon the history of penance, in addition to the ones already
known?1 Did the tariffed penance of the penitentials spread into other regions
than those already discovered by modern scholars? Exactly how long and to what
extent did tariffed penance survive after Gratian?2In what respects will the discovery of new manuals affect our knowledge of the liturgy3 of penance and of
the effects of the penitentials upon particularism?In connection with the general
course of Church history, it might also prove fruitful to pursue inquiries as to the
specific r61es played by penitential discipline in various reform movements and
in the endeavors to establish the Peace of God and the Truce of God.4
Within the national churches, too, important questions concerning penance
remain unanswered, of which a few will be suggested here. Because of the importance of penance as one of the chief means of ecclesiastical discipline, there
must have been significant connections between penitential canons and reform
movements within the Irish Church, such as those which occurred under the
Culdees and again in the twelfth century.5 What were these connections? As
regards the English Church, among other questions, one might inquire as to the
following: What parts were played by penitential canons in extending English
influence into the churches of Wales and of Scotland? What influence was exerted
by penance in the reforms within the English Church just previous to and after
the Norman Conquest?
As further progress is made in research on the penitentials, it is to be hoped
that new light may be thrown upon some of the aspects of folk-paganism in the
early Middle Ages.6 In order to obtain a better understanding of the methods of
combating such beliefs and practices, however, more attention needs to be paid
to the contemporary secular laws.7 In particular, insufficient attention has been
given to the variations between the policies, methods, and relative severity of
the various secular rulers who endeavored to suppress pagan superstitions.
Further research into the relations between penance and the canon and secular
laws,8 as well as into their joint influence upon mediaeval life, should also bring
fruitful results, as more is discovered about the published sources and additional
materials are unearthed. In the opinion of the present writer, however, still
more is to be gained from investigating the inter-relations and joint influence
of penance, canon law, and secular law in countries that have, as yet, been
1 On the latter see Watkins, op. cit., passim; and Oakley, English Penitential Discipline and AngloSaxon Law, passim.
2 As demonstrated earlier in this
article, this question has now been reopened.
3 E.g., of formulas for confession and absolution.
4 Because of the frequent penances for homicide, wounding, and brawling.
On these movements, see Kenney, op. cit., I, 468 ff. and chap. viii.
6 Some obscure allusions need to be clarified and more information
gained on certain pagan beliefs
and practices mentioned in some of the penitentials.
7 The present writer has
already worked out, in manuscript, materials on some of these neglected
aspects in the combating of mediaeval paganism, and plans to publish the results of these researches
in the near future.
8 These relations for Central and Western Europe are being investigated by the present writer, but
there is still virgin territory for such researches in the wide areas of Eastern and Southeastern Europe.

The Penitentials as Sourcesfor Mediaeval History


neglected in this connection. Such countries and areas include, in particular,

those mentioned above in connection with the search for additional penitentials.
Again, new discoveries concerning the penitentials and their affiliations should
render possible the gaining of further knowledge as to the connections between
penitential canons and canonical collections, and, hence, as to the influence of
the penitentials upon canon law.l Finally, further research into the manuals of
penance and their affiliations should offer new opportunities to the palaeographer,
to scholars specializing in various branches of linguistics, and to others interested
in cultural history.
1 Historians of the canon law have long been acquainted with penitential prescriptions concerning
marriage in general, and the celibacy of the clergy, in particular; see the pertinent heads in the encyclopedias of theology, etc.