Tom Tentler

title.none: Hamilton, Practice of Penance (Tom Tentler)

identifier.other: baj9928.0207.019 02.07.19

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Tom Tentler, University of Michigan / The Catholic University of America,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2002

identifier.citation: Hamilton, Sarah. The Practice of Penance, 900 - 1050. Royal Historical Society Studies in History. Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK: Royal Historical Society / Boydell Press, 2001. Pp. xiii, 275. ISBN: 0861932501.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 02.07.19

Hamilton, Sarah. The Practice of Penance, 900 - 1050. Royal Historical Society Studies in History. Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK: Royal Historical Society / Boydell Press, 2001. Pp. xiii, 275. ISBN: 0861932501.

Reviewed by:

Tom Tentler
University of Michigan / The Catholic University of America

My review is divided into three parts: (I) a summary of the author's conclusions; (II) a chapter-by-chapter description of the contents; and (III) my critique-ranging from disagreements to reservations on the rejection of the Carolingian dichotomy; the characterization of a "Catholic" historiography; the meaning of "private" as opposed to "public" penance; and the relative importance of public and private penance. Full citations for some of the authors cited follow.

I. Summary

Sarah Hamilton has made a significant contribution to what for me is the murkiest period in the history of penance. Her intention is to fill a gap between the work recently done on either side of her 900-1050 periodization--that is, between the Carolingians and "the long twelfth century". It is an odd gap since, as she notes, Poschmann, Jungmann, and Vogel saw this period as one of "significant liturgical change for both secret and public penance". (17-18) Her attempt to fill this gap is complicated by a notorious poverty of sources, but she faces this problem with scholarly caution and a determination to avoid anachronistic (teleological) reading-a misconceived search for the origins of later developments. I will express below my reservations about some of the conclusions she draws from her interesting evidence, especially her critique of the private-public distinction and its implications. Nevertheless, the care with which she has defined the problems and collected, classified, and analyzed the sources is admirable. Her honest presentation of the evidence will give even the unconvinced valuable material to work with. Hamilton proceeds cautiously and is at heart a splitter rather than a lumper. Her introduction contains a striking example of this reserve as she admits that in one of her most important sources, the mid tenth-century Romano-German Pontifical (henceforth PRG), the Holy Thursday rite for the reconciliation of penitents "plays a fairly minor part" in that day's "busy liturgical sequence". (16-17) Yet in spite of her caution and my resistance, she has dispelled some of the fog between me and the practice of this period, and caused me to revise some of the simple images and unexamined generalizations on which my understanding of the standard narrative was built.

As the title declares, Sarah Hamilton's goal is an evaluation of penance not as it was prescribed by prelates and monks--the reformers' ideal--but as it was practiced at all levels of society: secular and regular clergy, monarchs, nobility, and "the lower orders". She takes a "holistic approach, reviewing all forms of penitential practice: public, private and mixed". (17) Her principal sources and research plan are similar to Mary Mansfield's in The Humiliation of Sinners--a debt that she acknowledges more than once. First in importance are ritual orders (ordines), especially pontificals and sacramentaries, which she painstakingly catalogues and analyzes: first in the collections of Regino of Pruem, and Burchard of Worms, then in the Romano-German Pontifical (whose presumed ubiquitous authority she challenges in the text and an elaborate appendix) and "liturgies found in Fulda, Lotharingia and northern west Francia, and northern and central Italy". (19) Like Mansfield, Hamilton pays close attention to scribal changes from one version to another and argues that changes were recorded because the rituals were in use. Other evidence is evaluated in that light. Hamilton lays special stress on monastic experience as well as the pastoral role of monasteries. She uses narrative and other evidence, when she can find it, to supply context, but her principal evidence is these liturgies, which she admits are themselves prescriptive (models of what should happen, not records of what did happen). In spite of that admission, I found her often arguing as if liturgies, especially when there is evidence of change, are less prescriptive than penitentials, canons, capitularies, and sermons..

Briefly summarized she argues: 1. Penance in this period does not conform to Vogel's clearly defined Carolingian dichotomy, or to a tripartite division into private, non-solemn public, and solemn public penance. The frequent use of penitentia--without specifying secret, solemn, or public, or even distinguishing the rite from the virtue--is said to be evidence of this lack of clarity. 2. "Private" penance retains many of the features characteristic of the public penance practiced prior to and during her period. She uses "secret" rather than "private" and suggests that the terms "personal" and "communal" are better descriptions of practice than "private" and "public". 3. Public penance--whose importance relative to "private" penance had been doubted by generations of historians--was far more common and religiously significant than the standard narrative of the history of confession allowed. 4. "Mixed penance"--a term currently popular among early medievalists--is said to connote more accurately much of the evidence in the sources. 5. "One-stop penance"--in which the priest's absolution was given on the spot, between the penitent's confession and the priest's assigning of penance--is in evidence in this period. In a rare generalizing mood, she places the change in the course of the tenth century. 6. A penitential vocabulary and mentality pervade early medieval society. Underlying it is the desire to cleanse people and communities of pollution and avert divine vengeance, although Hamilton occasionally refers to the desire for personal salvation. Confession, like communion, is seen as a criterial attribute of membership in the Christian community. 7. Features often associated with the long twelfth century--like more frequent confession, the centrality of contrition, the discovery of the individual--are either anticipated by developments in her period or not so apparent in the later period (I am not always sure which, or whether it is both).

II. Description of contents

The Practice of Penance is divided into an introduction, six chapters, and an "Afterword".

Introduction: Hamilton begins, like Mary Mansfield, with an anecdote. At a Roman council in 999, Arduin of Ivrea publicly confesses before Otto III and Sylvester II to the murder of a bishop. His penance is either to become a monk or spend the rest of his life in perpetual pilgrimage, denied meat and linen clothes, forbidden to have sexual relations, bear arms, or take communion until his deathbed. Hamilton points to three significant features of the penance. First, the council explicitly states that it was the same as it would have been had he confessed secretly--illustrating similarities (or confusions) between the two types that she will develop in the course of the book. Second, the events deliver a justice we would think of as political or secular and hence reveal the "symbiotic relationship between the spiritual and secular worlds". Third, Arduin's subsequent history makes it clear that he did not complete the penance--showing not only the fragility of both authorities in the early middle ages, but also the prescriptive nature of most sources, which are likely to tell us what the clergy aspired to, not what actually happened (1-2).

There follows a historiographical survey. Summarizing Vogel, Poschmann, Jungmann, Amann, et al., Hamilton objects that the "Carolingian dichotomy" is found primarily in legal texts, not in liturgical or narrative texts-and that the bishops actively promote public forms of penance (5-6). "Public and private penance: a useful distinction?" asserts (allegedly contra Duby) that privacy is not just "commonsensical", that it has a history that calls into question assumptions about medieval privacy, conscience, and contrition (8-9). Turning to historiography in greater detail she asserts the partisanship of a Catholic scholarship; criticizes its "teleological approach, . . preoccupied with . . . the origins of later medieval practice"; and questions the neatness of schematic periodizations--especially the one suggested in Alexander Murray's seminal "Confession before 1215". Although one might expect that an early medieval historian arguing against the received periodization to question the "reading back" of private penance in the earlier period, this discussion actually suggests (citing Frantzen and Meens) that Murray may have underestimated the frequency of confession in Carolingian and post-Carolingian periods. Warning against the argument from silence, she suggests that the nature of the sources may account for the apparent popularity of confession and its "implicit self-awareness". (9-23)

The rest of the book fulfills this agenda.

Chapter 1, "The Church Law of Penance: the Evidence of the Collections" (25-50), analyzes Burchard and Regino and sets them in the context of the penitentials on which they depended. They are "dry and prescriptive"--"as much judical and academic as pastoral". Their order for secret penance is an elaborate amalgam of interrogation, prayer, and penitential gestures and postures. Hamilton does not comment here or elsewhere on the practical difficulties in administering a private rite as elaborate as the one she describes.

Chapter 2, "Education and Communication: Councils, Synodal Sermons and Capitularies" (51-75), examines the ways that bishops taught their clergy "how to administer penance correctly". (52) The Carolingians had called for frequent communion, linked communion and confession, considered both "essential to an individual's membership [in] the Christian community" and even "necessary for salvation". Hamilton cites canons requiring confession at four synods between 813 and 1025. The Admonitio synodalis--a popular (125 MSS) example of synodal sermons that were "refresher courses for the rural clergy"--instructs priests to give penances that conform to the tariffs laid down in a penitential; but she admits that synods were held irregularly and did not necessarily include this kind of sermon (63-67). Tenth-century capitula from Trier, Rheims, Mainz, and Milan offer "direct evidence of communication between bishops and their clergy"; make a clear distinction between public and secret penance; call for annual confession (with excommunication for non-compliance); and stipulate Holy Thursday reconciliations, and active monitoring of public penitents by priests-suggesting "a vigorous tradition of public penance" (60-61, 74-76).

Chapter 3, Penance and the Regular Life (77-103), finds conventual life supplying the "vocabulary" and "gestures" for the practice of penance. Monks were the principal conveyers of all accounts of penance in this period and fueled the reform movements. The Rule of Benedict and the mid-ninth-century commentary of Hildemar of Corbie propose ways to discipline and ensure conformity that reveal a shared language and method with canonical penance (excommunication, healing, satisfaction, prostration, classification of sins) (77-88). In spite of the monastic role in dissemination of the penitentials that accompanied the rise of "non-public, reiterable confession," private confession is mentioned only in the fifth step of humility (Rule, c. 5) which specifically enjoins confession of sinful thoughts and secret acts. Hamilton describes Hildemar's asking how a confessor can dissuade an abbot from promoting a candidate unworthy of an office "without breaking the seal of confession". (88) (Her use of the term "seal" is anachronistic here, but I think it is more than a curiosity that this case was to have a lively future in the casuistry of confessional privacy.) Despite "striking parallels" between monastic and ordinary secret penance, confession was not a feature of the monastic liturgical year, whereas "all Christians were meant to confess to their priest before the start of Lent". (90-91) Hamilton emphasizes the pastoral role of monks and (especially) canons and their consequent influence on penitential practice (94-103).

Chapter 4, "The Penitential Liturgy: Unity or Diversity?" (104- 135), begins with an analysis of the three penitential orders of the popular PRG. (1) An "entry into penance on Ash Wednesday"--a "long, complicated, repetitive and somewhat confusing" public penance designed for performance before an audience of lay and clergy. (2) A "reconciliation of penitents on Maundy Thursday"--which Hamilton thinks might well have applied to all penitents, public and private, and not merely to criminals, as Poschmann had thought. (118) (3) The ordo for reception by priests of penitents "in the usual way"--an elaborate six-stage rite for "men and women, laity and clergy", perhaps for a gathering of them. There is no prayer of absolution because the PRG envisions a reconciliation on Holy Thursday. She concludes that "a clear distinction between public and private penance cannot be sustained". They all "take place in and around the church", "may be administered to one or more penitent", share many of the same prayers, delay reconciliation until Holy Thursday, and are "both intended for serious sins". Hamilton admits that the distinction between the two seems to "reflect the Carolingian dichotomy: public penance for public sins and private penance for private sins", but she thinks that the failure of the PRG to use those terms, and the parallels just enumerated, make the terms "personal" and "communal" preferable. I shall address this terminology in my comments below.

Chapter 5, (136-172), argues for "regional diversity" in penitential liturgies from Fulda, north-central Europe, and northern Italy (ranging from 980 to 1025, with occasional references to later rites). Some details illuminate the evolution of secret confession. Fulda (like the PRG) provides for immediate reconciliation of penitents if they are unable to attend the Holy Thursday reconciliation and distinguishes the annual ritual, "to be embraced by all" from "the shameful ritual for public penitents" (138-40). Fulda also provides examples--unaccountably rare in Hamilton's history--of penance at death, including vernacular prayers (146-8).

The Fulda G (Goettingen) Sacramentary has an illustration (reproduced as a frontispiece and on the book jacket) "depicting the giving of penance"--"the earliest example of this act in western medieval art". It belongs to a series of illustrations for baptism and last rites. At the left a bishop (or abbot) at the head of six clerical figures gestures toward two separate groups on the right-seven men and five women-whose bodies are slightly inclined toward the bishop. Its placement is persuasive evidence to her that the annual rite was considered "a communal rather than personal service". (148-9)

Hamilton's stress on the similarity between secret and public confession is supported by the custom before her period of reconciling both public and secret penitents on Holy Thursday. But most of the rituals examined here provide evidence of an important change: "The tenth century is a period of transition in the administration of secret penance, from a two-stage process to a one-stop procedure in which absolution is given at the same time as penance." (143-4; 153; 166-7). Hamilton sees this as a stage in the emergence of the individual, preceding its expression in theology, that must now be "backdated from the eleventh to the tenth century". (165-6) But that generalization is complicated by "Some Italian evidence" (166- 172). Jungmann had discovered that some Italian pontificals provided "unambiguous evidence" that private penance "was administered to several penitents at one time"; that he had "failed to describe this at any length" offers Hamilton the opportunity to use one of them to demonstrate that "they" did not mean by private what "we" mean by private. Her summary of the eight-stage order of secret penance will help the reader grasp the demands the rite places on the participants: 1. The priest prepares himself with a version of a standard prayer "found in private penitential ordines from the ninth century onwards". 2. Text suggesting the order is for single penitents is followed by the direction that the priest recite the seven penitential psalms (plus a litany) to prostrate penitents-- "those who are to confess". The response is also in the plural "suggesting that these texts were all intended to be said as part of a communal service, involving priest, several penitents and perhaps an audience". 3. Four intercessory prayers . . . still part of a communal service". 4. Individual confessions follow in which the priest questions the penitent "soothingly and pleasantly". 5. The interrogation on faith and repentance- -standard in penitential ordines--in which "rubrics and prayers . . . only to a single penitent". 6. Both priest and penitent prostrate themselves--the Kyrie, PN, and various prayers follow. 7. Both rise--the priest gives kneeling penitent his penance. 8. The penitent rises; the priest absolves her and makes sign of cross over her. (168-169; cf. the six-stage analysis of the PRG, 122-128, and Jungmann, Lateinischen Bussriten, 177-201)

Hamilton sees the evolution of a communal rite into an individual confession, which, however was also "a public affair," "not a private ceremony in twentieth-century terms," in which "priest and penitent were . . . in full view." If the audience could not hear, they could see the progress of the confession through its various stages, including the imposition of hands. "The penitent had to be seen to be absolved, even if it was not a formal 'public' penance." (169) Hamilton's forceful depiction of the communal elements of this rite is a valuable correction to anyone unfamiliar with liturgical history who has imagined simple one-on-one encounters from the Penitentials onward. I have already raised doubts about the practicality and hence viability of this elaborate rite.

How far down did the practice of penance reach? Cautious about prescriptive sources (scarcer after the ninth century) she remains convinced that "penitential practice was of continuing importance at all levels within the church", taking again the numerous scribal changes as evidence of the actual practice of penance both "for the clergy who composed and used them, and therefore for the people upon whom they were imposed". (172)

Hamilton continues her search for non-prescriptive evidence of the penetration of these practices in chapter 6, "Penance and the Wider World" (173-206) with sections on penance and rulership, politics, warfare, and sexual relations" (but not "penance and specific sins such as homicide, incest, sexual relations outside marriage, or the practice of magic . . . "). The light seems to be best around penances of kings, and those of Louis the Pious, Henry IV, Otto III, and Henry III (along with Arduin of Ivrea) are analyzed. (174-182) Public penance, employed to restore order and honor, cuts across secular and clerical justice and perhaps even prelates did not "always" understand the boundary (184-190). Everyone agreed that homicide and parricide deserved the most severe penances, but "churchmen's attitude to warfare was more ambivalent"--force was necessary for order, and the clergy sometimes called for warfare in defence of divine justice. Some interesting casuistic distinctions are touched on in penitentials and synods, in which the length of the penance is affected by the motive of the combatant. But Hamilton again is true to her method as she admits that evidence of actual enforcement is another matter, even though the sources clearly reveal a desire to distinguish between homicide and killing in a just war (190- 196).

The section on "Penance and sexual relations" (196-201) is both cautious and speculative. The official tradition is rigorous: Jerome's disdain for anything but virginity, Augustine's unqualified approval only of marital intercourse for procreation, a consensus prohibiting adultery, homosexuality, and some positions in marital intercourse. "The Church regarded sexuality as polluting, both physically and spiritually", but of Payer's and Brundage's claim that the penitentials contributed heavily to the early medieval sexual ethic she says:"this argument is not yet proven". Nevertheless she repeats the estimate based on the penitentials and Burchard that if prohibited seasons and menstrual days were excluded "a devout married couple could licitly have had sexual relations on fewer than forty-four days of the year". (196-7) She finds evidence that the clergy tried to enforce these norms in an exemplum involving the parents of a monk named Iso (d. 877). The holy parents lose control and have marital intercourse on Holy Saturday. They confess to two different priests--publicly acknowledging their sin to the first one--but the priests reject their request for Easter communion, which is not granted until an angel intervenes. Hamilton thinks we can know something about the ordinary expectations of an eleventh- century audience by some of the details. The public penance for a private sin is best explained, she says, not by the "mixed penance" designation of Kottje and De Jong, first because the parents' public confession put the sin in the realm of public penance, and second because the sin was an offence against, a pollution of, the whole community. Nevertheless, stories like these--circulated by and for clerics--show an intention to make the laity behave according to these rigoristic norms, and although "not evidence that the laity did so", they demonstrate that "penance . . . was a powerful tool in the Church's armoury in enforcing its own sexual code". (197-199, 201).

A judicious speculation is also evident in Hamilton's pursuit of penance (communal and personal) among "the lower orders" (201-206). "Penance was meant to be universal" according to the "prescriptive and idealistic" canonical and liturgical sources. The illustration from the Fulda sacramentary is cited as a rare and valuable intimation of the actual. Peter Damian reports flagellations practiced by "multitudes" as well as by the monks at Monte Cassino. Regino instructs bishops to discover the serious sins of "the plebs of each parochia". (203-4) Thietmar's chronicle refers to penitents waiting to be reconciled on Holy Thursday, 1002, and elsewhere describes a cortege as passing by the spot where penitents customarily appeared on Holy Thursday. These references "suggest that public penance was to Thietmar normative and supports the impression given by the liturgical evidence of the widespread imposition of public penance". (204-5) Finally, instructions to priests in the ordines not only match penance to sin but also consider the circumstances of the penitent (for example, servants, whose lives were controlled by others, were not to be given long fasts) demonstrating that they envisage "penance for all". (205)

Hamilton's Afterword (207-210) restates her most important arguments: greater diversity in penance than hitherto assumed; elements of publicity in some rites for secret penance supporting rejection of the Carolingian dichotomy. The variety of contexts for penance--from clerics and kings to towns and villages--suggests that penance touched the laity more "than is often supposed". This diverse penance was both a religious practice, to enable Christians to overcome sin and attain salvation, and an exercise of power by which the clergy could educate and control the laity. In spite of at least three cases of noble resistance, and a nod to Susan Reynolds's stimulating reflections on medieval skepticism, Hamilton finds that "the laity themselves were willing to embrace" penance. The public penance known in Germany was apparently not "widespread" in Italy (or else it had "effectively disappeared" by the 12th century when the PRG copies there omit it). She assures us that it was not because of a general Italian antipathy to penance because orders for secret penance were copied in Italy in this period. (208-9) She suspects that the laity, searching for an assured forgiveness, were behind "the gradual transition to one-stage penance" in which absolution is given on the spot. Hamilton thinks her research not only supports Mansfield's contention that 1215 did not lead to a decline in public penance but also "undermine[s] the view put forward by the Catholic historians of the mid twentieth century who saw the period of 900-1200 as one of transition from a system of tariff or secret penance, to one of confession and only very occasional public penance. It is clear that there was no such switch to confession in this period: 'public' penance, 'secret' penance, and forms of mixed, of not so formal nor so secret, penance continued to be important. It is also clear that penitential practice was widespread in the period 900-1050; the apparent sudden popularity of penance in the long twelfth century, as proposed by Alexander Murray, seems to be more a trick of the evidential light than reality." (209)

III. Critique

1. The Carolingian dichotomy

Hamilton states her rejection of the principle "secret penance for secret sins, public penance for public sins" at the outset: "This distinction between public and secret penance is one found in very few sources from the early ninth century onwards: the bipartite system of penance is, however, one found in most works of modern scholarship." (3) Elsewhere she seems to qualify that judgment by noting that the dichotomy appears primarily in legal texts (5-6).

I find the dismissal of "prescriptive" texts more than problematic. Do the authors (and readers) of these texts live in some other ecclesiastical, liturgical or social world? Are the synodal canons not legislated among, listened to, and read by the same bishops and priests who are going to administer rites of "secret" and public penance? How much cognitive dissonance can we expect these clerics to stand?

To estimate the volume of that dissonance we can do no better than to turn to the evidence Hamilton herself assembles. "Both Regino and Burchard cited the so-called Carolingian dichotomy" in canons taken from Council of Mainz (847), which was itself taken from the Council of Rheims (813) (43 and n.95). In the Provincial Synod of Trier (927 or 928) Ruotger "distinguished between confession, an annual duty, like communion, required of all Christians, and public penance, for which he thought a detailed description necessary." (60) Rather of Verona declares: "Know that you may give penance for hidden sins, but for public sins you should defer to us"; with "similar provisions" "in tenth-century legislation". (65)

Absent the explicit distinction in the sources, Hamilton supplies it herself many times: Ruotger (70); Capitula Sangallensia (70-71); Atto of Vercelli (70-71); "tenth-century capitula" (76); passim in ch. 3 on the monks and canons; passim in ch 4 on liturgical rites in pontificals and sacramentaries; PRG (122-127); an ordinance following the battle of Fontenoy (843) (192-3)

And how can the rejection of the Carolingian dichotomy be consistent with the following judgment? "But whilst contemporaries could distinguish between the practices now known to historians as paenientia secreta and paenitentia publica, in the majority of cases some form of secret penance was applied, with public penance being reserved for scandala." (210) That reads to me like a confirmation of the Carolingian dichotomy. I reached the same conclusion after reading The Humiliation of Sinners, whose public penitents invariably were doing penance for public sins, and which would have been more aptly titled "The Humiliation of Criminals". This issue is obviously involved in the question, below, "what was private about private (or secret) confession"?

2. The "Catholic" historiography of penance

Hamilton (perhaps influenced by Murray, 52-54, and Mansfield, 5-10) characterizes the standard narrative as the product of Catholic historians of the mid-twentieth century. That is literally correct: Poschmann, Vacandard, Amann, Jungmann, and Vogel were all priests. But (like Mansfield) she more than implies that this scholarship was principally a Catholic- Protestant debate. That oversimplification has subtly misleading consequences because it ignores what had been for centuries the central issue in the controversy over "sacramental penance": was there private ("auricular") confession in the ancient church? Between about 1890 and 1930 the current consensus emerged after a battle in which some Catholic (and Protestant) historians said "no" and other Catholic historians and theologians said "yes". The leader of the "no" party was Father Bernhard Poschmann, whose main opponent was not Harnack, or even Lea (a life-long Unitarian commited to reason and progress, not to Protestant doctrine). It was Father Paul Galtier, SJ. Two Catholic priests--opposite sides of the argument.

A 1947 dissertation in theology by the Jesuit Paul F. Palmer offers a valuable account of that history. Note that in 1947 Palmer was still defending the proposition that there was a private sacramental penance in the ancient church even though he heaped scorn on the historical ignorance of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century neo-scholastics for the way they came to that same conclulsion. By the time of Vatican II the hierarchy had accepted (and the clergy had apparently been taught) Poschmann's standard narrative. But in the first decades of the twentieth century, the Vatican's campaign against modernism made it risky for Catholic historians to challenge "timeless and changeless" truths and practices. Before Poschmann had declared that private penance was the norm by the ninth or eleventh century, he had already espoused the most doctrinally damaging proposition--that there was no sacramental confession in the ancient church. Given that background, I see little doctrinal advantage in locating the introduction of private penance in 600 or 700 as opposed to 1000, or even 1200.

Hamilton and early medieval historians have rightly rejected Poschmann's simplifications (the almost exclusive reliance on law and theology, the naive belief that laws must have been obeyed, the facile connections between institutional structures and consequent morality, and the relentless pursuit of a single, teleological narrative). But on fundamental questions of methodology and even in historical development, Lea, Harnack, Poschmann, Jungmann, and Hamilton agree. And we should not forget that it was Poschmann more than anyone else who laid to rest the notion that the apostles heard confessions and absolved penitents in private.

Why is this important for penance in the early and central middle ages? Because, as Palmer explains, the Galtier- Poschmann controversy helped define what was private about private confession. And that is important because so much of the revisionism of early medieval historians is based on a misrepresentation of those terms as they emerged in what became the standard narrative.

3. Public and Private-what was private about private penance?

What was new and private in the institution that emerged in the late-sixth and seventh centuries?

It was not the seeking out of a priest or bishop for a private or secret confession. Poschmann admitted--indeed, eagerly defended--the assumption that in order to administer the ancient form of canonical penance the penitent had to consult the bishop who would determine whether and in what form the penitent would do the public penance and receive the public reconciliation that comprised the only available ecclesiastical (i.e., "sacramental"--on which see Palmer and Poschmann) rite of penance available in the ancient church.

It was not even the privacy of reconciliation or absolution, because Poschmann knew that private penitents in the early period of transition confessed at the beginning of Lent and were reconciled publicly on Holy Thursday.

It was not, strictly speaking, the privacy of content of the confession of sins. Poschmann (91-93) had insisted that by the time of Leo I the pope's rebuke of Italian bishops for publicizing penitents' sins was not an innovation. So if the ancient church did not require that the congregation be told what the sinner had done to put her, visibly, in the order of penitents, then non-publication could not be the criterion for a new privacy.

As Palmer notes, the only thing left was the satisfaction. In the ancient rite, satisfaction was done in front of a congregation (with almost no exceptions--witness Theodosius in 390). In the new rite it is not only assigned secretly but performed secretly (insofar as the terms permitted). What Palmer did not note was that Poschmann was making the obvious point that private satisfaction was crucial to the privacy of content. He was obviously looking ahead--which Hamilton and early medievalists may find teleological and objectionable--to the twelfth- and thirteenth-century institution in which privacy of content is protected by a law and theology of the seal of confession. (Poschmann may also have been looking backward to the second and third centuries where there was evidence of intentional revelation of penitents' sins). By then the rite was shorn of most of its public-ritual components, and absolution was granted individually, on the spot, after the confession and prayer of contrition.

But "looking ahead" does not change the original meaning of the standard narrative's "privacy". Specifically, that term never ever implied that no one else would know that someone had confessed, or that no one else would see someone waiting to confess, or watch someone making a confession. (Only much later would casuists realize that publicizing the absolution of some compromises the privacy of those who are not absolved.) And so it is incorrect for early medieval historians to refute the standard narrative's claim for the existence of a "private" rite of penance on the grounds that penitents could be seen in the act of confessing--or that they came together in groups to hear prayers and exhortations, or to be reconciled. Since those who guided the institution after 1215 specifically required priests to hear confessions in an open place where they could be seen by all, the authors of the standard narrative could hardly have believed that privacy required that penitents be shielded from view.

As I read it, the consensus among early medievalists holds that attempts to find privacy in early-medieval penitential practice are anachronistic. In other words, these judgments are implicitly (and, occasionally, explicitly) comparative. We are told that what we moderns mean by privacy was not a category or a concern for them. The standard narrative finds attempts to preserve privacy in the period of transition (600 to 1050) and, in some versions, as early as late antiquity. Early- medievalist skeptics find "the modern" or "our" sense of privacy developing in some later period. Which later period is not quite clear. Mayke De Jong cites approvingly pages in Mary Mansfield arguing that even in the thirteenth century the publicity of restitution, reserved cases, noticeable penances, and the act of confessing itself as proof that "they" did not know true privacy as (implicitly) "we" understand it. All of those exceptions were known to medieval canonists and theologians themselves, and each would require a long response. I shall continue with just one of them--the non-visibility of the act of confessing as a modern criterion of privacy.

To a definition of modern privacy requiring total invisibility of the rite, I would object that there never has been a period in the history of confession that would meet that stringent standard. The high point in the observance of confession was arguably around 1950 among Catholics in North America. But in 1950, Catholics could see each other gathering to confess on Saturday afternoons and evenings all over the continent. The numbers swelled in Lent, and especially before Easter and Christmas. Traffic could be considerable on Saturdays in ordinary time as well. In times of heaviest demand, the faithful could be seen going to confession during Mass--a concession to the scrupulous who wanted to take communion that very Sunday (there is a related example in my review of Handling Sin, Catholic Historical Review 87.1 [January, 2001] 85). I think it would be only reasonable to assume that those penitents going to confession in full view of whoever happened by had fully modern conceptions of personal privacy.

Privacy has a history. I applaud the way Hamilton and other early medievalists have focussed attention on the communal elements in both public and secret penance and made the communal central to the peculiar history of privacy in this transitional period. I only object to making the contrast between now and then too simple--with the result that medieval folk are a bit more "other" than I think the evidence warrants. Sometimes some things remain the same. One woman's teleology may be another man's continuity.

4. The relative importance of private and public penance.

Research on penance by Hamilton, Mansfield, Kottje, De Jong, Meens, Frantzen, and many others have transformed the understanding of its early history. Public penance is no longer an obsolete appendage but part of a cultural whole in which it influences the form of the secret rite. It is difficult to know just how prevalent Vogel et al. thought public penance was, but I think it is fair to say that current research has markedly changed our sense of its frequency and longevity.

But on relative importance, numbers alone tell a starkly different story. If you give high estimates to the participants in Mansfield's notices in episcopal registers of public rites in specific years, and add to those the individual cases she, Hamilton, De Jong, and others have found in other sources, one gets perhaps scores of cases (and they are all public penances for public sins--no apparent confusions between public and private in any of them). For argument's sake, make that hundreds. Out of generosity, make it thousands. In contrast, by the end of Lent 1216, if the universal requirement was met by no more than 10% of forty million or so Europeans under the jurisdiction of Rome, private confessions already numbered in the millions. And the count mounts every year thereafter. We find a much richer record in the public humiliations meted out by lower ecclisaistical courts of late medieval England in a recent collection edited by Larry Poos. Familiar objects of public shaming are unmarried pregnant women--standing in view, draped in white, holding a candle--and assorted miscreants flogged around the market place. This kind of low-level penance looks like a more potent rival to confession than the solemn rituals of earlier bishops and I wonder whether there are remotely comparable examples in earlier periods. And yet even if we add these cases in generous estimates, the numbers of public penitents continue to be dwarfed by the "privately" shriven after 1215.

So, yes--I have been receiving a valuable education in the rites of public penance and their popularity--and I am waiting to learn more. But I see no reason to conclude that these canonical forms of humiliation were close in importance to a sacramental confession emphasizing guilt, contrition, and privacy--characteristics not diminished by the sacrament's continued emphasis on satisfaction and restitution. Both Hamilton and Mansfield observe that there had long been a dearth of public penance in Italy. That such a discrepancy did not stir up comment says something about the relative importance of those public rites. Imagine what would have been the reaction by popes, religious, bishops, or reformers had they learned that there was no secret confession in the dioceses of northern France not just in the thirteenth century, but in the twelfth. The question is how and by what date we may assume such an expectation: 1214? 1140? 900? If that is teleological, and if it relegates c. 600 to c. 1100 to the status of "transition", so be it. I want to believe in the possibility of frequent confession in Carolingian Europe that Rob Means tentatively explores in Handling Sin; but my head defeats my heart. On the other hand, Europe around 1200-- like the Rhineland of Caesar of Heisterbach c. 1200 according to Peter Biller (Handling Sin, 4-7)-certainly seems ready for omnis utriusque sexus.

It is widely recognized that the most interesting approach to the problem in recent years is Alexander Murray's "Confession before 1215", which argues (on carefully defined, non- prescriptive evidence) that lay confession of noteworthy frequency does not develop until a few generations before Lateran IV.

Hamilton and Meens suggest to me that the balance between public and secret penance probably tipped to the latter much earlier, but they can't solve the frequency issue. Hamilton's confirmation of the development of one-stop confession by c. 1000, a watershed for both Murray and Poschmann, deserves more intensive scrutiny. If that change was indeed "demand-driven," that suggests more frequent recourse to "penance in the usual way". At the same time, early medievalists present a secret confession so heavily laced with satisfaction and elaborate ritual that, as I have said repeatedly above, I doubt it could have been popular or widely enforced. About the growing importance of confession in the twelfth century, however, I have few doubts.

Two further examples illustrate the tendency of the evidence to go in opposite directions.

I think Hamilton may have missed an opportunity to use Paxton's Christianizing Death, which appears in the bibliography, but does not figure in the argument. Murray connects lay confession and the threat of death, whereas Paxton's research showing the routinization of confession at death might supply an argument--albeit prescriptive--supportive of Hamilton's earlier timing, against Murray's.

But another prescriptive example that confession was coming into its own in the long twelfth century seems more compelling. It is not until then that a recognizable theology of the seal begins to emerge. Authorities before 1215 who assert an obligation to keep the matter of confession secret include Lanfranc, Abelard, Gratian, Huguccio, Eugenius III, Peter Lombard, Peter the Chanter, and Peter of Blois. The first to label it the "seal"--signaculum--was Nicholas of Clairvaux (before 1153). The first to use sigillum was Peter the Chanter. That, and the poverty of references earlier, are not an accident. That is only one of the reasons why I conclude that while Sarah Hamilton has put different images in my brain, and complicated my standard narrative, on this central question Alexander Murray seems to me to point in the right direction.


Biller, Peter and A. J. Minnis (eds.), Handling Sin: Confession in the Middle Ages (York, 1998).

Biller, Peter, "Confession in the Middle Ages: Introduction," Handling Sin, 3-33.

De Jong, Mayke, "What was public about public penance? Paenitentia Publica and Justice in the Carolingian World," La Giustizia nell alto medioevo (secoli IX-XI) Settimane . . . di studi sull'alto medioevo, 14, vol 2 (Spoleto, 1997) 863-902.

Jungmann, Josef A., S.J., Die lateinischen Bussriten in ihrer geschichtlichen Entwicklung (Innsbruck, 1932).

Mansfield, Mary, The Humiliation of Sinners. Public Penance in Thirteenth-Century France (Ithaca and London, 1995).

Meens, Rob, "The Frequency and Nature of Early Medieval Penance," Handling Sin, 35-62.

Murray, Alexander, "Confession before 1215," Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Sixth Series, 3 (London, 1993) 51-81.

idem, "Counselling in Medieval Confession," Handling Sin, 63-78.

Palmer, Paul F., SJ, "Jean Morin and the Problem of Private Penance," Theological Studies 6, no. 3 (September, 1945) 317-357 and 7, no. 2 (June, 1946) 281-308; published separately with the subtitle "Excerpt from a Doctoral Dissertation Presented to the Faculty of Theology of Woodstock College (Woodstock, MD, 1947)".

Paxton, Frederick, Christianizing Death: the creation of a ritual process in early medieval Europe (Ithaca and London, 1990). Poos, Lawrence R. (ed.), Lower ecclesiastical jurisdiction in late-medieval England: the courts of the Dean and Chapter of Lincoln, 1336-1349, and the Deanery of Wisbech, 1458-1484 (Oxford and New York, 2001).

Poschmann, Bernhard, Penance and the Anointing of the Sick (New York, 1963).