15.06.45, Meens, Penance in Medieval Europe, 600-1200

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Atria A. Larson

The Medieval Review 15.06.45

Meens, Rob. Penance in Medieval Europe, 600-1200. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014. pp. x, 282. ISBN: 9780521693110 (paperback).

Reviewed by:
Atria A. Larson
Saint Louis University

Certain fields of study call out for a concise introduction, survey of recent specialized research, and reinterpretation of the evidence. Early medieval penance is such a field, or was so until Rob Meens' book. There is perhaps no scholar in the world better poised to write such a book than Meens, and his relatively short and yet comprehensive book in English provides a major service to medieval historians with interest in penance, religion, and canon law. Early medieval penitentials and their manuscript context have received detailed treatment in recent years; much of that treatment is highly technical and not in English, and so the results of that research has remained inaccessible to most Anglophone scholars, who usually rely on the English translation of Bernhard Poschmann's work for an introduction to late antique and early medieval penance and the work in French by Cyrille Vogel, perhaps with modifications provided by articles in English by scholars like Mayke De Jong and by the broad, sweeping work on late antiquity of scholars like Peter Brown. Meens has been one of the major scholars leading the efforts to study the texts and their manuscripts with technical precision and from a historical, not merely philological, viewpoint. His major accomplishment in Penance in Medieval Europe consists of introducing scholars in concise form to the myriad penitential sources and combining a close examination of the texts, their contents, and their manuscript context with a more cultural-historical interpretation of the historical evidence about penitential practice in the period in question, namely 600 to 1200, with particular emphasis on the Merovingian period through the eleventh century.

Cultural or religious historians might be slightly disappointed in Meens' final product, for they will not find here a detailed discussion of what penance looked like for individuals of the Middle Ages or firm statements about how often people did penance and what they thought about it. What they will find, however, are the historical conclusions that are possible, at least for now, based on the evidence at hand. Much of that evidence is textual and, yes, normative. Meens shows in this book why he is highly respected in the field of medieval canon law as well as in the field of penitential studies. He does not shy away from conciliar material or canon law collections but rather handles them with sophisticated analysis, pointing out how conciliar statutes and the combination in a single manuscript, or even in a single text, of penitential material with what we think of as strict issues of canon law reveal broad concern for penance, widespread practice of penance, and a growing assertion of episcopal control over penitential texts and practices. Meanwhile, his careful reading of the texts and specific penitential tariffs leads him to be able to see a development from a situation in which penance for laymen was often a matter of social reconciliation (making amends for social sins such as homicide or adultery, the lay sins treated most in earlier penitentials) to a situation in which confession and penance could accommodate more personal, private, and minor sins that were more purely issues of offence against God alone. Penance increasingly became part of efforts at personal holiness, even though it could still play a social role in reconciling enemies or helping a public offender maintain or recover his social position.

Readers will also find a subtle restructuring, or even gentle toppling, of the traditional narratives about medieval penance. Was there, as Poschmann believed, a development from public, formal, ritualized penance to private, informal, interiorized penance over the course of the early Middle Ages that was the result of an influx of Irish monastic penitentials into continental Christianity? Meens argues that such a narrative is grossly oversimplified, that it ignores the evidence for a wide range of means for dealing with sin and reconciliation to God, church, and fellow man throughout the medieval period. Meens highlights different forms of penitential practice in the early church and points out the likelihood of regional variation. The traditional narrative viewed a dearth of penitential experience in the Merovingian church, setting the stage for a reinvigoration through penitential handbooks of an insular origin. Meens instead argues that the Merovingian church had deep interest in penance and that the Irish practice could so easily be incorporated into current practice precisely because penance in the early medieval period in Gaul was so rich and encompassing. He also demonstrates that contrition or interior penance had been a strong part of the tradition long before the twelfth century. The traditional narrative placed the Carolingian dichotomy--public penance for public sins, private penance for secret ones--in the historical center of developments from a formal penance of late antiquity to private confession and penance in the twelfth century. Meens provides nuance not so much by debunking the dichotomy (it does, after all, appear in several sources even if it is not cited pervasively by contemporaries) but by emphasizing, again, the variety of penitential practices and the resultant flexibility in it. Such flexibility can be seen in some of the high-profile cases, such as the penances of Louis the Pious, which do not fall neatly into strict constructs of formal or private penance and their supposed end results. If Louis's penance in 833, for instance, had followed a supposedly strict form of formal penance, he could not have returned to the throne. And yet he did, demonstrating in grand fashion a reality that Meens is also keen to highlight, namely the ways in which penance could serve political ends and social reconciliation.

Meens's treatment of the Carolingian period and its many texts is particularly strong, probably because the period produced so many of the texts in which Meens is an expert. The proliferation of texts forms the basis of much of Meens's analysis. He situates the high production of penitential handbooks within the context of the Carolingian Renaissance or, more specifically, the Carolingian efforts at reform with an eye toward uniformity and authority. The rejection of Irish penitentials is in this context not a rejection of private penitential practices per se but rather a striving after authoritative text and authentic practice throughout the Carolingian realm under proper episcopal oversight.

Meens moves from the Carolingian period to the period of decline in new penitential handbooks in the tenth and eleventh centuries. He argues that penance remained important to society after the Carolingian period, during which time he believes penance became a regular part of the Christian life. He traces the strength of penance in relationship to canonical discipline, episcopal power, and reform efforts by discussing the works and efforts of such figures as Regino of PrĂ¼m, Burchard of Worms, and Wulfstan. He discusses Henry IV's penance at Canossa, which again highlights the flexibility and potential political utility of penance, and the First Crusade, which again highlights how potent notions of sin and atonement for sin must have become for the laity over the preceding centuries.

With admittedly less precision and less depth, Meens then treats the twelfth century. His interpretation of penitential developments in the preceding centuries means that he takes a different approach to this seminal century. Traditionally the period has been viewed as the age when the individual awoke, with consciousness of interior motives and a new conviction that contrition was essential for the forgiveness of sins. Meens already showed that contrition had long been important for effective penance. Moreover, the traditional narrative has often seen in the twelfth century a greater sensitivity to various circumstances in a sinner's life that would allow the priest to assign greater or lesser penances. Stephan Kuttner long ago highlighted the development of canonistic notions of aggravating or attenuating circumstances for guilt out of early medieval penitential literature. Meens again points out that the earlier tradition demonstrated concern that those administering penance consider the various circumstances of those performing penance. Traditionally, Peter Abelard in his Scito te ipsum has been cited as the turning point in this transition from formal, ritualistic penance and the rigid assigning of penance to a concern for motives, interior contrition, and specific circumstances. But, with his usual attention to manuscript evidence, Meens points out that Abelard's work was hardly read in his time and survives in but five manuscripts and therefore could not have been so influential as many scholars have assumed. So what is distinctive, if anything, about what emerged in the twelfth century? Meens answers very sensibly that the change is in language, in discourse, in the development of systematized terminology for speaking about contrition, circumstances, motives, etc., and in more complex ways of thinking about them. The development comes about as the result of the growth of schools and concomitant developments in the academic or scientific fields of canon law and theology. There was, then, no significant shift in the experience of penance in the twelfth century, but there was a significant development in reflection on it.

Meens's book could have been improved only on a few points. First, occasionally a discussion seems somewhat out of place. I found the location of treatment of the Collectio Dacheriana in the midst of the Carolingian dichotomy odd (119). Second, current Gratian scholarship holds that Gratian did not utilize Burchard of Worms's Decretum, or utilized it only in a few instances, contrary to Meens's assertion to the contrary (149). In fact, the earliest glossators of Gratian's text seemed to know this: several mid-twelfth century manuscripts of the Decretum Gratiani include marginal citations to parallel or relevant texts in Burchard's text. Third, Meens's analysis in his final chapter and conclusion about the developments of the twelfth century, especially as regards the relationship between canonical and penitential material, leaves room for advancement or reformulation by scholars more expert in that and succeeding centuries. Meens sees a growing separation between penance and canon law, recognizable even in the short time between Ivo of Chartres's Decretum and the re-working of the text, minus penitential matters, in the Panormia. He then sees a continuation of that separation in Gratian's Decretum, despite his helpful albeit brief treatment of Gratian's De penitentia. In sum, he asserts that "the development of the study of law at centers like Bologna led to a growing separation between canon law and pastoral care" (199). I remain unconvinced that such a formulation is accurate. Yes, in and after the twelfth century the study of canon law could be divorced from pastoral care. And, yes, penitential texts and canonical texts developed their own genres. And, yes, perhaps (?) a penitential handbook of the thirteenth century was less likely to be combined with other canonical material in manuscripts--although this point merits further research. Yet, canon law and penance continued to remain closely related, with the jurisprudence of the former informing the latter, and with concerns of the latter never terribly far from the canonists' minds. One need only remember that the compiler of the Liber Extra was a Dominican with pastoral responsibilities, Raymundus de Pennaforte, who also penned a great and influential Summa de penitentia.

In general, Meens has provided a great service to the medieval community with this book. Anyone looking for an easy-to-follow guide to the mass of early penitential literature will find it here. Anyone hoping to understand ways in which penance could function in early and central medieval society will find answers, and perhaps some additional questions, here. Anyone wanting an up-to-date account of late antique and early medieval penance, including the influence of the insular penitentials, will find just that. Moreover, the conclusion provides a very helpful summary of his main points about the key developments in the history of penance, as he sees them, over the 600-year span in question. This book presents a synthesis that should remain the dominant and influential account for many years to come, even if scholars will undoubtedly continue their research and modify small points in it.

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