Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
19.09.33 Abraham, Anticipating Sin in Medieval Society

19.09.33 Abraham, Anticipating Sin in Medieval Society

This book sets out to analyse nine early medieval penitentials concentrating on the social history that can be gleaned from them. The author claims that "[...] these little books of penance have long been perceived as anomalies and only infrequently recognised as having value for early medieval social history"(14). Abraham intends to "[...] resituate penitentials within the broader discourses with which they were engaged, focusing on the language their authors employed in describing sins and sinners, and clarifying their value for early medieval history beyond questions of sin and punishment"(14). As the subtitle "Childhood, Sexuality, and Violence in the Early Penitentials" suggests, the culpability of different age groups, ranging from infancy to adulthood, provide a focal point and the recommended penances for sexual digressions and violence serve to illustrate how penitential practises were adapted to and thereby reflect an awareness of varying levels of individual maturity within these groups. In addition, Abraham stresses that the penitentials aimed "[...] to meet the needs, real or perceived, of specific communities"(11) and discusses instances of gender-specific sins which reveal contemporary notions about male and female social roles as those determine an individual’s most likely areas of transgression.

The book is divided into six chapters, preceded by a general introduction and followed by a short conclusion, bibliography and index. Three tables in the first chapter (36/7, 37/8 and 41) offer a very useful overview of the demographics, topics, and penitential components of the nine penitentials.

Abraham's introduction first maps out the chronological order and interrelatedness of the penitentials. She focusses on these early texts since they were composed prior to Frankish reformers' condemnation of penitentials in the ninth century, which led to the emergence of the far more uniform confessor's manuals.(11) The nine texts span about 250 years and originate in Wales, Ireland, England and Francia. Abraham points out that while "[t]hese handbooks are far from uniform, ... they draw on similar, sometimes identical authorities, as well as each other"(8). They also have a common intent, which is to suggest appropriate penances not only for specific sins but also with a view to an individual’s culpability and capability for penance as determined by such factors as age, sex, and status.(8)

The first chapter, "Little Books of Penance", introduces the nine penitentials: the mid-sixth century Irish Penitential of Finnian, thecontemporary Ambrosian Penitential, which may have been a precedent of the former, the Penitential of Columbanus, most likely composed under Columbanus' direction in Bobbio prior to 612, the seventh century Penitential of Cummean from Ireland, the Frankish Burgundian Penitential, originally composed between the seventh and eighth centuries in Gaul, the Penitential of Theodore, an early eigth century compilation from England, the slightly later Penitential of Ecgbert, the Bigotian Penitential, probably composed in the British Isles around the same time, and the contemporary Old Irish Penitential. A more uniform structure would have improved these short introductions as information on dates, provenance, language, sources and precedents as well as suggestions of likely communities for their use appear in varying order. The remainder of the chapter explains the theology of penitential practices, highlights the diversity of the religious communities involved in their production and stresses their inherent subjectivity. These manuals were not intended to offer simple one-to-one lists of sins and penances but rather guidelines which could be adapted by the confessor to "[...] fit the abilities and limitations of individual penitents […]"(45). The multiple and often ambiguous terms used to designate monastic, semi-monastic and lay people associated with a religious community reflect the wide variety of societal roles these communities could fulfil.

Abraham supplies four tables to support her argument of the penitentials as useful sources to establish the growing authority of religious communities over both spiritual and secular matters in their realm. Table 1 shows the demographics of these texts in their chronological order, thus highlighting the increasing mention of lay people in their provisions. Table 2 further supports this point by listing the transgressions dealt with, illustrating the increasing concern with lay people’s sins. Since Abraham is interested in the interplay of public vs. private and secular vs. religious spheres, table 3 contains the frequency of penitential components such as corporal punishment, compensation and psalm recitation. It clearly illustrates that most penances involved a degree of public exposure and were also not restricted to the religious sphere in a narrow sense.

In chapter 2, "The Aetas Infantes Speech and the Limits of Childhood Innocence", Abraham discusses children's culpability. Two periods of childhood were commonly distinguished: the time before the age of seven, defined by a lack of verbal skills which was equated with an inability to deceive, i.e. the child was not yet doli capax, and the following period, stretching to puberty. While the under sevens are thus not culpable, they are still tarnished by original sin and in need of baptism. Children of this age group appear mostly as injured parties in the penitentials, e.g. because their parents neglected their duty to baptise them, and their vulnerability is particularly stressed. After the age of seven, children's natural behaviour, thought to be characterised by mischief and foolishness, did not exculpate them completely for their wrongdoings but was certainly considered a diminishing factor. Abraham emphasises particularly that not only the physical age but also the individual maturity of a child played a role in determining appropriate penance, supporting the notion of the penitentials as flexible guides to be used at confessors' discretion.

The following chapter, "The Games of Youth. Puberty, Culpability, and Autonomy,"shows how a similar awareness of typical age-related misconduct and temptations occasioned some leniency in such matters as Abraham refers to as "the sexual peccadilloes of youths" (73) and which feature in the Penitential of Cummean as "the games of youth" (72). Again, the penitentials clearly see boundaries between age groups as fluid and subject to individual development. The actual age is less relevant than sexual and moral maturity.

In chapter 4, "Children of Eve. Lawful Marriage and the Regulation of Sexual Intercourse," Abraham focusses on the Church's intention to gain authority over defining what constitutes a lawful union while subsequently casting other socially accepted unions as illicit. The sole approved union of a Christian marriage obviously fell into the spiritual domain and was regulated accordingly. Various digressions relating to marriage feature in the penitentials, ranging from adultery and infanticide to transgressions regarding marital sexual intercourse. Even though all non-procreational sex was deemed sinful, some allowances seem to have been made for married couples. Still, every type of non-normative intercourse was sanctioned (e.g. from behind, both vaginally and anally; woman on top) and had to be atoned for.

This topic is taken up in chapter 5 "Heirs of Sodom. Sexual Deviance, Pollution, and Community," where Abraham discusses penances for same-sex intercourse. Apart from the obvious impossibility to engage in procreational sex, homosexual intercourse was generally not more severely sanctioned than the same deviant sexual act performed by a man and woman. There is a predominant focus on male homosexual sex in the penitentials with only few references to female same-sex transgressions. In both cases, however, Abraham cautions the reader to be aware that it is not sexual preference as such that is the topic but the transgressive and deviant nature of the sexual acts performed. In this, she confirms Boswell's 1980s observation that "the act, not the parties involved, constituted the sin."[1]

In the sixth chapter of the book, "Siblings of Cain. Social Violence and the Gendering of Sin," Abraham analyses which sins were apparently believed to be gender-specific and discusses the reasons for this. In line with her overall argument that the penitentials were products of the respective communities they were intended for, Abraham points out that the gendering of sin "[…] illustrates their [the authors'] understanding of the social expectations that informed the roles of men and women in the communities for which they produced these manuals, and the direct correlation between gender-and status-related expectations and the potentialities for sin"(146). She stresses that it is thus not the perceived greater or lesser capability of a male or female individual to commit a particular sin but simply the likelihood which is closely connected to societal roles. Thus, this attributing of likely sins to males or females respectively allows a glimpse at societal organisation.

The "Conclusion" reiterates the main points of the study and Abraham contends that "the penitentials above all contribute to a fuller understanding of the complex interplay between the spiritual and the social in relation to the life cycle." However, while the study certainly evaluates some aspects from a fresh angle, and discusses intriguing details such as the culpability (or lack thereof) of different age groups or the provisions to also take into account individual maturity when assigning appropriate penance, it would have profited from a clearer line of argument and more succinct internal structuring. There is no systematic direct comparison between the nine texts, which would have further supported Abraham's argument of a development towards greater ecclesiastical authority in more spheres of secular life. Often, Abraham seems to be refuting arguments scarcely made in scholarship, such as her recurrent insistence on the "intersection of the social and the spiritual" (173) which is hardly disputed for medieval society. Similarly, the flexible use of penitentials and their intention to cure rather than punish have been already observed e.g. by Frantzen. [2] Abraham's detailed discussions of examples for the practice are undoubtedly useful but cannot lay claim to refuting a misconception. In addition, phrasing frequently remains fairly vague and reiterates points already made numerous times and there are also some instances which seem to reveal a lack of basic factual knowledge. When Abraham breezily contends that "infantes translates easily to 'infants'" (50) and subsequently wonders about the application of the term to children up to the age of seven, she seems to have consulted neither a Latin dictionary nor the OED since both would have included this meaning under common use. She also confuses dowry and the Anglo-Saxon custom of the morgen gifu 'morning-gift', which was not paid to the bride's parents but given to her as her personal property (106). Such shows of less than careful research obviously impair the credibility of the author's argument.

All in all, Abraham's short volume reads as a supplement to existing studies, adding more detailed discussions of selected passages and stressing, if a little too insistently, the importance of using all available sources in re-constructing the social realities of the Middle Ages.



1. John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1980) 182-183.

2. Allen J. Frantzen, The Literature of Penance in Anglo-Saxon England (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1983) 3. He also discusses the culpability of children (11) and connections between secular law and penance (11; 15). Cf also Boswell (183) for the age-relatedness of penance.