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§ 85. The Penitential Books.

I. The Acts of Councils, the Capitularies of Charlemagne and his successors, and the Penitential Books, especially that of Theodore of Canterbury, and that of Rome. See Migne’s Patrol. Tom. 99, fol. 901–983.

II. Friedr. Kunstmann (R.C.): Die latein. Pönitentialbücher der Angelsachsen. Mainz 1844. F. W. H. Wasserschleben: Bussordnungen der abendländ. Kirche. Halle 1851. Steitz: Das röm. Buss-Sacrament. Frankf. 1854. Frank (R.C.): Die Bussdisciplin der Kirche. Mainz 1867. Probst (R.C.): Sacramente und Sacramentalien. Tübingen 1872. Haddan and Stubbs: Councils and Ecclesiastical Documents relating to Great Britain and Ireland, vol. III. Oxf. 1871. H. Jos. Schmitz (R.C.): Die Bussbücher und die Bussdisciplin der Kirche. Nach handschriftl. Quellen. Mainz 1883 (XVI. and 864 p.). Comp. the review of this book by Wasserschleben in the “Theol. Literaturzeitung,” 1883, fol. 614 sqq.

Bingham, Bk XIV. Smith and Cheetham, II. 608 sqq. (Penitential Books). Herzog,2 III. 20 sqq. (Bussbücher). Wetzer and Welte2 II. 209–222 (Beichtbücher); II. 1561–1590 (Bussdisciplin).

Comp. Lit. in § 87.

The discipline of the Catholic church is based on the power of the keys intrusted to the apostles and their successors, and includes the excommunication and restoration of delinquent members. It was originally a purely spiritual jurisdiction, but after the establishment of Christianity as the national religion, it began to affect also the civil and temporal condition of the subjects of punishment. It obtained a powerful hold upon the public mind from the universal belief of the middle ages that the visible church, centering in the Roman papacy, was by divine appointment the dispenser of eternal salvation, and that expulsion from her communion, unless followed by repentance and restoration, meant eternal damnation. No heresy or sect ever claimed this power.

Discipline was very obnoxious to the wild and independent spirit of the barbaric races. It was exercised by the bishop through synodical courts, which were held annually in the dominions of Charlemagne for the promotion of good morals. Charlemagne ordered the bishops to visit their parishes once a year, and to inquire into cases of incest, patricide, fratricide, adultery, and other vices contrary to the laws of God.389389    See the passages in Gieseler IL 55 (Harpers’ ed.) The Synodical courts were called Sendgerichte(a corruption from Synod). Similar directions were given by Synods in Spain and England. The more extensive dioceses were divided into several archdeaconries. The archdeacons represented the bishops, and, owing to this close connection, they possessed a power and jurisdiction superior to that of the priests. Seven members of the congregation were entrusted with a supervision, and had to report to the inquisitorial court on the state of religion and morals. Offences both ecclesiastical and civil were punished at once with fines, fasting, pilgrimages, scourging, imprisonment. The civil authorities aided the bishops in the exercise of discipline. Public offences were visited with public penance; private offences were confessed to the priest, who immediately granted absolution on certain conditions.

The discipline of the Latin church in the middle ages is laid down in the so-called “Penitential Books.”390390    Liber Poenitentialis, Poenitential, Confessionale, Leges Poenitentium, Judicia Peccantium. They regulate the order of penitence, and prescribe specific punishments for certain sins, as drunkenness, fornication, avarice, perjury, homicide, heresy, idolatry. The material is mostly derived from the writings of the fathers, and from the synodical canons of Ancyra (314), Neocaesarea (314), Nicaea (325), Gangra (362), and of the North African, Frankish, and Spanish councils down to the seventh century. The common object of these Penitentials is to enforce practical duties and to extirpate the ferocious and licentious passions of heathenism. They present a very dark picture of the sins of the flesh. They kept alive the sense of a moral government of God, who punishes every violation of his law, but they lowered the sense of guilt by fostering the pernicious notion that sin may be expiated by mechanical exercises and by the payment of a sum of money.

There were many such books, British, Irish, Frankish, Spanish, and Roman. The best known are the Anglo-Saxon penitentials of the seventh and eighth centuries, especially that of Theodore, archbishop of Canterbury (669–690). He was a Greek by birth, of Tarsus in Cilicia, and reduced the disciplinary rules of the East and West to a system. He was not the direct author of the book which bears his name, but it was drawn up under his direction, published during his life-time and by his authority, and contains his decisions in answer to various questions of a priest named Eoda and other persons on the subject of penance and the whole range of ecclesiastical discipline. The genuine text has recently been brought to light from early MSS. by the combined labors of German and English scholarship.391391    By Prof. Wasserschleben of Halle, 1851 (from several Continental MSS.), and Canon Haddan and Prof. Stubbs, Oxford, 1871, (III. 173-203) from a Cambridge MS. of the 8th century. The texts of the earlier editions of Theodori Poenitentiale by Spelman (1639), D’Achery (1669), Jaques Petit (1677, reprinted in Migne’s Patrol. 1851, Tom. 99), Thorpe (1840), and Kunstmann (1844) are imperfect or spurious. The question of authorship and of the MS. sources is learnedly discussed in a note by Haddan and Stubbs, III. 173 sq. See extracts in the Notes. The introduction and the book itself are written in barbarous Latin. Traces of the Greek training of Theodore may be seen in the references to St. Basil and to Greek practices. Next to Theodore’s collection there are Penitentials under the name of the venerable Bede (d. 735), and of Egbert, archbishop of York (d. 767).392392    Both are given in Haddan and Stubbs, Councils, etc. III. 326 sqq. and 413 sqq.

The earliest Frankish penitential is the work of Columban, the Irish missionary (d. 615). He was a severe monastic disciplinarian and gave prominence to corporal punishment among the penalties for offences. The Cummean Penitential (Poenit. Cummeani) is of Scotch-Irish origin, and variously assigned to Columba of Iona (about 597), to Cumin, one of his disciples, or to Cummean, who died in Columban’s monastery at Bobbio (after 711). Haltigar, bishop of Cambray, in the ninth century (about 829) published a “Roman Penitential,” professedly derived from Roman archives, but in great part from Columban, and Frankish sources. An earlier work which bears the name “Poenitentiale Romanum,” from the first part of the eighth century, has a more general character, but its precise origin is uncertain. The term “Roman” was used to designate the quality of a class of Penitentials which enjoyed a more than local authority.393393    This is the view of Wasserschleben, while Schmitz thinks that the Poenitentiale Romanum was originally intended for the Roman church, and that the Westem Penitentials are derived from it. Rabanus Maurus (d. 855) prepared a “Liber Poenitentitae” at the request of the archbishop Otgar of Mayence (841). Almost every diocese had its own book of the kind, but the spirit and the material were substantially the same.


As specimens of these Penitential Books, we give the first two chapters from the first book of the Poenitentiale Theodori (Archbishop of Canterbury), as printed in Haddan and Stubbs, Councils and Eccles. Doc. relating to Great Britain and Ireland, vol. IIIrd. p. 177 sqq. We insert a few better readings from other MSS. used by Wasserschleben.

I. De Crapula et Ebrietate.

1. Si quis Episco pus aut aliquis ordinatus in consuetudine vitium habuerit ebrietatis, aut desinat aut deponatur.

2. Si monachus pro ebrietate vomitum facit, XXX. dies peniteat.

3. Si presbiter aut diaconus pro ebrietate, XL. dies peniteat.

4. Si vero pro infirmitate aut quia longo tempore se abstinuerit, et in consuetudine non erit ei multum bibere vel manducare, aut pro gaudio in Natale Domini aut in Pascha aut pro alicujus Sanctorum commemoratione faciebat, et tunc plus non accipit quam decretum est a senioribus, nihil nocet. Si Episcopus juberit, non nocet illi, nisi ipse similiterfaciat.

5. Si laicus fidelis pro ebrietate vomitum facit, XV. dies peniteat.

6. Qui vero inebriatur contra Domini interdictum, si votum sanctitatis habuerit VII. dies in pane et aqua, LXX. sine pinguedine peniteat; laici sine cervisa [cervisia].

7. Qui per nequitiam inebriat alium, XL. dies peniteat.

8. Qui pro satietate vomitum facit, III. diebus [dies] peniteat.

9. Si cum sacrificio communionis, VII. dies peniteat; si infirmitatis causa, sine culpa.

II. De Fornicatione.

1. Si quis fornicaverit cum virgine, I. anno peniteat. Si cum marita, IIII. annos, II. integros, II alios in XL. mis. III. bus., et III dies in ebdomada peniteat.

2. Qui sepe cum masculo aut cum pecude fornicat, X. annos ut peniteret judicavit.

3. Rem aliud. Qui cum pecoribus coierit, XV. annos peniteat.

4. Qui coierit cum masculo post XX. annum, XV. annos peniteat.

5. Si masculus cum masculo fornicaverit, X. annos peniteat.

6. Sodomitae VII. annos peniteat [peniteant]; molles [et mollis] sicut adultera.

7. Item hoc; virile scelus semel faciens IIII annos peniteat; si in consuetudine fuerit, ut Basilius dicit, XV. Si sine, sustinens unum annum ut mulier. Si puer sit, primo II. bus annis; si iterat IIII.

8. Si in femoribus, annum I. vel. III. XL. mas.

9. Si se ipsum coinguinat, XL. dies [peniteat.]

10. Qui concupiscit fornicari [fornicare] sed non potest, XL. dies vel XX. peniteat. Si frequentaverit, si puer sit, XX. dies, vel vapuletur.

11. Pueri qui fornicantur inter se ipsos judicavit ut vapulentur.

12. Mulier cum muliere fornicando [si ... fornicaverit], III. annos peniteat.

13. Si sola cum se ipsa coitum habet, sic peniteat.

14. Una penitentia est viduae et puellae. Majorem meruit quae virum habet, si fornicaverit.

15. Qui semen in os miserit, VII annos peniteat: hoc pessimum malum. Alias ab eo judicatum est ut ambo usque in finem vitae peniteant; vel XXII. annos, vel ut superius VII.

16. Si cum matre quis fornicaverit, XV. annos peniteat, et nunquam, mutat [mutet] nisi Dominicis diebus: et hoc tam profanum incertum [incestum] ab eo similiter alio modo dicitur ut cum peregrinatione perenni VII. annos peniteat.

17. Qui cum sorore fornicatur, XV. annos peniteat, eo modo quo superius de matre dicitur, sed et istud XV. alias in canone confirmavit; unde non absorde XV. anni ad matrem transeunt qui scribuntur.

18. Qui sepe fornicaverit, primus canon judicavit X. annos penitere; secundus canon VII.; sed pro infirmitate hominis, per consilium dixerunt III. annos penitere.

19. Si frater cum fratre naturali fornicaverit per commixtionem carnis, XV. annos ab omni carne abstineat.

20. Si mater cum filio suo parvulo fornicationem imitatur, III. annos se abstineat a carne, et diem unum jejunet in ebdomada, id est, usque ad vesperum.

21. Qui inludetur fornicaria cogitatione, peniteat usque dum cogitatio superetur.

22. Qui diligit feminam mente, veniam petat ab eo [a Deo] id est, de amore et amicitia si dixerit si non est susceptus ab ea, VII. dies peniteat.”

The remaining chapters of the first book treat De Avaritia Furtiva; De Occisione Hominum [De Homicidio]; De his qui per Heresim decipiuntur; De Perjurio; De multis et diversis Malis; De diverso Lapso servorum Dei; De his qui degraduntur vel ordinari non possunt; De Baptizatis his, qualiter peniteant; De his qui damnant Dominicam et indicta jejunia ecclesiae Dei; De communione Eucharistiae, vel Sacrificio; De Reconciliatione; De Penitentia Nubentium specialiter; De Cultura Idolorum. The last chapter shows how many heathen superstitions prevailed in connection with gross immorality, which the church endeavored to counteract by a mechanical legalism. The second book treats De Ecclesiae Ministerio; De tribus gratlibus; De Ordinatione; De Baptismo et Confirmatione; De Missa Defunctorum, etc.

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