Medieval Penitenials

Have you ever wondered what life was like in the medieval and early modern periods? At times this period can be hard to study because of the lack of sources. However, one kind of resource has survived which teaches us a lot about daily life at this time. That resource is the penitential.

What is a penitential?

A penitential is a book for priests to help them with confession. When people confess to their priest, the priest is responsible to dole out the proper penance for the sin committed. There are two problems that come about because of this. First, what are the kinds of sins one might expect, and second what are the proper penance for each sin? Do not worry! The solution is the penitential.

The penitential is then a book which writes out numerous kinds of sins and the required penance for that sin. The sins in each book are categorized by type and severity. For example, the largest and most interesting section is the category on fornication or sexual sins. Some of the examples would seem odd and banal to the modern reader. For instance, touching the opposite sex merits a few Hail Marys. Or, if a married couple has sex outside the time when a woman can become pregnant, than their copulation is labeled fornication and sodomy. In these cases, it is a more serious sin and merits fasting. Sins are not just limited to married couples, but come in every possible combination. There are penances for unmarried couples that have sex, for homosexuality, and even bestiality.

For more information check out The History Blog. Or if you are interested in trying your own hand at figuring out penances, visit the Anglo-Saxon site, a virtual exhibition on Irish and Anglo-Saxon penitentials.


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