Keith Hunt - Celtic Church in Britain - Page Nine   Restitution of All Things

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The Celtic Church in Britain #9



by Leslie Hardinge (1972)


     Discipline in the early Church was concerned with the
conduct of its members so as to maintain purity of life. As the
Church grew in popularity its adherents were sometimes such in
name only. Persecution shook out those who were fearful or weak.
Eventually, when peace returned, some desired to be reunited with
their brethren.
     The problem of how to treat lapsed or fallen Christians was
always a grave one. While privileges were withheld from those who
had sinned grievously, the Church was always reluctant to cast
off any who might be reclaimed. Some clerical leaders were lax
while others were rigid. To cope with this uncertainty a system
of penance gradually evolved.
     Great differences in the practice of discipline may be noted
among early Christians compared with later developments; for
example, primitive confession was public. Numbers were few, and
the sinner was reinstated as he would be within a family. This
procedure continued for centuries in the Western Church. It was
recommended: "In church thou shalt confess thy transgressions and
shalt not betake thyself to prayer with an evil conscience."
Another directive was: "Every Lord's day gather yourselves
together and give thanks, first confessing your transgressions,
that your sacrifice may be pure." The apostolic advice, "Confess
your faults one to another", was evidently carried out literally.
     Little consideration was shown to the sensitivity of the
penitent's feelings, for his humiliating experience was regarded
as a salutary base on which his later stability might be built.

     At the close of the fourth century, in Rome at least, both
secret and open sins required public penance. Ambrose could well
report: "I have seen penitents whose tears had hollowed a furrow
on their faces, and who prostrated themselves on the ground to be
trampled upon by the feet of every one; their pale faces, worn by
fasts, exhibited the image of death in a living body." But he
recommended that after the sinner had confessed "to a man" he
ought also to make a public acknowledgment. It seems that by this
time some leaders were advocating private and others public
confession. Sometime towards the end of the fourth century,
presbyter-penitentiaries were appointed to rehabilitate those who
had lapsed. Through scandals which arose, however, this office
was eventually abolished. But the idea that a kindly pastor
should counsel penitents was not a new one, nor did it perish. In
470 Pope Simplicius appointed a special week in which confession,
penance, and baptism would be administered by priests in three
churches in Rome. This developed into the annual reconciliation
on Maundy Thursday.


     When penance came to be regarded as a sacrament is not
known. The gesture of absolution seems to have been the laying on
of hands, but even its "use was by no means universal". Nor have
formularies of penance and absolution been preserved. For
centuries the reinstatement of the penitent to Communion
"probably took the form of a deprecatory prayer" only. "No verbal
absolution in any form but that of prayer is known to have been
preserved", nor is there any early statement on sacramental

     The question soon arose whether penance might be repeated
for the same sin. "As one baptism," Ambrose ruled, "so one
penance." The rigour of this order often caused penance to be
postponed until the hour of death. In the West the administration
of this discipline eventually attained a formal methodology. The
priest heard confession privately and assigned penance. For
serious sins the penitent was not allowed to partake of
Communion. On Maundy Thursday the bishop brought the sinner back
into the fold in a public service of reconciliation. Exceptions
were made for persons involved in accidents or sicknesses in
which there was the possibility of immediate death.
     With the break-up of Roman society, morals rapidly
deteriorated. This had its effect upon the Church. "How changed
is the Christian people now from its former character" sighed
Salvian of Marseilles about the middle of the fifth century. This
ancient historian drew so graphic a picture of the depravity of
his age that it has hardly been paralleled. All seemed bent on
committing the basest crimes even into old age. "Some of them, I
suppose," Salvian said, "are relying on a foolish assurance of a
long life or the intention of eventual penitence." Because it
could not be repeated, "in the fifth century penance in time of
health was nearly lost in the West as in the East". This is one
aspect of the background of the Christianity introduced by

     The penitential discipline of the Celtic Church was of Irish
origin. When and by whom it was started cannot at present be
determined. The rules seem to be a synthesis of Christianized
Brehon laws and prescriptions being developed by Cassian and
others for dealing with sin-sick souls. While the church fathers
discussed capital crimes, no logical, formalized catalogue of
human frailties is to be found before John Cassian's list. As
physicians studied the diseases of the body, their causes and
cure, so progressive monastic leaders sought to classify sins,
and to find their motives and their remedies. Under each of eight
heads families of sins were eventually arranged. From these
origins Celtic penitential books seem to have sprung.


     While the Celtic Christians were in the flood of their
missionary zeal virtue was probably at is peak. With the passing
years and increasing complexity in organization coupled with
independence in views among the different Celtic communities, it
soon became apparent that some help was needed for both priest
and layman, to enable each to decide what should be done with the
various classes of sinners. It is probable that in some such way
the Celtic penitential books came to be. At first these slim
volumes contained simple rules. They gradually took on a
systematized form which finally covered every exigency which a
priest might meet in the confessional.
     It appears from the ancient Celtic laws that a "soul-friend"
functioned even before the arrival of Christianity. The Irish
word anmchara has been rendered "spiritual guide", or "spiritual
direcfor". The glossator felt that "pastors and teachers",
expressions used by the apostle Paul, referred to "soul-friends",
remarking, "good is my soul-friend", that is, Jesus Christ. Every
Celtic chief had a counsellor or druid at his court. While little
is actually known about them, Caesar has left a description of
their position and authority in Gaul:

     They judge in almost all controversies, public and private,
     and if any crime has been committed, or slaying done, or if
     there is a controversy over inheritance or boundaries, they
     determine rewards and adjudge penalties. Whoever, whether a
     private person or a tribe of people, does not recognize the
     award, they interdict from the sacrifices. This penalty is
     with them, most grave. Those who come under this interdict
     are looked upon as in the number of the impious and the
     criminal; these all persons shun, avoiding their touch or
     speech, lest they should be hurt by the contagion. Nor to
     these is justice given if they seek it, nor is any honour
     shared with them.


     Druids were married, and frequently passed their offices to
their sons. Incantations, fortune-telling, and magical spells
were part of their stock-in-trade. They were the genealogists and
annalists of their tribes, and also acted as leeches.
     Druids were powerful not only in Ireland, but also in
Scotland and Wales. When Columba arrived in Iona, he was believed
to have ousted two druids, who, in the guise of bishops, disputed
his presence. In fact, Iona is still known to some highlanders by
its old name Inis Druineach or Nan Druiliean, i.e. Druid's Isle.
     The ancient Welsh laws included the procedure which was to
be followed in druidical excommunications or banishments. The
outcast was known as a "kinwrecked" man. After the murderer had
been sentenced, the old law required "every one of every sex and
age within hearing of the horn to follow that exile and to keep
up the barking of dogs to the time of his putting to sea, until
he shall have passed three score hours out of sight". Caesar
noted that these banished criminals were so numerous in Gaul that
they were recruited into companies to oppose him. Druids were
understood to have practised sorcery. Commenting on the coming of
Antichrist the glossator remarked, "He will perform false marvels
and false signs, as wizards have done through him." The druids or
wizards fulfilled the prophetic picture for the commentator.

     In their social position and political influence the
powerful saints were, on occasion, seemingly the successors of
the druids. Druidism and Christianity were superficially similar.
Both had seasons in which fires were ceremonially extinguished,
and were then relighted from a symbolic flame. Both baptized
infants, at which time the child's name was bestowed upon it.
Both claimed to work magical cures to predict events, and to
transfer diseases from human beings to plants or other objects.
Both were teachers of youth and counsellors of kings. Like the
druid, the Christian soul-friend might banish a sinner. Both
cursed their enemies, and, as Senan once exclaimed, "Stronger is
the spell that I have brought with me, and better is my lore."
     Christian religious leaders apparently took over some lands
which had been sacred to the druids. They, too, organized ordeals
by fire and water; they circumambulated sacred places, and taught
the pagans to regard their deities as devils. Patrick was
believed to have been anmchara to King Loegaire after he became a
Christian, as Columba was to Aidan, king of Dalriada  and Adamnan
to Finnsnechta Fledach, king of Ireland.  In short, the evidence
seems to point to the fact that "the cleric supplants the druid
as the king's chief adviser, under the title anmchara,

     On one occasion Columba declined the request to become the
soulfriend to Donnan of Eig. It was evidently optional for a
cleric to accept this office, and it was the privilege of the one
so refused to select another. This would suggest that confession
was by no means obligatory, neither in making nor in hearing it.
The position of the soul-friend was an important one; the saying,
attributed both to Brigit and Comgall, Columba's teacher at
Bangor, "anyone without a soul-friend is a body without a head",
became a proverb.
     In early Celtic Christianity, women occasionally filled the
position of soul-friend. Women brought up foster children, and
these, grown to maturity, might return to their "spiritual
mothers" for help and counsel. Ita of Cluain Credill was
confessor to Brendan. Brigit acted in this capacity. Columbanus
confessed to a woman, but later in life he seems to have felt
that this was not the wisest practice, and appointed priests only
for this function.


     J. T. McNeill maintained that the Celtic Christian always
confessed in private in contradistinction to the Roman practice
of public confession. But among Celtic Christians exceptions
abound. There is evidence that both public and private confession
were used. The penitential of Finnian (c. 525-50) suggested that
anyone who sinned in secret should "seek pardon from God and make
satisfaction, that he may be Whole". He further recommended that,
"if one of the clerics or ministers of God makes strife, he shall
do penance for a week with bread and water and seek pardon from
God and his neighbour, with full confession and humility; and
thus can he be reconciled to God and his neighbour". In the
canons attributed to Patrick, of uncertain date but with parts
which very probably go back before Finnian, there was provision
for public confession and retribution: "At the completion of a
year of penance he shall come with witnesses and afterwards he
shall be absolved by the priest." A slanderer was also treated
like the murderer or adulterer covered in the above ruling:

     A Christian who believes that there is a vampire in the
     world, that is to say, a witch, is to be anathematized;
     whoever lays that reputation upon a living being, shall not
     be received into the Church until he revokes with his own
     voice the crime that he has committed and accordingly does
     penance with all diligence.

     Even in the Anglo-Saxon Church, when Cuthbert's preaching
turned men and women to Christ, the record observes that "they
all made open confession of what they had done, because they
thought that these things could certainly never be hidden from
him; and they cleansed themselves from the sins they had
confessed by 'fruits worthy of repentance', as he commanded".
     But, on the other hand, the Old-Irish Penitential (c. 800)
laid down a definite directive for private confession: "Anyone
who is himself conscious of any falsehood or unlawful gains let
him confess privately ..."; while the Irish Canons (c. 675) ruled
that certain works were to be performed "after confession of sins
in the presence of priest and people", and others "after
confession of sins to the priest". An episode in the life of
Samson preserves the belief that public confession was
permissible on occasion. "When Samson visited his dying father,
the old man was conscience-stricken. And forthwith, having turned
them all out of doors, his mother only remained with those there.
There were Samson himself and his deacon and his father and
mother. Without more ado Amon himself, craving their indulgence,
in the presence of the three already mentioned, confessed in
their midst a principal mortal sin, which he had kept hidden
within himself, and vowed that, from that very day until his
death, he would serve God with all his heart, his wife especially
supporting him in his resolve. He found strength to shave his
head that same hour, his wife, as I have said, very strongly
urging him."
     It would appear that J. T. McNeill's statement that
"according to the penitentials penance is to be administered
privately at every stage; confession is to be made in secret to a
qualified person, who is regularly, of course, a priest",  did
not apply to all sections of the Celtic Church. The evidence of
the penitential books suggests that confession could be made in
public before witnesses or before the church, to an abbot, or
even to a woman.


     While all this is so, the practice of confessing to a priest
was by no means infrequent among Celtic Christians. The Old-Irish
Penitential recommended both private confession to God, and also
confession to a suitable cleric: "Anyone who is himself conscious
of any falsehood or unlawful gains let him confess privately to a
confessor, or to an elder who may be set over him. If there be
none such, let him make his own confession to God, in whose
presence the evil was done, so that He shall be his confessor."
     So that even at the beginning of the ninth century auricular
confession was not yet mandatory. Advantages were recognized in
both methods. But the work of the confessor was still only to
admonish, advise, and pray for his charge. The discussion as to
whether it was necessary to confess to God only, or to a priest,
went on for many years, and was not settled in the Celtic Church
until the ordinances of the Roman party ultimately prevailed.

(Again it was Rome that finally won out when the Celtic church
was overcome by Rome - Keith Hunt)

     There is no mention in the penitential books of any
sacramental quality to confession and absolution. The priest or
soul-friend served as a counsellor only. The glossator
recommended that the penitent should "purify himself through
repentance, so that there is nothing in him which his conscience
may 'reprehend', for 'the Lord will be with him provided he
cleanse himself by repentance'". The Irish commentator
Malgairmrid noted; "My confession will not be in vain to me, for
whatever I shall pray for, God will give it". Confession to God
and cleansing from sin by repentance through his grace are
stressed in these comments. That there was therefore no ritual
absolution in the Celtic Church is suggested by the OldIrish
comment on the story of Nathan's dealings with David's sin in
connection with Bathsheba: "It was said to David that his sins
were forgiven him, it is not, however, said to us, when our sins
are forgiven us." In his note on the psalmist's assurance that
God will answer their prayer for pardon is this advice: "Pray for
forgiveness and make repentance, even as Hezekiah did. That is,
when any man sins, that he seek the forgiveness of God at that
time." And explaining the psalmist's petition, "Deliver me in thy
righteousness", he noted that it was a request to "God, to
forgive him his sins".
     J. T. McNeill also believed that "public reconciliation was
not in use" But the fourteenth canon attributed to Patrick, of
later date, as noted above, prescribed that "at the completion of
a year of penance he shall come with witnesses and afterwards be
absolved by the priest". This must have been some sort of public
ceremony, but it might also be a local exception. Finnian, on the
other hand, ruled that "sins are to be absolved in secret by
penance and by every diligent devotion of heart and body". It
thus seems clear that there were no fixed rules.


     In the Western Church, as already noticed, penance was
mainly non-recurring, and hence was often postponed till the hour
of death. But there is no hint in any of the Celtic penitential
books that penance could not be received frequently for the same
sin. It might be prescribed as often as it was needed.
     Several interesting points, which later had far-reaching
effects on discipline in the whole Western Church, had their
roots in the penitential books of Irish Christians. Penance was
described as medicine for sin. This concept originated long
before the origin of the Celtic Church. It grew out of an old
philosophy that "contraries are cured by contraries". The sinner
was regarded as a sick soul needing to be cured. The earliest
reference to the application of this philosophy in the Irish
Church is found in the penitential of Finnian:

     If a cleric is wrathful or envious or backbiting, gloomy or
     greedy, great and capital sins are these ... But by
     contraries, as we said, let us make haste to cure contraries
     and to cleanse away the faults from our hearts and introduce
     virtues in their places. Patience must arise for
     wrathfulness; kindness, or the love of God and of one's
     neighbour, for envy; for detraction, restraint of heart and
     tongue; for dejection, spiritual joy; for greed, liberality.

     Columbanus also accepted this principle. The talkative
person, he maintained, "is to be sentenced to silence; the
disturber to gentleness; the gluttonous to fasting; the sleepy
fellow to watchfulness". Cummean added, "The idler shall be taxed
with an extraordinary work, and the slothful with a lengthened

     Those whose positions were high and whose knowledge was
great were judged to have deeper guilt. This was very different
from the legal views of the time, which often permitted a king to
go free while his slave would be slain for the same crime.
     Equality of sexes was another feature of penitential
discipline, at any rate following the law promulgated by Adamnan.

     Another characteristic was composition. This indicated the
kind of satisfaction which should be made to the injured party or
his family by the offender or his relatives. In the old laws of
Ireland and Wales composition had particular reference to
homicide: "At this day ... no one is put to death for his
intentional crimes so long as erec is obtained." If the culprit
fled, his relatives were obliged to pay, or, if the murderer had
not absconded, he was to be handed over, together with his cattle
and land. The erec fine consisted of two parts. The first was the
body-fine for the murdered person, which amounted to seven female
slaves, the usual unit of value. The second was the honour-price
for the insult. This was graded according to the rank of the
injured person, the higher his position, the greater was the

     On these points some provisions of the early Celtic
penitentials were based. According to the Irish Canons penalties
were to be calculated with the rank of the injured and that of
the criminal carefully taken into consideration: "The blood of a
bishop, a superior prince, or a scribe which is poured out upon
the ground, if the wound requires a dressing, wise men judge that
he who shed the blood be crucified or pay [the value of] seven
female slaves." This kind of payment had its parallel in the
Anglo-Saxon laws.

     Examples of composition might be multiplied, suggesting
their debt to ancient Celtic usage. But the citation from the
influential penitential of Finnian will suffice:

     If any cleric commits murder and kills his neighbour and he
     is dead, he must become an exile for ten years and do
     penance seven years in another region. He shall do penance
     for three years of this time on an allowance of bread and
     water, and he shall fast three forty-day periods on an
     allowance of bread and water and for four years abstain from
     wine and meats; and having thus completed the ten years, if
     he has done well and is approved by testimonial of the abbot
     or priest to whom he was committed, he shall be received
     into his own country and make satisfaction to the friends of
     him whom he slew, and he shall render to his father or
     mother, if they are still in the flesh, compensation for the
     filial piety and obedience [of the murdered man] and say:
     'Lo, I will do for you whatever you ask, in the place of
     your son.' But if he has not done enough he shall not be
     received back forever.

     The penitential of Columbanus also ordered the murderer to
accept a penance almost exactly like the above.
     Another characteristic of the penitentials was called
"commutation"." This meant the substitution of one form of
penalty for another. Penitents who possessed property or who
could obtain help from their relatives were allowed to pay fines
in place of exile or long penanncs. This idea went wild in the
Irish Table of Commutations some time in the eighth century.  The
principle is well illustrated from the Irish Collection o f

     He who has stolen treasure either from a holy church or
     within the city where martyrs and the bodies of the saints
     sleep - the lot shall be cast on three things: either his
     hand or his foot be cut off; or he shall be committed to
     prison, to fast for such time as the seniors shall determine
     and restore entire what he carried off; or he shall be sent
     forth on pilgrimage and restore double, and shall swear that
     he will not return until he has completed the penance and
     [that] after the penance he will be a monk.

     There seems to have been little logic in the substitution of
one penalty for another. The Irish Canons suggested:

     The equivalent of a special fast, one hundred psalms and one
     hundred genuflections, or the three fifties and seven
     canticles. The equivalent of a year, three days with a dead
     saint in a tomb without food or drink and without sleep, but
     with a garment about him and with the chanting of psalms and
     with the prayer of the hours, after confession of sins to
     the priest and after the monastic vow.

     Crucifixion was the equivalent of a fine of seven female
slaves. There is no record that the fine could not be raised.
     Since the penitentials varied so much, it is impossible to
say that any penance was imposed in all the books or in all
places or at all times. The general tendency of the handbooks
may, however, be noted. The earlier the book, the more severe the
penance; commutations there were none, but they came into use in
later books to a degree not originally envisaged. The penalties
prescribed varied greatly. In the early penitentials it was
insisted that sorrow for sin be exhibited, 

     with weeping and lamentations and garment of grief, under
     control, a short penance [is more desirable] than a long
     one, and a penance relaxed with moderation.
     There is required of them also remorse and lamentation for
     their sins, and that they should desire their brethren to
     pray God for them that their sins may be remitted by means
     of penance and penitence.

     In other penances the cries of the repentant sinner were put
to better use, he sang psalms and sacred songs. The number of
songs he was obliged to render varied all the way from three or
six or eight or twelve or fifteen or thirty or fifty to one
hundred and fifty. In the Lives of the saints, the record of the
singing of the entire Psalter is not uncommon. Since most of the
monks would be performing penances, this singing might have given
rise to the idea of "perpetual praise" for which some monasteries
grew famous. On occasion the penitent was ordered to sing the
Psalms in uncomfortable positions, such as "kneeling at the end
of each", or in "cross-vigil", with his arms outstretched, and
"without lowering of arms". At other times saints might spend
entire nights standing in water, or in a tomb with a corpse,
or in a cold church, or even lying on nutshells. An anchorite of
Clonard made 700 genuflections a day and became a cripple "by
reason of the excessive number he had formerly made". Findchu sat
suspended by a sickle in each armpit. Ite kept a stag-beetle
under her clothes to nip her flesh. The list of such bizarre
penances might be enlarged greatly.

     Blows with a rod or lash are frequently mentioned  A sinner
might be sentenced to "one hundred lively blows"; another to "365
blows with a scourge on every day to the end of a year"; or to
"one hundred blows with a thong on the hand"; or even to "seven
hundred palm thumpings", or beating the palms on the hard ground.
     Columbanus fervently believed in the use of the rod or lash.
Flagellation might have been self-inflicted, but the Irish
penitentials give no evidence on this point.

     Banishment was part of the ancient legal code of the Celts.
For the more serious offences, particularly homicide, the culprit
was exiled from his country. In the Lives and the penitentials
this was called a "pilgrimage". Banishment might be for "seven
years", or "ten years". The exile might roam as did Cain, "a
vagabond and a fugitive upon the earth'", or he might be required
to spend his time in "a monastery of another country"; or even
"in the yoke of exile under another abbot". Judging by the number
of Irish pilgrims who wandered about England and on the Continent
this must have been a popular form of penance.

     It might happen that the pilgrim, sent on a trip for the
good of his soul, was loth to leave. The homilete in the
introduction to the life of Colum Cille declared:

     For when one leaves his fatherland in body only, and his
     mind doth not sever from sins and vices, and yearneth not to
     practise virtues or good deeds of the pilgrimage, then, that
     is made in that wise there groweth neither fruit nor profit
     to the soul, but labour and motion of the body idly. For it
     little profiteth any one to leave his fatherland unless he
     do good away from it.

     By far the commonest of punishments were fasts of various
durations and degrees of intensity. Sometimes the diet was merely
restricted, and certain luxuries excluded. At other times the
sinner went "without supper" only for refusing to bow to his
superior. For another sin he might be required to spend as long
as a year on bread and water, while on occasion a fast for two
days or forty days or any duration might be administered. The
amount and kind of food which might be eaten during a fast also
varied. A modifying recommendation was laid down:

     It is established that after the coming of Christ the
     Bridegroom, he shall set forth no fixed laws of fasting. But
     the difference between the Novationists and the Christians
     is that whereas a Novationist abstains continually, a
     Christian does so for a time only, that place, time, and
     person should in all things be regarded.

     In the preface to the writings of Gildas on penance a very
detailed list of dietary items was given. It is interesting also
as an index of the Celtic bill of fare:

     He shall seek pardon every hour and keep a special fast once
     every week except during the fifty days following the
     Passion. He shall have bread without limitation and a
     refection with some butter spread over it on Sunday. On the
     other days his allowance of bread shall be a loaf of dry
     bread and a dish enriched with a little fat, garden
     vegetables, a few eggs, British cheese, a Roman half-pint of
     milk in considerat?on of the weakness of the body in this
     age, also a Roman pint of whey or buttermilk for his thirst,
     and enough water if he is a worker. Let him have his bed
     meagrely supplied with hay. For the three forty-day periods
     let him add something as far as his strength permits.

     He might be required to "abstain from wine and meats for a
whole year"; or for "two days in each week on bread and water,
and two days at the end of each month"; or just for "seven days".
For murder the penance might be "twelve years on bread and
water". David stipulated "another penance is for three years, but
with a half pint of beer or milk with bread and salt every second
night with the ration of dinner".
     On the other hand so severe might fasts become that death
would result. "A great gathering of the saints of Ireland"
convened because "they were grieved that penitents died on bread
and water in the days of the elders who lived before them. Then
they fasted against God for this." The advice given by the Rule
of Tallaght was that fasting should not be continued to the
endangering of life. An angel was said to have come with a
special message to this effect:

     Wonder not if the bread and the water cannot sustain the
     penitents today. The fruits and plants of the earth have
     been devastated so that there is neither strength nor force
     in them today to support anyone. The falsehood and sin and
     injustice of men have robbed the earth with its fruits of
     their strength and force. When men were obedient to God's
     will the plants of the earth retained their proper strength.
     At that time water was no worse for sustaining anyone than
     milk is today. Then the angel told them to mix some meal
     with their butter to make gruel, so that the penitents
     should not perish upon their hands [?], because the water
     and the bread did not suffice to support them.


     Monstrous penances were sometimes imposed. "Crucifixion",
amputation of hand or foot or both, perpetual slavery, going
without sleep, repaying twofold or fourfold of what had been
stolen, and periods of silence, This list is illuminated by an
amusing anecdote. Two clerics went into the wilderness together
under a vow of silence. After a year one observed,  "'Tis a good
life we lead." After the lapse of another year in silence his
companion exclaimed, "If I cannot have peace and quiet here, I'll
go back to the world!"

(Well now that is a good one - joke that is - Keith Hunt)

     With the collapse of law and order which followed the
invasions of Europe by the barbarians during the fifth and
following centuries, the Irish penitential books played an
increasingly important role on the Continent. Their influence
tended in the direction of order and discipline, exercising a not
inconsiderable influence towards civilizing the rude pagans with
whom the Celtic missionaries laboured. These little books,
however, marked a departure from previous practice. They formed
convenient handbooks to help confessors in their tasks. They
might also have been permitted to laymen, to teach them the
degrees of guilt and the kinds of redress which ought to be made
to the injured.

     The penitentials were moulded by many of the social and
legal practices of the pagans. J. T. McNeill concluded that "we
may feel confident that the rise and success of the penitentials
as a basis of discipline was aided by the accommodations they
made to pre-Christian elements in the life of the Goidels, or
Irish Scots, and of their close relatives, the Britons of Wales".
     And so the little books grew popular among the Anglo-Saxon
Christians as well as those on the Continent, and were
extensively used. But they rendered the priest to some extent
independent of the bishop, and hence were regarded as suspect by
well-organized mettopolitans. Celtic penitentials were not
written by any ecclesiastical body. They were the product of
individual clerics, and differed among themselves, even the names
of their authors being sometimes lacking. Several of them were
fathered on early saints to add some measure of authority. After
years of miscopying and adaptation they became confused and
inaccurate. Commutations tended to neutralize any sense of guilt
which sins might engender in the conscience.


     At the beginning of the ninth century the Synod of
Chalonssur-Saone (813) angrily decreed that the "libelli called
penitentials, of which the errors were certain, the authors
uncertain" should be abolished.  The Synod of Paris (813) ordered
the bishops to look for these "booklets written in opposition to
canonical authority" and to burn all they could find, "that
through them unskilled priests may no longer deceive men". But
although sentence to extinction might be passed by synodical
decree and carried out by episcopal authority, the penitentials
were too useful to be destroyed so easily. A compromise seems to
have been unconsciously reached. The materials and methods of the
penitentials were rearranged with sufficient modifications and
corrections, and brought into harmony with canon law. H. S. Lea
thus succinctly observed:

     Crude and contradictory as were the penitentials in many
     things, taken as a whole their influence cannot have been
     but salutary. They inculcated in the still barbarian
     populations lessons of charity and loving kindness, of
     forgiveness of injitries and of helpfulness to the poor and
     to the stranger as part of the discipline whereby the sinner
     could redeem his sins. Besides this, the very vagueness of
     the boundary between secular and spiritual matters enabled
     them to instil ideas of order and decency and cleanliness
     and hygiene among the rude inhabitants of northern Europe.
     They were not confined to the repression of violence and
     sexual immorality and the grosser offences, but treated as
     subjects for penance excess in eating and drinking, the
     consumption of animals dying a natural death or of liquids
     contaminated by animals falling into them; the promiscuous
     bathing of men and women was prohibited, and in many ways
     the physical nature of man was sought to be subordinated to
     the moral and spiritual. It was no small matter that the
     uncultured barbarians should be taught that evil thoughts
     and desires were punishable as well as evil acts. Such were
     their tendencies, and though at the present day it is
     impossible to trace directly what civilizing influence they
     may have exercised on the peoples subject to them, ... they
     exercised [such] influence.

     The penitential books were designed specifically for
Christians. The presence in them of warnings against heathen
practices shows to what extent these customs were still followed
by the believers. In some areas, Christianity in Celtic lands was
grafted on to heathenism. When the chiefs accepted the message of
salvation from the first missionaries to Ireland the people
followed their example. Such mass influxes were bound to include
pagan people only nominally subscribing to the principles of
Christ. It would seem logical to think that, the earlier the
penitential book, the more references there would be to the sins
which the new Christians had been used to committing as pagans.
But this is not so. It is the later books which contain more
references to heathen practices. This probably reflects a lapse
into heathen ways of some who were descended from the early
converts. The very hagiographers are the writers who have clothed
their heroes in many of the trappings of paganism, as they try to
outmagic their heathen opponents!

     The First Synod of Patrick warned against any cleric who
"becomes surety for a pagan", and any "Christian who believes
that there is a vampire in the world, that is to say. a witch".
The Old-Irish Penitential made rules regarding "anyone who gives
drugs or makes a bogey". There are several warnings against
making lamentations or dirges for the dead. Generally chanted by
women, these songs of grief evidently were so hard to eradicate
that they were eventually carried over into the modern Christian
     The penitential of Theodore contained an entire section on
the worship of idols and other heathen practices such as
sacrificing to devils, exposing children on roofs or placing them
in ovens to cure fevers, burning grains of wheat where a person
had died, incantations, divinations, and other magical practices.
The eating of horse flesh, drinking of blood or semen, and other
items which are all part of the customs of the pagans, are
expressly forbidden in the penitentials. The clue which indicates
the depth to which these heathen customs had penetrated among
Christians is the expression, "if they belong to the clergy",
found in the penitentials.

     But while these little books acted their part in combating
paganism and helping to establish discipline among Christians who
were converts from heathenism, they were also contributory to
grave evils. C. Plummer long ago gave his sober verdict of what
the penitential books eventually became:

     The penitential literature is in truth a deplorable feature
     of the medieval Church. Evil deeds, the imagination of which
     may perhaps have dimly floated through our minds in our
     darkest moments, are here tabulated and reduced to system.
     It is hard to see how any one could busy himself with such
     literature and not be the worse for it.

     Another evil of the penitentials was the corrupting effect
of commutations in money, which seem incredible to a present-day
moralist. Vicarious penance, by means of which the wealthy and
powerful were able to go free, was a further ill effect. It is
possible that this was a feature of medieval theology which led
to the invocation of saints and angels, and the substitution of
their merit for the sinner's guilt. Devised by earnest
religionists eager to uphold high standards of conduct, the
penitential books eventually caused more problems than they
solved, and were ultimately given up entirely.

To be continued with "Monasticism"





Keith Hunt

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