Penance in the Middle Ages

by Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno)
Orignally published in the July 1999, A.S. XXXIV issue of the Dragonflyre, a publication of the Barony of Vatavia.

One the great themes of the Middle Ages is the influence of the Christian church on all aspects of life. While the teachings of the church were often not followed, they informed the ideals by which people were judged. During the period there were two parallel systems of judgment and punishment. There was the civil system of kings and nobles concerned with maintaining the social order. Then there was that of the church concerned with the salvation of people’s souls. So important was this activity that it became the sacrament of confession and penance. This essay will explore the nature of penances imposed.

The nature of penance differs between the Orthodox and Catholic churches. The result of differing views on the nature of the church itself. The Orthodox Church sees itself as a manifestation of the community man has with God, which is his natural state. Sin is a sort of illness by which of penance a person could be healed. The Catholic Church holds itself as the mediator between man and God through which God’s grace can be received to purge away a person’s sin. In this scheme, penance becomes the way to earn this grace. This obviously leaves itself open to possible abuse. And it was these sorts of abuses which lead to the Protestant Reformation. But that is another story.

In the early days of the church, confession and penance was done in public as part of the church services. Penance was not much more then being relegated to the back of the church, or for the gravest of sins outside, and the wearing of sackcloth and ashes. The catch was that penance could be done only once or twice. As this lead to people putting off confession till near the time of their death, this was gradually relaxed after the seventh century. While there is some argument as to when the practice of private confession arose, by the sixth century it was not unknown and gradually supplanted public confession.

These two developments drove the development of the penitential handbooks. They were used as aids to what should be the appropriate punishment for various sins, but also what sort of sins need to be confessed. The first penitentials came from the Celtic Church around 500 AD, and migrated to the continent with the Celtic missionaries. They were not initially well received. They were not in accordance with canonical tradition (public penance), they came from no established authority, and wildly inconsistent. Nevertheless, public acceptance overcame official opposition, and in the middle ninth century out came several official penitentials.

Initially the penitentials were little more then lists of sins followed by the appropriate penance. But as time went on, the penitentials began to elucidate the sinner’s intent. The act itself became neutral. If it occurred by accident or by innocence it was no sin. Only if the person knew the act was a sin and yet still committed it, does the act become a sin. How grave a sin then depended on the motive behind the sin. Confession takes on the tone of an interrogation, for only knowing the circumstances and the motives surrounding the sin could the father confessor apply the proper penance.

Once the severity of the sin has been found, the confessor then probes the penitent’s contrition or remorse. For without sorrow and a resolve to do better, the confession and the associated penance was for not. Even then, in the early part of the period, the absolution of the sin did not occurred until after the penance was completed. But over the course of the period this changed as penances became protracted to the point they could not done in a lifetime. Two solutions arose for this problem. The first was to get others to help perform the penances. This was a major source of business for monasteries.

The second was the system of indulgences. Strictly speaking, an indulgence is a remission of some portion of a penance. But in practice, they were usually given in compensates for some other act, which was presumably easier to accomplice then the original penance. Originally they were granted to just the crusaders, but later was extended to acts of charity, and eventually for sums of money. Note that they did not remove the necessary for confession and penance. But merely were a way to buy down the penance. Though often look at in that way, they were not a “Get of Jail Free” card.

As for the act of penance itself, what it all entailed is a bit obscured. No doubt because it was another one of those items too common to set down. Outside of the canonical public penance of the ancient church, it appears to be at its heart a set of vigils to be performed for a given length of time. Added to this were fasts, or restrictions to bread and water, restrictions of conjugal relations with one’s spouse, prayers, pilgrimages, genuflexions, almsgiving, and “discipline” or scourging. The length of time could stretch from a day to a lifetime. Periods of forty days or seven years were quite common.

After the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation the concept of penance faded into the background of cultural conscience, a product of the abuses of indulgences. The Protestants did away with it altogether, while the Catholic Church held on to it but de-emphasized it. Even so, it is still with us for it greatly influenced the secular justice system that grew with it. Its great contribution is the notion of intent as perquisite to guilt. Penance emerged was a way guide society by first by means of public shame then by private guilt. While it did not always succeed, it did no worse then anything used supersede it.



Braswell, Mary. The Medieval Sinner. London: Associated University Presses, 1983.

Bredero, Adriaan Hendrik. Christendom and Christianity in the Middle Ages: The Relations Between Religion, Church, and Society. Trans. Reinder Bruinsma. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1994.

McNeill, John T., and Helena M. Gamer. Medieval Handbooks of Penance. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990.

Meyendorff, John . "Eastern Orthodoxy." Encyclopedia Britannica. ed. 1986. Vol. 17, pp. 867-884.

Oakley, Francis. The Western Church in the Later Middle Ages. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1979.


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