The Foundation Of The Mediaeval
The penitential system, as it was organized in the Western Church in the
sixth, seventh, and eighth centuries, was but the carrying out of
principles which had appeared elsewhere in Christendom and were involved
in the primitive method of dealing with moral delinquents by the
authorities of the Church. [See the epistles of Basil the Great to
Amphilochius (Ep. 189, 199, 217) in PNF, ser. II, vol. VIII.] Similar
problems had to be handled everywhere whenever the Church came to deal
with moral conduct, and much the same solution was found everywhere. There
is, however, no known connection between the earliest penitentials of the
Western Church, those of Ireland, and the similar books of the East. There
is no need of supposing that there was a connection. But in the case of
the works attributed to Theodore of Tarsus, archbishop of Canterbury,
himself a Greek and probably a native of Tarsus, there is a provable
connection which is evident to any one reading his work, as he refers to
Basil and others. The characteristics of the Western penitentials are
their minute division of sins, their exact determination of penances for
each sin, and the great extent to which they were used in the practical
work of the Church. They serve as the first crude beginnings of a moral
theology of a practical character, such as would be needed by the poorly
trained parish clergy of the times in dealing with their flocks. On
account of the nature of these works, it is hardly necessary or expedient
to give more than a few brief extracts in addition to references to
sources. Much of the matter is extremely offensive to modern taste.
(a) King AEthelberht, Laws. Thorpe, Ancient Laws and Institutes
(Rolls Series), 1 ff.
The Early Germanic Codes are full of regulations whereby for an
injury the aggrieved party, or his family in case of his death,
could be prevented from retaliating in kind upon the aggressor and
his family. This was effected by a money payment as compensation
for damages sustained, and the amount for each sort of injury was
carefully regulated by law, i.e., by ancient custom, which was
reduced to writing in the sixth century in some cases. The Laws
of AEthelberht are written in Anglo-Saxon and are probably the
earliest in a Teutonic language. For a translation of
characteristic portions of the Salic Law, which should be
compared with the Laws of AEthelberht to show the universality of
the same system, see Henderson, Select Historical Documents of
the Middle Ages, p. 176, London, 1892; also Hodgkin, Italy and
Her Invaders, VI, 183, for the Lombard law of Rothari, a little
later, but of the same spirit.
21. If any man slay another, let him make bot with a half leod-geld of 100
22. If any man slay another at an open grave, let him pay 20 shillings and
pay the whole leod within 40 days.
23. If a stranger retire from the land, let his kindred pay a half leod.
24. If any one bind a freeman, let him make bot with 20 shillings.
25. If any one slay a ceorl's hlaf-aeta,(269) let him make bot with 5
38. If a shoulder be lamed,(270) let bot be made with 12 shillings.
39. If the ear be struck off, let bot be made with 12 shillings.
40. If the other ear hear not, let bot be made with 25 shillings.
41. If an eye be struck out, let bot be made with 50 shillings.
51. For each of the four front teeth, 6 shillings; for the tooth that
stands next to them, 4 shillings; for that which stands next to that, 3
shillings, and then afterward 1 shilling.
(b) Vinnian, Penitential. Wasserschleben, Die Bussordnungen der
abendlaendischen Kirche, 108 ff.
This is one of the earliest of the penitentials and belongs to the
1. If one has committed in his heart a sin of thought and immediately
repents of it, let him smite his breast and pray God for forgiveness and
perform satisfaction because he has sinned.
2. If he has often thought of the sins and thinks of committing them, and
is then victor over the thought or is overcome by it, let him pray God and
fast day and night until the wicked thought disappears and he is sound
3. If he has thought on a sin and determines to commit it, but is
prevented in the execution, so is the sin the same, but not the
6. If a cleric has planned in his heart to smite or kill his neighbor, he
shall do penance half a year on bread and water according to the
prescribed amount, and for a whole year abstain from wine and the eating
of meat, and then may he be permitted again to approach the altar.
7. If it is a layman, he shall do penance for a whole week; for he is a
man of this world and his guilt is lighter in this world and his
punishment in the future is less.
8. If a cleric has smitten his brother [i.e., a clergyman] or his
neighbor and drawn blood he shall do penance a whole year on bread and
water; he may not fill any clerical office, but must with tears pray to
God for himself.
9. Is he a layman, he shall do penance for 40 days, and according to the
judgment of the priest or some other righteous man pay a determined sum of
(c) Theodore of Tarsus, Penitential, I. Haddan and Stubbs, III, 73
For Theodore of Tarsus, archbishop of Canterbury, see W. Stubbs,
art. "Theodorus of Tarsus" in DCB. That he wrote a penitential is
not certain. But that he was regarded as the author of a
penitential is clear enough. In fact, his name is attached to
penitentials in much the same way as David's name is attached to
the whole book of Psalms. For a discussion of the various works
attributed to Theodore, see Haddan and Stubbs, Councils and
Ecclesiastical Documents, loc. cit. This is a characteristic
penitential and may be regarded as following closely the decisions
and opinions of Theodore. Much of it is unprintable in English.
Cap. I. On drunkenness. 1. If any bishop or other person ordained is
customarily given to the vice of drunkenness, let him cease from it or be
2. If a monk vomit from drunkenness, let him do 30 days' penance.
3. If a presbyter or deacon do the same, let him do 40 days' penance.
4. If any one by infirmity or because he has abstained for a long time,
and it is not his habit to drink or eat much, or for joy at Christmas or
at Easter, or for the commemoration of any of the saints, does this, and
he has not taken more than is decreed by the elders, he has done no wrong.
If the bishop should have commanded, he does no harm to him unless he
himself does likewise.
5. If a believing layman vomits from drunkenness, let him do 15 days'
6. He who becomes drunk against the commandment of the Lord, if he has a
vow of holiness let him do penance 7 days on bread and water, and 70 days
without fat; the laity without beer.
7. Whoever out of malice makes another drunk, let him do penance 40 days.
8. Whoever vomits from satiety let him do penance 3 days.
9. If with the sacrifice of the communion, let him do penance 7 days; but
if out of infirmity, he is without guilt.
Cap. II. On fornication.
Cap. III. On theft.
Cap. IV. On the killing of men. [This should be compared with the
1. If any one out of vengeance for a relative kill a man, let him do
penance as for homicide 7 or 10 years. If, however, he is willing to
return to relatives the money of valuation [Weregeld, according to the
secular rating], the penance will be lighter, that is by one-half the
2. He who kills a man for vengeance for his brother, let him do penance 3
years; in another place he is said to do penance 10 years.
3. But homicides 10 or 7 years.
4. If a layman kills another man with thoughts of hatred, if he does not
wish to relinquish his arms, let him do penance 7 years, without flesh and
wine 3 years.
5. If any one kills a monk or a clergyman, let him relinquish his arms and
serve God(272) or do 7 years' penance. He is in the judgment of the
bishop. But he who kills a bishop or a presbyter, the judgment concerning
him is in the king.
6. He who by the command of his lord kills a man, let him keep away from
the church 40 days; and he who kills a man in a public war, let him do
penance 40 days.
7. If out of wrath, 3 years; if by chance, 1 year; if by drink or any
contrivance, 4 years or more; if by strife, let him do penance 10
Cap. V. Concerning those who are deceived by a heresy.
Cap. VI. Concerning perjury.
Cap. VII. Concerning many and various wrong acts and those necessary
things which are not harmful.
Cap. VIII. Concerning various failings of the servants of God.
Cap. IX. Concerning those who are degraded or cannot be ordained.
Cap. X. Concerning those who are baptized twice, how they shall do
Cap. XI. Concerning those who violate the Lord's Day and the appointed
fasts of the Church.
Cap. XII. Concerning the communion of the eucharist or the sacrifice.
Cap. XIII. Concerning reconciliation.
Cap. XIV. Especially concerning the penance of those who marry.
Cap. XV. Concerning the worship of idols.
(d) Bede, Penitential, ch. XI. Haddan and Stubbs, Councils and
Ecclesiastical Documents, III, 32.
The Penitential of Bede is to be distinguished from the Liber de
Remediis Peccatorum attributed to him, cf. Haddan and Stubbs,
op. cit., who print the genuine penitential. It belongs to the
period before 725. In not a few points it closely resembles that
of Theodore. The concluding passage here given is to be found in
many penitentials with but little variation. It is probably as
early as the work itself, although apparently not by Bede. It is a
method of commuting penances. In place of fasting inordinate or
impossible lengths of time, other penances could be substituted.
In later ages still other forms of commutation were introduced.
Even money payments were used as commutation of penance.
XI. On Counsel to be Given.
We read in the penitential of doing penance on bread and water, for the
great sins one year or two or three years, and for little sins a month or
a week. Likewise in the case of some the conditions are harsh and
difficult. Therefore to him who cannot do these things we give the counsel
that psalms, prayers, and almsgiving ought to be performed some days in
penance for these; that is, that psalms are for one day when he ought to
do penance on bread and water. Therefore he should sing fifty psalms on
his knees, and if not on his knees seventy psalms inside the church or in
one place. For a week on bread and water, let him sing on his knees three
hundred psalms in order and in the church or in one place. And for one
month on bread and water, one thousand five hundred psalms kneeling, or if
not kneeling one thousand eight hundred and twenty, and afterward let him
fast every day until the sixth hour and abstain from flesh and wine; but
whatsoever other food God has given him let him eat, after he has sung the
psalms. And he who does not know psalms ought to do penance and to fast,
and every day let him give to the poor the value of a denarius, and fast
one day until the ninth hour, and the next until vespers, and after that
whatsoever he has let him eat.
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