The Anglo-Saxon Penitentials:
A cultural database
created by Allen J. Frantzen
Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 190, p. 404.

Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 190, p. 404.

G ýf hwýlc bisceop man ofslea · þolige his hades · & fæste ·
    xii · gear · þa · vii · on hláfe & on þa · v · þrý dagas
    on wucan · & þa oþre bruce his metes ·
If any bishop slays someone, he is to forfeit his orders and fast 12 years, 7 on bread and water, and for 5 years 3 days each week, and on the others partake of his food.

Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 190, p. 404.
With permission of the Parker Library, Cambridge University.

are lists of sins and the penances prescribed for them. These texts governed the practice of private confession and penance in the early Middle Ages. This database contains all the vernacular penitentials that survive from Anglo-Saxon England, a period extending from the seventh to the eleventh century. These texts have never before been edited and translated as a corpus. (See the note below on Firefox, the browser you need to use the database.)

ELEMENTS of the database
USER'S GUIDE: what's here, how it works.
TEXTS: a description of each handbook and the manuscripts that contain it.
TRANSLATIONS: a Modern English version of each text.
MANUSCRIPTS: the handbooks as they are found in each manuscript, with a description of each manuscript and a list of its penitential content.
CULTURAL INDEX: penances categorized by topic, e.g., animals, emotions, sex, theft, and others.
BACKGROUND: the history of penance, including an unpublished essay, "The 'Literariness' of the Penitentials."
BIBLIOGRAPHY: editions and sources.

At left and above is an Anglo-Saxon penitential found in Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 190. The red "h" marks the beginning of a new chapter of the Old English Penitential. To demonstrate the style of the database, a section of this material has been highlighted and reproduced twice, first in the transcription style used throughout the database and then in translation.

Each paragraph in this neatly-rubricated manuscript begins with a colored initial (dark spots on the page are colored initials from the opposite side showing through). This section concerns homicide committed by the clergy, starting with the bishop and moving down through the lower ecclesiastical grades. The penance varies with the severity of the offense, measured in part by the status of the sinner. (This is why these texts are sometimes called "tariff" penitentials.) A bishop who kills someone is defrocked and must fast for 12 years. Priests, monks, and deacons guilty of the same sin have to perform lesser penances. All three grades have to give up their ecclesiastical status. The priest or monk is to do penance for 10 years, while the deacon is to do penance for 7 years. In all cases the penance translates into fasting at the appropriate times.

· Guide to the Old English texts · The penitential as a form · Technical notes

The Texts

Each Old English handbook of penance is found today in three or more manuscript copies. In this database you will find an edition of every version found in every manuscript and a translation of the longest or most complete form of each text. Using the menus at the left, you can view the texts in various ways. For example, you can view a single canon alone, or with its translation. You can also view all versions of the sentence in Old English and move instantly from one version to another.

All five of the Anglo-Saxon handbooks are found in eleventh-century manuscripts. These manuscripts are, in almost every case, copies of earlier manuscripts that have since disappeared (we know this because two copies of any given text often share certain features, including errors, that show they descended from a common archetype). The texts (and the abbreviated titles) are

the Old English Introduction (OEI);
the Scriftboc (SBC);
the Canons of Theodore (CTH);
the Old English Penitential (OEP);
the Old English Handbook (OEH).

For details on each of these documents, go to the Texts menu to the left. The source relationships of the penitentials tell us something about the probable development of the texts. The SBC and CTH share the same sources, mainly eighth- and ninth-century Latin texts. The OEP translates an early ninth-century Frankish text and also borrows several canons from the SBC, while many parts of the OEH are taken from the OEP.

Form & Function

What is a penitential? Handbooks of penance, or penitentials, are catalogues listing sins and the penances assigned to each by the priest in confession. Penitentials usually have two parts: 1) an introduction instructing the priest in how to receive the penitent, sometimes called the ordo confessionis; and 2) a list of sins with graded penances for them (usually called the "tariff penitential"). In the Old English corpus, only the Canons of Theodore lacks an introduction addressed to the priest (although it does contain a preface). In manuscript form, penitentials survive more often as parts of larger manuscript codices rather than as the small, self-contained handbooks presumably common in the Middle Ages. A few such handbook-sized ` do, however, exist; MS Y, Laud Misc. 482, is one of them. Although penance was not a sacrament in Anglo-Saxon England, there was, as these texts suggest, a well-developed penitential theology during the period.

The introduction tells the priest how to administer confession, interrogate penitents, determine their spiritual disposition and sincerity in repenting, and weigh the seriousness of their sins. The priest sometimes asks them about their faith and understanding of basic beliefs. In continental penitentials of the ninth century and later, this function was fulfilled by the ordo confessionis; the Old English Introduction is an adaptation of that function.

The body of the penitential contains the "tariffs" or lists of sins and penances. In earlier Irish penitentials the lists of sins followed the sequence of the eight (or seven) "deadly sins" (capitalia crimina), but most penitentials, including the Anglo-Saxon documents, are organized into more detailed sections. Some sections concern "deadly sins," including murder, theft, and a variety of sexual offenses; others are somewhat haphazard collections of regulations concerning food.

The tariffs were graduated in severity and complexity. For example, parents who allowed their child to die without Baptism were to do penance for ten years; although one who killed his or her child before the child was baptized was also assigned penance for ten years, a penance of seven years was sometimes possible. On the other hand, a mother who murdered her child was to do penance for fifteen years; if she was needy, the penance was seven years instead. These examples indicate some of the value of penitential handbooks in the study of medieval society, demonstrating the severity of penance, the greater worth of a baptized as opposed to unbaptized child, and the role of circumstances (in this case, poverty) in moderating penance.

Important variations distinguish one penitential from another. Language is one variable, since the scribes differed in the dialect and idiom they knew best. The documents vary in other details, even in the matter of measuring penance in nights or days. Such details, particular to each manuscript, register the religious and moral standards of major church centers (Exeter, Worcester, Winchester, and others). Differences in form are equally important as registers of medieval ideas of the book and its "searchability." Each scribe followed a unique page layout and chapter numbering system that would enable others to reference a large collection quickly. These patterns demonstrate the logic used to organize groups of interconnected administrative texts and adapt religious content to bureaucratic form.

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The Anglo-Saxon Penitentials: A cultural database
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