"Poor Sinning Folk": Confession and Conscience in Counter-Reformation Germany

By Soergel, Philip M. | The Catholic Historical Review, July 1997 | Go to article overview

"Poor Sinning Folk": Confession and Conscience in Counter-Reformation Germany


Soergel, Philip M., The Catholic Historical Review


"Poor Sinning Folk": Confession and Conscience in Counter-Reformation Germany. By W David Myers. (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press. 1996. Pp. xiii, 230. $35.00.)

David Myers' new book fills an important gap in our understanding of the processes of Reformation and Counter-Reformation and the role that penance played in those transformations. Myers focuses primarily, although not exclusively, on the Duchy of Bavaria, that firm bastion of Catholic piety long cited as the epitome of the central European, counter-reforming state. Before Myers' book, English-speaking historians often relied on the research of historians such as John Bossy and Jean Delumeau to reconstruct the social history of confession in places like this.These works primarily examined early-modern France, a state whose counter-reforming trajectory was hardly typical by European standards. Now historians of Germany and Central Europe have Myers' exemplary study, a work that will hopefully inspire other forays into the local history of the sacraments and their function in early-modern Catholicism.

Too often, Myers concludes, scholars of late-medieval and early-modern religion have judged confession from the standpoint of its presumed effects instead of examining it within its social milieu. Before 1970, the school of religious sociology inaugurated by Gabriel Le Bras quantified confession and communion like any other social behavior. The startlingly low rates of participation that Abbe Toussaert discovered in late-medieval Flanders, for instance, became proof for an enduring lay disregard of clerical orthodoxy. By the 1970's, English-speaking scholars had entered into the debate and had shifted the nature of its discussion.Thomas N.Tentler's judicious Sin and Confession on the Eve of the Reformation (1977) explored the prescriptive literature of confessors' manuals, showing how late-medieval penance could give rise both to moral rigor and effective consolation. In his famous The Reformation in the Cities (1976), Steven Ozment had already attacked those conclusions, instead insisting that penance was the source for a widespread spiritual anxiety among the laity.

Rather than concentrating on those questions, Myers hopes to shift the nature of the discussion once again: he wishes to reconstruct the ways in which penance functioned in the late-medieval Church and the precise changes that the Reformation and Counter-Reformation produced in its practice. Myers consequently grants the penitential system primacy, exploring its permutations over two centuries.The resulting text is concise and well written. And although this book does not exhaust all questions concerning penance in the earlymodern period, it is an excellent starting point on which other scholars will be able to build.The first of Myers' two sections,"Late-Medieval and Reformation Confession," explores the environment in which late-medieval penance functioned and deftly treats late-medieval and Reformation-era theology and praxis. Instead of characterizing confession's role as an amorphous "communal sacrament in the manner of John Bossy, Myers relies on thick description to reconstruct the public world in which penance was practiced. At the end of the Middle Ages, Myers observes, confession in Germany was primarily a seasonal rite limited to Lent. Any anxiety confession produced was thus an ephemeral phenomenon and "not a continuous source of guilt, fear, worry or joy" (p. 59).At this time confession may have been a secret rite conducted between priest and lay people, yet since the rite was conducted in public, complete secrecy was never really achieved.

While Myers agrees with John Bossy's characterization of the substance of early-modern innovations-privacy and internalization-he avoids setting up a too dramatic dichotomy between the later Middle Ages and the seventeenth century. Early-modern changes grew out of late-medieval theological discourse, and that discourse was in turn transformed by the Protestant upheavals of the half-century after 1520. …

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