Handling Sin. Confession in the Middle Ages

By Tentler, Thomas N. | The Catholic Historical Review, January 2001 | Go to article overview

Handling Sin. Confession in the Middle Ages


Tentler, Thomas N., The Catholic Historical Review


Handling Sin. Confession in the Middle Ages. Edited by Peter Biller and A. J. Minnis. [York Studies in Medieval Theology, Volume II.] (Rochester, New York: York Medieval Press in association with the Boydell Press. 1998. Pp. x, 219. $60.00.)

This is a volume of six papers from a conference held at the University of York in March, 1996, with a solicited contribution by Rob Meens; extracts from a fourteenth-century treatise on penance edited and translated by Michael Haren; and John Baldwin's Annual Quodlibet Lecture of June, 1996. Readers already familiar with the scholarship on confession in medieval thought and life will find these essays substantial and illuminating. The unfamiliar will benefit even more because the contributors generally clarify the scholarly contexts in which their research should be placed so that the reader can easily be brought up to speed and readied to enjoy these explorations of the medieval institution, its theory, and its diverse practitioners. The focus extends from the early Middle Ages to the fourteenth century, but it should arouse the interest of historians who work in later periods as well.

The authors share the admirable intention of going beyond normative texts and descriptions of moral and institutional systems to reconstruct the "lived religion" of the laity. In different ways and with differing strategies and ambitions each author succeeds. Peter Biller begins this search with a useful introduction summarizing the dominant issues and scholarly opinion on the subject. The difficult search for practice in the early period is the task of Rob Meens's "The Frequency and Nature of Early Medieval Penance--a meticulous examination of manuscripts of penitentials and an important discussion of their audience and significance that I shall return to below. The rest of the essays concern the twelfth to the fourteenth centuries.

Alexander Murray's "Counselling in Medieval Confession" examines the meeting of clergy and laity in a confrontation he finds distinctive: it is individual, secret, and unscripted, and therefore it is at once most open to interaction and innovation and least open to the historian's scrutiny. Displaying a finesse one associates with the author, Murray argues that confessors were learning, from experience, to listen and to counsel. Worrying (rightly, in my opinion) about a too easy generalization from Reformation evidence about a discourse of power leading to discontent, Murray emphasizes a language and experience characterized by "consilium."

Jacqueline Murray's "Gendered Souls and Sexed Bodies: The Male Construction of Female Sexuality in Some [fifteen] Medieval Confessors' Manuals" is a prolonged indictment of male authorities' representation of women as sexual, passive, polluting, dangerous, and nothing more than "sexed bodies" with inferior souls. Murray's selectivity is not in itself objectionable (I do not think we must always conform to the medieval meanings of words like "social" or "sex"). But her perspective is too presentist to satisfy, and I found myself disagreeing with an inference, insinuation, or conclusion too often to record here. Still, Jacqueline Murray, is, like the rest, looking for religion in life, and sometimes finding it.

Nothing could be farther from this in tone and perspective than Lesley Smith's "William of Auvergne and Confession." It is a discursive appreciation of William's discursive writings on penance and confession-with particular attention to the thirteenth-century theologian's richness of language and imagination, his representation of human and divine psychology, the intricacies of moral cases, the theology of forgiveness, and the prudent conduct of confession. Who was William's audience? Smith excludes clerics and simple laymen and women and opts for a learned laity-exemplified in William's friend, Louis IX, and the king's formidable mother, for whom William acted as confessor. Smith thinks they both would probably have found the book "a good read" and adds: "As for William, no doubt confessing Blanche gave him a rich sense of life as she is lived! …

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