Medieval Handbooks of Penance: A Translation of the Principal Libri Poenitentiales and Selections from Related Documents

By John T. McNeill; Helena M. Gamer | Go to book overview

Preface

IT IS doubtful whether any part of the source literature of medieval social history comparable in importance to the penitentials has been so generally neglected by translators. The difficulty of the texts and an unjust contempt on the part of some historians for the materials have probably contributed to this neglect. A number of recent studies have revealed the high historical importance of these booklets. A direct knowledge of their contents is here for the first time made possible to students who have not the time or the equipment to make use of the Latin documents.

The first two sections of the Introduction are designed to meet the needs of readers who are uninitiated in the field of the history of penance. These sections incorporate without indication a few sentences from my dissertation, The Celtic Penitentials and Their Influence on Continental Christianity, published in 1923. In order to avoid more extensive repetition numerous citations to that essay have been made in the notes. But the present statement represents an extensive reworking of the sources in the light of the more recent literature, and no pretense of total and detailed agreement with the earlier study is implied.

In order to give a true impression of these penitential books it seemed incumbent upon the translator to present the earlier and more influential documents of the series in their entirety, even though this involved some repetition of materials. Indeed, where repetition in substance occurs it often serves to clarify obscure provisions.

It is not implied that "earlier" penitentials were in all cases "more influential" than those of later date. But certainly the earliest Welsh and Irish examples, even those of a fragmentary sort, were influential in the highest degree. Most of their contents were poured into the larger and more formal books of the seventh century. The interest of these foundation documents is enhanced for us by the fact that they exhibit the primitive stage of the evolving type. Some of the subsequent documents were decisively influential both with respect

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