Medici et Medicamenta: The Medicine of Penance in Late Antiquity. By Natalie Brigit Molineaux. (Lanham, MD: University Press of America. 2009Pp. xviii, 325. $39.95 paperback. ISBN 978-0-7618-4429-7.)
This is an ambitious work by an author whose imagination takes the reader far beyond the late antiquity of her title. Eighteen pages of impressively diverse bibliography place the standard literature familiar to historians of penance in wider contexts (for example, contemporary theological study or the history of scholarship). An unfortunate cutoff date of 2000 excludes important work- for example, Sarah Hamilton's The Practice of Penance 900-1050 (Rochester, NY, 2001) and fourteen contributors to A New History of Penance, ed. Abigail Firey (Boston, 2008). Nevertheless, the territory covered is vast.
The book is divided into two parts. The first examines the historiography of penance from the Reformation to 2000; the second, penance from the preChristian era to late antiquity. The introductory chapter's sweeping survey of the study of religion- from the Renaissance, Reformation, Enlightenment, and romanticism to contemporary anthropology, psychology, sociology, and philosophy-is designed ultimately to establish penance and its manifestation in confession as universale across time and culture, evidence of "natural religion," "a religious a priori" (p. 3). The remaining seven chapters examine the historiography and the actual evolution of ritualized penance. She will not, she warns, settle for a conventional institutional narrative; she will explore deep roots in pre-Christian religion, the Judaic background, and the desert Fathers. Her favorite mode of analysis identifies dichotomies at the heart of scholarly reconstructions: from 1 520 to 2000 as described in the second to fourth chapters; and even more pronounced dichotomies in the four final chapters (c.1650 BC-650 AD), where she contrasts the penitential cultures of eastern and western Christianity.
It is difficult to assess this ambitious undertaking. One cannot help but admire her expansive definition of this history (for example, the massive cataloguing of comparative penitential practices by Rafaele Pettazoni and Paul Ricoeur) or her eye for the salient detail (pre-Christian antiquity's widespread connection between sin and disease, contamination and suffering; Babylonian laying-on of hands to heal and exorcise; Egyptian priests' certificates of innocence to accompany the dead to the next world). Her most interesting chapter elevates, at the expense of the Celts, the contribution of eastern monasticism- through St. John Cassian- to the "monasticization" of ritual penance in the west (pp. 210-32). And it will be an unusual reader who does not become acquainted for the first time with new literature- primary and secondaryas she explores penance from pre-Christian antiquity to the present. …