Mayke de Jong
Grand Narratives cannot be made to disappear.1 At best one can identify and analyse these persistent paradigms, locate them in the ideology in which they originated, and subsequently use them as tools to uncover significant discrepancies. But when present-day Grand Narratives correspond with those from the past, or have even emerged directly from them, it is more difficult to construct this 'inventaire des différences'.2 The history of Late Antique and early medieval penance is a case in point. Compared with the grandest narrative of all, the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the generally current story of penance is a relatively modest tale, but it is certainly one of decline. Here is the Standard Narrative. Originally, a 'canonical' or 'public' penance was a dramatic ritual of purification performed within small Christian communities excluding grave sinners from their midst. For the duration of their penance the outcasts became part of a clearly recognisable 'order of penitents' (ordo paenitent(i)um). A penance of this sort could only be imposed by the bishop; moreover, it could only be performed once in a lifetime, for the cleansing force of reconciliation was like that of baptism, and could therefore not be repeated. In the West the decline of this penitential practice already set in by the end of the fourth century, when crippling lifelong obligations were imposed upon former penitents. They could neither marry, nor hold public office or become clerics. Paenitentia publica fell into disuse because of these impossibly heavy obligations, which scared away the growing multitude of Christians seeking atonement and reconciliation. At best, penance was delayed until death
1 As Chris Wickham put it: 'I would wish to see Grand Narratives as images
that can be analysed historically; but I would not want to abolish them. Far from
it; I would want to cut off their moralistic excrescences and use them for what they
are: scientific paradigms.' C.J. Wickham, Gossip and resistance among the medieval peas-
antry (Birmingham, 1995; inaugural lecture), p. 25.
2 P. Veyne, L'Inventaire des différences. Leçon inaugurale au Collège de France (Paris, 1976).