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Penitential book

Related: literature - Middle Ages

While it is true that many of the great Church reformers, men such as Bernard and Damiani, were driven by a horror of sex which was as sincere as it was exaggerated and irrational, yet is also true that beneath a conscious hatred of sex always lies a unconscious fascination with it. As one reads the penitential books, it is impossible to avoid gaining, at the same time another and less worthy impression: that of a neurotic obsession with sexual matters, of a truly pornographic character. --Gordon Rattray Taylor (1964)


A penitential is a book or set of church rules concerning the Christian sacrament of penance. They were first developed in the British Isles around the sixth century CE. When priests heard confessions, a practice originally begun by monks to use amongst themselves as a religious cleansing ritual, they compiled unofficial handbooks that dealt with the most confessed crimes and a wrote down set penances for those crimes. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Penitential [Oct 2005]

Penitentials and homosexuality

[In the Middle Ages,] penitentials, unofficial guidebooks, became popular, especially in the British Isles. These books listed crimes and the penances that must be done for them. For example, "...he who commits the male crime of the Sodomites shall do penance for four years." The penitentials of Theodore of Tarsus, who became archbishop of Canterbury in the 7th century, made special references to lesbianism. He states, "If a woman practices vice with a woman she shall do penance for three years." Penitentials soon spread from the isles to mainland Europe. From the 6th to the 11th centuries, there are thirty-one penitentials that punish male homosexuality and fourteen that punish lesbianism. This allows one to assume that homosexuality was quite regularly confessed. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_lesbianism [Oct 2005]

Egbert's Penitential and bestiality

The social and legal attitude toward bestiality has reflected in part the frequency with which it has been practiced, and in part the disgust mixed with mystical and sacrilegious horror which it has aroused. It has sometimes been met merely by a fine, and sometimes the offender and his innocent partner have been burnt together. In the middle ages and later its frequency is attested by the fact that it formed a favorite topic with preachers of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. It is significant that in the Penitentials,—which were criminal codes, half secular and half spiritual, in use before the thirteenth century, when penance was relegated to the judgment of the confessor,—it was thought necessary to fix the periods of penance which should be undergone respectively by bishops, priests and deacons who should be guilty of bestiality.

In Egbert's Penitential, a document of the ninth and tenth centuries, we read (V. 22): "Item Episcopus cum quadrupede fornicans VII annos, consuetudinem X, presbyter V, diaconus III, clerus II." There was a great range in the penances for bestiality, from ten years to (in the case of boys) one hundred days. The mare is specially mentioned (Haddon and Stubbs, Councils and Ecclesiastical Documents, vol. iii, p. 422). In Theodore's Penitential, another Anglo-Saxon document of about the same age, those who habitually fornicate with animals are adjudged ten years of penance. It would appear from the Penitentiale Pseudo-Romanum (which is earlier than the eleventh century) that one year's penance was adequate for fornication with a mare when committed by a layman (exactly the same as for simple fornication with a widow or virgin), and this was mercifully reduced to half a year if he had no wife. (Wasserschleben, Die Bussordnungen der Abendländlichen Kirche, p. 366). The Penitentiale Hubertense (emanating from the monastery of St. Hubert in the Ardennes) fixes ten years' penance for sodomy, while Fulbert's Penitential (about the eleventh century) fixes seven years for either sodomy or bestiality. Burchard's Penitential, which is always detailed and precise, specially mentions the mare, the cow and the ass, and assigns forty days bread and water and seven years penance, raised to ten years in the case of married men. A woman having intercourse with a horse is assigned seven years penance in Burchard's Penitential. (Wasserschleben, ib. pp. 651, 659.)

The extreme severity which was frequently exercised toward those guilty of this offense, was doubtless in large measure due to the fact that bestiality was regarded as a kind of sodomy, an offense which was frequently viewed with a mystical horror apart altogether from any actual social or personal injury it caused. The Jews seem to have felt this horror; it was ordered that the sinner and his victim should both be put to death (Exodus, Ch. 22, v. 19; Leviticus, Ch. 20, v. 15). In the middle ages, especially in France, the same rule often prevailed. Men and sows, men and cows, men and donkeys were burnt together. At Toulouse a woman was burnt for having intercourse with a dog. Even in the seventeenth century a learned French lawyer, Claude Lebrun de la Rochette, justified such sentences. [Mantegazza (Gli Amori degli Uomini, cap. V)] It seems probable that even to-day, in the social and legal attitude toward bestiality, sufficient regard is not paid to the fact that this offense is usually committed either by persons who are morbidly abnormal or who are of so low a degree of intelligence that they border on feeble-mindedness. To what extent, and on what grounds, it ought to be punished is a question calling for serious reconsideration. --Havelock Ellis, The Psychology of Sex, Volume 5 (of 6) (1927) via http://www.gutenberg.org/dirs/1/3/6/1/13614/13614-h/13614-h.htm

see also: sodomy - bestiality - Havelock Ellis - punishment - religion - middle

Penitential books

While it is true that many of the great Church reformers, men such as Bernard and Damiani, were driven by a horror of sex which was as sincere as it was exaggerated and irrational, yet is also true that beneath a conscious hatred of sex always lies a unconscious fascination with it. As one reads the penitential books, it is impossible to avoid gaining, at the same time another and less worthy impression: that of a neurotic obsession with sexual matters, of a truly pornographic character.

For instance, in Egbert's penitential, supposed to cover all cleric abuses, all but two of the offences discussed are concerned with sex. (Migne, J. P. (ed.). Patrologia Cursus Completus. Vol. 89 (Latin). ) This was certainly not for lack of other targets: the were plenty of religious abuses to attack, from simony to blasphemy. But these were not of interest to the writers of the penitentials. Geoffrey May says: "Anglo-Saxon church penitentials place upon matters of sex more emphasis, both in quantity of regulation and minuteness of detail, than has, probably, any other general code of conduct." It is impossible to resist the conclusion that these authors were in love with their subject.

And this, of course, is the inevitable result of repression-as distinct from sublimation. Many Christian ascetics have described how they could never get rid of the thought of sex and tormented themselves in their attempts to get rid of sexual temptations. Some fasted in the hope that this would reduce their desire; others kept a butt of water in their cell to stand in when the temptation became unendurable. In this unenviable state, men are quick to find sexual overtones in every object, every action of others. And it was just these men, restless, unhappy, obsessed, driven by the energies of their bottled up libidos, who were apt to attain positions of power in the Church and stamp it with their character. The Cardinalate might become venal, the Pope involved in political issues, but there was always a Bernard or a Damiani to whip the flagging horse. Such men can be found, of course, in all periods; the crucial fact was the existence, in the form of the Church, of an institution through which they could attempt to impose their ideals on the average sensual man. --Gordon Rattray Taylor (1964) via http://www.ourcivilisation.com/smartboard/shop/taylorgr/sxnhst/chap3.htm

see also: punishment - religion - middle

Penitential books and sexual mores in the 700s AD

  • the beginning of a series of Church "penitential books" which became an enormously strict system which ruled in the Middle Ages and explored the subject of sex in all its details with every misdeed described & elaborated at length & penalties ascribed to each.
    • 3 main codes:
      1. sex & lust is sinful, all who could were urged to attempt the ideal of complete celibacy
      2. placing of an absolute ban on all forms of sexual activity other than intercourse between married persons, carried out with the object of procreating
        • this included attempts to fornicate, kissing, thinking of fornication, involuntary nocturnal pollutions, homosexuality, bestiality (this includes sex with Jews!), masturbation even infantile masturbation, sodomy.
      3. the sexual act must be restricted to:
        • the missionary position
        • not allowed on Sundays, Wednesdays, Fridays, 40days before Easter & Xmas & in the 3 days before communion as well as being forbidden for the duration of pregnancy to 40days after birth and during any periods of penance
    • although initially they allowed for divorce in cases of prolonged absence or capture by the enemy, later divorce was banned completely and there were only 2 options to terminate a marital state:
      • annulment - after proving the marriage was invalid eg. "public indecency"
      • separation (but cannot remarry) - proof of cruelty, adultery or heresy
    • other activities that involved spontaneous pleasure were discouraged such as dancing, music & sport
  • Alcuin (735-804), the English scholar & ecclesiastic in 8thC: "the land has been absolutely submerged under a flood of fornication, adultery & incest"
  • the AngloSaxon synod of 786 decreed that bastard sons shall be debarred from legally inheriting as an attempt at enforcing long-lasting marriages without adultery. This however took many centuries before it would succeed!
  • --

    see also: 700s - middle

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