Skip to main content Accessibility help

Medicine for Sin as Prescribed in the Penitentials

  • John T. McNeill (a1)


During the past century the textual criticism and literary history of the Penitentials have received considerable attention, but the investigation of their actual function in social and church life has only begun. Yet the field is inviting. The Penitentials have, for instance, notable legal and economic aspects; they offer considerable information on ascetic practices, they have a bearing on ritual developments; and the relation of their relaxations, compositions and commutations of penance to the development of Indulgences is itself an important question. It is not the purpose of the present article to investigate any of these, but to suggest still another angle of approach. I wish to present some elementary considerations toward the answer to a question which is perhaps more basic than any of those just suggested. The question may be stated thus: What did the Penitentials contribute, and what were they designed to contribute, to the cure of souls? The cure of souls (cura animarum ) means of course the general ministry of religion in the care, and only incidentally the healing, of souls. But the penitent was regarded as one morally diseased and ill, and his treatment is, in the Penitentials, repeatedly, even habitually, referred to as the task of the moral physician. His sins are the symptoms of disease. The penalties enforced are “medicamenta,” “remedia,” “fomenta”—measures designed to restore his moral and spiritual health.



Hide All

1 Where not otherwise indicated, editions of the penitentials here referred to will be found in Wasserschleben, F. W. H, Bussordnungen der abendländischen Kirche, Halle, 1851. They are also contained in the volumes by Schmitz, H. J., Die Bussbücher und die Bussdisciplin der Kirche, Mainz, 1883, and Die Bussbücher und das kanonische Bussverfahren, Düsseldorf, 1898.

2 See for instance: Oakley, T. P., English Penitential Discipline and Anglo-Saxon Law (Columbia University Studies), New York, 1923, and the present writer's The Celtic Penitentials and their Influence on Continental Christianity, Paris, 1923, of which four chapters appeared in Revue Celtique, XXXIX, (1922). 257300;XL, (1923) 51103; 320341.

3 Of the works consulted for this part of the study, the following have proved the most useful: Buck, A. H.The Growth of Medicine … to about 1800. New Haven. 1917.Cumston, C. G.An Introduction to the History of Medicine, New York, 1927.Fort, G. B.Medical Economy in the Middle Ages. New York, 1883.Garrison, F. H.An Introduction to the History of Medicine. Philadelphia, 1924.Hoeser, H., Lehrburch der Geschichte der Medizin. 3rd edition, 3 vols. Jena, 1875.Lambert, L. W. and Godwin, G. M.Medical Leaders from Hippocrates to Osler. Indianapolis, 1929.Moon, R. O.The Relation of Medicine to Philosophy. New York, 1909.Moulton, C. W.The History of Medicine. New York, 1905.Neuburger, M.The History of Medicine. (tr. Playfair, ). 2 vols. London, 1910.Power, Sir D'Arcy, and Thompson, C. J. SChronologia Medico. London, 1923.Scheller, E.Aldus Cornelius Celsus über die Arzneiwissenschaft, 2nd edition (W. Friehols), 2 vols. Braunsweig, 1906.Walsh, J. J.Old Time Makers of Medicine. New York, 1911.

4 Neuburger, , I, 107.

5 Neuburger, , I, 209. Cf. Cumston, , pp. 124ff The relation of Themison to Asclepiades is somewhat differently viewed by Moulton, , pp. 243 ff., but the point is not of importance here. Some writers regard Asclepiades as the founder of the Methodists, Cf. Moon, , p. 28.

6 Lambert, , p. 58;Neuburger, , I, 308–9.

7 Cumston, , p. 133;Lambert, pp. 52, 57.

8 Tertullian, , de Anima, vi, viii, xiv, xliv. Soranus appears from these passages to have taught that the soul itself has a physical existence, and is not merely dependent on the functioning of the bodily organs. He does not, however, teach its indestructibility; but Tertullian uses him to confute still more negative views.

9 Contra Julianum, V, 51 (“Soranus medicinae auctor nobilissimus”). Retractationes, II, lxii.

10 Policraticus, ed. Webb, C. C. J., Oxford 1909, Vol. I, p. 29.

11 Cumston, p. 134.

12 Caelius has been placed in the second, but more generally in the fourth or fifth century. See Cumston, pp. 134–5 and especially Hoeser, I, 321334.Power and Thompson, , p. 41, date him about 400.

13 Quoted by Walsh, p. 46.

14 Moon, , p. 65.

15 Budge, E. A. W, The Paradise of the Holy Fathers, London, 1917, Vol. I, p. 100.

16 Penitentiale Vinniai, 28, 29.

17 Poenitentiale Columbani, A, 12, and B, introductory paragraph.

18 Vita S. Columbani, 17. He has already remarked on the virtual absence of “Poenitentiae medicamenta” in Gaul before Columban. Ibid. Ch. 11.

19 “Das Poenitentiale Cummeani,” Zeitschr. f. katholisches Kirchenrecht, LXXXII (1902), 501540.

20 “luxuria”, “excess”.

21 Octavius, xxii.

22 Poenit. Col., B. 30.

23 Tr. Brink, L., New York, 1929. 2 vols.

24 The sinner, or the neurotic, has ways of punishing himself, as severe as those authorized in the church, and much less helpful. My friend, Professor S. B. Sniffen, who has given me valuable suggestions on this section of the article, has remarked to me at this point: “It is probable that neurotic difficulties, particularly of a compulsive and depressive nature, were forestalled by the availability of the ecclesiastical mechanism for punishment.”

25 It seems unnecessary here to supply the word “inopia”, as Haddam and Stubbs suggest (Councils and Ecclesiastical Documents I, 113), obviously with the idea that the “celestial medicine” is the Eucharist from which the penitent was excluded. The text is clear as it stands, and quite intelligible in the light of the common phraseology of the Penitentials.

26 Wasserschleben, H., Bussordnungen der abendländischen Kirche, p. 250.

27 Zettinger, , op. cit., p. 540.

28 Medicine, Magic and Religion, London and New York. 1924, p. 143.

29 Psychological Healing, tr. Paul, E. and Paul, C., London and New York, 1925. I, 485 ff.

30 Which, by the way, is a light comedy rendering of Deut. 25:2.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Church History
  • ISSN: 0009-6407
  • EISSN: 1755-2613
  • URL: /core/journals/church-history
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed