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Penitents and Their Proxies: Penance for Others in Early Medieval Europe

  • Gavin Fort


This article investigates the religious practice of suffering for others in the early Middle Ages. In proxy penance, one person completed a penitential work for another, who received the spiritual benefit. This practice was based on the idea that one person could stand in for another to bear his burden. Using penitential, conciliar, liturgical, and epistolary sources, I uncover two types of proxy penance. First, priests shared in the penance of those who confessed to them. Liturgical texts include Masses in which the priest completes the penance for someone who could not complete it himself. Penitential texts admonish the priest to “share in the foulness” with the sinner in order to bring about the remission of his sin. Second, there was both a promotion and a criticism of proxy fasting among the laity. This sic et non rhythm shows that early medieval penitential culture could not control the demand for proxy penance. Some attention is also paid to the practice of proxy penance in the eleventh-century monastic milieu of Peter Damian. This article broadens the scope of current scholarship on penance by focusing on its substitutionary ability. Also, this article explores the changing notions of and metaphors about sin in this period—from medical to economic—that fueled proxy activity.



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1 Canons Enacted Under King Edgar,” in Ancient Laws and Institutes of England, ed. Thorpe, Benjamin, vol. 2 (London: G. E. Eyre and A. Spottiswoode, 1840) (hereafter cited as Thorpe 2), 287–289; and in Medieval Handbooks of Penance: A Translation of the Principal Libri Poenitentiales, trans. McNeill, John T. and Gamer, Helena M. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1938) (hereafter cited as MHP), 410. These penitential canons have been more recently translated from Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 201 by Allen Frantzen on his website, Anglo-Saxon Penitentials: A Cultural Database, The authorship and legitimacy of this text have been claimed both spurious and authentic; see Fowler, Roger, “A Late Old English Handbook for the Use of a Confessor,” Anglia 83 (1965): 14; Fowler, Roger, ed., Wulfstan's Canons of Edgar (London: Oxford University Press, 1972), v; and Frantzen, Allen, The Literature of Penance in Anglo-Saxon England (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1983), 175.

2 Total men fasting: 1 + 12 + (7 x 120) = 853. Total fasting days (or fasting equivalents): 853 men x 3 days = 2,559 days. And 2,559 days (or fasting equivalents) divided by 7 years = 365.5 days.

3 Cyprian, The Letters of St. Cyprian of Carthage, trans. Clarke, G. W., vol. 1, Letter 23, et passim (New York: Newman, 1984); and Cyprian, De lapsis, trans. Bévenot, Maurice (New York: Newman, 1956).

4 Rapp, Claudia, “Spiritual Guarantors at Penance, Baptism, and Ordination in the Late Antique East,” in A New History of Penance, ed. Firey, Abigail (Leiden: Brill, 2008), 121148 ; and Climacus, John, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, trans. Luibheid, Colm and Russell, Norman (New York: Paulist, 1982), bk. 4, p. 92.

5 McLaughlin, Megan, Consorting with Saints: Prayer for the Dead in Early Medieval France (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1994), 221.

6 Ecclesiastical Institutes,” in Ancient Laws and Institutes of England, ed. Thorpe, Benjamin, vol. 1 (London: G. E. Eyre and A. Spottiswoode, 1840) (hereafter cited as Thorpe 1), 486. This is Wulfstan's tenth-century Anglo-Saxon translation of Theodulf of Oreléans's ninth-century Capitula, in Monumenta Germaniae Historica (hereafter cited as MGH), Capitula Episcoporum, ed. Brommer, Peter (Hanover: 1984), 1:103142 .

7 Lentes, Thomas, “Counting Piety in the Late Middle Ages,” in Ordering Medieval Society: Perspectives on Intellectual and Practical Modes of Shaping Social Relations, ed. Jussen, Bernhard (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001), 5591 .

8 Lea, Henry C., The History of Auricular Confession (Philadelphia: Lea Brothers, 1896), 2:224225 ; Vogel, Cyrille, “Composition legale et commutations dans le système de la pénitence tarifée,” Revue de droit canonique 9, no. 1 (1959): 3738 ; and McNeill, introduction to MHP, 48.

9 Caesarius of Arles, Homily 67, in Sermons, trans. Mueller, Mary Magdeleine (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1956), 1:322. By the ninth century, public penance was rare; see Council of Châlon (813), canon 25, in Sacrorum conciliorum nova, et amplissima collectio, ed. Mansi, G. D., (Paris, 1901–1927; repr., Graz: Akademische Druck, 1961) (hereafter cited as Mansi), 14:98: “Poenitentiam agere iuxta antiquam canonum institutionem in plerisque locis ab usu recessit.”

10 Tertullian, De Paenitentia, trans. Le Saint, William P. (Westminster, Md.: Newman, 1959), bk. 7, p. 29.

11 By the late fourth century, in some places, penitents who underwent reconciliation could not marry, nor could married penitents continue cohabitation; see Watkins, Oscar D., A History of Penance (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1920), 1:482. Deathbed ceremonies increased in popularity in the fourth century; see Gy, Pierre-Marie, “Histoire Liturgique du Sacrement de Pénitence,” La Maison-Dieu 56 (1958): 10.

12 Council of Châlon (647–653), in Corpus Christianorum, Series Latina (hereafter cited as CCSL), vol. 148A, p. 304.

13 Brown, Peter, “The Decline of the Empire of God: Amnesty, Penance, and the Afterlife from Late Antiquity to the Middle Ages,” in Last Things: Death and the Apocalypse in the Middle Ages, ed. Bynum, Caroline Walker and Freedman, Paul, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012), 58.

14 Although scholars have often decried the lack of knowledge about these texts, new evidence continues to be uncovered. The best overview of all the early medieval penitential literature is Meens, Rob, Penance in Medieval Europe, 600–1200 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014). On the use of the penitentials in liturgical and legal texts, see Hamilton, Sarah, The Practice of Penance, 900–1050 (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2001), 104135 ; and Larson, Atria A., Master of Penance: Gratian and the Development of Penitential Thought and Law in the Twelfth Century (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University Press, 2014), 79 .

15 Council of Châlon (813), canon 38, in Mansi 14:101; and Sixth Synod of Paris (829), in Mansi 14:559–560. When Archbishop Ebbo of Reims ordered one of his bishops, Haltigar of Cambrai, to pen a new penitential, he specifically cited the lack of consensus in the older material ( Prefaces to Canon Law Books in Latin Christianity: Selected Translations, 500–1245, ed. Somerville, Robert and Brasington, Bruce C. [New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1998], 76): “This is what greatly concerns me in this matter: in the handbooks of our priests the judgments for those doing penance are so confused, and so varied and in disagreement among themselves, and supported by the authority of no one, that because of the discord they scarcely can be disentangled. Whence it happens that for those fleeing to the remedy of penance, because both of the confusion of the books and lack of skill [of the priests] help in no way is at hand for them.”

16 Mansfield, Mary C., The Humiliation of Sinners: Public Penance in Thirteenth-Century France (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2005); Payer, Pierre J., “The Humanism of the Penitentials and the Continuity of the Penitential Tradition,” Mediaeval Studies 46 (1984): 340354 ; and Murray, Alexander, “Confession before 1215Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 6th ser., 3 (1993): 5181 . For the public vs. private debate, see Poschmann, Bernhard, Penance and the Anointing of the Sick, trans. Courtney, Francis (New York: Herder and Herder, 1964); de Jong, Mayke, “What was ‘Public’ about Public Penance? Paenitentia publica and Justice in the Carolingian World,” in La Giustizia nell'alto medioevo II (secoli IX–XI) (Spoleto: Presso la sede del Centro, 1997), 2:863902 ; and Hamilton, Sarah, “Rites for Public Penance in Late Anglo-Saxon England,” in The Liturgy of the Late Anglo-Saxon Church, ed. Gittos, Helen and Bedingfield, M. Bradford (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2005), 65103 . A good review of all these recent trends is found in Rob Meens, “The Historiography of Early Medieval Penance,” in A New History of Penance, ed. Firey, 73–95. More recently, the narrative of a shift from public penance in the ancient world to private penance in the early medieval world has been challenged primarily on the grounds that the older one-time public penance was not as common as scholars have claimed; see Kevin Uhalde, “Juridical Administration in the Church and Pastoral Care in Late Antiquity,” in A New History of Penance, ed. Firey, 97–120; de Jong, Mayke, “Transformations of Penance,” in Rituals of Power: From Late Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages, ed. Theuws, Frans and Nelson, Janet Laughland (Leiden: Brill, 1999), 185220 ; and Brown, Peter, The Ransom of the Soul: Afterlife and Wealth in Early Western Christianity (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2015), 115148 .

17 Frantzen, Literature of Penance, 3; Hamilton, Practice of Penance, 21; and Murray, “Confession before 1215,” 59–61. Scholars have used the penitentials for a variety of purposes as well, Gurevich, Aron, Medieval Popular Culture: Problems of Belief and Perception, trans. Bak, János M. and Hollingsworth, Paul A. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 78103 ; Payer, Pierre J., Sex and the New Medieval Literature of Confession, 1150–1300 (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 2009); and Le Goff, Jacques, “Trades and Professions as Represented in Medieval Confessors' Manuals,” in Time, Work, and Culture in the Middle Ages, trans. Goldhammer, Arthur (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), 107121 .

18 Teetaert, Amédée, La confession aux laïques dans l'Eglise latine, depuis le VIIIe jusqu'au XIV siècle; étude de théologie positive (Paris: Wetteren, 1926); and Price, Richard, “Informal Penance in Early Medieval Christendom,” in Retribution, Repentance, and Reconciliation, ed. Cooper, Kate and Gregory, Jeremy (Woodbridge: Ecclesiastical History Society, 2005), 2938 .

19 Origen, Homily 2 on Leviticus, 2.4, in Origen, Homilies on Leviticus 1–16, trans. Barkley, Gary Wayne (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1990), bks. 45–49, esp. 2.4.5, 47–48.

20 Cassian, John, Conferences, trans. Ramsey, Boniface (New York: Paulist, 1997), bk. 20, ch. 8, sec. 1, pp. 698–700. His list includes: baptism, martyrdom, charity, almsgiving, shedding tears, confession (but not to a priest), affliction of heart and body, emendation of behavior, the intercession of holy persons, practicing mercy and faith, converting sinners, and forgiving others. See Vogel, Cyrille, “Composition legale et commutations dans le système de la pénitence tarifée,” Revue de droit canonique 9 (1959): 342345 , for a full comparison of Origen and Cassian's lists.

21 Caesarius of Arles, Homily XIII, in Patrologia Latina (hereafter cited as PL), 67:1075.

22 P. Cummean, in Schmitz, Hermann J., Die Bussbücher und das kanonische Bussverfahren: Nach handschriftlichen Quellen dargestellt (Düsseldorf: L. Schwann, 1898) (hereafter cited as SDB 2), 599–600; trans. in MHP, 99; Theodulf of Orléans, Capitula 1, 36, in MGH, Capitula episcoporum, 1:133–135; trans. as Ecclesiastical Institutes, in Thorpe 2, 433–437; Jonas of Orléans, De Institutione Laicali, bk. 1, sec. 5, in PL, 106:130; and Bonizo of Sutri, Liber de vita christiana, ed. Perels, Ernst (Berlin: Weidmannsche Buchhandlung, 1930), bk. 9, sec. 3 and bk. 10, sec. 78. See Price, “Informal Penance,” 30n3, for a list of five in John Chrysostom.

23 Price, “Informal Penance,” 31.

24 Jussen, Bernhard, “Religious Discourses of the Gift in the Middle Ages: Semantic Evidences (Second to Twelfth Centuries),” in Negotiating the Gift: Pre-Modern Figurations of Exchange, ed. Algazi, Gadi, Groebner, Valentin, and Jussen, Bernhard, (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2003), 182. The other two pillars, according to Jussen, were tariffs on sins and converting extensive forms of penance into intensive forms (for example, “prayers into psalms, psalms into masses”). This kind of commutation is explained below.

25 For example, 1 Tim. 5:22: “Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, nor participate in another man's sins (neque communicaveris peccatis alienis); keep yourself pure.”

26 Gregory the Great, Homilies on Ezekiel, bk. 1, sec. 11.9, in PL, 76:909–910A; trans. in The Homilies of St. Gregory the Great: On the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel, trans. Gray, Theodosia (Etna, Calif.: Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies, 1990), 133. Gregory repeats the second concept later, bk. 1, sec. 11.25, in PL, 76:916B–917A; trans. in Gray, 139.

27 Gregory the Great, Homilies on Ezekiel, bk. 1, sec.11.21–22, in PL, 76:914B-C; trans. in Gray, 137.

28 Gregory the Great, Homilies on Ezekiel, bk. 2, sec. 9.20, in PL, 76:1056C-D; trans. in Gray, 272.

29 Gregory the Great, Homilies on Ezekiel, bk. 2, sec. 9.22, in PL, 76:1058; trans. in Gray, 273.

30 Gregory the Great, The Book of Pastoral Rule, bk. 2, sec. 5, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, ed. Schaff, Philip and Wace, Henry, trans. Barmby, James (Buffalo, N.Y.: Christian Literature Publishing, 1895) (hereafter cited as NPNF), second series, 12:12.

31 Gregory the Great, The Book of Pastoral Rule, bk. 2, sec. 5, in NPNF, second series, 12:14. Memorably, Hincmar of Rheims, De divortio Lotharii Regis et Theutbergae Reginae, preface, sec. 113, in MGH IV.1, 113, quoted this passage from Gregory to reassure his readers that reading about the reputed incest of the Empress Theutberga would not cause everlasting damnation.

32 Gregory the Great, The Book of Pastoral Rule, bk. 1, sec. 1, in NPNF, second series, 12:1.

33 Although Gratian did not repeat this, two later theologians did in the context of penance: John of Freiburg, Summa confessorum (Lyon: 1518), fol. 192r; and Aquinas, Thomas, Scriptum super sententiis magistri Petri Lombardi, ed. Moos, M. F., vol. 4 (Paris: P. Lethielleux, 1947), D. 16, q. 3, a. 2, q. 5, r. 4.

34 Poschmann, Penance, 121.

35 According to Jungmann, Joseph A., The Mass of the Roman Rite: Its Origins and Development, trans. Brunner, Francis A. (New York: Benziger Brothers, 1951), 1:62–63, there were two versions of this sacramentary: an older, sixth-century Roman version (found in an eighth-century manuscript) that included some Gallic influence, and a later, ninth-century Frankish version. The version used here is the older, sixth-century version.

36 The Gelasian Sacramentary, Liber Sacramentorum Romanae Ecclesiae, ed. Wilson, H. A. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1894), bk. 3, sec. 98, p. 306: “If anyone seeking penance were to be deprived of the use of his tongue when the priest comes, it is constituted that if [witnesses] made suitable testimonies in this instance, and he makes satisfaction to the priest through certain movements, the priest should complete everything concerning the penitent, as is custom (sacerdos impleat omnia circa poenitentem, ut moris est).” All translations are mine unless otherwise noted.

37 Gelasian Sacramentary, bk. 3, sec. 98, p. 306: “Satisfaciat tibi, Domine, quaesumus, pro anima famuli tui Illius, sacrificii praesentis oblatio, et peccatorum veniam quam quaesivit inveniat; et quod officio linguae implere non potuit desideratae poenitentiae compensatione percipiat.” This is repeated in the Gregorian Sacramentary, in Le Sacramentaire Grégorian: Ses Principales Formes d'Après plus Anciens Manuscrits, vol. 2., ed. Deshusses, Jean, 2nd ed. (Fribourg: Éditions universitaires, 1978), bk. 1, sec. 466. See also Berger, Rupert, Die Wendung “offerre pro” in der römischen Liturgie (Münster: Aschendorff, 1965), 212223 .

38 Gelasian Sacramentary, bk. 3, sec. 98, p. 306: “Almighty and merciful God, in whose power the human condition stands fast, we beseech thee, absolve the soul of your servant [N.] so that the fruit of penance which his will desired, having been prevented by death, may not be destroyed.”

39 Bede-Egbert Penitential, 46, in SDB 2, 699–700. Masses here are closely counted: one mass redeems twelve days of penance, ten masses four months, twenty masses seven months, and thirty masses a full year. This is oft-repeated in other places; for example, Ps.-Boniface, De poenitentia, in PL, 89:887–888. For more on counting Masses, see Angenendt, Arnold, Braucks, Thomas, Busch, Rolf, and Lutterbach, Hubertus, “Counting Piety in the Early and High Middle Ages,” in Ordering Medieval Society: Perspectives on Intellectual and Practical Modes of Shaping Social Relations, ed. Jussen, Bernhard (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001), 3844 .

40 Burchard of Worms, Decretum, bk. 19, sec. 21, in PL, 140:983A-B.

41 Statuta ecclesiae antiqua (ca. 475), in Concilia Galliae a. 314–506, in CCSL, vol. 148, sec. 76, p. 170: “Is qui paenitentiam in infirmitate petit, si casu dum ad eum sacerdos inuitatus uenit, oppressus infirmitate obmutuerit uel in phrenesim uersus fuerit, dent testimonium qui eum audierunt, et accipiat paenitentiam. Et si continuo creditur moriturus, reconcilietur per manus impositionem et infundatur ori eius eucharistia. Si superuixerit, admoneatur a supradictis testibus petitioni suae satisfactum et subdatur statutis paenitentiae, quamdiu sacerdos qui paenitentiam dedit probauerit.”

42 Leonine Sacramentary, 33, Super defunctos, in PL, 55:135A; and Benedict of Aniane's supplement to the Gregorian Sacramentary, in Le Sacramentaire Grégorian: Ses Principales Formes d'Après plus Anciens Manuscrits, ed. Jean Deshusses, vol. 1 (Fribourg: University of Fribourg Suisse, 1977), CVI, pp. 465–466, sec. 106.1424–1428. For more on the dates of these sacramentaries, especially given that extant manuscripts are much later, see Jungmann, The Mass of the Roman Rite, 1:60–66.

43 Leo I, Letter 167 to Rusticus of Narbonne, in PL, 54:1205C–1206A.

44 “Laud Misc. 482 (Y) 2a,” Y.41.03.01, Anglo-Saxon Penitentials: A Cultural Database, ed. Allen Frantzen,

45 Haltigar, P. Pseudo-Romanum, in Schmitz, Hermann J., ed., Die Bussbücher und die Bussdisciplin der Kirche: Nach handschriftlichen Quellen dargestellt (Mainz: Franz Kirchheim, 1883) (hereafter cited as SDB 1), 486; and Wasserschleben, F. W. H., Die Bussordnungen der abendländischen Kirche nebst einer rechtsgeschichtlichen Einleitung (Halle: Ch. Graeger, 1851; repr., Graz: Akademische Druck-U. Verlagsanstalt, 1958) (hereafter cited as WDB), 373; trans. in MHP, 311. In the twelfth century, Lombard, Peter, The Sentences. Book 4: On the Doctrine of Signs, trans. Silano, Giulio (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 2010), bk. 20, sec. 5.1, p. 125, and bk. 20, sec. 7, p. 126, repeated these concerns.

46 Theodulf of Orléans, Capitula 2.1, bk. 10, sec. 30, in MGH, Capitula episcoporum, 1:182.

47 Hincmar of Rheims, Capitula, bk. 5, sec. 19, in Mansi 15:498.

48 P. Vallicellianum II, in WDB, 557: “Ex parte Dei et omnium sanctorum, bonum quod fecisti ab infantia tua, et alii pro te facient et sacrificia et officia, quae a catholicis per universum mundum aguntur, habeas partem, ut boni christiani, et si ad aliam penitentiam non poteris pervenire, [per?] hanc penitentiam et confessionem, sis salvus ante Deum.”

49 Rather of Verona, Ad presbyteros, canon 15, in PL, 136:567A: “Quod si pro infirmitate aliquis jejunare non potest, proficiat ei jejunium quod generalis facit Ecclesia; omnes enim in Christo unum corpus sumus.” Trans. in Rather of Verona, The Complete Works of Rather of Verona, trans. Reid, Peter L. D. (Binghamton, N.Y.: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, 1991), bk. 43, sec. 15, p. 451.

50 See, for example, Canons of Edgar, canon 65, in Thorpe 1, 401; Thorpe 2, 259; and Burchard, Decretum, bk. 19, sec. 7, in PL, 140:977D–978A; trans. in MHP, 342. The Fleury Penitential (ca. 775–800), trans. in MHP, 281–282, has a good example of this injunction: “And when the man has given his entire confession, the priest himself shall prostrate himself before the altar with him, and confessing they shall repeat the psalms with groaning and if possible with weeping, and both, alike prostrate, shall say the [following] passages.” Karen Wagner, “Cum Aliquis Venerit Ad Sacerdotem: Penitential Experience in the Central Middle Ages,” in A New History of Penance, ed. Firey, 214, has three more examples along the same lines.

51 Wagner, “Cum Aliquis Venerit,” 218.

52 Rather of Verona, “Examination of the Character of an Individual, Namely, Rather of Verona,” bk. 41, sec. 8, in Complete Works, 433.

53 P. Cummean, in Zettinger, Joseph, “Das Poenitentiale Cummeani,” Archiv für katholisches Kirchenrecht 82 (1902): 523; trans. in MHP, 117 [language modernized]. This passage, found at the end of the penitential, was not printed in SDB 2. Scholars have routinely missed the proxy nature of this passage; for example, Frantzen, Literature of Penance, 9; and Watkins, History of Penance, 2:598.

54 First in the early eighth century, P. Bigotianum, in WDB, 444; trans. in MHP, 152. By the end of the century this text was probably copied from P. Bigotianum into the widely influential penitential of Pseudo-Cummean, in SDB 2, 600–601; trans. in MHP, 267–268. Then, in the ninth century, the text was incorporated into a supplement to the Pseudo-Theodore text, in Oxford MS, St John's College Library 158, in CCSL, vol. 156B, p. 173; then into the tenth-century penitential at Monte Cassino, P. Casinense, canon 104, in SDB 1, 427; and finally into the eleventh-century Spanish penitential, P. Cordubense, in CCSL, vol. 156A, p. 47. The fact that Burchard or Ivo did not copy this passage points to the decline of the idea of the priest making proxy satisfaction for penitents by the tenth and eleventh centuries.

55 P. Oxoniense II, in Paenitentialia minora Franciae et Italiae saeculi VIII-IX, ed. Raymund Kottje, (Turnhout: Brepols, 1994) (hereafter cited as Oxo II), 186–187: “Quotienscumque christianis, qui ad paenitentiam accedunt, ieiunium damus et communicare debemus cum eis ieiunium aut unam septimanam aut duas aut amplius, non dicatur nobis a saluatore nostro, sicut et ad Iudeorum sacerdotibus dictum est a ipso domino saluatorem: Ve uobis, legis peritis, qui adgrauatis homines grauaminibus duplicibus et inponetis honera super humeros hominum, ipsi autem uos unum digitum uestrum non tangitis sarcinas ipsas. Nemo enim potest subleuare uel erigere inuenitum sub pondus, nisi inclinauerit se et porrexerit eis manum ad subleuandum, neque ullus medicus uulnera uel infirmitates potest curare neque sanare, nisi fetoribus particips fiat. Ideoque nullus sacerdos uel pontifix uulnera peccatorum potest sanare et ab animis peccata auferre nisi per instantiam et sollicitudinem et per orationem et lacrimas. Necesse est ergo nobis, karissimi fratres, solliciti esse pro peccantis [sc. peccatoribus?], quia sumus alterutrum membra. Ideoque si aliquid patitur unum membrum, conpatiuntur omnia membra.” SDB 2, 199, has an in-line comparison of a number of varying versions of this paragraph, though it lists only some of the penitentials mentioned below. What Schmitz's comparison reveals, however, is that the phrase nisi foetoribus particips fiat was copied without change or alteration into all the various penitentials.

Oxo II, the version quoted above, was written in the eighth century somewhere in northern Frankish territory, migrated to northern Italy by 800, and was included by the ninth century (at the earliest) in the P. Vaticanum, the earliest evidence for penitentials in Rome; see Adriaan H. Gaastra, “Between Liturgy and Canon Law: A Study of Books of Confession and Penance in Eleventh- and Twelfth-Century Italy” (Ph.D. diss., Universiteit Utrecht, 2007), 12, 48–69. It was also copied in the end of the eighth century in the Frankish P. Merseburgense (in SDB 1, 701; and SDB 2, 358) and the St. Gall Penitential around 800 just before the reforming councils a few years later (in SDB 2, 177–178; trans. in MHP, 283). The concept survived the early ninth-century reforms, however, and was included in Haltigar's so-called Roman penitential (P. Pseudo-Romanum, in SDB 1, 471; trans. in MHP, 297), which was written in response to those who thought that the penitentials ought to be outlawed. Indeed, the passage is found again in another reform-minded penitential, Pseudo-Theodore, in CCSL, vol. 156B, p. 173, from the second quarter of the ninth century (on this penitential see Meens, Penance, 136). The oldest insular and continental versions are found in P. Pseudo-Bede, in WDB, 250–251; and the P. Bobbio, in Muratori, Antiquitates Italicae (Milan, 1741), 5:719, 724. Over the next century it was copied four more times, even into a divine office book, and in the eleventh century it finally found its way into both Burchard and Ivo's law codes: P. Vallicellianum I, in SDB 1, 241 and WDB, 547 (see Meens, Penance, 136, and Vogel, “Composition,” 35); P. Casinense, in SDB 1, 397; Pseudo-Alcuin, De divinis officiis, in PL, 101:1196B-C; and P. Cantabrigiense, in WDB, 349 (this was formerly known as the P. Sangermanense, see Meens, Penance, 161); Burchard, Decretum, bk. 19, sec. 33, in PL, 140:986C–987A; and Ivo, Decretum, bk. 15, sec. 51, in PL, 161:870A–870C. Very little research has been done on this remarkable paragraph. Helen P. Forshaw, “The Pastoral Ministry of the Priest Confessor in the Early Middle Ages, 600–1000: A Study of the Origin and Development of the Role of the Priest-Confessor in the Administration of Private Ecclesiastical Penance in the West” (Ph.D. diss., Royal Holloway, University of London, 1975), in a section on the “pastoral ministry of the priest-confessor” (pp. 280–332), does little more than make mention of this theme, and does not attempt to analyze this statement in any detail.

56 McNeill, John T., “Medicine for Sin as Prescribed in the Penitentials,” Church History 1, no. 1 (1932): 1426 ; and McNeill, John T., A History of the Cure of Souls (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1951), 112135 . Claussen, Per M. A., The Reform of the Frankish Church: Chrodegang of Metz and the Regula Canonicorum in the Eighth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 78 and 78n79, the medical metaphor was not common in monastic regula of this period. The “contraries cure contraries” idea itself was much older and Stoic in origin; see Colish, Marcia L., The Stoic Tradition from Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages II: Stoicism in Christian Latin Thought through the Sixth Century (Leiden: Brill, 1985), esp. 114122 . Perhaps its first Christian use was by Cassian, Conferences, bk. 19, sec. 14–15, p. 679–681. Jesus himself drew the link between spiritual sin and physical healing in Luke 5:31–32: “And Jesus answering, said to them: They that are whole, need not the physician: but they that are sick. I came not to call the just, but sinners to penance.”

57 Hamilton, Practice of Penance, 111.

58 The Life of Saint Gerald of Aurillac, in Soldiers of Christ: Saints and Saints' Lives from Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, ed. Noble, Thomas F. X. and Head, Thomas (London: Sheed & Ward, 1995), 322.

59 One example, among many, is found in the Liber sacramentorum Engolismensis, in CCSL, vol. 159C, p. 33: “Qui nostrae humanitatis fieri dignatus est particeps Christus filius tuus.”

60 Cf. 2 Cor. 5:21: God “for our sake made [Christ] to be sin who knew no sin.” Emphasis mine.

61 Thompson, Victoria, “The Pastoral Contract in Late Anglo-Saxon England: Priest and Parishioner in Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Laud Miscellaneous 482,” in Pastoral Care in Late Anglo-Saxon England, ed. Tinti, Francesca (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2005), 106120 .

62 Le Goff, “Trades and Professions,” 113–114; and Gurevich, Medieval Popular Culture, 28.

63 Payer, “Humanism,” 346.

64 In his characteristic tone, H. C. Lea, History of Auricular Confession, 1:192, argued that any sharing done by the priest in the early Middle Ages must have been rare, since this level of self-sacrifice could “only be expected when penitents were as few as black swans, and scarce adapted to lead the priest to encourage confession among his flock unless some notable pecuniary advantage was anticipated as a result.” His criticism stems from a functional interpretation. He assumes that priests would not have fasted with penitents for a “week or two” if everyone was coming to confess on a regular basis, and that priests cared more about remuneration than sanctification. All this may have been true. Although we have little evidence from the penitentials that priests really did become sharers of sinners' penance, we also lack evidence that priests extorted money from their penitents in order to complete penance on their behalf. While all we have is these instructional texts, we can still glimpse the ideal that their authors were trying to make a reality. The following passages from Peter Damian, however, do show how proxy penance operated in a monastic community and among people who took this practice seriously.

65 Damian, Peter, “Letter 112.39,” in The Letters of Peter Damian, 7 vols., trans. Blum, Owen J. and Resnick, Irven M. (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1989–2005), 5:279.

66 Damian, “Letter 150.2,” 6:181.

67 Damian, “Letter 150.3,” 6:181–182.

68 Damian, “Letter 150.4–5,” 6:182. These “various practices” were undoubtedly flagellation.

69 Dhuoda, Handbook for William: A Carolingian Woman's Counsel for Her Son, trans. Carol Neel (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1991), 105–106. Damian, “Letter 18.10,” 1:164–165, also described the recitation of the psalter as good for others, and in “Letter 53,” 1:343, he thought that psalms could be used as commutations.

70 McLaughlin, Consorting, 221–223. See also “BX 8558 (B) 153a,” B78.03.01, Anglo-Saxon Penitentials: A Cultural Database, trans. Frantzen, “Whoever fasts for a dead man, that may well help him”; and “Junius 121 (X) 98a,” X21.08.01, Anglo-Saxon Penitentials: A Cultural Database, trans. Frantzen, “Whoever fasts for a dead person, it is a benefit for himself (or herself); only God knows what it gains for the dead one.”

71 Council of Mainz (847), canon 26, in MGH, Concilia III: Concilia Aevi Karolini (843–859), ed. W. Hartmann (Hanover, 1984), 173–174.

72 Damian, “Letter 106.5–8,” 5:177–179.

73 Damian, “Letter 168.3,” 7:237, tells another story about how a group of monks completed ten years' worth of penance for one man through their own flagellation. Here, again, proxy penance is hidden underneath Peter's main moral agenda. The purpose of this story is to promote the benefits of flagellation, but it also reveals the discipline's ability to be a substitute penance for others.

74 The phrase is Cowdrey's, H. E. J. in The Cluniacs and the Gregorian Reform (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970), 128135 .

75 Bobbio Penitential, in Muratori, Antiquitates Italicae, 726: “Et qui hoc facere non potest, quod superius dictum est, eligat Sacerdotem justum vel Monachum, quo verus Monachus sit, et secundum Regulam vivat, qui pro se hoc adimpleat, et de suo justo pretio hoc redimat.”

76 Pseudo-Cummean, 1, in SDB 2, 603: “Et qui psalmos non novit et jejunare non potest, elegat justum, qui pro illo hoc impleat et de suo precio aut labore hoc redimat, id per unumquemque diem de precio valente denario in pauperibus eroget.” Trans. in MHP, 269.

77 P. Bedae, canon 10, in WDB, 230, and SDB 1, 564; trans. in MHP, 236; P. Pseudo-Theodori (praecipue sec. ms. Berlin, Deutsche Staatsbibliothek, Phillipps 1750), bk. 49, sec.7, in CCSL, vol. 156B, p. 121; P. Pseudo-Theodori: libri praecedentes et sequentes ‘Paenitentialem Pseudo-Theodori’ in ms. Cambridge, Corpus Christi College 190, in CCSL, vol. 156B, p. 151; and P. Vindobonense, sec. 43, in WDB, 420 (although this passage was not in the version listed in SDB 2, 351–356).

78 For example, the Penitential of Cummean, trans. in MHP, 111, lists four commutations that appear to be the earliest evidence for them. Its appeal to “some authorities,” however, suggests that there was already a practice and ideas about the practice before this was written. On the origins of commutations, see McNeill, John T., “The Celtic Penitentials,” Revue Celtique 40 (1923): 320341 ; Oakley, Thomas P., “Commutations and Redemptions of Penance in the Penitentials,” The Catholic Historical Review 18, no. 3 (1932): 341351 ; Oakley, Thomas P., “Alleviations of Penance in the Continental Penitentials,” Speculum 12, no. 4 (1937): 488502 ; and a trio of articles by Vogel, Cyrille: “Composition legale et commutations dans le système de la pénitence tarifée,” Revue de droit canonique 8 (1958): 289318 ; 9 (1959): 1–38; and 9 (1959): 341–359.

79 “Of Equivalents,” Canones Hibernenses, sec. 2, in WDB, 139–140; trans. in MHP, 122–124. For example, for one year's worth of penance, a person could spend three days and nights in a tomb with a saint without food or water while continually chanting the psalms. Vogel, “Composition,” 10, says that these are the oldest and most original commutations.

80 “An Old Irish Table of Commutations,” trans. in MHP, 142–147.

81 P. Pseudo-Bedae, in SDB 2, 654; trans. in MHP, 221. This sentiment was endlessly repeated throughout this literature; see Meens, Rob, “The Frequency and Nature of Early Medieval Penance,” in Handling Sin: Confession in the Middle Ages, ed. Biller, Peter and Minnis, A. J., (York: York Medieval Press, 1998), 51.

82 Vogel, “Composition,” 38, put it succinctly: “No doubt that in this form, commutations emptied the whole penitential system of all moral and religious significance.”

83 Cowdrey, Cluniacs, 128–135.

84 Quoted in Angenendt et al., “Counting Piety,” 36.

85 The Judgment of Clement, sec. 3, in WDB, 434; and in Councils and Ecclesiastical Documents Relating to Great Britain and Ireland, ed. Arthur West Haddan and William Stubbs (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1869–1878) (hereafter cited as HS), 3:226: “Si quis pro mercede jejunat et aliena peccata suscipit in se, non est dignus nominari Christianus, jejunat pro se ipso quantum promisit pro alio jejunare, et quod accepit det pauperibus.” Trans. in MHP, 271. This was repeated in the ninth-century in the recently found P. Vindobonense C, sec. 42, in Meens, Rob, “‘Aliud Benitenciale’: The Ninth-Century Paenitentiale Vindobonense C ,” Mediaeval Studies 66 (2004): 25.

86 For some background on this text, see Meens, Penance, 103–106.

87 P. Merseburgense, sec. 44, in WDB, 396. This was repeated again in the ninth century in P. Vallicellilanum I, sec. 110, in SDB 1, 326.

88 Oxo II, canon 61–62, pp. 202–203.

89 Oxo II, canon 61, p. 202: “Et mandatis ad omnibus, ad quibus penitentiam datis: ‘Nemo aliqui pro alio hominem ieiunet, quia et hoc perdet, quod dat, et peccatum manet in eum.’”

90 Oxo II, canon 61, p. 202.

91 Oxo II, canon 62, pp. 202–203: “Quomodo enim potest peccator pro alterum iaeiunarae [sc. ieiunare]? Quid prodest, si aliquis pro esurientem manducauerit? Alius esuriente non saciabitur, aut qui fuerit lapsus, alter (non) potest pro eo requiescere. Si enim non potest manducandum quis alterio esurietate saciari uel bibendum sitis alterius extinguere, sic et (qui) quiescit non potest alterius fatigationem auferre, sed unusquisque, qui lapsus fuerit, requiescat, si esurierit aut sitierit, nisi sibi ipsi manducet et bibat ista. [Though the idea is clear here, the language is not.] Sic nemo potest alter pro alterum ieiunare, quia ‘unusquisque in suo proprio peccato morietur.’ Nec enim suscipiet ‘filius iniquitatis patris' sui, sic enim nec ‘pater filiorum’ peccata non potest auferre neque parentum iniquitatum extinguere. Qui sit insipiens, qui aliena peccata per suum ieiunium abstergat; miser ille tales siue uir siue mulier, si sit iustus, perdet iustitiam aut mercedem suam propter auaritiam ieiunandum uere. De eiusmodi homini uel mulieri dicit sancta scriptura: ‘Auaro’ homini ‘nihil est’ deterior, ‘hic enim’ talis ‘animam suam uenales' portat. Sed siue uir siue mulier, qui ad paenitentiam uenerit, unusquisque pro se ieiunet, quia sanctissimus apostolus sic dicit: ‘Vnusquisque enim suum honus portauerit.’ Bonum est autem, ut omnis christianus unusquisque pro alterum oret, sed non propter honoris cause, sed propter deum.” If nisi sibi ipsi is really nisi sibi ipse, then the fifth sentence could read: “But let everyone who has fallen find rest, and if a man or woman is hungry or thirsty, he or she should eat and drink, but only for themselves.” My thanks to Barbara Newman and Dyan Elliott for their suggestions on this translation.

92 Tertullian, , De pudicitia, trans. Saint, William P. Le SJ (Westminster, Md.: Newman, 1959), bk. 22, p. 123.

93 Meens, Penance, 104–105.

94 Council of Clovesho (747), canon 27, in HS, 3:373; trans. in MHP, 394. The biblical allusion is from Matt. 19:24.

95 Cubitt, Catherine, Anglo-Saxon church councils c. 650–c. 850 (London: Leicester University Press, 1995), 99.

96 Council of Châlon (813), canon 36, in Mansi 14:101. This was repeated in Burchard, Decretum, bk. 19, sec. 56, in PL, 140:997A; and Ivo, Decretum, bk. 15, sec. 70, in PL, 161:879A.

97 Proxy fasting was critiqued as early as the late seventh century (Judgment of Clement) but promoted as late as the eleventh (Wulfstan in Canons of King Edgar). Likewise, it was promoted as early as the eighth century (P. Bobbio) and still reviled well into the eleventh (see Damian, “Letter 96.16,” 5:61).

98 Frantzen, Literature of Penance, 201–202.

99 I make little mention in this article of the role of money in early medieval society, though its uses might reveal new facets of the proxy relationship. Scholarship on the social function of money in the early Middle Ages is vast, and I only mention a recent article that enumerates the various functions of specie and exchange in this period: Naismith, Rory, “The Social Significance of Monetization in the Early Middle Ages,” Past & Present 223, no. 1 (2014): 339 . My sources do not tell me if the payment offered to a proxy was real coinage or not—especially since payment in kind, such as prayers or fasting, would have counted just the same and pretio could also mean a prayer or request. But there is reason to believe that some of these proxy relationships depended on actual money for them to operate effectively. The hiring of hundreds of proxy fasters surely would have required some tangible remuneration.

100 Tertullian, De paenitentia, 24: “And the price which the Lord has set on the purchase of pardon is this—he offers impunity to be bought in exchange for penitence.” Tertullian, De Paenitentia, 23; Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word, bk. 20, sec. 2, in NPNF, second series, 4:47; and Hilary of Poitiers, Commentary on Psalm 54/53, bk. 14, in NPNF, second series, 9:247, all inserted economic language into the soteriological relationship between God and mankind. The transformation of sin into debt probably arose from the older, Jewish culture and took hold later in the early Christian centuries; see Anderson, Gary A., “Redeem Your Sins by the Giving of Alms: Sin, Debt, and the ‘Treasury of Merit’ in Early Jewish and Christian Tradition,” Letter & Spirit 3 (2007): 3969 ; and Brown, Ransom of the Soul, 96–98.

101 “First Antiphon of Lauds,” quoted in Éamonn Ó Carragáin, Ritual and the Rood: Liturgical Images and the Old English Poems of the Dream of the Rood Tradition (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005), 288: “O admirabile commercium: / Creator generis humani, animatum corpus sumens, / De virgine nasci dignatus est.” Gelasian Sacramentary, bk. 1, sec. 46, p. 90: “Quod Pascha nostrum immolatus est Christus . . . et beati lege commercii divinis humana mutantur.” My thanks to Tyler Lange for pointing me to these sources. For more on the commerce of the Mass, see Ganz, David, “Giving to God in the Mass: The Experience of the Offertory,” in The Languages of Gift in the Early Middle Ages, ed. Davies, Wendy and Fouracre, Paul, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 1832 esp. 20–22.

102 Gregorian Sacramentary, bk. 1, sec. 361: “[Christus] pro nobis aeterno patri adae debitum solvit.”

103 Quoted in Ganz, “Giving to God in the Mass,” 25: “Intende quaesumus domine hostias familiae tuae, quae sacris muneribus facis esse participes.”

104 On notions of large-scale economic exchange in this period, including comments on non-commercial exchange, see Wickham, Chris, Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400–800 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 693824 . For a focused study of the relationship between social crime and religious sin, see de Jong, Mayke, The Penitential State: Authority and Atonement in the Age of Louis the Pious, 814–840 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

105 For more on gift-exchange in this period, see two recent collections: Negotiating the Gift: Pre-Modern Figurations of Exchange, ed. Algazi, Gadi, Groebner, Valentin, and Jussen, Bernhard (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2003); and The Languages of Gift in the Early Middle Ages, ed. Davies, Wendy and Fouracre, Paul (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

106 Murray, “Confession before 1215.” See also his rebuttal to critics in Murray, Alexander, Conscience and Authority in the Medieval Church (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 116 . For a more nuanced view and broader use of the early medieval material, see Meens, “The Frequency and Nature of Early Medieval Penance.”

This paper was awarded the Sidney E. Mead Prize for graduate student research.

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Penitents and Their Proxies: Penance for Others in Early Medieval Europe

  • Gavin Fort


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