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"Poor, Sinning Folk." Confession and Conscience in Counter-Reformation Germany.

W. David Myers. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996.6 pls. + xii + 203 pp. + biblio. + index. $35. ISBN: 0-8014-3081-X.

Although this fine book, flawless in stylistic, editorial and typographical presentation, deals with the pre-Reformation age and the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the author's ultimate goal is to describe the creation of a new collective historical personality that only emerged fully by the end of the eighteenth century: that of the modern practicing Catholic. While the origin of this new kind of Catholic is presented with all the free grain of historical detail, the terminus ad quem is left deliberately and suggestively vague: however I understand him to imply that the type prevailed down to a time within living memory, but that it no longer does so.

The great change studied in this work was pastoral and practical, not theological, for in the pre-Reformation Church, as in the post-Tridentine one, attrition, the lower threshold of regret for sin on the part of the penitent, was regarded as sufficient by most authorities - though not of course by the Jansenists and other rigorists. Clergy and laity were both undisciplined, and confession and communion normally took place only once a year, down to and beyond the Council of Trent. Confession was meant to take place in church and in full view of the other members of the congregation. Laity generally tried to avoid rendering a full account of their sins to the confessor because of the noisy throng of neighbors pressing close with open ears, and also because they often did not trust the priest not to use their secret admissions against them. The confessor for his part, forced to process numerous penitents in the short space of Holy Week as they prepared for their Easter communion, had no time, quite apart from the lack of necessary privacy, to use the annual sacrament for purposes of moral counseling or pastoral care.

In southern Germany and Austria after Lutheranism had made its impact felt, there existed in many parishes a mixture of Catholic and Protestant practices. Lutheran influence and ancient recalcitrance made the laity reluctant to enumerate their individual sins at confession, preferring general confession and absolution. This and the widespread ignorance and dissoluteness which they perceived in the nominally Catholic clergy horrified the Jesuits, whose advent meant the end of medieval indiscipline.

The Council of Trent, in session fourteen (1551), set the course of future developments by decreeing that in the future the sacrament was to be an individual and private event in which the penitent would be required to make the fullest possible enumeration of his or her sins. Sometimes it was necessary to call out the troops in order to enforce this unwelcome new regimen; Bavaria, a pioneering police state, developed an elaborate system of surveillance, control, and certification of Catholic practice. In the sixteenth century the taking of communion in both kinds was the signal to the authorities that Protestantism had infected an individual or a parish, but after that was stamped out, the touchstone of Catholic orthodoxy and political reliability became frequent confession and the correspondingly frequent taking of communion. A type of confessional booth which left the confessor and penitent still partly exposed to public view, but which was set in an area railed off from the other persons present in church, came into use and ensured that privacy was maintained. Under those conditions, it became possible to accustom the laity to enumerate all their sins, and indeed there was a large production of literature that helped them prepare to do so. One printed aid, for use with scissors and paste, allowed the penitent to keep tabs (literally) on transgressions committed during the interval between confessions.

As with everything else in this work, the author's reflections on the contribution of the Counter-Reformation to the formation of the modern personality, with its hallmarks of interiority, self-scrutiny, and self-discipline, are intelligent and convincing.

WILLIAM MCCUAIG University of Toronto
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Author:McCuaig, William
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1998
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