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The Practice of Penance, 900-1050.

The Practice of Penance, 900-1050. By Sarah Hamilton. Royal Historical Society: Studies in History. Woodbridge, Suffolk, U.K.: Boydell, 2001. xiv + 275 pp. $75.00 cloth.

Standard accounts of the development of penance in the early Middle Ages distinguish the early church's canonical penance, which required a sinner's public humiliation and severe penalties lasting a lifetime, from the secret or tariff penance that originated in sixth-century monasticism. The distinction appears most clearly in the late eighth and ninth centuries, when Carolingian bishops imposed public penance on prominent individuals who sinned grievously, while encouraging secret penance before Communion. The next stage of development occurred in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, when penance became more an act of contrition than an attempt to placate God by ritual means. Sarah Hamilton argues that this standard account is seriously flawed in its distinction between public and private penance and its neglect of the period between 900 and 1050. To arrive at a more accurate understanding of penance, she analyzes many different types of sources written in the Ottonian and Salian Reich during this crucial period.

Hamilton begins with prescriptive legal sources--canon law collections, conciliar decrees, episcopal sermons and capitularies, and penitentials-which draw upon Carolingian models. These texts reflect the desire of tent-hand eleventh-century bishops to promote reform by asserting their authority over their priests and penitential practice. Legal texts from this period reproduce the Carolingian distinction between public and secret penance, as well. They also highlight the importance of penance as a prerequisite for membership in the church, by prescribing annual penance before Communion on Easter Sunday. Moreover, they seek to restore peaceful conditions to Christian society through penance.

Hamilton then considers the significance of monastic and canonical rules for the development of penance. Despite real differences in meaning, the outward similarity of rituals and gestures in monastic and liturgical penance encouraged much mutual influence, as is apparent in the canonical rules associated with Carolingian reform. In general, monks exerted an all-pervasive influence on the development of penance by writing liturgical ordines and narrative texts, educating priests who served churches dependent on monastic houses, and dispensing pastoral care.

Hamilton is well aware that legal texts and monastic rules may offer more information about ideals and aspirations than the actual practice of penance. The remainder of her book focuses on liturgical ordines that reflect actual practice and offer evidence for the gradual development of penance. In particular, Hamilton's careful attention to manuscripts and their subtle variations among liturgical ordines leads to a number of significant findings. The clear distinction between public and private penance breaks down under Hamilton's scrutiny of two penitential ordines preserved in the Romano-German pontifical. These ordines seem to offer a choice between personal penance, the main goal of which was pastoral care of a group of penitents, and communal penance, which taught a community lessons about sin and repentance in dramatic fashion. Manuscript evidence for the limited dissemination of the Romano-German pontifical highlights the diversity of penitential ordines in this period, exemplified in liturgical manuscripts from Fulda, Lotharingia, and Italy. Fulda's rituals were designed for pastoral care, with penance administered to groups of laymen and women. Penitential ordines from tenth-century Lotharingia demonstrate how public penance could maintain episcopal authority against a background of political turmoil. The Italian ordines seem to point toward later developments, especially the decline of public penance and the priest's absolution of penitents immediately after confession, the latter a departure from the more ordinary practice of hearing confession at the start of Lent and waiting until Maundy Thursday for absolution.

The last chapter of this book analyzes narrative sources for insights into the influence of penance upon the behavior of the laity. Many sources reveal the willingness of laypeople to embrace penitential practices. For example, King Henry III of Germany performed penance at his mother's funeral in 1043 as an act of filial piety, and political adversaries incorporated aspects of penitential ritual into ceremonial reconciliations. Yet at times, laypeople disregarded the church's demands for penance. A case in point is the way eastern Frankish nobles defied ecclesiastical laws against incest by remaining married to their distant relations.

The Practice of Penance demonstrates convincingly the inadequacy of current understanding of the development of penance in the Middle Ages. Yet the greatest merit of Hamilton's detailed study of penance in the tenth- and eleventh-century Reich appears in her development of a method that promises to reveal much more about penance over the long term. Hamilton arrives at a more accurate view of penance by limiting the scope of her research to a well-defined time and region. Careful attention to a wide variety of sources, with particular concern for manuscripts and texts, reveals the astonishing diversity of penitential practices and the real significance of what may at first sight appear to be minor variations in ritual. This method yields more subtle understanding of the development of penance in a crucial period, while pointing to areas that need further attention. Among these, the administration of penance to the laity in rural parishes and lay understanding of penance stand out. Hamilton's valuable book should provide a model for the study of penance in other regions of Europe, contributing to more accurate understanding of the central role of penance in Christian society.

Mary Alberi

Pace University
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Author:Alberi, Mary
Publication:Church History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 2005
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