Confessional Life in the Late Middle Ages by the Numbers

The question of the theological efficacy and popularity of late medieval confession is one that has occupied a central role in narratives of the Reformation from its outset in the sixteenth century to present historical scholarship. Early Protestants decried morally corrupt and ignorant priests as a major need for ecclesiastical reform or reinvention. Modern scholars have in many ways contested, refuted, or reshaped historical understanding of the Reformation, but they have not done so regarding late medieval priests, and in particular, priests’ role as confessor.

Historians such as John Bossy and Thomas Tentler responded to the need for a reevaluation of late medieval confession and its massively influential role in late medieval religious life.[1] Both studied fifteenth-century, printed confessional manuals to show the theological robustness of medieval confession, as well as the large number of surviving copies of confessional manuals. Based upon both qualitative evaluations of theological shifts in confessional manuals and quantitative examinations of printed copies of confessional manuals, Bossy and Tentler demonstrated that late medieval confessional manuals were immensely popular and responded to major theological questions and objections of the day. Tentler notes that three confessional manuals, St. Antoninus’s Confessionale, Andreas de Escobar’s Modus Confitendi, and Guido de Monte Rocherii’s Manipulus Curatorum were some of the first international bestsellers of any printed works.[2] These best sellers survive in the dozens or, in rare cases, the hundreds. These manuals had multiple printings across the fifteenth and into the sixteenth centuries, itself an indicator of widespread popularity and steady demand for this type of theological work.

If confession itself was not to blame for the late medieval criticism surrounding the sacrament of penance, who then was the culprit? An understated, but explicit conclusion of Tentler and Bossy is that it was the role of the late medieval confessor who bore the blame for any dissatisfaction for the sacrament of penance. Both scholars suggest that enthusiasm for confessors’ authority and their dominion over personal life perhaps led to resentment or anger.

Here, I would like to offer an alternative to Tentler’s and Bossy’s estimation of the late medieval confessor, using a different set of quantitative sources, these drawn from the registers of the papal office known as the Apostolic Penitentiary. The Apostolic Penitentiary was a papal invention of the thirteenth century to oversee local religious life, specifically to arrogate the authority to forgive specific serious sins to the pope. By the fifteenth century, the office had grown to encompass the handling of requests for a new confessor. Parishioners could appeal to the papal office for their own personal confessor and altar, thereby approximating a personal parish within a late medieval household. The appointed confessor could travel with the household across diocesan lines, and such a religious right was popular with late medieval merchants and lesser nobles.

Records of these supplications survive for much of the fifteenth century, listed under the title of De Confessionalibus within the registers of the Apostolic Penitentiary. Two scholars, Kirsi Salonen and Ludwig Schmugge, have counted the entirety of these supplications for the fifteenth century across Western Europe[3]:

De Confessionalibus Amount Percent
British Isles 665 5
France 7,137 52
Germany 2,866 21
Spain and Portugal 841 6
Italy 1,257 9
Northern Europe 111 1
Unknown, Unlabeled 107 1
Total 13,662 100

Salonen and Schmugge’s count of supplications provides a startling new look into the enthusiasm behind late medieval parishioners’ desire for a personal confessor. A total of 13,662 supplications for a personal confessor exist for the fifteenth century, but that does not reflect the actual amount of people affected by these requests. In most supplications under De Confessionalibus, a husband and wife would both be included in the request, along with the assumption that any children they may have had were also under the jurisdiction of their newly appointed confessor. Based on this information, we could double or even triple the number of surviving requests to more accurately reflect the number of people involved in these supplications.

Arguing based on sheer amounts of surviving material is a tricky subject for any medievalist, we are all aware of the vicissitudes of medieval source material surviving into the modern era. Using the quantitative material of Tentler and Bossy leads us to one way of viewing late medieval confession and the confessor, Salonen and Schmugge’s data of the Apostolic Penitentiary draws us to a different conclusion of the confessor. Regardless of quantitative choice, it is clear that confession and confessors played a central and high demand role in the religious life of the Late Middle Ages.

Sean Sapp, PhD Candidate
University of Notre Dame


[1] John Bossy, Christianity in the West 1400-1700 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985); Thomas Tentler, Sin and Confession on the Eve of the Reformation (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977).

[2] Tentler, 49.

[3] Kirsi Salonen and Ludwig Schmugge, A Sip from the “Well of Grace”: medieval texts from the Apostolic Penitentiary, (Washington D.C.: Catholic University Press, 2009).

Working Groups in Progress (2018-2019): Jewish and Christian Books in the First Millennium CE

Medieval manuscripts create the conditions for much of our knowledge of the past. The working group on “Jewish and Christian Books in the First Millennium CE” engages Jewish and Christian texts from Late Antiquity to the early modern period, focusing on how material texts and the history of reading enrich our understanding of these texts and their readers. By illuminating the ways in which textual knowledge was—and continues to be—produced, accessed, and preserved, the study of material texts is fundamental to the study of both Judaism and Christianity.

A central emphasis for our working group is the ways that Christian and Jewish communities have oriented themselves around books and reading. For our first meeting of the year, we discussed David Stern’s The Jewish Bible: A Material History(Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2017). Stern argues that Jewish books have often been adapted in response to the book technologies of neighboring cultures, but are also marked as Jewish through their physical form.

A recurring theme in the working group is how both physical technologies and cultural practices facilitate the creation of textual knowledge. The production of texts builds on complex interaction between spoken language, written text, and habits of reading. In November, Tzvi Novick introduced us to a particular example of this complexity by presenting his work on “Orality, Writing, and Language Choice in Early Roman Palestine.” In our next meeting (1 March), Hildegund Müller will discuss the medieval manuscript transmission of Augustine’s Enarrationes in Psalmos. Her work engages the ways that medieval manuscripts, their scribes, and their readers have preserved and changed Augustine’s oeuvre.

Scribes and readers also curate texts for the benefit of subsequent readers. One way to do this is by providing paratexts, that is, features like tables of contents, section divisions, or explanatory notes that guide the reader and structure the text. In October, Jeremiah Coogan presented his research on the Eusebian apparatus, a set of Gospel cross-references that occurs in late ancient and medieval manuscripts from Ireland to Ethiopia. He argued that the Eusebian apparatus creates new possibilities for reading the Gospels, which we can see at work in a number of examples from Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. On 12 April, Paul Wheatley will present a paper titled “Behind the Veil of Translation: Onomastics, Interpretation, and Revelation.” Paul will discuss onomastic lists, which often appear in biblical manuscripts and explain the names of biblical people and places. Like the Eusebian apparatus, these manuscript features shape how readers encounter sacred text on the page.

Because such paratexts are added by certain readers for the benefit of other readers, they enable us to glimpse medieval reading in action. Another way that we can observe the history of reading is by attending to what readers write. In our February meeting, Andrew King demonstrated how digital analysis can be applied to ancient texts. Andrew’s paper on “The Big Data of Intertextuality and the Book of Deuteronomy” offers an approach to “distance reading” that illuminates trends in the citation of biblical texts by various authors over time.

Modern practices of collection and conservation likewise generate particular bodies of knowledge to be studied. In our January 2019 meeting, the working group looked at Brent Nongbri’s recent monograph, God’s Library: The Archaeology of the Earliest Christian Manuscripts (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018). Focusing on late ancient manuscripts from Egypt, Nongbri shows how nineteenth- and twentieth-century archeologists, dealers, and collectors shaped the manuscript collections that modern scholars study and what we know about them. Nongbri’s work also engages the physical features of early Christian books and the challenges of historically contextualizing them.

Physical books are always situated in economic, ritual, and readerly contexts. On 31 May, we will host a conference on “The Material Gospel” to discuss the Gospels as material artifacts. Gospel books were powerful objects. Augustine of Hippo complains that his audiences put Gospel books under their pillows to cure toothache. Amulets attest that even short Gospel excerpts were used for protective power. The Gospel in codex format represented Christian identity. Gospel books were processed in liturgy and imposed on the shoulders of ordinands. As an anthological object, the multiple-Gospel codex contributed to the development of a fourfold canonical Gospel. In times of persecution, Gospel books might even be subject to public execution in place of Christ himself. The conference will explore these and similar questions from the first five centuries CE. This conference will serve as a fitting conclusion to this year’s working group, drawing together a wide range of conversations about books and reading.

Jeremiah Coogan, PhD Candidate
University of Notre Dame

Penitential Justice in Saint Mary’s College, Cushwa-Leighton Library, Ms. 1

My semester at Notre Dame as the Astrik L. Gabriel Postdoctoral Fellow was fortuitous in several ways. As I began to revise my dissertation into a book, I benefited greatly from the resources of the Medieval Institute, the kind guidance of Notre Dame’s faculty, and the friendship of several graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. During my short tenure, Irish football also went undefeated in the regular season! (Take note deans and future hiring committees.) Last but not least, I discovered a remarkable manuscript at Saint Mary’s College: Cushwa-Leighton Library, Ms. 1.

f. 33v-34r

As David Gura notes in his catalog entry, Ms. 1 was probably copied in Germany in the late-twelfth or early-thirteenth century.[1] It contains portions of Peter Lombard’s Sentences and Burchard’s Decretum, as well as minor excerpts from Rather of Verona’s Synodica and Adelgar’s De studio virtutum. When I first came across Ms. 1, I was immediately interested because I had examined many similar copies of Burchard’s Decretum in my dissertation.[2] I was even more excited to discover that Ms. 1 is unknown to historians of canon law![3]

Although there is much work yet to be done, I would like to share some of my initial findings regarding Ms. 1.

In its current form, Ms. 1 consists of two distinct sections. The first section contains the Sentences (ff. 1ra-18vb) while the second section contains Decretum and the other minor texts (ff. 19r-38v). The small hand and two columns of the former section is clearly distinguishable from the larger hand and single column of the latter section. At some point these two sections, originally distinct, must have been bound together.

f. 2r
f. 26r

Burchard’s Decretum and Saint Mary’s Ms. 1

The Decretum was compiled by Burchard, bishop of Worms, between 1012 and 1023, and numbers among the most important canon law collections of the Middle Ages. Divided into twenty books, the Decretum focuses on matters of diocesan administration, including the rights and duties of the bishop, the regulation of clerical (mis)conduct, and the punishment of lay crimes and sins through penance. About 78 complete copies of the Decretum survive today.

As noted by Gura, the Decretum excerpts in Saint Mary’s Ms. 1 mostly come from Book 19. Book 19, which is also known as the Corrector, explains how to judge, assign, and enforce penances.

In recent years, the Corrector has received a great deal of attention from cultural historians due to its strange prescriptions against magic, witchcraft, and sexual deviancy. For example, the Corrector includes one of the earliest known references to werewolves! Consider also this fascinating example:

“Have you done what certain women are accustomed to do? They take a living fish, place it between their legs, and hold it there for a while until it has died. Then, having boiled and roasted the fish, they give it to their husbands to eat. They do this so that [their husbands] might become more inflamed in love for them. If you have done this, you should do penance for two years.”

“Fecisti quod quaedam mulieres facere solent? Tollunt piscem unum vivum, et conmittunt eum in puerperium suum, et tamdiu eum ibi tenent, donec mortuus fuerit, et, cocto pisce vel assato, suis maritis ad comedendum tradunt, ideo faciunt hoc, ut plus in amorem earum inardescant? Si fecisti, duos annos poeniteas.”

f. 27v

The Corrector has traditionally been considered a penitential. The penitentials first emerged in Ireland and England in the fifth and sixth centuries and were brought to the Continent by missionary-monks such as Columbanus and Boniface in the seventh and eighth centuries. According to most scholars, the penitentials describe a process of private, voluntary confession distinct from the mandatory public penances of the canon law collections. As such, scholars often claim that the Corrector was used separately from the rest of the Decretum.

According to my analysis, however, Ms. 1 also contains major excerpts from other parts of the Decretum, including books 2, 6, 9, 12, and 17. These books covers topics such as clerical misconduct (Book 2), homicide (Book 6), marriage law (Book 9), perjury (Book 12), and sexual offenses (Book 17). While most of these texts appear after the Corrector material, there is also some overlap. As can be seen below, several canons from Book 6 on homicide, for example, appear on f. 22v near the beginning of the Corrector section.

f. 22v, containing canons 19.31, 6.12, 6.16, 6.34

As I argued in my dissertation, abbreviations such as Saint Mary’s Ms. 1 reveal that medieval readers and users of the Decretum did not see the Corrector as a manual of private confession separable from the Decretum. Rather, they saw it as a practical summary of the Decretum and did not hesitate to combine it with texts taken from other parts of the collection.

An Augsburg Connection?

Based on my work with similar manuscripts from southern Germany, I have found several indications that Ms. 1 (at least the latter section) has some connection to the diocese of Augsburg:

1. On ff. 20r-22r appear excerpts from the De studio virtutum/Admonitio ad Nonsuindam reclusam, which is printed in Migne’s Patrologia Latina vol. 132. Migne attributed the text to a certain Adalger who was supposedly a bishop of Augsburg in the tenth century.

2. On f. 19rv appear excerpts from Rather of Verona’s Synodica. Only four manuscripts of this text survive and one of them belonged to Diessen Abbey in the diocese of Augsburg. This manuscript is now Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, CLM 5515 (s. xii).

3. On f. 19v appears a text on the duties of archdeacons which begins “Unuscuiusque christi minister…”. I have located this text only in two Augsburg manuscripts: Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, CLM 3851 (s. ixex) and 3853 (s. x3/4).

f. 19v

4. In my dissertation, I argued that Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, CLM 4570 (completed in 1108) was the Augsburg copy of Burchard’s Decretum. If I am correct, Ms. 1 was probably copied from CLM 4570.

For more information on Ms. 1, please refer to my article which will appear in the December 2019 volume of the Journal of Medieval History. Or you can go see it in person at Saint Mary’s College!

John Burden, PhD
Yale University

[1] David T. Gura, A Descriptive Catalogue of the Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts of the University of Notre Dame and St. Mary’s College (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2016), 558-61.

[2] John Burden, “Between Crime and Sin: Penitential Justice in Medieval Germany, 900-1200” (Ph.D. Dissertation: Yale University, 2008).

[3] Lotte Kéry, Canonical Collections of the Early Middle Ages (ca. 400-1140) (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1999).