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).

Noble Ambition: Requesting a New Confessor in the Late Middle Ages

ASV, Penitenzieria Aposotolica, Reg. 33 f. 270r

As the and papacy and its various offices grew in complexity throughout the Late Middle Ages, a plethora of new religious possibilities opened to non-elites across Western Europe. One such papal office, called the Apostolic Penitentiary, provided the opportunity for common parishioners to have the precious religious privileges that the medieval nobility had fought for two centuries to solidify and perpetuate. The Apostolic Penitentiary granted special dispensation for a variety of religious requests by parishioners across Western Europe, requests beyond the authority of their bishops to grant. Such requests could involve an approval of a marriage that was within four degrees of relationship through blood or marriage, approval for a portable altar so that the petitioner might be able to celebrate mass regardless of location, or an appeal by a supplicant for a new confessor outside of their parish priest. By the fifteenth century, a well-to-do townsperson in Ghent could enjoy many of the same personal religious privileges of the Duke of Burgundy in form, if not in grandeur.

Christians from every diocese in Western Europe could write to the Penitentiary via a special letter called a supplicatio, or a supplication. A supplication contained the name of the supplicant, perhaps some personal information about that person such as their profession or class, the diocese from which the request originated, and the date upon which the supplication was processed by the Penitentiary. Receipts of these supplications were collected by the Penitentiary and organized into yearly registers. One such example of a supplication for a new confessor can be seen below:

ASV, Penitenzieria Aposotolica, Reg. Mat. Div. 6, 28v

As with most supplications, the entry above is heavily abbreviated based on the sheer number of requests the Penitentiary received. It reads: Item Petro van der Ghert de Venrade et Helisabeth eius uxor laici et Gherardo Hermanni de Eyck et Helisabeth Montz eius uxor Leodiensis diocesis petunt litterae confessionalibus fiat de speciali. Datum 16 Maii 1456.

Translated: Peter van der Ghert of Venrade and his wife Elisabeth and Gerard Hermanni of Eyck and his wife Elisabeth Montz, laypeople of the diocese of Liege seek letters of confession (the right to choose a new confessor was called litterae confessionalibus). Granted under special papal mandate on the 16th of May 1456.

The most important part of this entry for our purposes here is the word laici, whereby the supplication indicates that the two couples from Venrade and Eyck were simple laypeople. They were not nobiles or clerici, nobles or clerics, two common appellations within the Penitentiary registers. All that was needed for a layperson to send a supplicatio from their diocese to the Apostolic Penitentiary was a fee. The exact cost of the fee varied, but it was certainly not prohibitively expensive, as many non-elites are represented in the records of the Penitentiary. Indeed, laici appear to have supplicated far more often to the Apostolic Penitentiary than to the similarly suited office, the Papal Chancery.

However, for many elites hoping to replicate their social superiors, they too had to go through the supplication process to the Penitentiary:

ASV, Penitenzieria Aposotolica, Reg. Mat. Div. 6, 16v

Transcription: Johannes Boyssel domicellus et perpetuus mareschallus ducatus Limburgen. Leodiensis diocesis.: petit litteras confessions de gratia speciali fiat de speciali D. s. t. 17 Julii 1456.

Translation: John Boyssel, young lord and ducal marshal in perpetuity of Limburg, in the diocese of Liege seeks a letter of confession…17th of July 1456.

Above we see John Boyssel, who is of a much higher social and political standing than the earlier entry in the supplications above. Boyssel is a perpetuus ducatus mareschallus, or a ducal marshal, and thus a lifetime appointee by either the Duke of Burgundy, or, more likely, the Duke of Limburg to this military position. Such a personage is a particularly striking inclusion in the registers of the Penitentiary. Boyssel’s appointment placed him among secular lords allowed to act in the stead of the dukes themselves. That Boyssel had to go through the same channels as commoners, possibly his own subjects, within the diocese of Liege, speaks to the social leveling effect of the Apostolic Penitentiary.

Sean Sapp, PhD Candidate
University of Notre Dame


Archivio Segreto Vaticano, Penitenzieria Apostolica, Registrum 6, f. 16v, 28v.

Clarke, Peter D. “New evidence of noble and gentry piety in fifteenth-century England and Wales,” Journal of Medieval History 34 (2008): 23-35.

“And the eyes of them both were opened”: The Moment of Knowing in an Anglo-Saxon Bible

When Eve and Adam ate the forbidden fruit, the Book of Genesis tells us, their eyes were opened, and they knew that they were naked. In modern editions of the Bible, the verses are divided as follows:

6 … and she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave to her husband who did eat.

7 And the eyes of them both were opened, and when they perceived themselves to be naked, they sewed together fig leaves, and made themselves aprons.[1]

The pause comes after the eating of the fruit, emphasizing this act. The immediate results of the act—the opening of the eyes, the recognition of nakedness, and the couple’s decision to cover their nakedness with fig leaves—all follow in quick succession. The next verses detail the further consequences of humanity’s fall. But what if the turning point were not so much the act of choosing to disobey God and eat the fruit, but the cognitive effect of doing so, the revelatory moment when human understanding changed? Such is the interpretation created by one eleventh-century manuscript of the Old Testament in Old English.

This manuscript (Cambridge, British Library, Cotton MS Claudius B.iv) was probably created around 1020-1040, and is large and heavily illustrated. It contrasts with another surviving manuscript of the Old Testament, Oxford, Bodleian Library, Laud Misc. 509, which was likely based on the same exemplar, but which is small and unillustrated. The punctuation differs significantly throughout the two manuscripts. Laud Misc. 509 punctuates Genesis 3:6-7 as follows (the ⁊ symbol is the scribal abbreviation for “and”):

⁊ genam þa of þæs treowes wæstme. ⁊ geæt ⁊ sealde hire were. He æt þa ⁊ heora begra eagan wurdon geopenode hig oncneowon þa þæt hig nacode wæron ⁊ siwodon fic leaf ⁊ worhton him wædbrec.

[and took then of the tree’s fruit. and ate and gave (it) to her husband. He ate then and the eyes of them both were opened they knew then that they were naked and sewed fig leaves and made themselves clothing]

The passage is a bit of a run-on. Punctuation separates Eve’s act of taking the fruit from her eating it and giving it to her husband, but everything that follows does so without a pause.

Contrast this with the same passage in MS Claudius B.iv:

⁊ genam ða of ðæs treowes wæstme. ⁊ geæt. ⁊ sealde hyre were. He æt ða ⁊ heora begra eagan wurdon geopenode .·.

[and took then of the tree’s fruit. and ate. and gave (it) to her husband. He ate then. and the eyes of them both were opened .·.]

The punctuation mark .·. is the “strongest” punctuation mark in the scribe’s repertoire. Used infrequently compared to the single punctus, it represents the biggest pause. And that is the last line on the page (although there is in fact space for at least a couple more words). The reader must pause here at the moment when the eyes of the first human beings are opened, and lift their own eyes to the top of the next page. This page begins with an image: the naked Eve and Adam, Adam in the act of eating the fruit, the serpent in a tree to the left. The text resumes below it, midway through Genesis 3:7, with a large colored initial that, combined with the previous punctuation and page change, suggests that this should be considered a significant break in the text, and that something new is beginning:

Hi oncneowon ða ðæt hi nacode wæron. ⁊ sywodon him fic leaf. ⁊ worhton him wædbrec.

[They knew then that they were naked. and sewed themselves fig leaves. and made themselves clothing.]

While the image still suggests the significance of the eating of the fruit, the page layout and strong punctuation invite the reader to pause and reflect at a different point in the narrative: the time when “the eyes of them both were opened” and the knowledge of good and evil was revealed. What did the world look like, in that moment?

Cambridge, British Library, Cotton MS Claudius B.iv, fols. 6 verso and 7 recto. (A twelfth-century annotator has added commentary in Latin at the bottom of the pages and within the borders of the second image.)

Emily Mahan
PhD Student, Medieval Studies
University of Notre Dame

Further reading:

Rebecca Barnhouse and Benjamin C. Withers, The Old English Hexateuch: Aspects and Approaches, Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2000.

N. Doane and William P. Stoneman, Purloined Letters: The Twelfth-Century Reception of the Anglo-Saxon Illustrated Hexateuch (British Library, Cotton Claudius B. iv), Tempe: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2011.

Benjamin C. Withers, The Illustrated Old English Hexateuch, Cotton Claudius B.iv: The Frontier of Seeing and Reading in Anglo-Saxon England, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007.

[1] Douay-Rheims 1899 American Edition, Gen. 3:6-7.