Making Sense of Supplications in the Late Middle Ages

BnF MS Francais 2644

In my most recent post, I discussed some conflicting issues between different types of quantitative source material on late medieval confession and confessors.  There I argued that historians of late medieval religious life have mischaracterized the popularity and volume of confessional manuals as a denunciation of the capabilities and efficacy of late medieval confessors. As an alternative, I offered the huge number of requests, known as supplications, to the papacy for new confessors in the fifteenth century. These supplications show popular enthusiasm by the laity across all Western Christendom for personal confessors.

While there are almost 14,000 surviving supplications to the papacy for a new confessor, these requests were not distributed evenly. From my previous post, one can see that supplications from France account for over 50 percent of the source material. If we examine the supplications categorized by those historians as “French”, we see another interesting numerical imbalance:

Burgundian Total (Reg. Mat. Div. 1-41)[i] 1442
1409-1411 15
Eugenius IV, (1431-1447) 181
Nicholas V, 1447-1455) N/A
Calixtus III (1455-1458) 227
Pius II (1458-1464) 233
Paul II (1464-1471) 364
Sixtus 1471-1484 319
Innocent VIII (1484-1492) 118

The supplications from late medieval Burgundy, categorized as French due to current geographical boundaries by modern historians, account for 20.2 percent of French entries.

When we consider population estimates, a notoriously difficult issue to tackle, the proportion of Burgundian supplications proves even more striking. In 1450, the estimated population of French lands, including late medieval Burgundy, was around twelve million people.[ii] The estimated population of Burgundy, according to tax data collected from the same period, was 1.4 million people.[iii] Some quick math tells us that the Burgundian population made up about 11.6 percent of the larger French population.

As we can see by comparing the discrepancy in Burgundian-French supplications to the Burgundian-French population, there is a net difference of 8.6 percent between the two categories. Based on this information, we see that the people of late medieval Burgundy were more likely to request a personal confessor than population estimates would suggest. Indeed, Burgundian supplications make up a little more than 12 percent of all supplications to the papacy in the fifteenth century, although they account for around 4 percent of the population of Western Europe at the time.

BL MS Royal 18 E I f. 165v

The sheer amount of supplications coming from Burgundian lands begs the question as to why the people of Burgundy had such a disproportionate enthusiasm for the personal confessor. One potential explanation comes from the political realities of late medieval Burgundy, specifically the idea of representation by the more well-to-do citizens of Flemish cities.

The Flemish cities were, by far, the most populous lands within Burgundy, and had a long history of fighting and revolting against the Dukes of Burgundy for political representation and rights.[iv] These revolts happened so frequently that historians have gathered them into a distinct category called the fourth period of Flemish urban rebellions (1379-1453). Within this period, the people of Gent revolted at least eleven times in the fifteenth century, with the longest and most bitter revolt occurring from 1449 to 1453.

Most interestingly for our purposes here, the revolt of 1449-53 was followed by the largest spike in supplications to the papacy for new confessors both from dioceses in which the revolts occurred, as well as the Burgundian lands in general.[v] In the years that followed the revolt of 1449-53, Burgundian supplications to the penitentiary exploded to 267 requests in a five-year span. Before 1449, there are only 191 requests extant from the entirety of Burgundian dioceses in the first half of the fifteenth century, with 181 of those coming during the sixteen-year papacy of Eugenius IV (1431-1447).

Later revolts in Gent of 1467 and 1487 also saw large upticks in supplications to the papacy, especially the revolt of 1467 against Duke Charles the Bold. 1469 had the highest number of requests for a new confessor out of any year in the fifteenth century with 82.

These Flemish revolts do not conclusively explain the proclivity of the people in Burgundy to seek a new confessor. But they do give us a window into the wider political and social currents, which help to explain Burgundian enthusiasm in these requests, as well as the various upticks in those same requests in the fifteenth century.

Sean Sapp, PhD Candidate
University of Notre Dame


[i] Based upon my own research in the archives of the Apostolic Penitentiary.

[ii] J. C. Russell, “Population in Europe,” in The Fontana Economic History of Europe, Vol. I: The Middle Ages, ed. Carlo M. Cipolla, (Glasgow : Collins/Fontana, 1972), 25-71.

[iii] Norman J. G. Pounds, “Population and Settlement in the Low Countries and Northern France in the Later Middle Ages,” Revue belge de philologie et d’histoire, vol. 49, fasc. 2, 1971. Histoire (depuis l’Antiquité) — Geschiedenis (sedert de Oudheid), 369-402.

[iv] Jan Dumolyn & Jelle Haemers, “Patterns of urban rebellion in medieval Flanders,” Journal of Medieval History, 31:4, (2005), 369-393.

[v] The registers of supplications in the Apostolic Penitentiary are fragmentary or lost for the first quarter of the fifteenth century, so it is unclear if this pattern holds true for the early revolts.

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).

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.