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The concept of penance is expressed in all major religious traditions and in a variety of small-scale cultural contexts. Penance typically is characterized by specific ideas about the culture-specific nature of transgression or sin, ideas about the appropriate state of mind and attitude of the penitent, and the use of payment, contrition, or punishment to compensate for transgressions. The idea of penance appears in colloquial interactions that range from seemingly innocent expressions such as "you're gonna pay for that" used among children and peers to tongue-in-cheek jests about "saying a Hail Mary" and similar references in popular culture and personal interactions. Although these references to payment seem to be coordinated with capitalism and a product-profit based economy, the origins of the concept derive from more ancient sources.


In sacred contexts the idea of penance is associated with punishment and repayment for infractions committed against the supernatural or against shared values. A divine calculus of equivalencies matches the infraction with the appropriate punishment and in almost all instances involves both an element of confession and contrition (in which absolution in some form amounts to obedience to some type of religious or judicial power) and an element of recompense or payment (in which the payment almost always is literal in a meaningful way and the payee almost always is tied to geopolitical power sources). The intractability of this idea of infraction and payment is illustrated in both everyday experience and formalized and institutionalized rituals and practices associated with organized religions.

For example, the common English expression "there'll be the devil to pay" typically is misunderstood in terms of the transformation of devil into hell and the sanitizing gesture of reinstating devil to its correct place. The expression derives from a nautical practice involving "the devil," or the submerged portion of a ship's keel; the action "to pay," or to tar over potential leaks; and the danger and difficulty of that operation. The entire expression has a sense different from the misunderstood version: "There'll be the devil [keel] to pay [repair] and no pitch [tar] hot" simply means that the ship and its crew are in trouble. However, the notion of penance in Western historical and contemporary sensibility is sufficiently strong that the expression has been transformed and a plausible and ideologically consistent story has been produced to accompany the changed formulation. The expression "there'll be hell to pay" combines this traditional nautical expression with traces of ancient Greek concepts of death and the requirement of payment at the River Styx to Charon, the ferryman who conveyed souls across the river into the afterlife—hence the concept "to pay hell." Both versions and the ubiquity of the expression in colloquial speech reflect the persistence of the underlying ideas of payment, death, and safe conveyance into the afterlife converted into a mortal equivalence of payment.

Similarly, throughout Western history large social programs and individual biographies have reflected the connection between spiritual or social indebtedness and self-sacrifice. Florence Nightingale, who was born to a wealthy British family in Italy in 1820, spent her life in the service of others, chiefly through her commitment to nursing and in response to her family's wealth and as penance for the ill health of her older sister. Nightingale's story is significant and illustrative in several respects. First, it demonstrates the preeminent place in Western sensibility of repaying, acts of contrition, and self-abnegation in compensation for a wrong one has complied with or committed. Second, it reflects the formative period of twentieth-century ideologies outside the context of the sacred.

Whereas penance usually suggests orthodox religiosity, the secular meanings and applications of penance are striking. Indeed, when secular expressions of penance appear in U.S. history, especially in the context of social service and humanitarian works, women are typically the agents. Perhaps as a result of the lack of a formalized national religion and the religious diversity in historical and contemporary American society self-sacrificial service gestures in the secular sphere allow women to express personal or collective repentance. In Western life in general and in American life in particular the sacred and secular interpretations of confession, penance, contrition, indebtedness, and absolution have tended to leak into one another's territory and have found mutual support in both ideological and material ways.


The notion of penance in Western traditions reflects the profound influence of Catholicism. The fundamental elements of the sacrament of penance and reconciliation in the Catholic catechism, the written and oral exposition of Catholic doctrine, are confession and contrition: a willingness to confess sins, atone for sins, and refrain from future sinful conduct. The priest, through the sacrament of absolution, forgives the penitent and grants pardon and peace. The sacrament is called penance and reconciliation to denote the embrace by God of the contrite sinner. This sacrament derives its formal structure and power from a variety of New Testament sources, including the gospels of Mark, Matthew, John, and Luke and the Book of Revelation. The power to determine and forgive sins is concentrated in the authority of the priesthood.

Perhaps the most compelling aspect of penance and gender is illustrated in the medieval notions of self-denial, salvation, sanctification, service, and purification achievable through self-starvation. That "holy anorexia" (Bell 1985) was characterized by lack of appetite, loss of weight, satisfaction with the continual disappearance of the body, and mystical experiences associated with religious dedication. Those women of the Middle Ages, generally in religious orders, embody the idealized medieval Western female body. During the medieval period, whereas the male body was understood as a perfected creation of God, the female body was understood as a creation of the woman herself and a reflection of her character. Thus, denial, refusal of food, and other bodily responses to food constituted a demonstration of a genuine affirmation of faith. A variety of forms of penance-related food manifestations have been documented among medieval women in general and saints in particular, including self-induced vomiting, which was presumed to allow the communicant to receive the Eucharist more truly; refusal to eat; and a full range of contemporary clinical symptoms of anorexia, including extreme satisfaction with a decreasing body size, amenorrhea (the interruption of menstruation), fineness and loss of hair, and periods of hyperactivity.

Self-starvation in the medieval period was understood as a mystical and sanctifying experience beyond its most literal function as an ongoing form of penance. Most famous among those medieval women is Saint Catherine of Siena, born in 1347, the most archetypal of the self-starving sanctified women who sought redemption through the refusal of food. Catherine held fast to the principle that the need for salvation of humans was so great that there should be no time to think about eating food. Through suffering and starvation Catherine sought penance and reconciliation with God. Such holy anorexia has been understood as a response to social structural patriarchy and the extremely repressive conditions women faced, particularly where expressions of sexuality and body-related matters were concerned. At the same time some scholars have commented that that particular response also conferred a degree of autonomy on women with few choices and little of control over themselves or outside themselves.


Transgression and punishment in Judaism are understood in terms of human agency (free will, or behirah) and action, along with the intention and seriousness of transgressive acts. Penance, or atonement, involves the conscious, intellectual, individual recognition of one's acts, or teshuvá (repentance). Recognition, remorse, desisting from continued or repeated transgression, and restitution are the deliberate acts and states of mind of an individual. Confession is made directly to God and can take the form of personal or ritual acts such as articulating one's confession into community prayer life. Personal rather than formulaic confession characterizes repentance in Judaism. No intercessory (priest) acts to link between human beings and God. During the tenth month of the Jewish calendar the major collective ritual of atonement takes place during Tishri, a period of fasting and prayer for forgiveness, or Yom Kippur.

The concept of penance in Judaism differs from Protestant and Catholic configurations in several ways. The concept of penance derived from Christian, particularly Catholic, principles that hold that human beings enter life on earth stained with original sin. Judaism regards volitional and unintentional actions during life as constituting sin. The Catholic understanding of sin interprets the fundamentally flawed nature of humans (original sin) and repentance as a moral virtue. Acts of penitence and reconciliation provide access to God's forgiveness. In Judaism, in contrast, penance involves no confession, no absolution administered through a designated intermediary, and no reconciliation or yielding of all inner negative feelings.

In Judaism teshuvá is the intellectual recognition of one's sins, and repentance is understood in terms of remorse, desisting, restitution, and confession. In the Catholic sacrament of penance the penitent must communicate repentance through a priest. In the case of Protestant Christianity forgiveness is sought directly through individual prayer, and the concept of penalty was challenged during the Protestant Reformation though Martin Luther's rejection of the purchasing of indulgences, a practice linked to the corruption of Catholic doctrine and ecclesiastical power. Indulgences, although not part of the early Church, began to replace the acts of contrition, the sacrament of absolution, and the reconciliation of the penitent as early as 1095 under Pope Urban II and continued with intensifying vigor until Luther's initiation of the Reformation.

Gender, sin, and repentance in Judaism situate women primarily in terms of domestic issues and family relationships. The degree to which women are confined to the domestic sphere varies significantly over historical time and across Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform traditions. Although women and men are formally bound by identical general requirements of behavior and repentance, women are excluded doctrinally from the ability to perform a number of acts and wear garments such as a kippot (Hebrew) or yarmulke (Yiddish); for a woman to express her religious devotion in such a manner would constitute a significant transgression. Thus, because of the restrictions on their behavior, voice, and extradomestic power, the transgressions and consequent penance of women are distinct from men's transgressions or from those of the assumed generic human being.


As in Judaism, the position of women in Islam is understood formally as equal to the position of men in terms of rights and responsibilities, but in practice women are understood as socially below men hierarchically and in their activities; therefore, their possible transgressions from appropriate moral conduct are gender-specific. Women are described in the Qur'an as essentially and fundamentally different from men. Traditionally, these differences require that men protect women and that women restrict their activities to marriage and family. Chastity, reputation, and maternal devotion are the central conduct-defining characteristics of women's behavior. A good woman is a good wife, and a good wife is a woman whose mind, body, speech are kept in subjection. Moreover, women's transgression is defined chiefly in terms of control, agency, and display of her body.

The Islamic concept of penance, tawbah, or repentance is derived from language meaning "to return," as is the concept of teshuvá in Judaism. Prayers, good deeds and works, repentance, and compensation are forms of punishment for various kinds of sin. As in the case of all religious forms, religious regulation and legal regulation intersect where necessary to ratify each other and supply authorized force and the right to administer punishment. A variety of sins constitute civil law breaking as well as transgressions against Islamic law, including murder, theft, and adultery. The relationship between the body of a woman and veiling is in certain respects comparable to that between the female body and anorexia in the medieval Catholic Church. Self-abnegation, denial of the corporeal, and the erasure of the visible body characterize these fundamental religious inscriptions on the female body.


Hinduism is widely distributed around the world and includes a range of beliefs, practices, and degrees of orthodoxy over historical time, geographic space, and cultural situation. Only general characteristics can identify the general shape of women and penance in Hinduism. Hindu views of sin, (papā), repentance, and gender are organized around the concept of negative karma, the principle that derives from Sanskrit linguistic stems that mean "to do" and "effect," or "destiny," and describe the totality of an individual's actions. Negative karma and the sin that creates it have immediate and harmful effects. Sin, or wrongful actions (kukarma), are understood as volitional acts, with their greatest impact in the harm caused to the transgressing individual. Penance, or prayashchitta, involves acts of devotion and discipline or acts inflicting discomfort on the penitent, including fasting, self-denial, and a variety of other austerities. Rather than the punishment of guilty persons, the objective is the quest to attain a higher level of consciousness and awareness through corporeal deprivation.

As in the case of the other major religious traditions in large-scale highly stratified societies, the configuration of women in terms of transgression, repentance, and penance reflects the social and economic position of women overall. In Hindu tradition women are situated in material and symbolic conditions in which they are regarded as the center of the family, the custodian of values, the socializer of the young, and the source of life and at the same time the root of sin, temptation of men, moral and intellectual inferiority, and the need for constant monitoring and control. Rather than women submitting to penitence in repayment for their own sense of transgression, the infliction of punishment on women traditionally can entail the amputation of ears and noses and the infliction of severe physical distress, in part stemming from the foundational stories of Rama's similar treatment of his disobedient wives.


Penance in Buddhism centers on austerity, asceticism, and spiritual and physical discipline as a path to the achievement of higher consciousness and spiritual awareness and an intensification of religious devotion. The Middle Path represents an ideal balance between self-indulgence and self-mortification and is the desired state of being. Like Hinduism, with which historical Buddhism shares origins and geographic distribution, Buddhism configures woman as the source of personal temptation and social disruption. Consistent with the fundamental principles of self-denial and asceticism in Buddhism, woman penitents practice strict forms of discipline, denial, and mortification.

The major world religions and the societies in which they originated and are currently found position women as a source of social stability and social disruption. Women's transgressions are framed in the context of violations of restrictions on female sexual activity and norms that regulate and constrain women's extradomestic activity. In extreme interpretations women who have been raped are considered guilty of and punishable for adultery. Women's bodies, universally understood as life-giving and essential, are denied, mortified, constrained, bound, starved, and covered to various extents both as mundane requirements and as extraordinary measures exacted in payment for transgressions. Women whose lives are dedicated to religious devotion historically have embodied stricter versions of the penance of women outside religious orders, but these extreme versions are consistent with the ordinary constraints and punishments women experience as a consequence of their social roles and symbolic theological meanings.

see also Guilt; Honor and Shame.


Bell, Rudolph M. 1985. Holy Anorexia. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

"Catherine of Siena." 2006. In Patron Saints Index. Available from

"I Catherine." 2006. Available at'speoples/experts/cathy.htm.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church. 1994. Libreria Editrice Vaticana. Liguori, MO: Liguori Publications.

"The Sacrament of Penance." 2006. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. Available from

                                        Melinda Kanner

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pen·ance / ˈpenəns/ • n. 1. voluntary self-punishment inflicted as an outward expression of repentance for having done wrong: he had done public penance for those hasty words. 2. a Christian sacrament in which a member of the Church confesses sins to a priest and is given absolution. In the Roman Catholic Church often called sacrament of reconciliation. ∎  a religious observance or other duty required of a person by a priest as part of this sacrament to indicate repentance. • v. [tr.] archaic impose a penance on: a hair shirt to penance him for his folly in offending.

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Penance. In Christianity, punishment (Lat., poena) for sin. By the 3rd cent. the system had emerged in which the sinner, after public confession, was placed, once only in his or her life, in an order of ‘penitents’, excluded from communion and committed to a severe course of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving for a specified time. This scarcely workable system gave place to another, originally Celtic, in which confession was made privately. Public penance continued for notorious offences. From all this developed the Catholic practice of confession, absolution, and light penance.

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penance †repentance, penitence; penitential discipline or observance XIII; ordinance for administering this (one of the sacraments) XIV. — OF.:— L. pænitentia PENITENCE; see -ANCE.

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penance Carrying out of a specified act as a mark of sincere regret following the commission of a sin or sins. The most common penance, prescribed by a priest after absolution, is to say a prayer at a special time.

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