Manuals for confessors, setting forth allotments of penance for specified sins. They originated in the Celtic Church (Wales?), became established in Ireland in the 6th century, and were introduced to the Franks and the Anglo-Saxons along with the Irish mission. Such manuals became necessary when private confession and penance, originally a monastic practice, began to replace the public confession and canonical penance of the early Church. This pastoral practice was inaugurated, it seems, by St. caesarius of arles; it was fully developed in Wales and Ireland by the middle of the 6th century. Its principal features were: (1) Penances were graded according to the status of the sinner as well as to the nature of the sin. (2) The penance was enjoined by a private confessor (normally a priest) of the penitent's choice. (3) Most penances were of limited duration, which made it possible to receive the Sacrament of Penance repeatedly. (4) Long penances were often performed in monasteries; i.e., the penitent temporarily joined a monastic community. (5) Long penances could be converted into more austere ones of shorter duration. (6) Ordinary penances consisted mainly in periods of fasting (often on bread and water) and the recitation of Psalms; alms could be substituted for fasting in case of sickness or for other reasons. Some commutations (arrea ), however, were reminiscent of the more austere forms of Irish asceticism.
Welsh and Irish Penitentials. The private character of the "Celtic" penance and the absence of diocesan organization and episcopal jurisdiction in these countries explain why the penitentials were not decreed by synods but were the work of individuals, often of abbots of great monasteries. These authors fixed penances in accordance with Sacred Scripture, canonical and monastic tradition, and their own spiritual judgment; an element of secular law was the admission of wergeld. The penitentials had no other authority than their compilers' reputation for sanctity and holy wisdom.
The penitential ascribed to Gildas fixes penances for monks only. The penitentials of Vinnian (Finnian of Clonard, d. 549?) and of St. Columbanus (after 591?), who draws largely on Vinnian, have specific penances for clerics and laymen. Both penitentials are of rather loose composition. The most comprehensive of Irish penitentials, that of Cummean (probably Cummaine Fota, "the Long," d. 662) and the Old Irish penitential (of the Culdees of Tallaght near Dublin, 8th century), are based on Cassian's ogdoad of deadly sins. Both Vinnian and Cummean emphasize the remedial aspect of penance beside and above its vindictive aspect, that is the "healing" of the soul besides atonement for offending God. For example, Cummean (following Gildas) allows a long-term penitent to receive the Eucharist after 18 months "lest his soul perish utterly through lacking so long the celestial medicine." Much consideration is given to sinful thoughts and their expiation—another monastic element. The "medicine of souls" that the penitentials offered had doubtless a salutary influence also on social life: it curbed blood feuds and brawls, condemned sexual perversion and the practice of causing abortion by magic potions; it insisted on a minimum of hygiene by enacting some of the Old Testament dietary laws, etc. It had to compromise with the firmly rooted pagan custom of keening: the penance for keening decreased according to the higher rank of the dead person.
Later Penitentials. Columbanus brought the Irish penitential system to the Continent, where it soon became established. The Anglo-Saxons received it through the Irish from Iona who convened Northumbria. Even after the synod of Whitby (664) it was not abandoned. The penitential texts that go under the names of Theodore of Canterbury (d. c. 690), Bede, and Egbert (8th century) are still in the Irish tradition.
The two largest and best known Frankish penitentials of the 8th century, the Excarpsus Cummeani (Pseudo-Cummean) and the penitential of Codex Bigotianus (Paris, Bibl. nat. lat. 3182, 10th century), draw, inter alia, on both Cummean and Theodore. As a counterpart, one began to collect the penitential canons also in the native conciliar collections. Such compilations as the Saint Gall Tripartitum, or the Capitula iudiciorum, put, side by side, the iudicia canonica (and iudicia Columbani ), the iudicia Theodori, and the iudicia Cummeani. The Carolingian reformers criticized the penitentials for their lack of canonical authority, the discrepancies of specific penances found between one penitential and another, and the abuses to which the option of substituting alms for fasting had led in course of time. New penitentials were composed from such canonical sources as the hadriana collectio and the hispana collectio, e.g., the Collectio Dacheriana, which was combined with a "Roman" penitential (actually a tripartitum ) by Halitgar of Cambrai (817–831), but only as far as the latter would agree with Roman discipline. The penitential of Hrabanus Maurus is strictly canonical; it is based almost entirely on the Hadriana and Hispana.
A late descendant of the Franco-insular penitential tradition is the "Corrector," b. 19 of the Decretum of burchard of worms in the beginning of the 11th century. It contains questions to be asked by the confessor, with the appropriate penance for each sin confessed. Later penitentials, beginning with that of Alan of Lille, are general guides for confessors and not "tariff books," that is, books simply listing specific penances appropriate to certain sins.
Bibliography: c. vogel, La Discipline pénitentielle en Gaule des origines à la fin du VII e siècle (Paris 1952). f. w. h. wasserschleben, Die Bussordnungen der abendländischen Kirche (Halle 1851), texts and introd. h. j. schmitz, Die Bussbücher und die Bussdisciplin der Kirche (Mainz 1883); Die Bussbücher und das Kanonische Bussverfahren (Düsseldorf 1898), historical, with ed. and analysis of many texts. j. f. kenney, The Sources for the Early History of Ireland, v. 1: Ecclesiastical (New York 1929) 235–246, survey with bibliog. p. fournier and g. lebras, Histoire des collections canoniques en occident depuis les fausses décrétals jusqu'au Décret de Gratien (Paris 1931–32) v.1, passim. g. le bras, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant et al. (Paris 1903–50) 12.1: 1160–79. t. p. oakley, "Celtic Penance: Its Sources, Affiliation and Influence," The Irish Ecclesiastical Record 52 (1938) 147–164, 581–601. j. t. mcneill and h. m. gamer, Medieval Handbooks of Penance (New York 1938), introd., Eng. tr., notes, bibliog., list of penitential MSS. Le Pénitentiel de St. Columban, ed. j. laporte (Tournai 1958). c. vogel, Lexicon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner (Freiburg 1957–65) 2:802–805. l. bieler, ed., The Irish Penitentials, app., d. a. binchy (Scriptores Latini Hiberniae, Dublin 1963), introd., critical eds., Eng. tr., notes, indexes.