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Medieval Handbooks of Penance: A Translation of the Principal Libri Poenitentiales [Paperback]

By John McNeill (Author) & Helena Gamer (Author)
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Item description for Medieval Handbooks of Penance: A Translation of the Principal Libri Poenitentiales by John McNeill & Helena Gamer...

-- Caroline Walker Bynum, Columbia University

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Item Specifications...

Studio: Columbia University Press
Pages   476
Est. Packaging Dimensions:   Length: 8.94" Width: 5.9" Height: 1.24"
Weight:   1.45 lbs.
Binding  Softcover
Release Date   Dec 1, 1990
Publisher   Columbia University Press
Age  22
ISBN  0231096291  
ISBN13  9780231096294  

Availability  0 units.

More About John McNeill & Helena Gamer

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Product Categories

1Books > Subjects > History > World > General
2Books > Subjects > History > World
3Books > Subjects > Religion & Spirituality > Christianity > Clergy > Church Institutions & Organizations
5Books > Subjects > Religion & Spirituality > Religious Studies > History

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Reviews - What do customers think about Medieval Handbooks of Penance?

A Collection of Early Medieval Penitenials  Jun 21, 2005
The Penitential is a strange form of literature. Never intended for general readership they where instead given to clerics in order to help them give appropriate penances for all varieties of sin. They sprang up, without any historical precedent, in Ireland only a generation or two after St. Patrick and from there spread to England and the Continent, and even reaching Rome by the ninth century.

The reader can look at these penitentials as quaint and funny reminders of the backwardness of the early Middle Ages, but that would be missing the point. These little books display a depth of understanding of the human psyche on the part of the authors that is quite surprising to the modern reader. For example no type of sin is left out, the authors where no prudes and they knew that some people could reach any depth of depravity. Yet they also believed in the truth of their work, i.e. saving souls. Thus the worst things imaginable are still forgiven. There are constant reminders in the text telling the clerics, who are giving the penances, to be gentle with the penitent person and always remind him/her that the cleric is himself only human.

This book is also important as a reference on every day life in the early middle ages. We see that even though superstition was still common (although references to it start to thin out and disappear around the eight and ninth centuries) the church still commanded considerable power over the faithful. The clerics could never have expected any of these penances to be carried out if the conversions of the people was less then sincere, and since the penitentials where copied again and again they must have been working. Also interesting is the considerable learning that the authors display. In several individual penitentials the author will explain the differences between the Greek and the Roman Churches in giving penances. Considering that the author was often isolated in Ireland or northern England it displays amazing insight on the side of the author.

The edition itself is wonderful. The introduction is an easy to read but scholarly explanation about the development of the sacrament of penance in the Church. It goes into depth about the controversy these penitentials caused in the greater Church. The foot-notes are also helpful if you have any familiarity with Latin. It was originally published in 1938 so I highly doubt the scholarship is still cutting edge, but it is helpful for a better understanding of the time and place these little penitentials where written.
High entertainment from an unlikely source  Feb 25, 2000
An old girlfriend of mine gave me this book as a lark a few months before we broke up; I seem to recall it from a time when things were still going well.

My own interests have nothing to do with this area so I can't comment on it academically. However I have to say it's one of the strangest and most entertaining books I own. The lists of potential or actual sins seem more indicative of the range of folk superstitions and clerical nosiness than the principles of Christianity. I particularly enjoy the one about women trying to make their husbands impotent by smearing themselves with honey and rolling around in flax seed and flour that was ground counterclockwise, etc. Lots of important information about what do if your goat vomits the host, or how long a dead mouse can sit in your beer before you can't drink it.


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