The keys of heaven : penance, penitentials, and the literature of early medieval England

Frantzen, Allen J, Department of English, University of Virginia
Earl, James, University of Virginia
Kolve, V. a., University of Virginia

This study takes as its subject the literary history of penance
in England from the founding of Lindisfarne to the eve of the Norman
Conquest. It seeks to trace the origin and growth of penitential
practice through an analysis of the vernacular literature which was
used to introduce and establish penitential discipline among the Anglo-
Saxons. It defines penitential, literature as an adjunct of penitential
custom, and concentrates on the historical practice of confession and
on deeds of penance rather than on the idea or mood of repentance which
has "been the focus of previous studies of "penitential" literature.

The first chapter is a study of the Irish origins of private penitential discipline as it was developed from Eastern monasticism and, possibly, from a pre-Christian Celtic culture. It argues that the unique contribution of the Irish was the invention of a literature—the penitential handbook—to accompany private penance, and that the durability and flexibility of this literature was in large part responsible for the sweeping success of the Irish penitential system throughout the Middle Ages.

Chapter Two describes the development of the. Irish penitential handbook and its English counterparts on the Continent during the Carolingian reform and the importance of penitential discipline to the reformers' efforts. The reformers endorsed older public penitential traditions as well as the new system of private penance; they incorporated the handbook into collections of theological treatises and achieved a nominal reconciliation between Irish and Roman penitential, systems.

Chapter Three surveys the major Old English vernacular penitential literature, including homilies, penitential handbooks, ecclesiastical legislation, and pastoral letters, and prayers and poems written during the tenth-century reform. This chapter demonstrates the interrelationship of these various kinds of writing, their dependence on a few Continental sources, and their use by Aelfric and Wulfstan in efforts to improve the quality of pastoral care and heighten lay spirituality after the monastic revival.

The fourth chapter is concerned with the Anglo-Saxon experience of penance and confession as events, no only as ideas. It attempts to reconstruct the confessional encounter from the evidence of administrative penitential texts; it demonstrates that confession was not only an occasion for reprimand and censure but for spiritual counsel as well.

Chapter Five distinguishes administrative or legal penitential texts from the devotional, and analyzes Old English penitential poetry according to those distinctions. Eschatological texts which refer to penance and confession—Christ III, for example—associate them with preparation for death, and use images of the Last Judgment to create fear and win allegiance to penance. Other poems—e.g., The Dream of the Rood—take as their central event not the Last Day but the Passion, and suggest that penitential practice is a way of life; these poems attempt to inspire new standards of conduct through the love of Christ.

The Conclusion discusses briefly the continuities between Old and Middle English penitential literatures, pointing the way to a study of the impact of penitential traditions on Middle English religious writing.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Penance, English literature -- Old English, ca. 450-1100 -- History and criticism

Digitization of this thesis was made possible by a generous grant from the Jefferson Trust, 2015.

Thesis originally deposited on 2016-03-14 in version 1.28 of Libra. This thesis was migrated to Libra2 on 2017-03-23 16:34:44.

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