Going to Confession in the Middle Ages

Magistra Nicolaa de Bracton (Susan Carroll-Clark)

Most people, even non-Catholics, know what going to confession involves. One travels to a church, in a corner of which is situated a confessional booth. In the booth sits a priest. The penitent enters the other side of the booth and says "Bless me Father, for I have sinned. It has been three months since my last confession." He or she cannot see the priest, and vice versa. The priest listens to the confession and assigns an appropriate penance. Because the Catholic Church is so old, we sometimes assume this is the way confessions have always been done. But while some aspects of confession have not changed, others have radically.

In the early days of the Church, before it was officially adopted as the religion of the Roman Empire, Christians, as members of a small, obscure, and persecuted sect held themselves to extremely high moral standards. Quite nasty rumours about what Christians did in their "secret rituals" were in circulation; Church leaders responded by trying to ensure that Christians were beyond moral reproach as much as possible. Public confession of sins was part of this (although private confession followed by public penance gained acceptance after the official conversion of Rome). The penalties for even minor sins at this point were fairly significant: Penitents were required to kneel outside the church, wearing sackcloth and ashes, during Mass and were not allowed to participate in the Eucharist. Gradually, they would be allowed to return inside, first into the back of the church, then to their usual places but abstaining from the Eucharist, then finally, to full privileges . For major, or "deadly" sins, the length of this penance could number in years, and one could only be absolved once of such a sin before one was excommunicated (1).

Gradually, however, this system of harsh penance declined, partially because of the widespread acceptance of Christianity, and partially because many of the newly-converted Germanic peoples preferred a much less ascetic version of the faith. The act of confession ceased to be done publicly, and unlimited confession of "deadly" sins (by now solidifying as pride, wrath, envy, lust, sloth, avarice, and gluttony, though sometimes an eighth sin, dejection, was added) was now permitted, provided that the confessor did the appropriate penance. Around the sixth century the first penitentials appeared. These were guides written for clergy involved in hearing confessions, and consisted at this point in lists of various sins and the appropriate penance for each (2).

The Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 marks an important point in the history of penance, because this council for the first time made yearly confession mandatory for all Christians. Before this point, regular confession was encouraged (especially before participating in the Eucharist) but not required. Though Christians were encouraged to confess more often, it became customary to make the yearly confession during Lent, in order that one become "purified" in time for Easter. Confessing at this time also fit in with the general character of the Lenten season of fasting. One was supposed to confess to one's "proper priest"--in other words, to a local priest-- but after this point traveling confessors, often mendicant Dominicans or Franciscans, became common, to the chagrin of church authorities, who believed that such itinerant confessors who did not know those whose confessions they heard led to a laxity in penance (3). Why? Perhaps a look at the ideology behind confession might help.

From quite early in its history, parallels between the relationship between doctor and patient and that between priest and penitent had been drawn. A parish priest officially had charge of the cura animarum , or the care of souls. The similarity between the Latin word cura and our English word "cure" is not incidental. Just as a doctor cared for the body of his patient, the priest cared for his soul. Hearing confessions was the main way in which the priest exercised the cura animarum . Sin was seen as a disease of the soul, and just as the contemporary medical theory of the four humours advised curing an ailment with its opposite, deadly sins could likewise be expiated by assigning penance involving the corresponding cardinal virtue.

To aid the priest, manuals of confession and treatises on penance began to be written quite early in the Church's history. By the thirteenth century, they had become detailed guides designed to help priests in diagnosing their patient's "ailment", and a supporting body of related practical literature helped them to put confession into its proper context in the Church. A look at the structure of one penitential, the Templum Dei of Robert Grosseteste, will demonstrate this.

Grosseteste opens the work with an architectural metaphor: Christians are the twofold temple of God, which is a metaphor with roots in the Bible. This sort of metaphor was extremely popular in medieval practical texts and could also serve as an aid to memory . The physical temple is the body--the lower parts the seat of power and growth, the middle parts the seat of activity, and the upper regions the seat of reason. Each division is associated with a cardinal virtue (in turn, temperance, courage, prudence) and a person of the Trinity (Holy Spirit, Father, Son). The spiritual temple is likewise divided. The foundation is Faith, the walls are Hope, and the roof Love--the three "theological virtues" (more on these in a moment). Just as the roof protects one from the elements, so does this roof --with the aid of the Lord's Prayer and the Ten Commandments--protect one from the deadly sins, as well as from evil astrological influences (4).

This temple structure is intended to give the priest a solid base from which to conduct confessions. Before delving into the specifics of various sins, Grosseteste provides a chart which associates each major sin (seen here as infirmitas , or illness) with one of the Seven Petitions of the Lord's Prayer (the patient's plea for help), one of the Beatitudes (how the patient should prepare himself for receipt of the medicine), the medicine itself (major precepts of the church), the restoration to health (the cardinal virtues) and the resulting inner joy (the seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit) and outer joy (seven of the beatitudes--external virtues).

The bulk of the work is taken up by the "examinations" of the seven Virtues. Unlike some authors, such as Hugh of St. Victor and Simon de Hinton, Grosseteste views the seven deadly sins as primarily contrary to the Virtue of Love or Charity, rather than correlated with each Virtue (5). For this examination, he provides what can only be described as "flow charts" showing each of the vices--pride, envy, wrath, sloth, greed, gluttony, and lechery--and which sins fall under these headings (for instance, sins of greed include simony, sacrilege, usury, fraud, theft, ambition, and avarice, each of which are defined). He also treats the other two "theological virtues"--faith and hope--quite extensively. The examination of faith is concerned mostly with the Seven Sacraments (baptism, confirmation, penance, the Eucharist, marriage, holy orders, and extreme unction) and other works of faith, as well as circumstances under which one can be excommunicated. The examination of Hope is fairly straightforward, concerned mostly with determining whether one has too little (desperation) or too much (presumption) of this virtue. The section on the remaining virtues--the "cardinal" virtues of fortitude, prudence, justice, and temperance--is fairly short. Grosseteste concludes the work with discussions on the correct performance of the sacraments. This may seem odd in a work on penance, but according to Simon de Hinton, the sacraments are the cure for venial sins--those minor sins which do not require specific confession; as well, each of the sacraments acts against one of the deadly sins (the most obvious example is the use of marriage against lechery)(6).

Since Grosseteste's model is not only penance, but the larger issue of maintaining the "Temple of God", he is more concerned with the priest's end of the business. What was required of the "patient"? Simon de Hinton details three stages in penance: contrition (being sorry for the sin), confession (confessing it to a priest, acting as God's intermediary), and satisfaction (doing the assigned penance). All three parts were vital. The greater the contrition, says Simon de Hinton, the greater the chance the penance will be performed successfully, the greater chance that the sin will not be repeated, and the greater chance that the sin will be completely washed away. In any case, he says, "God knows" the true state of one's heart (7). Penance is meaningless without it; God does not give time off in Purgatory for good acting. The priest was instructed thus to insure that the confessor was contrite before proceeding. How this actually occurred probably varied widely. It is often wrongly assumed that because the penetentials contained long lists of detailed sins that confessors simply went down the list, in the process planting all kinds of ideas of new sins in the heads of layfolk. This is likely not the case; to do so would be akin to a doctor paging through a treatise on medicine, bringing up every possible disease and its symptoms, perhaps alarming the patient in the process. Remember also that the Church wished to discourage sin, not encourage it. More likely, the penitent told the priest where he thought he had erred, and the priest then attempted to classify the sin and devise a "cure". I believe these manuals were intended as reference works. The more important and basic portions were likely committed to memory, while the work could be pulled off the shelf in more difficult cases.

Grosseteste spends little time discussing what specific penances should be assigned for each sin. This is not unusual. Penitentials by this time were much less concerned with assigning specific penalties to specific sins, much more with identifying the types of sin and the type of "cure" needed. Much more was left to the discretion of the priest to assign an appropriate penance based on what he knew about the person confessing. Charts such as that given by Grosseteste would give a guide to general types of "medicine" for each sin, but there was no set penance for, say, homicide. Grosseteste's charts would reveal that this falls under the deadly sin of wrath, whose cure is patience; which results in hope--its opposite virtue. The priest then took this more general knowledge and then took into account the circumstances of the sin. For example, it was generally believed that the four humours governed human behaviour, and that people tended to be of a particular humour. It was considered to be a greater sin to "act out of character"--for instance, for a person of melancholic humour to get angry and kill someone. The priest, knowing this, might assign a more severe penance to this person than to one he knew to be choleric in nature. He would also know if one were a "repeat offender" with a particular sin as well. This is why it was considered so important to confess to one's "own" priest--and probably why many people tried to avoid it by confessing to the nearest traveling Dominican. The observant will note that it was considered important that the priest and confessor know each other--quite different from today's anonymous confessional. However, the "confessional seal"--the assurance that anything said in confession was between God, the priest, and the confessor only, and that the priest was bound by oath not to reveal anything said therein--was just as applicable then as it is today.

Penance by this time was much more widely varied and depended not only on the priest assigning it, but also on who the person confessing was. Many may remember that Henry II was forced to do public penance on his knees for his part in the murder of Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury. Taking a crusaders' vow became a popular form of penance for the knightly class in the twelfth century and for all classes in the thirteenth century; pilgrimages to holy shrines were also popular. Less drastic forms of penance included fasting, almsgiving, and prayer. Making sure that the penance matched the means of the confessor and was not impossible to complete was part of the priest's job.

The thirteenth century also saw the rise of indulgences. In order to raise money for the work of the Church (including building projects), the Pope authorized certain agents to sell indulgences for sin. Though the practice soon got out of hand, there was nothing uncanonical about the idea--in exchange for almsgiving (long a form of penance), the Pope summarily reduced one's allotted penance for a certain period of time (often forty days). By the sixteenth century, however, the practice of indulgence selling had become corrupt, and for Martin Luther, was a symptom of the disease he believed infected the whole Church. The Reformation would produce a new view of confession for Protestants. No longer was it necessary, in their view, to go through the intermediary of a priest; one could confess silently directly to God, and perform whatever penance he or she felt was appropriate. To insure that their members continued to confess at least part of their sins regularly, statements of confession (said by the congregation in unison) were introduced into Protestant liturgy.

As you can see, the form of confession changed greatly over the centuries, though the basic ideas remained fairly consistent. For the medieval Catholic Christian, confession would have been his or her most intimate contact with the Church--and by far the most difficult and personal. I have not said much about why medieval Christians went to confession, but it is clear by the number of cases of people going on assigned -- or even voluntary -- pilgrimages or fasts that many clearly believed in the healing effects of penance on one's soul and that confessing made one "right with God". Hopefully, this short discourse has allowed you to understand the medieval mind just a bit better.


Brett, E.T. Humbert of Romans: His Life and Views of Thirteenth-Century Society. Studies and Texts 67 .Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1984.

Grosseteste, Robert. Templum Dei . J. Goering and F.A.C. Mantello, eds. Toronto Medieval Latin Texts 14. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1984

McNeill, J.T. and Gamer, H.M., eds. Medieval Handbooks of Penance (New York 1990).

Walz, P. A. "The 'Exceptiones' from the 'Summa' of Simon of Hinton. Angelicum 13 (1936) 283-368.


(1)McNeill and Gamer, 4-22.
(2) A number of these are excerpted in McNeill and Gamer.
(3)Brett, 24 ff.
(4) Grosseteste, 12.
(5) Grosseteste, 46 (Ch. IX.1)
(6) Walz, 358.
(7) Walz, 381.

Further Reading:

This field in many ways is a "new" field in medieval studies; many of the texts I've cited above are only available in Latin or other medieval languages. However, an excellent example of a medieval didactical text on the Vices and Virtues and penance may be found in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales ; it is the Parson's Tale, the last tale of the collection, which is often omitted in cheaper editions, such as the Penguin edition.

Two general texts on popular religion may be useful in understanding medieval Christianity:

Brooke, R. and C. Popular Religion in the Middle Ages: Western Europe 1000-1300. London: Thames and Hudson, 1984.

Swanson, R.N. Religion and Devotion in Europe, c. 1215-c. 1515 . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Copyright 1997 Susan Carroll-Clark. All rights reserved.