IMC 2007: Sessions

Session 1109: Excommunication and Penance

Wednesday 11 July 2007, 11.15-12.45

Organiser:Peter Douglas Clarke, School of History, Welsh History & Archaeology, University of Wales, Bangor
Moderator/Chair:Peter Douglas Clarke, School of History, Welsh History & Archaeology, University of Wales, Bangor
Respondent:Peter Douglas Clarke, School of History, Welsh History & Archaeology, University of Wales, Bangor
Paper 1109-aExcommunication and the Penitentials
(Language: English)
Adriaan Gaastra, Instituut Geschiedenis, Universiteit Utrecht
Index terms: Canon Law, Daily Life, Ecclesiastical History, Monasticism
Paper 1109-bCurse or Procedure?: Excommunication in Practice, 900-1050
(Language: English)
Sarah M. Hamilton, Department of History, University of Exeter
Index terms: Canon Law, Daily Life, Monasticism, Religious Life

Paper a: The penances imposed by the penitentials, early medieval handbooks of confession, can be interpreted as disciplinary measures as well as penitential satisfactions. The German historian Raymund Kottje proposed a distinction between penance and punishment. He defined penance as a cure for the soul and a satisfaction to God that contributed to the salvation of the sinner. Punishment was imposed involuntarily and meant to restore peace in society.1
Excommunication was either a prohibition to receive communion or a total separation from the body of Christians, and he regarded it as an example of punishment that was more typical for canon law than for penitentials.This paper examines how excommunication is used by penitentials. Excommunication is a complementary measure rather than a punishment in itself. It is often combined with other penances and resorted to if sinners were unwilling to do penance. Taking Kottje’s distinction as a starting point, I hope to show that excommunication is closely intertwined with other penances and, consequently, that it is impossible to draw a sharp distinction between penance and punishment in the penitentials.

1.The opposite positions of F. Kerff (‘Libri Paenitentiales und kirchliche Strafgerichtsbarkeit bis zum Decretum Gratiani. Ein Diskussionsvorschlag’, ZRG kan. Abt. 75 (1989) pp. 23-57) and R. Kottje, ‘“Buße oder Strafe?” Zur “Iustitia” in den “Libri Paenitentiales”’ in La giustizia nell’alto medioevo (secoli V-VIII) I. Settimane di studio 42 (Spoleto 1996) pp. 443-468.

Paper b: Using evidence drawn from both English and continental sources, and from across a range of genres, this paper will examine how excommunication worked in practice between c. 900 and c. 1050. The terminus ad quem is determined by the appearance of the earliest records of the excommunication liturgy, the terminus post quem by the papal reform movement, and in particular King Henry IV’s excommunication by Pope Gregory VII in 1076. This paper takes as its starting point Richard Helmholz’s argument, based on evidence drawn from chronicles, vitae, and letter collections, that the late 12th century in England witnessed an important shift in both the conception and practice of excommunication, from excommunication as powerful curse to excommunication as judicial sanction, imposed according to a set procedure in order to safeguard against its misuse; as a curse what mattered was the spiritual authority of the man delivering it, not the following of a set procedure. Helmholz suggests that this change from excommunication as curse to judicial sentence, whilst part of the more general ‘leap forward’ under the Angevins in common and canon law, occurred partly as a consequence of the Becket dispute, during which Becket in particular became rather over fond of pronouncing the sudden and immediate anathema of his enemies, and partly as the result of the increased judicialization of dispute settlement within the English church. Helmholz confined his study to 12th century England; this paper seeks to review the validity of his arguments in the light of earlier evidence, both English and continental, and to suggest there is, in fact, considerable evidence for a concern with the imposition of excommunication according to correct judicial procedure in the earlier period. Such concern, it will be suggested, reflects the importance to bishops of excommunication as a tool in the conduct of disputes both within the Church and with powerful secular lords in this period.