Previous PageTable Of ContentsNext Page

Gildas, Penitential. (1899). pp. 272-275.   Introduction.



IT may be well here to remind the reader of a few points that are treated of at greater length in the Introduction. The Church, for purposes of discipline, had developed various modes of correction in the case of lapses into sin, as well as of reconciliation by absolution. As we approach the sixth century, we find a long development of very varying procedures along independent lines, and ending in the very reverse of agreement throughout the Churches of different countries. In one point, however, there seems to have been universal agreement, viz., that acts of contrition and confession, together with the reconciliation which followed, were purely ecclesiastical. While, for the most part, such acts of penance were, in the West, not public but private, they certainly were subject to the judgment of the bishop; he, or the presbyter representing him, was always the ministrant. Yet in Britain and Ireland there had grown up a different system; the disciplinary measures were conducted from the cloister. Different sins began to be catalogued after the manner of penal enactments, with the corresponding penance to be undergone before reconciliation. In the opening words of the Penitential of Columbanus, "there must be a mensura paenitentiae" calculated according to the magnitude of the sins committed. What this missionary did not quite find in Gaul, according to the words of his biographer Jonas, viz., poenitentiae medicamenta et mortificationis amor, he brought to that country from his Irish home. People from all parts soon flocked to his monastery at Luxeuil to partake of the benefit of the "medicine of penance" (Vita Col., 2). Books containing such rules, by which sins and the appointed penances were thus arranged in order, were called PENITENTIALS (Libri Poenitentiales). They seem to have had their origin in Britain and Ireland, but, after the seventh century, they are found both in the English Church, and in Churches far and wide over the Continent. Some who read the present Penitential, assigned to Gildas, for the first time, may be surprised, if not shocked, at some of the rules contained in it; but let them reflect that what they read here might be  |273 found almost anywhere in the seventh century, under the direction of men of singularly pure and saintly lives. The student of history will look upon them as phases of a life that is gone for ever; he is not called upon to censure what is embodied in Penitential Books, nor to set up a defence of them. It is simply necessary that he should take a right position to view their strange and elaborate directions. These must be looked upon as means through which men of deep moral earnestness, such as Dewi Sant and Gildas in Wales, Finnian, Comgall and Columbanus in Ireland and France, sought to take away the curse of uncleanness out of the lives of man. In their method, they mention things to which we hardly ever allude, but so does St. Augustine in his " Enquiries of Pope Gregory," and so before him did St. Jerome, in his celebrated letter to a young lady of the highest family connections at Rome. We feel that no pastor would now even think of what is detailed in Interrogatio Augustini VIII, as given by Beda (1,27); that Epistola 22 of Jerome "handles, without the slightest reserve, sins and temptations of the flesh to which we now hardly allude. It is absolutely inconceivable that any moralist or preacher of our times, however earnest or fanatical, should address a woman in such a style." The writer from whom I quote these words adds: "The difference of tone between the ancients and ourselves should never be forgotten in studying the character of a distant past. By keeping it in mind we may be saved alike from pharisaism, and from an ungenerous judgment of times which have made a self-revelation of which we should be incapable." 1

To me, these Penitentials are reminders of the fierce conflict waged against the wild immorality of olden times: a conflict which, with many failures, proved that the clumsy method of these rules turned out to be for good. Haupt, in his Kirchengeschichte Deutsch-lands, describes the results of the method in the hands of Columbanus in Gaul as "blissful" (segensreich). Yet it was doomed to die; in no way could it continue, however useful for a time.

References will be made in the Notes to several Penitentials, such as the Penitentials of Finnian, of Columbanus and others; on that account it may be of advantage to place here the following brief resume of facts.

The monasteries of which we read such fabulous accounts as to |274 the number of monks congregated in them, belong to the end of Gildas' time; belong, as may be conjectured, to the revival begun by him and his friends. Such a one was Bangor is y Coed, in Flintshire, which, according to Beda's description, had no less than 2,100 monks within its walls: such were Clonard, Clonfert, Clon-macnoise, and Bangor, in Ireland.2 The founder of Clonard was Finnian, who is also regarded as the father of the new monastic revival which led to the foundation of so vast a number of monasteries in Ireland. But he is also said to have come, as a boy of thirteen years, to Kilmuine (Cil-mynyw) in Wales, where he became a disciple of "the three holy men, David, Cathmael, and Gildas." . This is the Finnian whose Penitential is extant, which seems to form a further link in his connection with Gildas.

Bennchor, or Bangor (in county Down), was founded by Com-gall, who in his early training had come in contact with the same Welshmen and Welsh traditions as Finnian. When, therefore, we remember that Columbanus was a monk of Bangor, as he with twelve companions left his native island for France, pro Deo peregrinantes, we are led to connect him also with that band of Welshmen. For the use of his monastery at Luxeuil he drew up a Rule that was notably Irish in its strictness; but besides this Regula, there goes under his name a Penitential, which, with |275 characteristic modifications and enlargements, is based upon that of Finnian. I do not now touch upon the question of the non-genuineness of certain parts of the Penitential in the form preserved to us, but refer to the fact that we have certainly, in a large section of it, a code of rules closely connected with the Irish Penitential of Finnian, and the Welsh Penitential of Gildas.

In the same line with these we find a fourth, which bears the name of Cummean, or Commean, or Kumin. This Penitentiale Cummeani contains materials that have a British, Irish, English and Frankish origin; for instance, the first four rules of the British Penitential printed below, appear there, and in the same order (Cumm. Penit., ii, 23-26); but what impresses one still more is, that rule 14 below (which is shown to be probably a quotation from some early source, by its use of tamen), is found also in the middle of the Preface attached to the Penitential of Cummean (vide Notes).

Who this Cummean was, is not known, though the influence of his collection appears to have spread over a very large area. Of many so-called, the best known is one that was Abbot of Iona from 657 to 665, who is also the author of the oldest Life of Columba. Another of the name, styled bishop, is found at Bobbio (an Irish monastery at the foot of the Apennines, founded by Columbanus in 612), about the first half of the eighth century, during the reign of the Longobard King Luitprand. Wasserschleben is inclined to regard the latter as the author of the Penitential that was so very extensively used on the continent.3

In the English Church a collection of rules, that is a Penitential, is attributed to Archbishop Theodore, and called the Penitential of Theodore. The influence of this book seems to have been very wide, but it contains many traces of the three first named. Another Penitential is ascribed to the historian Beda, while a third bears the name of Egbert, Archbishop of York. Theodore died A.D. 690, Beda 735, Egbert 767. While the question of authorship, or of the genuineness of certain portions need not be discussed here, there can be no doubt as to the extensive use of these books in the English and other Churches. One of doubtful authenticity has not been named; it is found with the title The Book of David (Liber Davidis), and is ascribed to David of Menevia, or, as better known, Dewi Sant: others have, as well, been left unmentioned. |276 

[All footnotes renumbered and placed at the end]

1. 1 S. Dill, Roman Society in the Last Century of the Western Empire (1899), p. 127.

2. 1 It is not in any way improbable that the accounts found of these wonderfully numerous communities are echoes of the reports which circulated, through such writings as those of Jerome and Cassian, of the teeming multitudes that flocked to the monasteries of Egypt. Grutzmacher, in his book on Pachomius und das alteste Klosterleben (1896), shows how like representations are found even in the Coptic and other Lives, lately translated into French by Amilineau. Tabennisi, the original cloister of Pachomius, grew to number 2500 monks within its walls (s. 99); Cassian mentions a monastery in the Thebaid, in which there were " over 5000 brethren under one abbot" (De Coen. Instit., iv, i); Jerome, in like manner, speaks of a community numbering 5000 (Ep., 22, 33), and of single monasteries as containing from thirty to forty houses, in each of which dwelt forty monks (Prologus ad Reg. S. Pack.).

Since Egypt formed the ideal of monasticism for British and Irish monks, it is not to be wondered at that a period of prosperity should be described by them in terms borrowed from the marvellous stories of that land. Beda's statement respecting Bangor is only what report had brought to him (fertur), " when the community was divided into seven portions, no portion contained fewer than 300 men" (H. E., ii, 2). Clonard was, the same way, said to have 3000 monks. Its famous founder is described as follows:----

Trium virorum millium
Sorte fit doctor humilis,
Verbi his fudit fluvium
Ut fons emanans rivulis.

3. 1 Die Bussordnungen, ss. 64, 65. The Acta SS. of Colgan Jun., p. 244, as quoted on s. 64, speaks of him as Cumianus episcopus. Mone regards Columba himself as the author, Cummean or Kumin having written the Preface.

Previous PageTable Of ContentsNext Page

This text was transcribed by Roger Pearse, 2003.  All material on this page is in the public domain - copy freely.
Greek text is rendered using the Scholars Press SPIonic font, free from here.

Early Church Fathers - Additional Texts