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Gildas, Penitential. (1899). pp. 276-285.


The present text is that found in Wasserschleben's "Bussordnungen" 1851. It has been reprinted in Haddan and Stubbs, "Councils, etc." i, 113.

Beginning of Gildas' preface respecting penance.1


1. A presbyter or deacon committing natural or sodomite fornication, if he have taken a monk's vow previously, shall do penance 2 for three years, shall pray for forgiveness every hour, shall do superpositio 3 every week with the exception of the fifty days after Passio,4 shall have bread without measure and food fattened slightly with butter on the Lord's day; but on other days, if he be a workman, a measure of biscuit and broth slightly thickened, cabbages, a few eggs and British cheese, a Roman half-pint of milk because of weakness of flesh at that time; but a Roman pint of whey or butter-milk to quench his thirst, and the same quantity of water. He is not to have his bed furnished with much straw; let him make some addition by three quadragesimae,5 as far as his strength will admit. Let him from his deepest heart weep for his fault;6 let him above all things follow after |279 obedience; after one year and a half he may take the Eucharist and come to communion; let him sing the Psalms with his brethren, lest his soul be lost completely, by so long a time of the heavenly discipline.

2. If a monk placed in a lower grade 7 commit the same sin, he is to do penance for three years, but let the measure of his bread be heavier. If a workman, let him take a Roman pint of milk and another of whey, and as much water as suffices to quench his thirst.

3. But if a presbyter or deacon, without a monk's vow, sin, let his penance be similar to that of a monk without orders. 8

4. If a monk intend 9 to commit a sin, his penance shall be for one year and a half. The Abbot, however, has authority to moderate in this matter, if the monk's obedience be pleasing to God and to his Abbot.

5. The ancient fathers10 have fixed twelve years of penance for a presbyter, seven for a deacon. |281 

6. A monk that has stolen a garment or any article shall do penance for two years in the way described above, if he be a junior; if a senior for one whole year. If he is not a monk, let him do the same for one year and, at most, three quadragesimae.

7. If a monk owing to a disordered stomach shall vomit the sacrifice during the day, he is not to take his dinner, and if it be not on account of weakness, he shall atone for his offence by seven superpositiones; if through weakness and not gluttony, by four.

8. If he has not vomited the sacrifice, let him be punished by superpositio of a day and frequent rebuke.

9. If any one in negligence lose any of the sacrifice, he shall do penance for three quadragesimae, leaving it to be consumed by wild beasts and birds.

10. If any one because of drunkenness is unable to sing the Psalms, being stupefied and without speech, he is deprived of dinner.

11. A man that sins with an animal will do penance for one year: if by himself alone, let him atone for his offence by three quadragesimae.

12. He that shall hold communion with a man excommunicated by his Abbot shall do penance forty days.

13. A man eating carrion unknowingly (shall do penance), forty days. 

14. It must, however, be known that as long as a man delays in sins, penance must be proportionately increased to him. |283 


15. If a certain work is imposed upon any man, and he, in contempt, omits to do that work, let him go without his dinner; if from real forgetfulness, he will have half his daily share of food.

16. But if he undertake the work of another, let him make that known to the Abbot with modesty, in the hearing of no one except the Abbot, and let him perform it if commanded.

17. For he who retains anger in his heart a long time, is in death. But if he confess his sin, let him fast forty days, and if he persist further in his sin, two quadragesimae, and if he commit the same sin, let him be cut off from the body as a decayed member, because anger nourishes homicide.

18. If a man is offended by anyone, he ought to make this known to the Abbot, not with the feeling of an accuser, but of one desiring to heal, and let the Abbot decide.

19. Who does not meet at the finishing [of the second Psalm], let him sing eight Psalms in order; if, when roused, he comes in |285 after the reading is finished, let him repeat whatever the brethren have sung, in due order. But if he come to the second reading, let him go without his dinner.

20. If any one by mistake change anything of the sacred words where "danger" is marked, let him observe a three days' fast or three superpositiones.

21. If through neglect the consecrated element fall to the ground, let him go without dinner.

22. He that has of his own will defiled himself in his sleep, if the monastery have plenty of beer and meat, shall keep vigil for three hours of the night standing, provided he is really a man of strength. If, however, the food be poor, let him, standing as a suppliant, recite twenty-eight or thirty Psalms, or make recompense by extraordinary work.

23. For good kings we ought to make the sacred offering, for the bad not.

24. Presbyters are not prohibited from offering for their bishops.

25. He that is proved guilty of any offence and is checked as one inconsiderate, let him go without dinner.

26. He that breaks a hoe that had previously no fracture, should make restitution for it by extraordinary work, or should . observe a superpositio.

27. Whoever shall see one of the brethren breaking the commands of the Abbot, ought not to hide it from the Abbot; but let him previously admonish the sinner to confess, himself, to the Abbot his evil deed; let him be found not so much an informer, as a man who carries out the rule of truth.

So far Gildas.

[Selected footnotes numbered and placed at the end]

1. 1 In the book of Columbanus we have a similar beginning, Incipit de poenitentia: the title POENITENTIALE VINNIAI precedes that of Vinnian (or Finnian). The first rule refers to monks who have been ordained as presbyters or deacons; it is strange that we have no provision for bishops.

2. 2 Peniteat. Penance, as understood in these rules, consists in exclusion from church communion for a specified period; it involved severe fasting, or a reduced regimen of food and drink for a given period of time, sometimes also the recitation of a number of Psalms, as prescribed in 22.

3. 3 Superpositionem. Superpositio, or more fully svperpositio zeiunit, means the prolongation of a fast, whether on the same day or by the addition of another day. The term was specially applied to the prolongation of the Friday fast to Saturday; by Tertullian this usage is called continuare ieiunium (De ieiun., 14), and the usage was observed at Rome above all places. The well-known saying of Ambrose to Augustine's mother, quoted by her son in the letter to Camulanus, had reference to this observance of Saturday as an added fast: "When I am here (at Milan), I do not fast; when I am at Rome, I fast, on Saturday" (Ep. xxxvi). The Spanish Synod of Elvira (A.D. 306) seems to limit the observance of such superpositio at the end of the week, to a monthly observance, as we see from Canon xxni; by so doing, and by another Canon (xxvi), it seems to have abrogated the weekly superpositio.

"Ieiunii superpositiones per singulos menses placuit celebrari, exceptis diebus duorum mensium, Julii et August!, propter quorundam infirmitatem."----Can. xxiii.

" Errorem placuit corrigi, ut omni sabbati die superpositiones celebremus." ----Can. xxvi.

The fact is deserving of notice, as it has wider bearings, that at Milan, in Spain, and Britain, the observance of a Saturday fast (utomni sabbato ieiunetur) did not exist. The non-observance in Britain we know from this rule, which was intended for penitents only. On the whole subject one might read, Dale, The Synod of Elvira, pp. 192, 193, Note B, p. 216; Duchesne, Origenes du Culte Chretien, p. 221.

4. 4 Exceptis L diebus postpassionem. The times of relaxation of penance are given more fully in other later Penitentials, as in that of Cummean; they were Sunday, Christmas Day, Epiphany, Easter, Ascension Day, Pentecost, the feasts of St. John the Baptist, of St. Mary and the Twelve Apostles, together with that of the local saint (Wasserschleben, Bussordn., p. 165: Hi sunt dies, qui non computantur in poenitentia, etc.). These fifty days after the Passion, beginning with Easter Sunday, were regarded as a time of joy for all.

5. 5 Tres quadragesimas. Most, if not all, of the Penitentials use the Latin quadragesima of any forty days' fast, not exclusively those of Lent. Du Cange gives several instances of quadragesimae imposed by way of penance, the earliest of which belongs to the year 821: " singulas sex quadragesimas cum sequentibus annis poeniteat"; other instances impose twelve quadragesimae " sine subditis annis". Morinus is quoted by him as suggesting that this kind of quadragesimae, that is, in way of penance for sins committed, as distinguished from those observed by all Christians, was introduced by Archbishop Theodore. But we find the usage in the Celtic Penitentials of Britain and Ireland, as in this one, at a period anterior to Theodore. The Latin Church observed three quadragesimae, viz., quadragesima maior, corresponding to English Lent; another before Christmas, and called quadr. S. Martini; a third, before the Feast of St. John the Baptist. The second was called grawys gauaf in the Welsh Church. The Greek Church observed four " forty days."

6. 1 Semper ex intimo corde defleat culpam suam. The moral character and motive of the time, and of the discipline of penance, is revealed in these words: it is made still more prominent in the Penitentials of Finnian and Columbanus. The latter begins with the following words, which have a peculiar force in their very simplicity: "True penitence is not to yield to things that one must be penitent for, but if we have yielded, to weep for them. Yet, because the weakness of many, one may almost say of all, disturbs this penitence, we must recognise measures of penance (poenitentiae). And of these the following order is sanctioned by our holy fathers, in such a way that the length of penances should be in accordance with the magnitude of sins (culparum)."

As its time advanced, the severity of the penance was modified by a milder treatment, as the next words imply; post annum et dimedium, the penitent, though still remaining a penitent, is to partake of the Eucharist and return to church communion, ad pacem veniat.

7. 2 Inferiore gradu. The first rule refers, as was said, to monks who are presbyters or deacons; the present one to two other classes. The first of these is a monk who is not, strictly speaking, a cleric, but belongs to the so-called minor orders (ordines minores). In a monastery the most common lower grade, especially for young boys, was that of Reader (lector); there were besides the exorcist, acolyte, ostiarius (vide Hinschius, Kirchenrecht, iv, 492). The second class is a layman engaged in manual labour, operarius.

8. 3 The third rule gives evidence of the estimation in which the monastic life was held, because a monk, though a layman as to ecclesiastical consideration, is equivalent in spiritual rank to a presbyter or deacon.

9. 4 Voluerit. Here, probably, stress is laid on the intention when sin is not actually committed. Quaerens et non invenerit is the wording of a correspond ing rule in the Penitential of Egbert (v, 12). That of Cummean (ii, 25) reads, post tale peccatum voluerit monachus fieri, i.e., if the sinner elect to become a monk.

10. 5 Antiqui patres. The " Fathers of old" in this rule cannot mean the "Fathers" of the Church as implying a decree by bishops or by a SynodJ apparently the only meaning is that which limits patres to the Church of Britain itself. Therefore, when these rules were drawn up, the custom of. fixing varying periods of penance, according to the ecclesiastical grade of the delinquent, had been in use for a length of time. That time had been long enough to establish a tradition; but the tradition also witnessed to the fact that the "fathers" upheld a far severer code of discipline: instead of the three years of the present rule, they ordained for a presbyter twelve years of penance and seven for a deacon. The " Book of David" prescribes, as well, twenty-three years for a bishop, being itself, perhaps, a reminiscence of the old order. Antiqui decrevere sancti, ut episcopus pro capitalibiis peccalis xxiii annis peniteat, presbiter xii, diaconus vii (c. 10). See p. 286.

The whole tone of ecclesiastical procedure, in the fourth and fifth centuries, against offending clerics, bishops, presbyters and deacons, as may be seen by a perusal of Thomassinus, Vetus et Nova Ecclesiae Disciplinae, Part II, Lib. i, cc. 56-58, or Hinschius, Kirchenrecht, iv, § 247, is different from what is implied in the present rule of a specified time of penance. When, therefore, we find that .in the writings of Columbanus, the frequent reference to patres and magistri nostri, leads us solely to think of eminent Irish (and Welsh) abbots, such as Finnian, Comgall, and Gildas, we naturally conclude that a similar implication is to be deduced from the words of this rule. Then we are carried further, that is, to suspect that some parts of this Penitential belong to a date subsequent to Gildas. In his time there were no venerable patres to sustain a judgment; he himself became one of them for the next generation, who lived about A.D. 600-650.

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