How to confess like an Anglo-Saxon

When I’m looking through late Anglo-Saxon prayer collections, one of the prayer genres that I encounter most frequently is that of confession. In my work, I have discovered that there were a number of different ways of confessing one’s sins, such as: directly to God in private; with the aid of a skilled confessor; and in a group of monks and nuns. In the course of this research, I have discovered a few interesting and sometimes rather surprising things.

 

Private confessions

A number of confessional prayers survive which are believed to have been used in private, to God alone. One sub-category of these is the kind that lists sins, often according to the different parts of the body. A good example is the very widespread prayer which begins with the words ‘Deus inaestimabilis misericordiae’ (‘God of inestimable mercy’), of which Jonathan Black has done a thorough edition and study. It is believed (for example, by Black himself) to have been written, by Alcuin of York, for the Emperor Charlemagne, who is known to have wanted a prayerbook for his own personal use. (The history and possible survival of this prayerbook has been written on by Stephan Waldhoff.)

The speaker starts by calling on God, who will forgive everyone who confesses to him. He has sinned in all sorts of ways: in the traditional categories of thought, word and deed, and in seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling and touching – in short, in every way possible. God gave the speaker a human body for appropriate purposes, but they have misused it: this body of his has sinned by failing to observe the rule of moderation in all things: he has exceeded the limits of nature in each of his members (‘In membris singulis naturae modum excessi’). The prayer goes on to list every part of the body, from the feet to the head and ending with the heart, according to the sins which have been committed with it. Some of them are quite inventive/smack of desperation: he has bent his back in order to do evil works, and lifted his neck in pride.

 

Large DIM quotation
‘Deus inaestimabilis misericordiae’, in the 11th-century additions to the eighth-century English psalter London, British Library Cotton Vespasian A. i, fol. 156v

 

In short, the speaker has to confess to pretty much every sin that there is, in very general terms. Allen Frantzen has argued (in The Literature of Penance in Anglo-Saxon England, p. 88) that, if these confessions were intended to be used in private prayer, then this makes total sense: without a skilled confessor to prompt you, you had to be careful to make sure that you confessed every sin you had committed in order to achieve total forgiveness. These prayers weren’t intended to be a reflection of a particular person’s sins at all.

 

Confession to a priest

But what if you did have a priest on hand to confess to? Then things were completely different. Many confessional manuals can be found in Anglo-Saxon manuscripts, giving penitents and their priests advice on the absolution of sins, and appropriate prayers for the purpose. In one manuscript (London, British Library Cotton Tiberius A. iii), an English confessional prayer which begins as a translation of ‘Deus inaestimabilis misericordiae’ is followed by a prayer for use with one’s confessor. This is prefaced by the following words of caution:

Man mot hine gebiddan, swa swa he mæg 7 cán, mid ælcum gereorde 7 on ælcere stowe. Nu is her on englisc andetnyss 7 gebed. Ac se ðe þis singan wylle, ne secge he na mare on þære andetnysse, þonne he wyrcende wæs: for þon ðe ure Hælend nele, þæt man on hine sylfne leoge, ne eac ealle menn on áne wisan ne syngiað.

(Quoted from ‘Zur Liturgik der angelsächsischen Kirche’, Max Förster, pp. 8-10.)

One must pray as he can and knows how to, with any language in any place. Now here is a confession and prayer in English. But whoever wants to sing this, may he say no more in that confession than he had been doing, because our Lord does not want a man to lie about himself, nor do all men sin in one and the same manner.

God doesn’t like liars! I have an image of the confessor holding the manuscript and quizzing a penitent on his or her actions, mentally crossing out any sin that s/he hadn’t actually committed. Here, confession ceases to be general and becomes a personalised process, through which the penitent and priest could work together.

 

Group confession

Finally, there was group confession. According to the Regularis concordia, a guide to the correct performance of the monastic life in tenth-century England, monks were expected to confess their sins communally, in front of the whole community, on certain occasions. One of these was Christmas Day (no present-opening and cracker-pulling for them, clearly):

Petant humili deuotione omnes fratres [ueniam] ab abbate, qui uices Christi agit, postulantes multiplicium indulgentiam excessuum, dicentes ‘Confiteor’, et abbas respondeat ‘Misereatur’.

(Quoted from Lucia Kornexl, ed., Die Regularis Concordia und ihre altenglische interlinearversion, ll. 700-3)

Then may all the brothers, with humble devotion, ask pardon from the abbot, who performs the role of Christ, asking leniency for many excesses, saying, ‘I confess’; and may the abbot reply, ‘May he have mercy’.

But most interesting of all is the fact that the tables were then turned. The abbot himself was supposed to ask forgiveness from the monks in his charge:

Demum ipse abbas, solotenus se prosternens, eadem a fratribus petat.

(Regularis concordia, ll. 703-4)

Finally, may the abbot, prostrating himself as far as the ground, ask the same from the brothers.

The leader of the community was therefore expected to be accountable to his monks for all that he had done wrong. Early medieval confession was for everyone: for a king who wanted his own set of personal devotions, for a layperson looking for the help of a skilled priest, for every monk and for the abbot himself.

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6 thoughts on “How to confess like an Anglo-Saxon

  1. I’ve always found the cover-all-bases prayer model rather cold and formulaic. I prefer the fill-in-the-gaps-with-your-own-sins approach. Shame we have no real life personal prayers showing the juicy bits. I’m a disreputable monk, I know. Thank you so much for this excellent post!

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  2. Thank you for this – excellent blog!

    I actually like the ‘cover-all-bases prayer model’ – three years ago, I published a little article about an Old English confessional prayer that is similar to Alcuin’s, but independent from it (there are three Old English versions and a Latin version in the Book of Cerne; I am still planning to make a proper edition). If you are interested, see http://intl-nq.oxfordjournals.org/content/60/4/493.extract

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