chapter  2
13 Pages

Sex and Text: The Afterlife of Medieval Penance in

WithBritain and Ireland

The Christian communities of early medieval Britain and Ireland have been credited with originating a specialized genre of Catholic religious texts known as penitentials. These were, in essence, intended as adjuncts to the process of confession. They consisted of lists of sins and associated corrective measures. However, from the early modern period onwards, these documents became an embarrassment to later historians and theologians due to their frank sexual language, a problem for Protestants, who frequently connected them with the supposed immorality of the medieval Catholic Church, and Catholics who were, as a result, thrown onto the defensive. In the nineteenth century this debate over the penitentials was exacerbated by national tensions between the Irish and the English. In this article I will be exploring the afterlives of the early medieval insular penitentials as featuring an intertwining of scholarly, sectarian and moral concerns in nineteenth-and twentieth-century Britain and Ireland. This provides insights into the way in which modern prejudices can influence the readings of medieval documents as well as the way in which medieval documents have fed modern prejudices. I will begin to suggest how it was that documents representing a harsh moral code could themselves become regarded as dangerously obscene:

It is a sad truth, but we have lost the faculty of giving lovely names to things. Names are everything. I never quarrel with actions. My one quarrel is with words. That is the reason I hate vulgar realism in literature. The man who could call a spade a spade should be compelled to use one. It is the only thing he is fit for.1