Renaissance and Reformation Penitential Literature
Robert A. Maryks
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 April 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 10 March 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0287


Penitential literature is a corpus of works by Christian authors dealing with penance (from Lat. poena: retribution, expiation, penalty)—an act of confessing sins, repenting for them, and receiving absolution with promise to satisfying for them. According to the Catholic doctrine, which considers it a sacrament, penance is necessary to regain God’s grace and achieve eternal salvation, hence the significant attention Christian pastors and theologians gave to it in a variety of treatises, manuals, textbooks, and devotional books. In the history of Christianity, penance took various forms. The most radical change in the practice of penance occurred at the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 that decreed obligatory annual sacramental confession to somebody’s own pastor. This radical shift gave priests the “power of the keys” and resulted in a practical need to instruct both the priest and the penitent to correctly perform their duties, for at stake was their salvation. Consequently, the late Middle Ages witnessed a significant production of penitential literature that was generated mostly by members of the new religious orders that were born in the first half of the 1200s—the Franciscans, the Dominicans, and the Augustinians. Part of this literature became the object of vitriolic criticism by Luther and other Protestant reformers in the 16th century, most of whom objected to the role of priest in the personal reconciliation with God. The Reformers’ views on penance resulted, in turn, in the Catholic Church’s efforts to highlight the permanence of auricular sacramental confession in achieving salvation and in reforming Christian life, hence the prominent role of sacramental confession given in their ministries by a new religious order that was born at the time of confessional polemics, the Jesuits, who became the most prolific authors of works on sacramental penance. The introductions to the sections of this article provide more details on how penitential literature developed and became prominent during the period commonly known as Renaissance and Reformation.

General Overviews

There is no dedicated overview of the history of penitential literature. However, because most of the scholarly understanding of penance stems from the survived literature dealing with penance, the following items on penance in general are good bibliographical sources of information on the most representative examples of works in this field. A good starting point is dictionary entries: Tentler 1996, Payer 1987, and Hanna 1911 (all in English), and Adnés 1984 (in French), most of which are available online. The most pertinent of these sources for a student of the Protestant and Catholic Reformations are Tentler 1996 and Groupe de la Bussière 1983. Firey 2008, the most recent publication in the field, provides new historiographical developments. On the other side of the chronological spectrum is Lea 1896 that keeps being reprinted, even if outdated. Poschmann 1951 indicates the correlation between penance and anointing the sick (and their literatures), while Myers 2006 offers a study on the ramifications of the 16th-century debates on penance in the subsequent history of the church.

  • Adnés, Pierre. “Pénitence (repentir et sacrement).” In Dictionnaire de spiritualité: Ascétique et mystique. Vol. 12. Edited by Marcel Viller, cols. 943–1010. Paris: G. Beauchesne et Ses Fils, 1984.

    Detailed article in French on the historical development of the concept and (sacramental) practice of penance in Christianity from early church to modern times. For scholars of Early Modern period, the most pertinent section (6) is titled “La Concile de Trente et son époque” (cols. 980–986), which contains a very general paragraph on penitential literature of the period (“‘Institutiones morales’ and manuels,” col. 985).

  • Firey, Abigail. A New History of Penance. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2008.

    Using penitential literature as source materials from Late Antiquity to the Early Modern period, this work charts various views on the role of penance. Contains two useful introductory chapters on the historiography of penance from early Middle Ages to Early Modern times.

  • Groupe de la Bussière. Pratiques de la confession: Des Peres du desert a Vatican 2. Paris: Les Editions du Cerf, 1983.

    Collection of fifteen studies studying confession in subsequent historical periods of its development from “Desert Fathers” up to the Second Vatican Council, by a group of specialist in religious history that gathered at the Cistercian abbey of Bussière in Burgundy.

  • Hanna, Edward. “The Sacrament of Penance.” In The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 11. Edited by Charles G. Herbermann, Edward A. Pace, Condé B. Pallen, Thomas J. Shahan, John J. Wynne, and Andrew A. MacErlean. New York: Robert Appleton, 1911.

    Detailed article presenting a historical panorama of the development of penance in the Christian church from Antiquity until the Council of Trent. Contains the most important examples of primary sources for each period, geographic area, and specific aspect of penance.

  • Lea, Henry C. A History of Auricular Confession and Indulgences in the Latin Church. Philadelphia: Lea Bros, 1896.

    Two out of three volumes are dedicated to the meticulous history of “confession and absolution” from Antiquity up to modernity. In spite of its polemical tone, it is a helpful source, for it contains a significant number of primary sources in English translation, even if the selections made betray bias.

  • Myers, W. David. “From Confession to Reconciliation and Back: Sacramental Penance.” In From Trent to Vatican II: Historical and Theological Investigations. Edited by Raymond F. Bulman and Frederick J. Parrella, 241–266. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

    DOI: 10.1093/0195178068.001.0001

    Studies changes in sacramental confession over centuries and shows the impact of the medieval and Early Modern doctrine on penance, including the frequent reception that was advised in a number of confessors’ manuals, especially after Trent. Available online by subscription.

  • Payer, Pierre J. “Penance and Penitentials.” In Dictionary of the Middle Ages. Vol. 9. Edited by Joseph R. Strayer, 487–493. New York: Scribner, 1987.

    Divided in three parts: Forms of Penance, Penitentials, and Doctrinal Development. Includes detailed bibliography that covers both sources and studies.

  • Poschmann, Bernhard. Busse und Krankensalbung. Freiburg, Germany: Herder, 1951.

    Discusses the history of the administration of penance, indulgences, and anointing of the sick from Antiquity down to the post-Tridentine disputes about contrition and attrition. Contains very few direct quotations from the sources. The English version (Montreal: Palm, 1964) lacks an index.

  • Tentler, Thomas. “Penance.” In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Reformation. Vol. 3. Edited by Hans J. Hillerbrand, 242–244. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

    Concise yet comprehensive article explaining the role of penance in the Christian church, focusing on Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed theologies of penance and their major literary sources. Supplied with a brief annotated bibliography. Available online by subscription.

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