PENITENTIAL (Lat. poenilentiale, libellus poenitentialis, etc.), a manual used by priests of the Catholic Church for guidance in assigning the penance due to sins. Such manuals played a large r61e in the early middle ages, particularly in Ireland, England and Frankland, and their influence in the moral education of the barbarian races has not received sufficient attention from historians. They were mainly composed of canons drawn from various councils and of dicta from writings of some of the fathers. Disciplinary regulations in Christian communities are referred to from the very borders of the apostolic age, and a system of careful oversight of those admitted to the mysteries developed steadily as the membership grew and dangers of contamination with the outside world increased. These were the elaborate precautions of the catechumenate, and as a bulwark against the persecutions the rigid system known as the Discipline of the Secret (disciplina arcani). The treatment of the lapsed, which produced the Novatian heresy, was also responsible for what has frequently been referred to as the first penitential. This is the libellus in which, according to Cyprian (Ep. 51), the decrees of the African synods of 251 and 255 were embodied for the guidance of the clergy in dealing with their repentant and returning flocks. This manual, which has been lost, was evidently not like the code-like compilations of the 8th century, and it is somewhat misleading to speak of it as a penitential. Jurisdiction in penance was still too closely limited to the upper ranks of the clergy to call forth such literature. Besides the bishop an official well versed in the penitential regulations of the Church, called the poenitentiarius, assigned due penalties for sins. For their guidance there was considerable conciliar legislation (e.g. Ancyra, Nicaea, Neocaesarea, etc.), and certain patristic letters which had acquired almost the force of decretals. Of the latter the most important were the three letters of St Basil of Caesarea (d. 379) to Bishop Amphilochus of Iconium containing over eighty headings.
Three things tended to develop these rules into something like a system of penitential law. These were the development of auricular confession and private penance; the extension of the penitential jurisdiction among the clergy owing to the growth of a parochial priesthood; and the necessity of adapting the penance to the primitive ideas of law prevailing among the newly converted barbarians, especially the idea of compensation by the wergild. In Ireland in the middle of the sth century appeared the " canons of St Patrick." In the first half of the next century these were followed by others, notably those of St Finian (d. 552). At the same time the Celtic British Church produced the penitentials of St David of Menevia (d. 544) and of Gildas (d. 583) in addition to synodal legislation. These furnished the material to Columban (d. 615) for his Liber de poenitentia and his monastic rule, which had a great influence upon the continent of Europe. The Anglo-Saxon Church was later than the Irish, but under Theodore of Tarsus (d.6Qo), archbishop of Canterbury, the practice then in force was made the basis of the most important of all penittntials. The Poenilenliale Theodori became the authority in the Church's treatment of sinners for the next four centuries, both in England and elsewhere in Europe. The original text, as prepared by a disciple of Theodore, and embodying his decisions, is given in Haddan and Stubbs's Councils and Ecclesiastical Documents relating to Great Britain and Ireland (in. 173 seq.). A Penitenliale Commeani (St Cumian), dating apparently from the early Sth century, was the third main source of Frankish penitentials. The extent and variety of this literature led the Gallican Church to exercise a sort of censorship in order to secure uniformity. After numerous synods, Bishop Haltigar of Cambrai was commissioned by Ebo of Reims in 829 to prepare a definitive edition. Haltigar used, among his other materials, a so-called poenilenliale romanum, which was really of Frankish origin. The canons printed by David Wilkins in his Concilia (1737) as being by Ecgbert of York (d. 767) are largely a translation into Anglo-Saxon of three books of HaJtigar's penitentials. In 841 Hrabanus Maurus undertook a new Liber poenitentium and wrote a long letter on the subject to Heribald of Auxerre about 853. Then followed the treatise of Reginon of Prum in 906, and finally the collection made by Burchard, bishop of Worms, between 1012 and 1023. The codification of the canon law by Gratian and the change in the sacramental position of penance in the 12th century closed the history of penitentials.
Much controversy has arisen over the question whether there was an official papal penitential. It is claimed that (quite apart from Haltigar's poenitentiale romanum) such a set of canons existed early in Rome, and the attempt has been made by H. J. Schmitz in his learned treatise on penitentials (Buszbucher und das kanonische Buszverfahren, 1883 and 1898) to establish their pontifical character. The matter is still in dispute, Schmitz's thesis not having met with universal acceptance.
In addition to the works mentioned above the one important work on the penitentials was L. W. H. Wasserschleben's epoch-making study and collection of texts, Die Buszordnungen der abendldndischcn Kirche nebst einer rechtsgeschichtlichen Einleitung (Halle, 1851). See articles in Wetzer and Welte's Kirchenlexikon, Hauck's Realencyklopadie, and Haddan and Stubbs's Councils. See also Seebasz in Zeitschrift fur Kirchengeschichte, xviii. 58. On the canons of St Patrick see the Life of St Patrick by J. B. Bury (pp. 233-275).
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)