The sin of crime: The Mutual Influence of the Early Irish and Anglo-Saxon Penitentials and Secular Laws
By Joanna Schoonvelde
Master’s Thesis, Rijksuniversiteit Groningen, 2012
Introduction: One of the most fascinating questions concerning Medieval Irish and Anglo-Saxon society is not one about what was done when all went well, but rather, what was sought to be done when matters were not as they ought to be. In dealing with these early societies, the limits of what was seen to be acceptable behaviour can often best be determined by examining such accounts as we have left of transgressions of these limits. In many cases the records describing how the authoritative figures of a society chose to curb these transgressions of the social boundaries yield the greatest deal of information on the inner workings and underlying mechanisms of the respective societies. And yet, in the field of early Irish and Anglo-Saxon literature, where information of the sort is often already scant to begin with, a substantial part of the textual evidence for this area of research has been largely overlooked or barely touched upon. As two major factors in the early Irish and Anglo-Saxon societies, secular and ecclesiastical legislation was highly influential in shaping and maintaining the social boundaries for these peoples. These boundaries can be seen in the early Irish and AngloSaxon penitential handbooks and secular law texts.
With regards to the ecclesiastical literature, one of the best places to go to when looking for boundaries, be they social or religious in nature, are the penitentials. These started out as relatively short texts providing a framework to aid priests and monks in correcting the offences of their fellows and of their flocks which arose when human nature raised its insidious head, leading the people to sin. However, eventually those texts came to lead a life of their own, growing ever more expansive and coming to include every possible manner in which the soul could slide from the straight and narrow path, and slip into a state of sin that when not amended could only result in the everlasting torments of hell. This is not to say that these penitentials were intended solely as manuals for punishment to curb the weakness of the flesh. Rather the penitentials sought to remedy the sins affliction of the soul, using the pre-set correctional measures, in much the same way a physician would do when administering medicine to a patient.
Such was not the case for the law texts. These laws and regulations were intended not only to correct and deter, but also to solve disputes in a way which would result in less, or at least less overt, bloodshed. If left uncontrolled, such disputes always held the potential for a severe disruption of society, the most famous example of which being the blood feud which could be carried on for generations. The laws not only provided regulations regarding the blood-feud, but also stipulated the proper conduct of the people in such matters as for instance possession and marriage. These laws could be used in much the same way as the penitentials with regards to the determination of a punishment for the guilty party. Yet they are also markedly different from the penitentials in that the laws often provided satisfaction for the offended and did not provide a scouring of the guilty soul.