Penance, Penitential Texts, and Pastoral Care in Early Medieval Ireland

A symposium

Programme and Abstracts

UCD Mícheal Ó Cléirigh Institute
Newman Building, K114 
19th October 2012.

11.00 Opening remarks by Dr Roy Flechner (UCD)

11.20 Dr Rob Meens, Universiteit Utrecht 

Did the Irish invent private penance? Irish penitentials in the sixth and seventh century
It is often supposed that private penance originated in early medieval Ireland. This is too simplistic a view. In this paper I will discuss two early insular penitential handbooks in order to elucidate what we can learn about forms of penance applied to the laity and about the role penance may have played in early Irish society. Some hagiographical material will be employed to add to the picture.

12.00 Tea/coffee

12.20 Elaine Pereira Farrell, UCD & IRC

Penitential texts and popular religion in Ireland (6th−8th centuries)
The penitential genre of literature originated in the British Isles and Ireland and were produced between the sixth and the eighth centuries and spread from those areas to the European Continent. Christianization is not simply an event, but a process, and the penitential texts played its role as instruments of pastoral care to further instructing the already converted Christians about the ways in which they were meant to walk and behave. On the other hand, the Christians ways taught in the Irish Penitentials were not necessarily ‘universal’. Christianity changed and was changed by each and every society which it got in contact with. Consequently what will be evidenced from this study is that the discourse behind the penitentials reveals confront and accommodation between the ‘new’ ideas being introduced to the Irish people and the native morals already pre-established. Therefore the objective of this research is to observe the composition and consolidation of an Irish ‘popular religion’ between the sixth and the eighth centuries; and the understanding of the meaning and relevance of certain regulations provided in the penitential texts.

13.00 Lunch break (there are several cafés/sandwich bars in the vicinity)

14.30 Dr Matthew StoutSt Patrick’s College, Drumcondra 

The distribution of the early Irish church and pastoral care
This paper examines the distribution of early ecclesiastical sites in Ireland made possible by the compilation of the Monasticon Hibernicum, database compiled by the late Ailbhe MacShamhráin and others. The database contains information on 5,529 sites and makes it possible to compare ecclesiastical and secular settlement on an Island-wide based. A key aspect of this analysis is the relationship between the Early Medieval church and the secular population housed within ringforts, with all the implication that has in the debate over pastoral care. A purely pastoral church with one church per petty kingdom would have necessitated only circa 200 sites. Any convincing argument about the nature of the Early Irish church (and its distribution) will not be a one-size-fits-all solution; there are regional factors at play. Four distinct settlement zones are described and detailed study areas show how church and people interacted on the ground. Charles-Edwards’ balanced summary of the historic evidence relating to the extent of pastoral care (in the New History of Ireland) concludes with the following: ‘the most promising way to resolve the disagreement is through studying the distribution of churches’. This is the first such effort made possible by the new database. It remains to be seen if Charles-Edwards confidence in distribution analysis is well placed.

A version of this paper has been recently published:

Stout, Matthew. The Distribution of Early Medieval Ecclesiastical Sites in Ireland (Chapter 3). In: Duffy, Patrick J. and Nolan, William (eds.) At the Anvil: Essays in Honour of William J. SmythDublin: Geography Publication, 2012. ISBN: 978-0-906602-638

15.10 David Burke, Durham University

Penance, bloodshed, and the Monastery of Tallaght
The texts known as The Monastery of TallaghtThe Teaching of Máel Ruain, and The Rule of the Céli Dé offer a unique insight in the practice of penance and pastoral care in early medieval Ireland. The seemingly ‘real-world’ accounts of religious and laity falling into sin, of some laymen shirking penance while others lie to increase their burdens, offer what appear to be sincere and nuanced depictions of early medieval Irish religious observance not found in other texts. This paper will explore the customs of this institution, as recorded in these works, in an effort to explore what we might discern about the penitential and pastoral practices of Tallaght, and, possibly, of the broader Irish Christian community.

15.50 Break

16.10 Dr Marilyn Dunn, University of Glasgow 

Early Irish penitentials­—the cognitive dimension
The sixth-century Penitential of Finnian is acknowledged as the first of the genre of handbooks of penance drawn up in the Insular and Continental churches over the following two centuries.   Its compiler drew heavily on the monastic practice of penance and the teachings of the monastic authorities Basil and Cassian on thought. The process of extending these ideas to the clergy had already begun in the British Church: Finnian now applied them not only more vigorously to the clergy but also innovated in using them for the laity. Using theories drawn from the cognitive study of religion we can see how the Penitential worked not only to remedy sin, but also to stimulate belief in the Christian God amongst the laity at both ‘reflective’ and ‘non-reflective’ levels. The Penitential of Finnian bears the marks of its creation in a society where Christianity was still spreading; the new style of penance which it pioneered would develop to provide the Church with a powerful tool for pastoral action.

A version of this paper has been recently published:

Dunn, Marilyn. Paradigms of Penance. Journal of Medieval Monastic Studies 1 (2012). ISBN: 978-2-503-54188-4

16.50 Closing remarks by Dr John McCafferty (UCD)

A wine reception was kindly offered in UCD Common Room and a conference dinner took place at Odessa, where the delegates could continue discussing about the interesting papers given at the event.


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