Ancient Origins Tour IRAQ

Ancient Origins Tour IRAQ Mobile

A young priest listens to confession.

Penitentials - Medieval Priests Had Handbooks to Deal with Sexual Deviance


Penance has played a prominent role in religions all over the world. And the interesting thing is there are documents spanning the globe which discuss penance and provide clear opportunities to find out more about the world's history. Penitential literature gives credible information which allows you to peek into people's lives. But what exactly is penitential literature, and why is it so interesting for history?

What are Penitentials?

Catholic doctrines describe penitential literature as a collection of works by different Christian authors reflecting heavily on the topic of penance. They primarily describe the acts of confession for sins, repentance for them, and finding forgiveness with the assurance of satisfying them. Penance has been predominantly associated with gaining back the grace of God and as a road towards eternal salvation.

Medieval priests had Penitentials to help them deliver penance from confessions. Source: Corpus Christi

Medieval priests had Penitentials to help them deliver penance from confessions. Source: Corpus Christi

As interesting as that they may be, the penitential literature of medieval times has quite a formidable advantage for historical studies. There have been staunch followers of penitential literature, with many authors and new religious orders emerging profoundly in the first part of the 1200s. At the same time, many Protestant reformers, notably Luther, voiced their criticism against penitential literature in the 16th century.

Penitentials basically served as handbooks that priests had to use for hearing confession. The content of penitential literature reflected primarily on works used by confessors in different religious communities. Many sources point to the possibility of the development of penitentials as a result of the transition from public confession to private disclosure. And most important of all, penitentials help in unraveling the shroud over sexual deviance in the medieval period. What was considered forbidden in the society of the Middle Ages?

A priest hearing confession during Lent. (Wellcome Collection/CC BY 4.0)

A priest hearing confession during Lent. (Wellcome Collection/CC BY 4.0)

Was Penance So Important?

Before taking a deeper look into the importance of penitential literature, it is important to understand the implications of penance. How much were people condemned by the Catholic Church for their acts of sexual deviance? The sins in medieval penitentials would invite penances that included fasting for long durations, giving alms, repeating psalms, or practicing celibacy for a few years. On the other hand, fornication was one of the most commonly mentioned sins in the penitential handbooks.

Penitential literature was not limited only to sexual deviances that are associated with fornication. The penitentials expressed different perspectives on sexual deviations with concern for various themes. Some of the prominent highlights in medieval penitentials include ritual purity, adultery, homosexuality, incest, and bestiality.

The attitude of penitentials towards these different themes and their association with the larger perception of sexual deviance in medieval society can reveal more about their effect on shaping history. Let us explore more about the definitions and examples of sexual deviances in medieval penitentials to understand their influence.

Burchard's Decretum

Interestingly, we want to make a stop here to take a look at Burchard's  Decretum of 1003. Burchard was the bishop of Worms from the period of 1000 to 1025, and this was the period when he crafted the massive list of sins spanning over twenty books. The striking factor about the  Decretum is that it paints a vivid picture of almost every sin one could think of in medieval times, based on actual confessions during that time and earlier penitentials.

Detail of a page of a manuscript of the Decretum of Burchard of Worms (early 11th century). (Public Domain)

Detail of a page of a manuscript of the Decretum of Burchard of Worms (early 11th century). (Public Domain)

This is clear evidence of the fact that penitential literature is not just the product of the whims of frustrated priests and clerics. Burchard has cited sources dating back to around the seventh century, thereby showing the profound level of research invested in creating penitentials.

The reference to Burchard's  Decretum is a lighter perspective on sexual deviances in the medieval ages. Four hundred years later, the publication of Malleus Maleficarum completely changed the approach to penalty as people were awarded death sentences for trivial mistakes. On the other hand,  Decretum outlines some of the most trivial punishments for seemingly 'diabolical' practices outlined in the book.

Let us take a look at a couple of the most noteworthy examples of sinful practices in  Decretum, which transgress the boundaries of holy practices:

  • Breaking into a cemetery, digging out someone's grave, and taking their clothes would invite a penance of two years with fasting.
  • Refusing to attend prayers or mass or making offerings to married priests can result in the penance of one year with appointed fast days.

There’s nothing strange about these acts of deviance and the suitable penance assigned for them, is there? On the other hand, the examples of sexual deviances outlined in  Decretum can change the way you think about medieval society.

The Price of Love is Sometimes a Bloody Affair

One of the accounts discusses a woman having tasted her husband's semen to increase his love for her. The supposed penance for this diabolical deed is seven years of fasting, and you have to follow it on specific days.

The next act of sexual deviance outlined in  Decretum might leave you thinking twice about having that extra piece of the pie when your partner's on their period. In the Middle Ages, some women apparently mixed menstrual blood into food or drink to increase a man’s love for them - that's quite a serious violation of the sanctity of reason and, most important of all, food! Apparently, the punishment for such an act was five years of penance with fasting on allotted days.

A medieval woman giving her confession. (Wellcome Collection/CC BY 4.0)

A medieval woman giving her confession. (Wellcome Collection/CC BY 4.0)

Now That’s Some Fishy Business

Among all the oddities you might have come across in the world, one of the most absurd may come in one of the stories detailed in  Decretum. It tells of a woman taking a live fish and putting it in her vagina and keeping it there until it dies.

Wait, the whole thing's not over yet.

The woman also cooks or roasts the fish and gives it to her husband to eat in order to make her husband love her more. This surprisingly odd act of sexual deviance invites two years of penance on specific fast days.

The sheer range of absurd "sins" outlined in medieval penitentials can confuse many people about the ways of life in medieval society. A further look at the implications of penitentials in different aspects such as ritual purity, homosexuality, and incest can help in uncovering the significance of this literature further.

Penitentials were Deeply Invested in Solving the Problems of Nocturnal Emission

The Penitentials repetitively narrate about “nocturnal pollution.” Most of the authors of Penitentials were engrossed in the mindset of how involuntary or voluntary the emission was. They also questioned whether an erotic or exotic dream triggered the emission.

This was a pretty serious concern in the Penitentials of the Middle Ages. For example, one of the penitentials by Cummean elaborates on the repercussion of polluting willingly. The penitential says that the person who willingly pollutes himself during sleep should wake up and chant nine psalms in a specified order. At the end of each psalm, he should kneel! For the following day, he shall eat nothing but bread and water. If he doesn't want to repay by sacrificing his food, then the alternative is to chant thirty psalms and kneel after completing each of them.

The penitential canon stated above brought a sense of confusion, which was then clarified with another canon. It says that the person who sins during sleep and has polluted himself unintentionally should chant 15 psalms. The man who sins but is not polluted will have to chant 24 psalms. These are the two major canons that are repeated through the penitentials.

Example of an early medieval penitential, the ‘Paenitentiale Theodori.’ (Public Domain)

Example of an early medieval penitential, the ‘Paenitentiale Theodori.’ (Public Domain)

The need for clarification represents that these were viewed as common and crucial problems. Later on the discussion of nocturnal emission was passed onto medieval churchmen in the handbooks called a 'Jumble of Contradictory Canons.'

Following that, the differences between intentional and unintentional emissions were stated in terms of mitigating and aggravating factors. The evidence is stated clearly to keep it consistent throughout all the other medieval handbooks that were examined from that time. But there are certain traditions imposed upon involuntary nocturnal emissions.

These traditions are represented as biblical prescriptions or processes of attaining purity for men. These prescriptions are stated for men who are having involuntary seminal emissions. One of these traditions, named Deuteronomy 23:10-11, states that if any man is not clean or has polluted himself during sleep, then he needs to go out of the camp or house, to return back in the evening and wash properly after the sun sets. Only then can he enter the camp or house again. Under this tradition, you can conclude that the emission is involuntary and the pollution period is for 24 hours, or a day.

The main tradition associated with nocturnal emissions is about to be unveiled! It was first found in  Excerpts from a Book of David. It was the 6th century, and the book came into existence within the first quarter of it. This book subjectively served two canons that were destined to provide specific ideologies dealing with nocturnal emission scenarios.

David is depicted giving a psalm to pray for deliverance in this 1860 woodcut by Julius Schnorr von Karolsfeld. (Public Domain)

David is depicted giving a psalm to pray for deliverance in this 1860 woodcut by Julius Schnorr von Karolsfeld. (Public Domain)

The canons said the man who intentionally pollutes himself in sleep should wake up immediately and chant seven psalms, give up food for the day, and live on water and bread. If he fails to do this, then he has to sing 30 psalms as an alternative. Along with that, the second canon says that if the man desires to sin during sleep, but can’t, then he has to chant 15 psalms. But, if he desired, tried, and did not get polluted, he has to chant 24 psalms. Unintentional pollution should be equalized with 15 psalms.

These canons might seem similar to the penitential of Cummean discussed above. It is true and evident that the canons are almost the same in both these penitentials, but the difference in Cummean's canons are that intentional polluting in sleep has a penance of 9 psalms in it, whereas the  Excerpts from a Book of David states it to be seven psalms. Another difference between these two penitentials and canons is that the period of penance is two days in Cummean, whereas Excerpts has one day.

The Bigotian and Bobbio Penitential Canons on Nocturnal Emission

Following the elaboration of nocturnal emissions, more penitentials have their own set of penance and rules. The Bigotian Penitential also narrates the same canons but with a moderate change or inclusion in it. This penitential states that if a man had an exotic or erotic dream, but no seminal emission or he did not pollute himself, he will have to complete 24 psalms as penance.

The Bobbio Penitential has a prescription or penance of 7 psalms and fasting for the day upon one occurrence of a man polluting himself, either intentionally or unintentionally. But the penance increases to 30 psalms if it’s a repeated occurrence.

The Pseudo-Bede and Egbert Penitentials Continue the Discussion on Nocturnal Emission

The Pseudo-Bede Penitential has a similar canon as that of Bobbio Penitential, but with some changes. The psalm count is 30, with fasting for one day. But, if the man is polluted by his own thoughts or by an erotic dream, then he will have to chant 22 psalms more.

On the other hand, the Egbert Penitential completely repeats the original canon stated by the  Excerpts from a Book of David, but without a choice. This means that the penitent will not get the option of choosing between 30 additional psalms or fasting for a day. Instead, he will have to chant all the 37 psalms as penance.

In this French manuscript illumination, a hermit confesses his sins to a bishop. (Wellcome Collection/CC BY 4.0)

In this French manuscript illumination, a hermit confesses his sins to a bishop. (Wellcome Collection/CC BY 4.0)

Finally, The Paris Penitential on Nocturnal Emission

The original canon is repeated in the Paris Penitential without any changes. It is again examined and implemented in the Regino's Ecclesiastical Discipline. The only exclusion is the addition of 15 psalms for the scenario of involuntary pollution. The penitent will have to either chant 37 psalms or fast for a day.

Just like that, we discover that 6 out of 12 handbooks have this canon about nocturnal emission in them. They were then dispersed across diverse regions over time. The inclusion of this canon with minor changes in different penitentials shows an intense interest in the need to treat involuntary seminal emissions fairly and with a routine. However, there are many other penitentials that were not destined to draw their canons from these traditions and they provided their own.


As you can see, medieval penitentials had a strong interest in providing strict, scripted, and routine information on the penance for committing acts which the Church considered sexually deviant. The religious body apparently had a particular focus on policing what penance was necessary for nocturnal emissions.

However, reading the content of medieval penitentials shows more than just what the Church perceived as sin and the necessary acts for sinners to reconcile with God, it also demonstrates what may have been happening in the minds and lives of real confessors in the Middle Ages.

Top Image: A young priest listens to confession. Source: Lightfield Studios / Adobe Stock

By Bipin Dimri

References n.d. ‘Nocturnal emission.’ Available at:

Cale, J. 2017. ‘The Joy of Confessing: “Women’s Vices” and Burchard’s Decretum of 1003.’  Dirty Sexy History. Available at:

The History Blog. 2021. ‘Medieval penitential sex flowchart.’  The History Blog. Available at:

MacLehose, W.F. 2018. ‘Captivating thoughts: nocturnal pollution, imagination and the sleeping mind in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.’  Journal of Medieval History. Available at:

Maryks, R.A. 2015. Penitential Literature.  Oxford Bibliographies. Available at:

McCann, C.A. 2010. Transgressing the Boundaries of Holiness: Sexual Deviance in the Early Medieval Penitential Handbooks of Ireland, England and France 500-1000Theses. Available at:



It always amazes me what people busy themselves with.

I enjoyed my nocturnal emissions as a youth.

The Medieval Catholic obsession over juvenile “wet-dreams" very  amusing to modern sentiments. But this article implys that this was an adult problem? Any way was there penance  for daytime masturbation? Because that looks to be a big glaring Loop-Hole!

Bipin Dimri's picture


Bipin Dimri is a writer from India with an educational background in Management Studies. He has written for 8 years in a variety of fields including history, health and politics.

Next article