Handbook For A Confessor
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Handbook For A Confessor
Late Old English Handbook for the Use of a Confessor
LanguageOld English, some medieval Latin
Dateearly 11th century
Principal manuscript(s)CCCC MS 201 and MS Cotton Tiberius A.iii
Genrecompilation of penitential texts

Handbook for a Confessor (also Old English Handbook, or in full, Late Old English Handbook for the Use of a Confessor) is a compilation of Old English and Latin penitential texts associated with - and possibly authored or adapted by - Wulfstan (II), Archbishop of York (d. 1023).[1] The handbook was intended for the use of parish priests in hearing confession and determining penances. Its transmission in the manuscripts (see below) seems to bear witness to Wulfstan's profound concern with these sacraments and their regulation, an impression which is similarly borne out by his Canons of Edgar, a guide of ecclesiastical law also targeted at priests. The handbook is a derivative work, based largely on earlier vernacular representatives of the penitential genre such as the Scrifboc (or Confessionale Pseudo-Ecgberhti) and the Old English Penitential (or Paenitentiale Pseudo-Ecgberhti).[2] Nevertheless, a unique quality seems to lie in the more or less systematic way it seeks to integrate various points of concern, including the proper formulae for confession and instructions on the administration of confession, the prescription of penances and their commutation.[3]


The original exemplar is lost, but extracts from the handbook survive in six manuscripts, three of which have been identified by scholars as Wulfstan's so-called 'commonplace books', i.e. collections used by Wulfstan for a large variety of purposes.[4]

  • 1. Brussels, Bibliothèque Royale, MS 8558-63 (2498), ff. 132-9v. Commonplace book.
  • 2. Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 201, pp. 114-25, 170. The principal text for Fowler's edition; associated with Wulfstan's commonplace books.[5]
  • 3. Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 265, pp. 72-83. Commonplace book.
  • 4. London, British Library, MS Cotton Tiberius A.iii, ff. 55-6v, 94v-7.
  • 5. Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Junius 121, ff. 23v-4, 54v-7v. Commonplace book.
  • 6. Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Laud Misc. 482, ff. 28v, 40-3v, 464. Of Worcester provenance.


The most complete copies of the handbook are represented by CCCC MS 201 and MS Cotton Tiberius A.iii, while the other four manuscripts present a narrower selection of texts.[6] As a whole, the collection contains six texts, one in Latin (I) and five in Old English (II-VI).

  • I. Ordo Confessionis (in Latin); broadly similar to the early 8th-century Othmarus ad discipulos by Othmar, abbot of St Gall.[7]
  • II. A confessional formula for recitation, consisting of a list of sins and the penitent's request for forgiveness. A longer version appears in Cotton Vespasian D XX (mid-10th century).
  • III. General directions for a confessor. This text recalls passages in law-codes drafted by Wulfstan for King Æthelred, such as V Æthelred and VI Æthelred.[8]
  • IV. A short penitential, based chiefly on the Old English Penitential.
  • V. Be dædbetan ("For penitents"), further instructions for the confessor, with commentary on types of penance, the attention to be given to the penitent's character and situation, provisions of commutation in the form of monetary payments and alms-giving, and a concluding paragraph on concessions for the sick.
  • VI. Be mihtigum mannum ("For powerful men"), on commutations for the rich.

For three Old English texts, here numbered III, V and VI, no specific relationship to earlier authorities can be pinpointed, except in individual passages.[9]

See also


  1. ^ Wormald, "Archbishop Wulfstan." p. 10; Heyworth, "Handbook." pp. 221-2.
  2. ^ Fowler, "Handbook." pp. 12-3; Heyworth, "Handbook." p. 221.
  3. ^ Fowler, "Handbook." p. 12.
  4. ^ Heyworth, "Handbook." pp. 218-9. The following overview is based on Fowler, "Handbook." pp. 1-4 and Heyworth, "Handbook." p. 218.
  5. ^ Wormald, "Archbishop Wulfstan." p. 10, describes it as a commonplace book, but this is not universally accepted. Heyworth, "Handbook." 219-20; Fowler, "Handbook." p. 4.
  6. ^ Fowler, "Handbook." p. 14
  7. ^ Fowler, "Handbook." p. 13.
  8. ^ Fowler, "Handbook." pp. 10-1 note 18.
  9. ^ Fowler, "Handbook." p. 3-4.


  • Fowler, Roger (ed.). "A Late Old English Handbook for the Use of a Confessor." Anglia 83.1 (1965). Pp. 1-34; edition of Old English texts (16-34).

Secondary sources

  • Fowler, Roger. "A Late Old English Handbook for the Use of a Confessor." Anglia 83.1 (1965): 1-34: Introduction (1-15).
  • Heyworth, Melanie. "The "Late Old English Handbook for the Use of a Confessor." Authorship and Connections." Notes and Queries 54:3 (2007): 218-22.
  • Wormald, Patrick. "Archbishop Wulfstan: Eleventh-Century State-Builder." In Wulfstan, Archbishop of York. The Proceedings of the 2nd Alcuin Conference, ed. Matthew Townend. Turnhout, 2004: 9-27.

Further reading

  • Cubitt, Catherine. "Bishops, priests and penance in late Saxon England." Early Medieval Europe 14.1 (2006): 41-63.
  • Frantzen, Allen J. The Literature of Penance in Anglo-Saxon England. New Brunswick, 1983.

External links

  This article uses material from the Wikipedia page available here. It is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.



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