The Unique Favour of Penance: The Church and the People c. 800–c. 1100

Authored by: Sarah Hamilton

The Medieval World

Print publication date:  October  2001
Online publication date:  September  2013

Print ISBN: 9780415181518
eBook ISBN: 9781315016207
Adobe ISBN: 9781136500053


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In his mid-eleventh-century account of some previous members of his community Ekkehard IV of St Gall described in some detail how one monk, a certain Iso (c.830–71), was conceived on Holy Saturday, that is, the day before Easter Sunday. 1 According to Ekkehard, after Iso’s mother had taken a bath in preparation for Easter her husband entered the room unexpectedly and they were both overcome by desire. But Lent was, according to the Church law of the time, a penitential period not only of fasting but also of sexual abstinence. Iso’s parents knew this too and almost as soon as they had finished they realised they had sinned and reproached themselves so loudly that other members of the household rushed to the scene; the couple themselves then went and prostrated themselves, weeping, barefoot, in sackcloth and ashes, before the local priest and the entire community. The priest accepted their repentance, granted them forgiveness and gave them a penance, which was to stand by the doors of the church for a day and a night and to be excluded from communion. But they were very anxious to communicate the following day because it was the most important feast in the Church’s year and so they hurried to the priest of the neighbouring village where they again confessed their sin before the priest and his parishioners and asked the priest’s permission to communicate on Easter Sunday, which was refused. So they spent the Easter vigil fasting and crying. And during the Mass of Easter they stood at the back of the church and did not attempt to communicate. But after everyone had communicated the priest from the neighbouring village hurried into the church and led them by the hand to the altar and opened the pyx and gave them communion, followed by his blessing and the kiss of peace; before leaving he ordered them to dispense with their penitential garb and dress in their best clothes which were more appropriate for the feast of Easter. But when the couple sent a servant with gifts to the neighbouring priest to thank him for giving them communion, they learnt that this priest had spent the entire day in his parish, and that it had been one of God’s angels who had acted in his place. And nine months later Iso was born and went on to become a monk renowned among other things for his holiness.

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