Confessing Anger in the Late Middle Ages
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Wrath was one of the Seven Deadly Sins, a popular schema for moral instruction and the interrogation of penitents during confession. The emphasis given to either the social or spiritual aspects of the vice can indicate the moral perspective of confessors and the social influence of their discourse. This paper compares a sample of instructions for hearing confessions written by friars to secular several examples from fourteenth-century England. Some scholars have argued that the mendicants’ confessional practice downplayed the communal aspect of sins like anger and that they were less insistent upon using annual Lenten confession to press for restitution and reconciliation than were secular parochial clergy. They also concluded that friars fostered a morality more concerned with interior introspection than social harmony. Although the mendicants’ manuals do not make reconciliation a prerequisite for absolution, they do insist on the restitution and satisfaction demanded by canon law. They also reflect a more abstract interest in the psychology of sin and the effects on the human soul. Nevertheless, mendicant advice for confessors acknowledges the social consequences of anger. The guides for secular clergy tend to be simpler and focus on outward actions of anger, but their advice about wrath also considers the spiritual effects of anger. In short, this essay finds that both religious groups considered anger’s social and spiritual aspects and discussed it using many of the same commonplaces. The paper concludes that successful interpersonal reconciliation and communal peace rested on fostering greater introspection and emotional self-discipline.