The penitentiaries are indeed quite different from any other literature in Christianity at the time given both their purpose and organization. The only English work I have come across is Hugh Connolly, The Irish Penitentials and their Significance for the Sacrament of Penance Today (1995). (I add parenthetically that the book comes from Four Courts Press, a publishing company dedicated to a rich array of Irish religion and culture and very much worth a visit if you have the time to check the link.)
The concept of sin and justice in Ireland was considerably different from the continent, even from England. Irish life was totally isolated from the larger body of Christian practice as well as even Roman Law. The communal ethics of the island can truly be called indigenous, and Connolly explains how Patrick and his successors were able to work with the unique character of Irish practice in establishing Christian Penance. In 400 A.D. Ireland had no cities; its political terrain was tribal, with each having a king (in a limited use of the term) serving from within an entrenched aristocracy. Patrick immediately took to the practice of bringing his message to the kings and nobilities first.
It would seem that Ireland was blessed with at least some uniformity of language, which allowed for more commonality of culture and order than one might expect. Ancient Irish law was based upon custom. Crimes against individuals had to be paid for through compensation of the injured party. Compensation, Connolly writes, may have been the underlying principle of Irish monastic authors. Contract law was surprisingly advanced and common law distinguished breaking contracts with the intention to swindle in the first place, “Malice aforethought.” Early Irish law provided for what we would call today “damages.” A crime resulting in physical injury might be placated by the perpetrator’s reimbursing the family for lost wages and perhaps medical care. Irish law was certainly not lacking in sensitivity to the common good, and it rightly held the upper echelons of society to higher standards. Lest I forget, the office of “druid” in the Irish pagan religion known as Druidism included responsibilities of teaching and counseling, perhaps an early paradigm for the Christian confessor.
Druid religion, in truth, contained a triadic moral code: (1) Adore God; (2) Do no wrong to anyone; and (3) Act justly toward everyone. Druids believed in three great “fears;” (1) offending God; (2) contravening the love of another; and (3) unduly accumulating riches. Druid virtues were considered to be knowledge, love, and courage. Now from this great distance it is hard to know the precise depth of Druid commitment among the Irish peoples themselves, but from what we do know, it is not hard to imagine that Patrick and the monk missionaries certainly found common ground and a receptivity to the concept of one God and a society built around principles of justice.
Connolly makes the interesting point that Ireland is the only Christian land where no martyr’s blood was shed—another hint that the populace was congenial to the preaching of Christianity. The monastic literature of the time spoke of three kinds of martyrdom known as while, green, and red. “White martyrdom” involved forsaking all worldly possessions for the love of God; the second was seen as a kind of purifying process where a person threw himself into the monastic life and purged himself of all evil through a life of prayer, fasting, work, and study. Red martyrdom was the traditional form of bodily death for the faith, an event unknown in Ireland of that time.
The early Irish monks came to believe that their “living martyrdom” of austere living, denials, and punishments enriched the Church and make connection with the Druid virtue of courage. Irish monastic penances for even modest faults were austere, but the purpose of such pain was redemptive, not punitive. This is an attitude that went into the production of the penitentials: no matter how austere a penance might be administered in confession, it was always corrective in nature, the goal in mind to restore the penitent into a living representation of Christ.
The authors of the Penitentials—Finian (d. 549 A.D.); Columbanus (615); Cummean (662); Adamnan (704); along with some later English and Welch writers—saw themselves as writing spiritual guides to Christ, for the use of the priest confessor in extending forgiveness and change of attitude. The specificity of the sinful acts in their works might easily lead one to believe that the primary purpose of writing was primarily juridical—i.e., defining in razor-sharp detail the limits of human behavior. But the true purpose of this style was medicinal, to empower a confessor to give targeted advice and reparational acts most likely to assist a penitent in turning from a way of conduct and taking on its opposite.
The organizational pattern of the Penitentials seems to follow what we would call today the “seven deadly sins,” a term applied to long-term and solidly entrenched ways of living. As doctors of the soul, so to speak, the authors provide both the diagnosis and the treatment plan. Most authors begin with gluttony, a violation of right order by eating exclusively for pleasure and not for need. Cummean, in his text, connects overeating with Luke 21: 34-35) where excessive consumption dulls the senses and renders us unprepared for the Second Coming. The Bigotian author describes gluttony as something of a “gateway drug” to general dissipation of excessive sleeping and general carelessness. The same author distinguishes between occasional abuse of alcohol and habitual drinking—particularly among the clergy.
The authors draw from an earlier monastic tradition of fighting vices with “contraries.” For sins of gluttony, the sacramental penance most often employs fasting. However, the authors could become quite imaginative, and the Old Irish Penitential recommends such penances as remorse of heart, rare meals, frequent self-questioning, feasting the poor and solacing the hungry. Connolly comments here that the penitent is thus led away from his own self-centeredness toward a true empathy for those who are hungry through no choice of their own. (p. 46)
In future installments the spread of the Irish penitential model will be traced through mainland Europe and eventually to Rome, the last holdout against this model, rather surprisingly.