A Contrite Heart: Prosecution and Redemption in the Carolingian Empire


Between the middle of the eighth century and the late ninth century in western Europe, the course of legal history was shaped by interaction with religious ideas, especially with regard to the meaning of confession, suffering, and the balance of protections for an accused individual and the welfare of the community. This book traces those themes through a selection of Carolingian texts, such as archbishop Hincmar's legal analysis of a royal divorce, the decrees of church councils, the biography of a Saxon holy woman, anti-Judaic treatises, and Hrotswitha's dramatisation of the legend of Thaïs, in order to make audible the lively debates over the boundaries of clerical and lay authority, the nature and extent of permissible intervention in the spiritual condition of the empire's inhabitants, and distinctions between the private and public domains. This work thus reveals the profound relation between law and penitential ideologies promoted by the Carolingian imperial court.

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Biographical Note

Abigail Firey, Ph.D. (1995) in Medieval Studies, University of Toronto, is Associate Professor of History at the University of Kentucky. She has published articles on Carolingian canon law and its cultural and intellectual contexts, and is directing the digital Carolingian Canon Law project . She edited A New History of Penance (Brill, 2008).

Table of contents

List of Illustrations
List of Abbreviations

1. The Protection of Privacy: Secrets and Silence
Whose Truth? Rumours and Reports
Religious Dimensions of Confession: A Pure and True Confession of Conscience
Legal Dimensions of Confession: Signed, Sealed, and Delivered
Herod’s Tears
Susannah: A True Heart
2. The Public Welfare: Pollution and Purgation
Tacit Law: The Mouse in the Soup
The Discourse of Pollution: Pathologies and Mutations
The Politics of Pollution and Purgation
Blood Libel and the Disembodied Soul
Purgative Justice: Tears Extinguish Fire
3. Authority and Piety
The Prosecution of Heresy, c.750: The Little Crosses
Israel in Goatskins: Boniface and the Limits of Ecclesial Jurisdiction
The Prosecution of Heresy, c.850: “Lest the Baths Collapse”
Angels and Messiahs: The Religious Cosmos of Popular Belief
4. Empire and Education
Liutberga’s Confessions: The Court of Conscience in the Carolingian Rhineland
“Fear is the Beginning of Wisdom”: Penance at the Frontiers of Empire
“They do not cure, but bathe and stroke”: Debates over Penitential Authority
5. Contestation, Co-operation, Coercion, and Resistance
The Decisions of the Hearts: Confessors and Jurisdiction
Rod and Staff: The Exercise of Pastoral Power
“Non insanio sed sanum sapio”: Meritorious Penance and Resistance

Index locorum
Index personarum
Index rerum
Index locorum Sacrae Scripturae


All those interested in intellectual and cultural history, the history of the early middle ages, legal historians, theologians, church historians, Carolingianists, scholars of medieval canon law.

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