In the Early Christian Church absolution had been freely offered to sinners, who joined the group of penitents gathered outside the basilica and abased themselves publicly, in the presence of the congregated faithful. Reconciliation was followed by readmission to the Eucharist. Absolution was granted once in a lifetime, publicly, and at set seasons of the year; questions arose concerning repeat offenders: were recidivists inevitably damned?
Violent nobles were unlikely candidates for public humiliation, if that was what public penance amounted to (a questionable view). Private penance after a secretly heard confession permitted the maintenance of public status. But nobles also saw the advantage of using penance to display piety, and many turned to religious life as they neared the end of their own lives, continuing this association of spiritual discipline and social prestige. The schedule of sins listed in the penitentials listed a certain number of years on a diet of bread and water for each sin; other penance included sexual abstinence and almsgiving. Alternately, a penitent could pay a certain number of solidi (or coins) in lieu of each year of fasting. The connection with the principles embodied in law codes, which were largely composed of schedules of wergeld or compensation, are inescapable; however, secular and ecclesiastical customs should not be regarded as automatic equivalents.
Although it is sometimes said that the penitentials took no account of the sinner's state of mind, or of the free gift of God's grace, this is a mistake; such opinions are based solely on the lists of sins (or "tariffs," as they are called) and ignore the elaborate ritual for receiving the penitent that accompanies even the very early penitentials. The priest was told to ask if the sinner before him was rich or poor; educated; ill; young or old; to ask if he or she had sinned voluntarily or involuntarily, and so forth. The spiritual and mental state of the sinner--as well as his or her social status--was fundamental to the process. Moreover, some penitentials instructed the priest to ascertain the sinner's sincerity by observing posture and tone of voice. It was not an impersonal system, therefore, but rather one that was based on differences and distinctions of many kinds. Some penances could be commuted through payments or substitutions. "Recidivism was always possible, and the commutation of sentence by payment of cash perpetuated the notion that salvation could be bought" (Rouche 1987, p. 529). The system of commutations espoused in the penitentials could not reach the poorest, for whom a few solidi was a fortune and the possibility of some meat in the diet an essential source of calories. Some might want to conclude that the penitentials thus reinforced the commonplace connection of poverty with sinfulness and depravity. Inequities in the system of private penance existed. However, because even the earliest penitentials inquired into the sinner's state of mind and social condition, it cannot be claimed that the priest took no account of the sinner's poverty. The very poor, for example, were given different fasts from the wealthy. The commutation of penance was not restricted to money payment ("cash" is not a suitable term for medieval exchanges of wealth and should be avoided). Commutations and the intersection of ecclesiastical penance with secular law both differed from locality to locality. Nor were commutations restricted to financial payments: extreme fasts and recitation of large numbers of psalms could also commute penances; the system of commutation did not reinforce commonplace connections between poverty and sinfulness, even though it favored people of means and education over those without such advantages. But the idea that whole communities, from top to bottom, richest to poorest, submitted to the same form of ecclesiastical discipline is itself misleading. For example, meat was a rarity in the diet of the poor, with or without the imposition of ecclesiastical fasts. In addition, the system of public penance was not replaced by private penance; the penitentials themselves refer to public penitential ceremonies.
The Council of Paris of 829 condemned the penitentials and ordered all of them to be burnt. In practice, a penitential remained one of the few books that a country priest might have possessed. Some argue that the last penitential was composed by Alain de Lille, in 1180. The objections of the Council of Paris concerned penitentials of uncertain authorship; by this time there were many manuscripts that attributed penitential decisions to certain authorities (e.g., the Venerable Bede) who had nothing to do with them. Penitentials continued to be written, edited, adapted, and, in England, translated into the vernacular. They served an important role in the education of priests as well as in the disciplinary and devotional practices of the laity. Penitentials did not go out of existence in the late twelfth century. For example, Robert of Flamborough wrote his Liber Poenitentialis in 1208.