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The Vicarious Middle Ages: Penitents and Their Proxies in Medieval Europe, 200–1550

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“The Vicarious Middle Ages” investigates the religious and cultural history of proxy penance where medieval Christians believed that it was possible to suffer on behalf of another person. In proxy penance, one person completed a penitential work for another, who received the spiritual benefit. From the third until the sixteenth century, there was a religious culture of care for others, even as criticism and abuse of proxy penance existed alongside its promotion. Part One examines various strategies to relieve others’ burdens in the first millennium of Christianity. In the early church and late-antique period, martyrs, bishops, the laity, and monks all took on the proxy penitential role as the church worked out how proxy penance could function. In the early Middle Ages, priests “shared in the foulness” with penitents, and lay people fasted for others. Part Two focuses on twelfth- and thirteenth-century intellectual sources to trace the theoretical justifications for proxy penance and its idealized form. Part Three tracks proxy penance “on the ground” in two contexts. First, in the hagiography of thirteenth-century women, proxy penance entailed suffering bodies. Second, in late-medieval English wills, requests for proxy pilgrimage—often as a type of penance—shows the final mutation of proxy penance into a routinized practice dependent on religious principles of debt and repayment. Using a wide range of source material—letters, sermons, penitential treatises, monastic rituals, confessional liturgies, theological works, conciliar sources, confessors’ manuals, scholastic treatises, collections of religious stories, hagiography, late medieval English wills, and royal and papal registers—and covering a broad chronological frame—c. 200–c. 1550—this work demonstrates that ideas about and practices of both penance and proxy developed together across the Middle Ages. This study sheds light on a forgotten practice and shows how firmly medieval religion, and indeed medieval culture in general, developed forms of substitution and representation. Ultimately, this work not only revises our knowledge about penance in the Middle Ages but also demonstrates the role of a proxy in premodern society.

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  • 01/28/2019
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