As part of our coverage for the March issue of Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture, we are pleased to present a short interview that we conducted with Gavin S. Fort, one of the contributors to the issue. Gavin S. Fort received his PhD in history from Northwestern University in 2016 with a dissertation titled, “The Vicarious Middle Ages: Penitents and Their Proxies in Medieval Europe.” As a historian of medieval Europe, he analyzes the long history of proxy penance during the Middle Ages, in which one person completed another’s penance. His forthcoming article in the March issue of Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture, “Penitents and Their Proxies: Penance for Others in Early Medieval Europe” received the 2016 Sidney E. Mead Prize from the American Society of Church History. We thank Professor Fort for taking the time out of his schedule to answer a few questions for us about his upcoming article.
How did you come across the topic of your article?
The article comes from a larger project on proxy penance from the early church to the sixteenth century. The particular manifestations of proxy penance in the early medieval period arose from the sources that I examined.
What inspired you to write this article?
I confess, I wasn’t immediately drawn to penance, but I couldn’t take my eyes off the idea of a proxy. However, when I began to discover proxies in various contexts of penance—obviously because this was when people would need a proxy the most—then I began to see proxy penance as a unit, even an inseparable one. Then I kept trying to relate proxy penance to other things. Like a father paying the fine for his son’s speeding ticket. Or an older brother taking the blame for his younger brother’s mistake. But then I noticed that proxy penance was much more than just a paying someone else’s fine. There was a substitutionary element to it, which always involved bodily pain, suffering, or death—like when one person voluntarily takes another person’s place in prison. This vicarious aspect was incredibly moving to me, not only because it showed the intensity of care that existed between two people in the past, but also because proxy penance provides evidence for empathy in the Middle Ages. If empathy is a kind of “feeling in” to another person or idea or object—or, in our American lexicon, climbing in another person’s skin and walking around in it—then a medieval proxy penitent employs empathy when she suffers the punishment of sin not just on behalf of another person, but somehow as another person. In other words, in the Middle Ages, a proxy penitent did not simply pay another person’s spiritual debt on her behalf. A proxy penitent embodied another person to pay her spiritual debts.
Is there a particular source you came across during the course of your research that you would like to share with us?
Probably the most interesting source is this penitential: Paenitentiale Oxoniense II. In Paenitentialia minora Franciae et Italiae saeculi VIII-IX, ed. Raymund Kottje, 179-205. Turnhout: Brepols, 1994. As the article details, canons 61 and 62 have the most substantial critique of proxy penance in this period. It is a fascinating critique and provides good evidence both for the existence of proxy penance and the backlash it likely generated.
Where did research for this article take you (archives, cities, etc.)?
I have traveled to England and Germany to research other aspects of this history of proxy penance, but all the evidence for this article was taken from published Latin and English sources.
Abstract for “Penitents and Their Proxies: Penance for Others in Early Medieval Europe”
This article investigates the religious practice of suffering for others in the early Middle Ages. In proxy penance, one person completed a penitential work for another, who received the spiritual benefit. This practice was based on the idea that one person could stand in for another to bear his burden. Using penitential, conciliar, liturgical, and epistolary sources, I uncover two types of proxy penance. First, priests shared in the penance of those who confessed to them. Liturgical texts include Masses where the priest completes the penance for someone who could not complete it himself. Penitential texts admonish the priest to “share in the foulness” with the sinner in order to bring about the remission of his sin. Second, there was both a promotion and a criticism of proxy fasting among the laity. This sic et non rhythm shows that early medieval penitential culture could not control the demand for proxy penance. Some attention is also paid to the practice of proxy penance in the eleventh-century monastic milieu of Peter Damian. This article broadens the scope of current scholarship on penance by focusing on its substitutionary ability. Also, this article explores the changing notions of and metaphors about sin in this period—from medical to economic—that fueled proxy activity.