Confessions

286v, detail

The confession of sins (Lat. confessio) takes the form of a general confession connected with an act of worship or a private confession.

Sin

Sin comprises not only an immoral act but also an offence against the divine will, entailing loss of communion with God. There are a large number of sins of commission. Catholicism distinguishes between mortal sin and venial sin. Mortal sin is a deliberate and conscious sin against God, entailing loss of grace, but can be absolved by confession. Venial sin, on the other hand, does not require confession.

The seven mortal sins

Pope Gregory the Great (c. 540-604), who did much to influence the medieval conception of sin, counted seven mortal sins as the most perilous, the reason being that they engender other sins and vices. The mortal sins are pride or “vainglory” (Lat. inanis gloria), envy (Lat. invidia), anger or “wrath” (Lat. ira), sorrow (Lat. tristitia), greed or “avarice” (Lat. avaritia), gluttony (Lat. ventris ingluvies) and lust (Lat. luxuria). Sometimes an eighth is added, namely sloth (Lat. acedia).

The form of confession of sins

The form of confession of sins in the Catholic liturgy has been inspired by Jewish ritual. There is no set pattern for the confession of sins, and it can vary in both length and structure. Certain regular elements are always included, such as confession before God (saints and the Church), the enumeration of sins committed in thought, word and deed, and the desire for forgiveness.

Many of the surviving medieval confessions contain neither the sins mentioned in the New Testament, e.g. in the Gospel of St Matthew (Mat. 15:19) and the Pauline Epistles (Rom. 1:29-31, Gal. 5:19-26) or the offences which can be committed against the Ten Commandments. 

In early medieval times especially, lists or catalogues of sins could be very long – a mixture of sundry vices with sins great and small. In substance they were often derived from the enumerations included in the writings of the Church Fathers or in resolutions of the early Church Councils. The great number of sins served to underscore human weakness, and in this way fear was inspired of committing offences. Through confession one admitted man’s insignificance and acquired the hope of grace. No uniform scale of penalties had ever existed for sins committed.

The confession of sins in Codex Gigas

The Codex Gigas confession of sins runs to five pages (ff. 286v-288v). It comes immediately before the pictorial spread of the Heavenly Jerusalem and the Devil and is written in large letters on a coloured panels. It is clear from the content that the confession is that of a churchman who has sinned in thought, word and deed. The opening phrases, addressed to God, Christ, the angels, patriarchs, prophets, apostles and the whole company of the saints, is followed by a long enumeration of all the sinner’s offences against his priestly vocation, against sexual and bodily abstention and all the mortal sins and their many ramifications. The confession ends with a prayer for forgiveness and grace. The many saints invoked include Ss Adalbert and Václav (Wenceslas) – both patron saints of Bohemia.