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Penitential of Finnian

Incipit of the Penitential of Finnian.

The Penitential of Finnian[a] is a sixth-century penitential believed to have been written by either Finnian of Clonard or Finnian of Movilla. It contains fifty canons that apply to both the clergy and the laity, but with stricter penances for the former.


The identity of the titular author, "Uinniaus",[3][b] is unclear, with the leading candidates being Finnian of Clonard and Finnian of Movilla, both of whom were Irish clergymen who lived in the sixth century.[5][c] The contents of Finnian's penitential are mostly original,[8] with some influence from Irish and Welsh sources in addition to the writings of Paul the Apostle, Jerome, and John Cassian.[8][9][10] According to a letter from Columbanus to Pope Gregory I, the author of Finnian's penitential also consulted Gildas about ecclesiastical discipline.[11]

Thomas Charles-Edwards surmises that the author wrote the penitential some time before 591 and was likely to have been Columbanus's mentor, since the Penitential of Finnian is one of the key sources cited in Columbanus' own penitential that was published in 591.[12]

The Penitential of Finnian is believed to be the earliest known text of its kind.[8][13][14] There are two extant manuscripts of the almost complete text: the first, which dates back to the early ninth century, is housed at the abbey library of Saint Gall, while the second, which dates back to the late eighth century, is housed at the Austrian National Library.[15] Portions of the penitential survive in two other Breton manuscripts.[16][17]


Originally written in Latin,[18] most of the fifty[19] canons in the penitential are applicable to both the clergy and the laity.[5][16] However, the author notes that the clergy are liable to stricter penances.[13] Concerns raised in the penitential range from abortion to witchcraft.[5] The typical penances offered are either abstinence from food or abstinence from sex,[20] with the most serious sins such as homicide warranting a seven-year exile.[11]

The author also distinguishes between various kinds of intentions and their corresponding penances.[21] For instance, somebody who immediately repented of his sinful thoughts would be forgiven by "beating his breast and seeking God's pardon"; on the other hand, somebody who would have acted on his sinful thoughts, if only he had the opportunity, had to "abstain from meat and wine for a whole year, eating only bread and water."[21]



  1. ^ Paenitentiale Vinniani or Penitentialis Vinniani in Latin.[1][2]
  2. ^ Also "Uinniau"; the name was Gaelicised to "Finniau", which was subsequently mistranscribed as "Finnian".[4]
  3. ^ Some historians have argued that Uinniaus was a British cleric whose identity was reappropriated by the churches in Clonard and Movilla.[6][7]


  1. ^ Meens 2014, p. 244.
  2. ^ Wade 2018, p. 6.
  3. ^ Abraham 2017, p. 19.
  4. ^ Fraser 2009, p. 69.
  5. ^ a b c Bieler 1963, p. 4.
  6. ^ Dumville 1990, p. 140.
  7. ^ Clarkson 2012, p. 42.
  8. ^ a b c Farmer 2011, p. 166.
  9. ^ Abraham 2017, p. 21.
  10. ^ Hollis 1992, p. 52.
  11. ^ a b Abraham 2017, p. 20.
  12. ^ Charles-Edwards 2004, pp. 291−293.
  13. ^ a b Mistry 2015, p. 131.
  14. ^ Griffin 2016, p. 29.
  15. ^ Meeder 2019, p. 102.
  16. ^ a b Meens 2014, p. 47.
  17. ^ Wyatt 2009, p. 133.
  18. ^ Rosenwein 2018, p. 85.
  19. ^ Ferguson 2008, p. 440.
  20. ^ Osborne 2001, p. 88.
  21. ^ a b Bitel 1987, p. 74.

Works cited

  • Abraham, Erin Vanessia (2017). Anticipating Sin in Medieval Society: Childhood, Sexuality, and Violence in the Early Penitentials. Amsterdam University Press. ISBN 9789048534081.
  • Bieler, Ludwig (1963). The Irish Penitentials. The Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies.
  • Bitel, Lisa (1987). "Sex, Sin, and Celibacy in Early Christian Ireland". Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium. 7: 65–95. JSTOR 20557185.
  • Charles-Edwards, Thomas (2004). Early Christian Ireland. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0511037228.
  • Clarkson, Tim (2012). Columba. Birlinn. ISBN 9781907909047.
  • Dumville, David N. (1999). Saint Patrick. Boydell Press. ISBN 9780851157337.
  • Farmer, David (2011). The Oxford Dictionary of Saints (5 ed.). Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780199596607.
  • Ferguson, Everett (2008). "Creeds, Councils, and Canons". In David G. Hunter; Susan Ashbrook Harvey (eds.). The Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Studies. Oxford University Press. pp. 427–445. ISBN 9780199271566.
  • Fraser, James E. (2009). From Caledonia to Pictland: Scotland to 795. Edinburgh University Press. ISBN 9780748628209.
  • Griffin, Michael (2016). The Politics of Penance: Proposing an Ethic for Social Repair. Cascade Books. ISBN 9781498204248.
  • Hollis, Stephanie (1992). Anglo-Saxon Women and the Church. Boydell Press. ISBN 9780851153179.
  • Meeder, Sven (2019). The Irish Scholarly Presence at St. Gall: Networks of Knowledge in the Early Middle Ages. Bloomsbury Academic. ISBN 9781350129405.
  • Meens, Rob (2014). Penance in Medieval Europe, 600–1200. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521872126.
  • Mistry, Zubin (2015). Abortion in the Early Middle Ages c. 500−900. York Medieval Press. ISBN 9781903153574.
  • Osborne, Kenan (2001). Reconciliation and Justification: The Sacrament and Its Theology. Wipf & Stock. ISBN 9781579108199.
  • Rosenwein, Barbara H. (2018). Reading the Middle Ages: Sources from Europe, Byzantium, and the Islamic World. ISBN 9781442636736.
  • Wade, Erik (2018). "Pater Don't Preach: Byzantine Theology, Female Sexuality, and Histories of Global Encounter in the 'English' Paenitentiale Theodori". The Medieval Globe. 4 (2): 1–28. doi:10.17302/tmg.4-2.1.
  • Wyatt, David (2009). Slaves and Warriors in Medieval Britain and Ireland, 800–1200. Brill. ISBN 9789047428770.
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Penitential of Finnian
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