Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Humiliation and Reconciliation

What medieval penance can tell us about making modern-day amends.

My poolside reading this July has been Mary C. Mansfield’s 1995 work The Humiliation of Sinners: Public Penance in Thirteenth-Century France. The book illuminates human questions we still have not resolved with stories from civilizational past. You don’t have to care as much about the Rogation dragon as I do to see echoes of Mansfield’s medieval world in our own rituals of public abasement, from reality TV to political apologies to Alcoholics Anonymous’s Fifth Step.

Mansfield died before she was able to polish the manuscript, and it shows in a few repetitive or clunky phrases. She’s also got some odd preferences: The drama of scapegoating, in which the sins of an entire community are washed clean by the public expulsion and humiliation of a few, is always described in positive terms. Any time Mansfield says “dramatic” or “organic” (!) she means scapegoating; any time she laments a new “drier” form of public religion, she means they’ve taken the scapegoats away. Nonetheless the book is studded with insights: “The celebration of community … inevitably meant a remembrance of the dead,” for example.

Mansfield makes vivid the jury-rigged, experimental, even madcap religious world of the 1200s, which brought me comfort here in 2016. She draws out some of the aspects of medieval French religion we have lost: the intense focus on the sins of the rich and middle-class, for example. Confessors quizzed their better-off parishioners closely about usury or abuse of power; one man had to do public penance because the money he gave to the poor on his wedding day was counterfeit, which is three separate things that wouldn’t happen today.

Mansfield depicts many tensions we still struggle to resolve: the sinner’s hunger for anonymity, for example, which conflicts with his longing for reconciliation with the community. Nobody wants to be exposed—but we long to be known, forgiven, accepted as the sinners we are rather than the facades we display in public. There’s a great relief in no longer having to hide.

This longing for exposure and even for humiliation isn’t on Mansfield’s radar. One of the few disappointments of her book is how thoroughly she frames public penance in terms of the longing of others—the righteous, the self-righteous—to see sinners humiliated. She notes that the practices she describes coexisted with entirely voluntary public penances, things you’d do only because you wanted to do them, but she has chosen not to focus on those.

I don’t want to defend exposing and humiliating people; I don’t believe in printing mug shots. Nor do I think you’ve got to tell everybody every awful thing you’ve done. Nobody wants to hear that mess. But there is often a covert spiritual longing for exposure and humiliation: a longing for greater harmony between the public image and the person one knows oneself to be. And without that painful harmony we feel out of harmony with our community. Mansfield is very good on the “utopian dream” of public penance, “the hope that God’s justice can be visible on earth,” and I realize this longing for justice for one’s own sins is equally utopian. But it is real; and one new contribution of groups like AA, at least in theory, is the creation of a community of lay penitents.

AA, like medieval penance, blurs the line between religious and secular—and between voluntary spiritual practices and coerced punishment. My own position (for a lot of reasons) is that nobody should be court-ordered or otherwise required to attend AA, but my purpose here is more to point out that these are questions few societies have cleanly and consistently resolved. The language of addiction–and the 12-step spirituality which pop culture wrongly offers as universal addiction treatment–is how contemporary Americans work through the anxieties Mansfield’s subjects address with processions and prostrations. When it comes to making amends, we still live with the same ambivalence that Mansfield highlights, where “free absolution” must lead to “costly restitution.”

The Humiliation of Sinners helped me understand the conflict between two visions of forgiveness, both of which are accepted by large swathes of our society. In the first (and, I think, more traditional) understanding, asking for forgiveness is a way for the offender to abase himself, accepting the pain of humiliation and giving power to his victim. In the second understanding, however, asking for forgiveness is a kind of power play: a narcissistic act of cruelty in which the offender purchases his own peace of mind by imposing yet another burden—the burden of somehow forgiving him—on his victim.

If you’re seeking to make amends you’ll often get advice based on the first understanding of forgiveness—but the person whose forgiveness you beg may be coming from the second position. Especially since most human acts do have some admixture of narcissism, even a sincere attempt at amends can easily be read as self-absorbed.

Where forgiveness is a virtue, asking for it will always have a certain coercive element: If you were a good person you’d say it’s okay. But the forgiveness backlash is also the result of geographic mobility. The classic example for the anti-forgiveness camp is the email or Facebook message: Hey, you may not remember this, but I’m the guy who [did some horrible thing to you over a decade ago] …

Sometimes that works out okay. But I’ve done something like this, and I’m still not sure if it was right or not—because many of these belated amends reopen wounds that had been healing on their own.

Where people have no choice but to live together, reconciliation is inevitably the goal of both victim and offender. When people can fully separate, an asymmetry emerges: Reconciliation may still be the offender’s goal, but the victim might prefer simply never to see the guy again. And so seeking reconciliation with the victim may favor the offender’s perspective over the victim’s.

Humiliation is in some ways startlingly familiar. But there are two elements of the 13th-century French world that we lack. One is a model of honored penitence similar to monks. Monks bore many of the same ascetic and humiliating marks as coerced penitents: “Solemn penitents were criminals, but they acted the part of saints.” Imagine if teachers and ministers wore orange prison jumpsuits and you’ll see how powerful this symbolic parallel could be. Penitents’ public humiliation was adorned with frequent blessings (the blessed ashes of Ash Wednesday began here) and promises of future restoration to the community.

This ritual of restoration is the other thing we lack. How do we welcome public penitents back into our community? In one Maundy Thursday ritual, public penitents who had completed their penance were passed from the hands of their priests to the archdeacon to the hands of the bishop who welcomed them back into the church. Bishops might call, “Venite, venite, venite!” (Come in!) to signal reconciliation. Rituals with candles and the Kiss of Peace led up to the final, beautiful restoration of the penitent to full communion at the altar.

Perhaps our public apologies and reality-TV self-exposures are ways of seeking reassurance, in a world which no longer promises us reconciliation.

Eve Tushnet is a TAC contributing editor, blogs at Patheos.com, and is the author of Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith, as well as the author of the newly released novel Amends, a satire set during the filming of a reality show about alcohol rehab.

Want more stories like this in your inbox? Sign up for TAC’s biweekly books & arts newsletter!



Become a Member today for a growing stake in the conservative movement.
Join here!
Join here