The University of Arizona

Corporal Penance in Belief and Practice: Medieval Monastic Precedents and Their Reception by the New and Reformed Religious Orders of the Sixteenth Century

Hannah G. McClain


The face of sixteenth-century Catholicism was altered not only by the Counter-Reformation but also by the development of new and reformed religious orders. Historians have often noted that these orders were characterized by their tendency to reduce or eliminate corporal penance from their routines in spite of the central significance accorded to such penance by medieval religious orders. The following discussion challenges the explanations commonly provided by historians for this marginalization of corporal penance by new religious orders while also highlighting the experience of reformed orders that insisted on faithfully maintaining medieval monastic practices associated with corporal penance. While sixteenth-century orders of every kind embraced medieval beliefs about the human body and the spiritual value of corporal penance, the translation of these beliefs into practice depended on the monastic tradition (or lack thereof) possessed by each religious order, the role of monastic founders and reformers in promoting or restricting penance, and the institutional obligations of each order within the larger structure of Catholicism.

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