The reflective exercise known as the Examination of Conscience has taken many formats throughout the history of the Church. We are familiar with a variety of options today, from the pamphlet structured around the Ten Commandments to the more intensive introspection of intentions found in the Spiritual Exercises.
How did everyday Catholics examine their conscience in the Middle Ages? While monastics had access to spiritual literature and guides from their superiors on making a good confession, what resources did the average layman have? Given the general illiteracy of the population and the poor level of popular education (at least relative to the clergy), how did laypeople prepare themselves for confession?
John Mirk’s Instruction for Parish Priests
One answer is furnished by the Englishman John Mirk’s book Instruction for Parish Priests. John Mirk was an Augustinian Canon of Shropshire who was active in the late 14th century. Sometime around 1380, he composed his Instruction for Parish Priests, a text meant to serve as a manual for parish priests offering guidance on pastoring their parishes. It contains a brief catechism on important doctrines to be taught, as well as instructions for administering the sacraments. The rites are not described in full, only the essential form and matter. This suggests the Instruction was meant to be a pocketbook, something the priest would carry with him to administer sacraments outside of the church in situ (as opposed to a Missal or sacramentary, which would have been a full-sized book for use in the church building). It was meant for quick and easy reference in situations where the priest needed guidance on what to say or do.
One of the most charming aspects of the Instruction is that it is composed entirely in verse. Written in the delightful Middle English that readers of Canterbury Tales will recognize, Mirk adopted an octosyllabic structure with rhyming couplets. For example, Mirk’s introduction explains the purpose of the work such:
God seyth hym self, as wryten we fynde,
That whenne þe blynde ledeth þe blynde,
In to þe dyche þey fallen boo,
For þey ne sen whare by to go.
So faren prestes now by dawe;
They beth blynde in goddes lawe,
That whenne þey scholde þe pepul rede
In to synne þey do hem lede (1)
In modern English, this means:
God says himself, as we find written,
That when the blind lead the blind,
Into the ditch they fall together,
For they see not where to go.
So, (though) priests go by day,
They are (so) blind in God’s law,
That, when they should the people teach,
They lead them into sin (instead).
The Instruction includes recommendations for hearing penitents’ confessions. Given that Mirk wrote for parish priests, we may assume the penitents are average lay persons, the peasants and townsfolk who comprised the bulk of medieval society. In Mirk’s Instruction, it is the job of the parish priest to administer an examination to the penitent, asking them if they are aware of particular types of failings (this is quite different from the discipline today, which forbids priests from asking or “fishing” for sins from a penitent). There are lengthy sections in which the priest is directed to ask about specific sins, such as lechery, avarice, and anger. The questions can be very specific. For example, in the section on anger, Mirk tells the priest to ask:
Hast þow, for hate or for yre
Any þyngus set on fuyre?
Hast þow any tyme be wroth so
þat þy wit hath be a-go?
Have you, because of hate
Set anything on fire?
Or have you at any time been so angry
That you lost use of your reason?
Another example comes from the section on sloth (“accidia”). Here Mirk discusses slothfulness relating to the obligations of the virtue of religion, both in terms of teaching and attending Holy Mass:
Hast þou be slowe, & take non hede
To teche þy godchyldre pater noster & crede?
Hast þow be slowe for to here
Goddes serues when tyme were?
Hast þou come to chyrche late
And spoken of synne by the gate?
Have you been slow and taken no heed
To teach your godchildren the Our Father and Creed?
Have you been slow to attend
God’s services at the appointed times
Have you come to church late
And spoken of sin at the gate?
Concerning Venial Sins
When it comes to venial sins, the priest in Mirk’s Instruction is to use a format based on the five senses, inviting the penitent to reflect on sins according to these categories. This was seen as fitting, since the body is so frequently the occasion of sin, especially venial sins that are likelier due to weakness of nature than intentional malice.
Mirk begins with the sense of sight, which he notes is a very common way people fall into sin. He directs the priest to ask the penitent:
Have you seen anything
That enticed you into sinning?
Think, son, well, I pray
For many things may fall that way.
The next sense is hearing. Here Mirk’s priest is to ask about specific sins that commonly come through hearing, such as gossip, coarse joking, or immodest songs:
Have you had great liking
To hear evil things,
Or nice words of ribaldry,
Or such in the manner of harlotry?
Next, Mirk considers the sense of smell. We may not be accustomed to thinking of the nose as a source of sin, but Mirk observes that the smell of food can lead one to gluttony, or the smell of “spicery” (i.e., spices) could lead one to the kind of decadent lifestyle associated with the frivolities of the rich. Perfume, of course, could tempt one to sexual sin:
Have you smelled anything
That tended to your liking,
Meat, or drink, or spicery,
That has led you to sin afterwards?
Next comes taste:
Also, if you have sinned
In food or drink by having lusty tastes [i.e., being gluttonous or greedy]
You also must tell me that
If I am to help you.
Finally, Mirk gets to touch. Mirk considers sins of touch to consist primarily of lust, and hence his final verses deal with this capital vice:
Have you touched with folly
So that your members were stirred by it?
Either women’s flesh or your own?
If you have, you must reveal it.
This format of inquiry based on the five sense was meant to guide the penitent in considering the different ways he may have been led to sin. This simple structure also benefits the priest in case he is uncertain what he is supposed to do during a confession. Given the general inability of common folk to read, it would have been important for a parish priest to be able to administer these examinations to help his flock make adequate confessions.
I picked up a physical copy of Mirk’s Instruction for Parish Priests years ago and have always enjoyed it. The translation by Edward Peacock (c. 1868) is also available online for free.
(1) All quotations from the 1868 translation by Edward Peacock, published by Keagan, Paul, and Trench in London,1902.
Phillip Campbell, “Medieval Examination of Conscience,” Unam Sanctam Catholicam, August 26, 2023. Available online at https://www.unamsanctamcatholicam.com/2023/08/medieval-examination-of-conscience