Andrea Mancini: Emotions and Penance. The penitential summa of the Franciscan Observant Nicholas of Osimo

Penitential literature is a valuable source for the study of emotions in relation to sin, custom and morality. The development of the private sacramental penance after the IV Lateran Council (1215) promoted an increasing production of penitential texts which were meant to provide confessors the necessary knowledge to administer the sacrament of penance. Penitentials’ composers resorted to the scholastic analysis of human emotions in order to describe to confessors the condition of of the sinners and make them recognisable during the auricular confession. My contribute discusses how emotions are expressed and categorised in the handbook for confessors of the Franciscan Observant Nicholas of Osimo, Supplementum Summae Pisanellae (1444). The definitions of sins in Nicholas’ handbook are composed resorting to the thirteenth-century theologians, such as William Peraldus and Thomas Aquinas. Confessors’ activity can be considered a tool for the circulation and popularization of the scholastic tradition to the laity.

Nicholas’ Supplementum summae pisanellae is a correction and addition to the Summa pisanella, an old handbook for confessors composed in 1338 by the Dominican Bartholomew of San Concordio. The choice of revising a Dominican handbook might suggest a polemical purpose. However, there is no evidence of any radical correction or clear disagreement with the sins’ definitions given in the Summa pisanella. The main theological and canonical sources in Nicholas’s Supplementum remain the same as those ones of the Summa Pisanella, in particular John of Freiburg and Thomas Aquinas. In Nicholas’ additions there are sometimes Franciscan authors we never see in Dominican handbooks of the thirteenth and fourteenth century, for example Alexander of Hales and Bonaventure of Bagnoregio, as well as jurists active after the composition of the Summa pisanella.

The psychology and relative terminology of human emotions are essentially scholastic. Human emotions are set close to vegetative activities like digesting and breathing or the acts of perception. However, unlike vegetative activities, emotions are susceptible to rational moderation and voluntary direction to a good end. When the emotions lack moderation or right direction, they are conceived as excessive (inordinatus) or immoderate (immoderatus) and so they generate immoral acts. This qualification of human emotions related to sins recurs very often in the definitions of Nicholas’ summa. For example, ‘ambition’ is defined as an “excessive desire for honour” (inordinatus appetitus honoris). In the article ‘curiosity’, Nicholas repeats the Thomistic definition of Bartholomew which states curiosity as an “excessive desire for knowledge” (inordinatus appetitus cognitionis).

Andrea Mancini (

This post forms part of an open mini-series published in preparation of the COST Action IS1301 Training School “Passionate Devotions. Emotions in Medieval and Early Modern Religious Texts, Images and Music” (see announcement with details about submissions here).

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