John Burden

Crime, Sin, and Church Law in Medieval Germany

My book uses bishops' law codes from the ninth through twelfth centuries to explore the role of penance in the social, political, and legal world of medieval Germany. In the Early Middle Ages, penance was very close to what we would today call criminal law. Because penance was important for maintaining peace and order, kings and emperors, as well as bishops and archbishops, took great interest in the subject as a matter of public policy. In the Later Middle Ages, however, events conspired to strip penance of its political meaning and association with criminal justice. At the newly founded universities, professors of law and theology began to work out new legal procedures and new ways to earn God’s forgiveness for sins. At the same time, newly assertive secular monarchs and centralizing popes conspired to weaken the legal independence of bishops, who were the main practitioners of penance. As a result of these developments, penance gradually lost its association with criminal law and begin to assume the exclusively spiritual contours familiar today. My book hopes to contribute to a better understanding of how the modern legal distinction between church and state came into being.