Outlandish medieval sins: a sincere question


I have been reading early medieval irish penitentials (confessors manuals) as part of my studies for historical theology. I came across a few sins not once but many times by nearly a dozen writers between the sixth and eight centuries in both Ireland and Wales. Why would the eating of contaminated food such as that urinated on by a dog or with a dead mouse in it be considered sinful? I wonder especially in the cases where the document explicitly states that it was accidental. But my main question is why would the author of a confessor’s manual feel the need to include this gem-

“He who eats the skin of his own body,that is, a scab, or the vermin which are called lice,and also he who drinks or eats his own excreta -with the imposition of hands of his bishop he shall do penance for an entire year on bread and water.”

This sounds like a strange question but I have been reading many of these documents lately and this exact set of lines turns up repeatedly almost word for word in the works of many writers spanning centuries. What would motivate someone to do such a thing in the first place, and why is it sinful at all let alone gravely so. For a frame of reference the penance imposed is similar to the ones for adultery or breaking of vows so it is considered grave. I know writers borrowed material down the ages so that explains the recurrance most likely but why was this in here? can anyone shed some light on this? it is just so exceedingly odd even for something found in medieval writings.


I can’t really help you. Not only am I not a Mediaeval scholar; I live in a country that never had the Middle Ages.

But from the shadows of my mind, here goes:

In the MA, most people went hungry, and at the specific period you speak of, religious did a lot of fasting. So picking at and eating one’s scabs, etc, might have been done as a distraction from the discomfort of fasting and hunger, as such, an act against the monastic life.

Consider too that all of these substances, including body scabs, are “unclean” in the Biblical sense; so this might have been in part, a ritual purity issue.

I’ll be following what others say on this question!



The only thing I can think of is that even though they may not have known the exact mechanism, they knew that anyone doing those things was likely to get gravely ill, perhaps even risking their lives from disease. Perhaps the line of thinking was that doing it deliberately was tantamount to attempted suicide, hence the heavy penance.


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