Bibliometrics, Penitence and Psychological Ideas

Kari Konkola's picture

Bibliometrics, Penitence and Psychological Ideas


Kari Konkola[1]




Much of our knowledge of human nature is based on observations collected by psychiatrists sitting by the couch and writing down their patients’ thoughts.  Psychiatrists, however, are not the first profession in history that has had an exceptionally good opportunity to investigate the human mind’s depths.  Confessors have long been in a very similar position, because they had to question penitents to uncover sins, such as pride, envy and anger.  This “searching” of people’s minds produced an abundance of observations about the same deep psychological processes therapists analyze.

Psychiatry “revision 1” preceded the modern “revision 2” by centuries.  Confession was originally developed in monasteries sometime in the Middle Ages.  The Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 made confession a religious duty required of every Christian, but the requirement seems to have been applied slowly -- an understandable delay, considering the disruption the Black Death caused.  In the fifteenth century, there is evidence about confession spreading.  Historians disagree about this spread’s extent.  Jean Delumeau argued that confession became widely practiced and so effective as to bring about a collective guilt-complex in late medieval Western Europe.[2]  Lawrence Duggan thought confession was so uncommon and ineffective that it did not have a significant influence on society.  Duggan supported his view by a wealth of evidence showing that confessors were poorly educated, and that contemporaries complained about confessors' laxity in applying even what little they knew about sins and virtues.[3]

Most historians seem to have accepted Duggan’s view.[4]  As a result, confession’s details, particularly the morals it taught to penitents, have been mostly ignored in historical research.  The few exceptions to this neglect are Thomas Tentler's old monograph,[5] the almost equally old (and seriously flawed) study by Jean Delumeau,[6] Odd Langholm’s carefully done but narrowly focused investigation of the sin of greed[7] and the collection of studies edited by Richard Newhouser.[8]



Quantitative analysis of publishing offers one way to solve the disagreement about confession’s spread.  In fact, this disagreement is particularly well suited to bibliometric investigation, because there exists publishing evidence in the form of confessors’ manuals. Furthermore, the evidence is reliable, because confessors had to use manuals to learn the nuanced psychology of sins needed to shrive penitents effectively.  Confession was a text-centered activity, and production of manuals provides a good gauge of its spread. 

Helpfully, there already exists a bibliometric study relevant to the debate about confession’s influence.  Anne Thayer investigated collections of model sermons, which were published in large numbers immediately after the invention of printing to help poorly educated clergy to preach well.  Thayer based her count on copies of sermon collections listed in catalogues of old books in European libraries.  (This source means that Thayer included only editions from which copies still survive, i.e., her total is an undercount and thus should be considered a conservative estimate.)  To get the number of copies, Thayer multiplied the number of known editions by an estimate for the size of editions, for which she -- again, very conservatively -- assumed a linear increase from 200 copies per edition in 1470 to 1,000 in 1500.[9] 

Adding to these estimates the assumption that very few copies were lost (A plausible assumption, because in the late Middle Ages printed books too were still expensive, and thus they would have been treated with care), Thayer concluded that by 1520 about half a million copies of sermon collections circulated in Western Europe.  This finding’s significance is highlighted by the fact that almost all copies of the model sermons were in Latin, and the number of Latin-speakers in Europe around 1520 has been estimated at about 840,000.  There thus existed more than one copy of sermon-collections for every two Latin-speakers.[10]  

In addition to the quantitative estimate of number of books produced, Thayer did a content analysis of the sermons.  This analysis made her findings very relevant to the debate about confession’s spread, because penitence was by far the model-sermons’ most important subject.  Indeed, preachers who relied on the printed collections talked so much about confession that this subject overshadowed everything else:  "Not only does penitence receive a great deal of direct attention in the sermon collections, but its significance in prevailing is such that other topics are colored or even eclipsed by it."[11]



Thayer's findings provide strong circumstantial evidence about confession having been influential:  members of late medieval Europe’s Latin-speaking intelligentsia were immersed in printed sermons that emphasized the importance of penitence.  Yet, confessors’ manuals provide more direct evidence, and fortunately Jean Delumeau gave publication statistics about them:  the three most popular confessors’ manuals together went through 303 known editions before 1500.[12]  This total makes possible a detailed analysis:  assuming conservatively 1000 copies per edition and very few losses through wear and tear, the 300+ editions translate to about 300,000 copies of the three most popular manuals in existence around 1500. 

The manuals were in Latin and thus intended for confessors.  How many Latin-speakers were influenced by the printed copies is difficult to estimate, because there seems to be no way to determine how many people read each book.  The ratio must have been much higher than one reader to a book, because many copies would have been bought by monastic libraries, and these library copies were read by all members of the house -- even printed books were too expensive to give each monk his own copy.  Yet, the 300,000 copies of the three most popular confessors' manuals make clear that by 1500 several hundred thousand members of Europe's Latin-speaking intelligentsia -- quite possibly more than half of the 840,000 total -- must have had a good knowledge of the psychology of sins and virtues described in the three best-selling manuals.

The above estimate is certainly a serious undercount for two reasons:  1)  It is based on the three most popular manuals.  These three were only the tip of a huge iceberg of confession-related publishing.  Including less popular manuals would greatly increase the total;  2)  Delumeau cut off his count at 1500.  The 1520 ending date Thayer used would be more proper because it would bring the count to the beginning of the Reformation.  Publishing was spreading rapidly, and including the 20 additional years would greatly increase the number of editions and thus the estimate of confession’s influence.

Combining the bibliometric estimate of the three manuals with Thayer's findings reveals a fascinating picture of Europe’s intelligentsia in the beginning of the sixteenth century:  there existed one sermon-collection for every two Latin-speakers and at least one confessors' manual for every three Latinists.  For a student of historical context, the most interesting aspect of this overabundance of literature on penitence is that the detailed knowledge of the psychology of sins and virtues described in the manuals cannot have remained confined to intelligentsia.  Confessions gave the Latin-speaking elite a powerful means to "teach" sins’ and virtues’ psychology to the general population and to observe how well their "students" adhered to these norms. 



Bibliometric method makes possible a rough estimate of this “Christian educational effort’s” impact:  assuming very conservatively that each of the 300,000 copies of the three best-selling manuals had only one reader gives 300,000 confessors with good knowledge of sins and virtues.  We do not know how many penitents an average confessor shrived, but 20 - 30 does not seem an excessively heavy work-load.  Applying this “multiplier”[13] to the 300,000 well-trained confessors means that in the early sixteenth century some 6 - 9 million Europeans were interrogated personally, meticulously and skillfully on how well they conformed to the virtues and avoided the sins described in the manuals.  The interrogation is likely to have been particularly effective, because it was carried out under threat of severe penalties.

To contextualize the 6-9 million carefully shriven penitents, we need to note that by 1500 western Europe’s total population was around 60 million, about half of whom were adults.[14]  Effective application of confession thus reached 20-30% of the adult population.  Europe at this time was 80-90% rural, and the 20-30% "coverage" means that in urban areas and among the upper classes just about everybody was skillfully shriven.  This again means that good knowledge of the psychology of sins and virtues contained in confessors’ manuals was very common among the elite by the beginning of the 16th century -- indeed, that psychology very probably was the elite’s folk psychology.  In ‘history come alive’ terms, the best way a modern observer can understand middle and upper-class experience in early sixteenth-century Europe is by visualizing a life where psychotherapy is compulsory.  (A crucially important point to keep in mind when looking through 16th-century European’s eyes:  the psychological system used by psychotherapy rev. 1 differed drastically from the psychological ideas psychotherapy rev. 2 applies today.  Space limitations prevent discussing the difference here.)

An example of what “teaching the psychology of sins and virtues” meant in practice can be seen in the “case-study” of Luther:  in the Catholic days of his youth, Luther often spent six hours in confession[15] -- that must have been some experience!  The deep, psychological probing of sins was understandably unpleasant, and it comes as no surprise to find Luther reacting to it strongly:  he ferociously attacked confession, and when he burned the Pope's bull in 1520, Luther also threw into the bonfire one of the popular confessors' manuals of the time, the Angelica.[16] 

Significantly, Luther did not object to the idea that people should discover their sins via confession.  To the contrary, he regarded this use of confession as highly beneficial.  Luther’s hostility was limited to the nuanced probing of people’s deepest motives.  In Luther’s view, this “searching” should be eliminated and replaced with a general acknowledgment of one’s pride, envy, hatred etc.  (This suggestion differs strikingly from 17th-century English Protestant practice, which very emphatically required people to “ransack” their minds for the smallest traces of sins.  See Ch. 13 of vol. 2 of The Psychology of Traditional Chrstian Sins and Virtues.  The chapter is freely available on the book’s netsite, which is linked at

There exists an important sequel to Luther's demand for a change in confession:  in 1538, when he looked back at the early years of the Reformation, Luther thought confession had largely disappeared.  He deeply regretted this loss, because he regarded a thorough knowledge of one's sins as absolutely necessary for true religiosity.  Indeed, Luther went so far as to complain that people no longer knew their sins, and preaching only the gospel and its message of forgiveness now was a serious error -- i.e., Luther regarded the nuanced knowledge of one’s sins brought about by the traditional, “searching” late medieval Catholic confession as absolutely crucial for Protestantism.[17]

For a historian investigating confession’s influence, the most significant aspect of Luther’s “wisdom of hindsight” was the reason he gave for changing his mind:  Luther explained his earlier hostility to the depth-psychological, “searching confession” by saying that this hostility had been specific to time and place.  When he started the Reformation, people were more than sufficiently aware of God’s law and worried about their sins.  There was no need to teach the law and its associated knowledge of one’s sins.  Indeed, Luther described people under late medieval Catholicism as "consciences which were already oppressed, terrified, miserable, anxious, afflicted."[18] 

Luther’s retrospective observations suggest two things:  1)  a thorough understanding of the psychology of sins -- particularly of one’s own sins -- was absolutely necessary for Protestantism;  2)  at least in southern Germany, where Luther lived, confession had succeeded in making people aware and afraid of their sins.  I.e., Delumeau was right, and the moral norms described in confessors’ manuals were indeed “applied” effectively to the general population.



Much of modern psychological theory is based on psychiatrists’ observations of their patients.  In terms of ability to investigate the depths of the human mind, confessors were an earlier version of the psychiatric profession.  St. Antonino Pierozzi (1389-1459, Archbishop of Florence from 1446) exemplifies the similarity between psychiatries revs. 1 and 2.  St. Antonino's knowledge of human psyche must have been very impressive, because he was reputed to have heard more confessions than any other person of his day.  St. Antonino also wrote several confessors’ manuals, one of which, Confessionale, became the most popular handbook of the time with over 100,000 copies printed by 1500.

Confession’s observational, “scientific” quality may be significant, because they lived in a time drastically different from ours.  Confessors “practiced” in the violent, passionate, irrational society Johan Huizinga described so eloquently in the famous first chapter of his The Waning of the Middle Ages.  (See below and the postscript for discussions of criticisms of the “wild Europe” view.)  For investigating deep sources of evil in human nature, the old, "Christian psychiatrists" were in a position their modern colleagues can only dream of.  In those days the Catholic Church could inflict unpleasant punishments, such as shameful, physically strenuous penances and excommunication.  Confessors could use these sanctions to force the cruel, vengeful, continuously warring people (including the ruling elite) to come to a “therapy session,” where their thought processes and deep motivations could be studied.

The ability to psychoanalyze exceptionally violent and irrational people raises several intriguing hypothesis:  late medieval and early modern theologians gave strong emphasis to pride as the worst sin and humility as the highest virtue.  Could the central place of overcoming pride and inculcating humility have stemmed from a confessor’s discovery that the violence’s deep cause was pride’s extreme sensitivity to insults combined with similarly pride-motivated competition for power, status and esteem?  In the same vein, could the importance given to anger/hatred as well as the well-developed depth-psychology of hate that can be found in old sin literature stem from confessors’ research? 

The causality seems obvious and logical:  humility, pride, envy and anger are very clearly mentioned in the Bible and described in a general way -- mostly by case-studies.  Confessors’ observations caused late medieval and early modern theologians to focus on those places of the Bible that discussed these sins and virtues.  Confessors’ research also produced a wealth of details about these sins’ and virtues’ psychology, and theologians added those details to the Bible’s general descriptions.  (The psychological nuances of sins that abound in old literature are not in the Bible.  Whether those extensions are in fact Biblical is a question beyond this study’s scope.)

In the same vein, cycles of revenge were a common and highly destructive part of late medieval European life.  This produces another hypothesis:  could confessors’ ability to investigate the psychology of cycles of revenge be the reason old sin literature emphasized Christ’s teaching of meekness and His commands to turn the other cheek, to love one’s enemies and not avenge wrongs?  Causality seems again logical, because the virtues Christ taught not only make people less violent in general, but not avenging wrongs and turning the other cheek break cycles of revenge  This part of old religious psychology is particularly worth investigating, because how to cut cycles of revenge is an acute problem in today’s international politics.

Huizinga repeatedly emphasizes late medieval Europeans’ intense emotionality.  People at the time oscillated from one overpowering feeling to another, from love to hatred, from brutal, sadistic cruelty to life-risking, loving altruism.  Huizinga summed up this personality type in his oft-quoted description of late middle ages having “the smell of blood and roses.”  One wonders whether confessors’ research on this rationality-destroying emotionality was the reason why old sin literature abounds with warnings about “passions extinguishing the light of reason”?  (See Posts 4 and 5 on

An observation totally tangential to this study, but too important to leave out:  Huizinga’s description of life in late medieval Europe is irrefutable evidence against racism.  Huizinga paints a society as cruel, irrational, uncivilized, backward and barbaric as any.  If “white race” had an immutable, gene-based character, Europe would never have become civilized.



In recent years, historians of emotions have raised serious questions about the traditional “Huizinga view” of late medieval Europe as a passsionate, quarrelsome society.  (See the Postscript for a more detailed discussion of the criticism.)  Fortunately, quantitative evidence is becoming available on this subject.  The history of violent mortality has turned into a popular subject of research, and work on this area has produced a fascinating finding:  violent mortality in Europe began to decline drastically in the late middle ages, and this decline continued till the 1950s.  The change has been very impressive, with violent mortality in the late 1950s about 98-99% lower than it was in the early fifteenth century.

In his book about this decline, Steven Pinker discussed various possible explanations and found problems with all of them.[19]  Pinker did not look into the possibility that Western Europe’s pacification could have been caused by religion.  Failing to consider this explanation may have been a serious oversight, because in the late Middle Ages there appears to have developed a new, highly depth-psychological form of Christianity, which applied its moral norms exceptionally effectively.  Confessors’ effort to root out personality traits/sins, such as pride, envy and anger, and to inculcate humility, forgiveness and love of enemies, should have produced precisely the kind of reduction in fighting and killing that began in Western Europe in the late 15th century.[20]  Significantly, about half of violent mortality’s decline happened between the 15th and the 16th centuries, just when confession became widespread.[21]  The logical connection and correlation in time are so strong as to suggest causality, but more research is needed before a link can be regarded as certain. 

Christianity’s possible role in violent mortality’s decline has been obscured by the strange way this decline happened.  In the early fifteenth century life in western Europe can best be described as war of everybody against everybody.  Local lords with their retainers were continuously fighting each other.  Bands of brigands and pirates added their contribution to the killing.  Beginning in the late fifteenth century, local skirmishing abated.  Fighting now moved “upward” to ever larger and larger social units.  These units were first religion-centered, but they soon became based on political organization.  In the Thirty Years War, the conflict’s motivation was nominally religion, but the war was fought by politically-based states, which had mostly stamped out the formerly endemic low-level fighting from within their borders. A further decline in mortality occurred, when these states learned to reduce violence between themselves.  This trend began to reverse itself in the Napoleonic wars, and the reversal picked-up speed in the twentieth century.  If history repeats itself, we should soon begin to see an increase in violence inside of the states due to the revival of gangs and clans.  Very recent trends in some US cities fit this prediction from past experience.



Bibliometric analysis shows that confession had a massive influence in Europe.  The vast number of manuals and effective “teaching” of their norms in confessional make it very probable that in the early sixteenth century the psychology of sins and virtues contained in the manuals was the “folk psychology” of Western Europe’s elite.  Indeed, it may not be much of an exaggeration to say that this psychology and its associated moral norms were one of the most powerful forging effects on modern Western Civilization. 

Considering confession’s historical significance, it is astonishing that historians have so far only glanced at this practice. The lack of attention is highlighted by the fact that not a single one of the old manuals has been translated from Latin to English.  The neglect by specialists naturally extends to the rest of the academia.  Arguably the most impressive example of this oversight can be seen in the numerous “Core Curriculums of Western Civilization” that have been published in recent years.  To my knowledge, not a single one of these reading lists includes Thomas a Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ.  Yet, The Imitation in effect provided a simple summary of the morals taught in confessionals and it became a massive best-seller, with about 100 editions printed before 1500 and a total of 748 known editions by 1650 -- easily over a million copies, which made The Imitation the second most popular book (after the Bible) in early modern Europe.[22]  There is no doubt that the world-view and moral ideas Kempis described had far more influence on modern Western mentality than any of the texts currently in Core Curriculum lists.  Leaving out The Imitation means students are given a picture of modern Western Civilization, from which just about the entire foundation is missing.  The omission is particularly serious, because ideas set forth in The Imitation differ starkly from those of texts included in the Core Curriculum lists.  Kempis’ discussion of pride and humility provides an example of the difference (In this quation, Kempis is describing humility.):

"Learn to obey, you dust; learn to bring down yourself, you earth and slime, and throw down yourself under all men's feet.  Learn, I say, to break your will, and humbly to submit yourself to all.  Wax hot against yourself, and suffer not pride to have place within you: but show yourself so lowly and sim­ple, that all may tread you under foot like mire in the street."[23]

By just about all of todays’ standards, Kempis demand to crush one’s yearnings for status and respect looks utterly destructive -- what with self-esteem and all that.  Yet, historical evidence shows that the self-denigrating, nature overcoming morals correlated with great success.  The Imitation was one of the most popular books in England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, just at the time when England rose from a backwater to an empire at the vanguard of Europe’s politics, economy and science.  (A detailed discussion of what humility meant in early modern England can be found in   This correlation raises the troubling possibility there may be counterintuitive, non-logical causalities operating in history, that we have not yet discovered.  (See chapter 3 of vol 1 of The Psychology of Traditional Christian Sins and Virtues for a more detailed discussion of this possibility. A link to this book's site can be found at

The failure to investigate confession does, however, have a very impressive silver lining.  Abundant source-material exists about penitence, and the sources are readily available in various European libraries.  Better yet, many of the old confessors’ manuals have recently been digitized, so they can be read over the net in the comfort of one’s home. Thus there comes together a combination that creates historians' equivalent of "The Perfect Storm:"  historical significance, paucity of earlier research and the existence of large quantities of readily available source-evidence.

To these can be added a further positive especially important to young historians:  the amount of work needed on this area is almost unlimited, because even the underlying roadmap has not been laid out:  Who published what and when?  Which of the manuals were most popular/influential?  Once these “basic coordinates” have been established, it will be possible to start working on details.  The obvious first question here is:  Did sins’ meaning develop from earlier to later manuals?  Evidence that knowledge of sins’ psychology grew over time would imply the “scientific research and learning” hypothesized earlier did indeed take place.  The possibility that knowledge of sins’ psychology advanced leads to a further question:  17th-century English Protestants held an intensely depth-psychological view of sin.  English theologians called this view “spiritual law” and cited Catholic confessors’ manuals as their source.  Was this depth-psychological approach produced by confessors’ research, and, if so, was it common to all confession or a specialist sub-branch of confessional tradition?  (I thank Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch for suggesting this possibility.)  If spiritual law was a sub--branch, when did this “specialty” begin, and who were the most important “scientists” doing research on the area?  What kind of “depth-psychological theory” of sins and virtues did they develop? 




Sudying confessors manuals is an exceptionally worthwhile pursuit for historians, because -- for once! -- historical research will produce material that is useful to modern scientists.  The manuals contain an abundance of depth-psychological observations, and these old “findings” provide fascinating research-leads and ideas-to-test to at least three modern fields:  psychology of emotions, evolutionary psychology and theology.  Space constraints limit us to just sketching some of the opportunities.  These “appetizers” are based on 17th-century English sources, but they should be relevant, because English Protestants based their ideas on sins’ psychology on old Catholic confessors’ manuals.



            Early modern Christianity had a simple and logical view of human nature.  Humans had a brain capable of rational thinking, but that brain was in an animal-like body, which had the same innate, beastly urges seen in other animals.  In creation God gave Adam’s rational thinking full command of all aspects of his personality and behavior.  In the fall human nature’s animal part revolted, overthrew rational thinking and usurped control of behavior.  All of Adam’s heirs -- i.e., all humans -- are now born with their animal urges in charge.  Late Medieval and early modern theologians called the animal part “flesh” and believed it to be the ultimate source of almost all sins.

Traditional Christian view of fallen humans as totally under their animal urges’ influence agrees fully with modern evolutionary psychologists’ view of people being mere string puppets of their genes.  This agreement means that in their “research” on sins confessors collected evidence on what today is called the mechanism through which genes control human behavior.  The shared subject is significant, because modern evolutionary psychologists are only beginning to investigate how genes influence humans.

Most evolutionary psychologists follow Darwin's theory and assume that gene-coded behaviors must be beneficial, since they have been produced by natural selection in the course of millennia of evolution.  A few researchers have, however, questioned this idea.  The best known of this minority is Richard Dawkins, who closed his hugely influential, The Selfish Gene, with the observation that understanding how genes influence behavior will enable humans to free themselves from the innate urges that until now have controlled them: “We have the power to defy the selfish genes of our birth . . . We are built as gene machines and cultured as meme machines, but we have the power to turn against our creators.  We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.”[24] 

Dawkins’ call for revolution against genes has an ironic side to it, because he is a ferocious critic of Christianity.  The irony stems from the fact that, expressed in modern terminology, traditional Christianity’s central theme was liberating fallen humans from their hereditary slavery to genes/flesh/sins.  That liberation was the reason God sent Christ down to sacrifice Himself.  Expressed in Dawkins’ terms, Christianity’s central idea can be summed by saying that God sent Christ down to enable (fallen) humans to revolt against their genes.

Compared to where Christianity used to be, Dawkins’ revolution against genes has barely left the ground.  Christian evolutionary psychologists knew of several effective ways to overcome genes’ influence.  Furthermore, according to the old research, selfishness was by no means genes’ only danger.  There were many others.  For example, the drive to dominate/sin of pride was thought to be catastrophically counterproductive in humans.  If not controlled, this drive would destroy individuals and societies.

More troubling still, confessors had found serious glitches in the interface between human nature’s animal and rational parts.  When people moved close to their nature’s animal end, genes/flesh/passions’ influence grew so strong it made objective, rational reasoning impossible.  An especially depressing finding of the old research was the discovery, that one of strengthening flesh/genes/passions’ first effects was a psychological block on self-criticism.  Gene-controlled people thus not only lost the ability to do rational thinking, they also lost the ability to notice they had lost the ability to do rational thinking.

The old research raises the troubling possibility that human nature’s two parts may be mutually exclusive.  People can either base their decisions on rational, objective, evidence-based reasoning, or they can follow their gene-coded, animal-like urges.  Doing both may not be possible.  The choice is particularly signigicant, because those who move toward their genes cannot see their loss of rationality.

Dawkins and old religious evolutionary psychologists thus share the idea that humans innate, gene based urges are harmful and should be controlled.  Confessors, however, had found genes’ dangerous effects to go far beyond mere selfishness.   Troublingly, religious evolutionary psychologists supported their gloomy view with a wealth of evidence.  The old observations and the psychological theories drawn from them definitely deserve a detailed investigation by modern, scientific methods.



            Confessors’ manuals are useful to emotion-researchers, because old psychology of sin gave emotions a very powerful role in human behavior.  Over the long-term, humans were assumed to end up doing whatever they felt instinctively pleasant and avoiding whatever they felt unpleasant.  Conscience and willpower could cause deviations from this baseline, but if the behavior they commanded felt unpleasant it would be difficult perform.  This reasoning produced a logical conclusion:  morality based only on conscience, reason and willpower (Freud’s “Superego”) compelling behavior was weak and of short duration.  Over the long term, emotions were crucial for self-control, because “forcing” oneself to do whatever felt pleasant was easy and effective.

Comparison of old and new research on emotions raises the intriguing possiblity that religious psychiatrists may have been ahead of us.  For example, modern students of emotion do not yet seem to have (re)discovered the old "hierarchy of emotions" idea, which connected emotions to biological drives.  In modern terminology, religion’s long-term "passions," such as pride, envy and love are best described as the psychological manifestations of genetic urges.  These passions were continuously active, and they unconsciously influenced all areas of the mind:  short-term instinctive emotional reactions, free associations, prevailing thoughts, fantasies, perception and the results of what people honestly believe to be their “rational,” “objective” thinking.  Including the long-term passions into emotions’ psychology hugely increases emotions’ ability to “irrationalize” humans.  (See posts 4 and 5 on

One detail makes investigating the old psychology of long term passions potentially very useful indeed.  Religious psychologists commonly used the term “love” to denote the mechanism through which genetic drives/sinful passions exerted their influence.  In spite of its close connection to genes, love was thought to be a totally different psychological mechanism, which could operate independently from genes and attach its huge motivating and irrationalizing power to just about any idea, object, person or activity. 

Old “theory” of the “love-mechanism’s” flexibility and power seems quite convincing, because religious depth-psychologists used recreations and hobbies as evidence to support their argument.  This evidence does indeed make a strong case.  Once instinctive pleasure is attached to an activity, people eagerly pursue that activity irrespective of how useless and/or time-consuming and/or strenuous and/or dangerous and/or expensive and/or unhealthy it may be.  Examples abound:  recreational hunting and fishing, downhill skiing, mountaineering, horseback riding, parachuting, recreational gardening, flying, boating, sailing, golf, camping, all-night partying, computer hackers, etc., etc..

Significantly, religious evolutionary psychologists knew how to repair original sin’s damage and “reset” human nature back to creation’s “factory defaults.”  (Apologies for using 21st century terminology.  It’s the most accurate way to communicate intended meaning.)  In this “Adam’s original personality” condition, conscious thinking could control feelings, and instinctive pleasure was attached to religious virtues while sins triggered disgust/revulsion.  Old writers discussed this “resetting’s” psychology in great detail, and those writings are potentially very useful indeed for a simple reason:  If research shows the old observations to have experimental validity, those instructions will enable us to select at will what we experience as a delightful, enjoyable recreation.  This ability greatly increases willpower’s control over behavior. 



            Traditional sins and their underlying psychology have been totally lost from modern Christianities, and this disappearance creates a third area of cross-disciplinary work.  The most obvious question here is:  did confessors’ psychological observations influence late medieval and early modern interpretations of the Bible?  This question is particularly important to Protestantism, because old polemical emphasis on “Sola Scriptura” has caused today’s Protestant theologians to assume they can understand Protestantism by studying just the Bible.  Yet, the Bible’s text is likely to trigger very different meanings in readers immersed in sin’s psychology -- recall Luther’s six-hour confessions -- than that same text triggers in the mind of a modern theologian blithely unaware of old thinking about sins.

Strong circumstantial evidence supports the possibility that confessor’s depth-psychology of sins and virtues powerfully influenced Protestant theology.  When connected to the old psychology, Protestantism’s incomprehensible-looking theological dogmas become eminently logical and reasonable, indeed, self-evident.  Just a few examples:  “Will is not free.”  Of course!  Only people who are totally incapable of introspection, and who thus have zero self-knowledge, can be so ignorant about their unconscious motives as to believe their wills to be free.  “The law demands the impossible.”  Naturally!  God’s law is spiritual and has to be obeyed in emotions -- i.e., it is not enough to behave virtuously, that behavior has to feel pleasant.  Yet, fallen humans cannot control their emotions by willpower.  Thus, very logically -- and fully in accord with observed evidence -- no fallen human can fulfill God’s law.  “Nobody can save himself.  Salvation is by God’s grace only.”  This is elementary.  Touch of Grace/salvation effected -- and could be detected by -- a thoroughgoing change at a very deep psychological level in one’s personality.  No human can bring about a personality-change of this magnitude by his own efforts.   (A more detailed discussion of how early modern Protestants used psychological observations to interpret the Bible can be found in the second part of Post 3 on 




In recent years Barbrara Rosenwein has raised serious doubts about Europeans having been as impulsive as has long been assumed.  Rosenwein has also questioned whether Christianity can have had significant influence outside of a small part of the elite. 

 Rosenwein's argument is very interesting for a historian of mentalities, because it grows out of a difference in what Pitrim Sorokin called "perceptual styles."   Historians emphasizing people's emotionality, such as Huizinga and Elias, have based their argument on evidence collected by immersion in original sources.  Cricics of emotionality, on the other hand, start from modern psychological theories of emotion and project backward, concluding that medieval Europe cannot possibly have been as passionate as has been thought. 

The problem with the "from theory down" approach is that it may reflect more our current, poor understanding of emotions psychology than late medieval reality.  This is particularly so, since Rosewein explicitly chose the earliest theories on emotions and left out the more recent findings on Amygdala, which begin to raise questions about humans' rationality.[25]  Unfortunately, even including the Amygdala research would very probably still leave us in error, because the far more powerful “hierarchy of emotions” mechanism and its associated “passions extinquish the light of reason” phenomenon have not yet been rediscovered and thus are not included in our theory of emotions.  Once we add into emotions psychology long-term passions, such as pride, envy, lust, hatred, greed, love and gluttony (in its excessive drinking sub-branch), Huizinga’s description of late medieval Europeans as wildly emotional and irrational will begin to look very plausible indeed.  (See posts 4 and 5 on

 Wide acceptance of Rosenwein's method among emotions historians is fascinating and potentially significant, because the change in approach fits Sorokin's prediction.  In the late middle ages, scientific truth came from books and theories.  If sensory observations did not agree with theories, those observations were rejected as unreliable, distractive "visual shadows.”  Beginning in late fifteenth century, a slow change occurred in perceptual styles.  If theories did not agree with observations, then theories were rejected, not the observations -- this change was understandably connected to the scientific revolution.  Sorokin predicted that the evidence-based perceptual style would not last forever, and acceptance of the theory-based "late medieval Europe was not emotional" view shows his prediction may have been correct.

I strongly urge emotions' historians to familiarize themselves with Pitrim Sorokin's Social and Cultural Dynamics -- the full, four-volume set.[26]  The book's unusual origin makes its evidence exceptionally large and reliable.  If changes in perceptual styles turn out to be connected to emotion-control, that will be very significant indeed. 

As to the argument itself, the source-evidence supporting the "Europe was passionate and violent" view can best be described as pretty overwhelming.  Furthermore, findings of the recent research on violent mortality's history agree fully with the "wild Europe” view -- see the discussion of Pinker’s work above.  Additional supporting source-evidence can easily be produced to any extent deemed necessary.  For England, the first and most obvious material to come to mind are the Paston family letters.  Those letters were mostly written in the late fifteenth century, and they paint a detailed picture of a society just as passionate and violent as has long been assumend.  To my knowledge, nobody has challenged the reliability of the Paston family correspondence.

An investigation of the debate on how important a role religion can have played in the decline of the medieval violence reveals what looks very much like an effort to irrelevantize Christianity.  An example of this effort can be seen in Nor­bert Elias' observation, "Religion, the belief in the punish­ing or rewarding omnipotence of God, never has in itself a 'civilizing' or affect-subduing effect.  On the contrary, religion is always exactly as 'civilized' as the society or class which upholds it."[27]  At first sight, Elias’ statement seems a strong contestant for the prize of the most totally false-to-facts observation I have seen in all of my reading of history.  Fortunately, there are extenuating circumstances.  Indeed, Elias’ failure to appreciate Chrstianity’s role in the control of passions is quite undestandable, because historians’ narrow “scientific tunnel vision” (See Post 2 on has focused on subjects, such as church discipline, theological debates, church organization and social behavior.  Investigations of these areas will inevitably fail to notice Christianity’s role in controlling emotions.  This unavoidable failure was nicely summed by Alister McGrath in his study of Calvin, when McGrath complained of Calvin trying to reform Geneva by methods which "did not, and could not, alter human nature."[28]

Actually, there is abundant evidence showing that late medieval and early modern Christianity used methods that could and did alter human nature at a very deep psychological level.  McGrath failed to notice this fact, because he looked at the wrong place.  In late medieval Catholicism the nature-changing methods and their effects were described in confessors’ manuals and in the scales of perfection.  In Protestantism -- at least English Protestantism -- this depth-psychological part of Christianity was discussed in treatises on conversion and the spiritual law.  These old specialties have been overlooked, and this neglect explains why the old Christianity’s psychological power has been greatly underestimated.  Focus on these neglected parts explains why this study both gives a drastically different picture of old Christianity and places that traditional Christianity at the center of the increase in passion-control that occurred in early modern Europe.

Bibliometric evidence also provides evidence relevant to the question of how widely the passion-controlling Christianity spread among the general population.  “Sales statistics” of confessors’ manuals show that by the early sixteenth century effective penance and its associated teaching and enforcing of sins’ and virtues’ psychology very probably reached the entire middle and upper classes -- and quite possibly beyond.  Earlier application of bibliometrics to England showed that in the first half of the 17th century between 9 -14% of population, i.e., between one quarter and one half of the literate elite, was sufficiently interested in religion to like reading long, abstruse theological texts -- a rather unusual pastime but precisely what religious depth-psychologists tried to bring about.  Furthermore, proposographic studies show that these “pious bookworms” rapidly took control of England's economy, science and politics.[29]

Early modern Europe also had a mass media.  At least in England church attendance was compulsory by the late sixteenth century, which meant that everybody had to listen to a one-hour lecture on religion every week.  And this was the minimun.  In many areas the norm was two sermons Sundays and one on Thursday.  Instructions given to preachers show that (again, at least in England) these lectures are likely to have been quite effective.  Preachers’ habit to point out by name notorious sinners in the audience and to describe their sins in detail from the pulpit certainly communicated sins’ meaning to all parishioners.  This “personal preaching” very probably created even in illiterate Englishmen a shame-based motivation to avoid behaviors that would get them mentioned next Sunday. (See post 6 on

In sum, there can be little doubt that Christianity -- or, more accurately, a very unusual, exceptionally depth-psychological, gene/flesh-overcoming and today totally forgotten version of Christianity -- had a powerful influence on modern European mentality.  That lost Christianity may well have been the most important forging effect on modern Western Civilization.




[1]Many people have given valuable feedback to earlier versions of this article.  I want to thank Professors Jeffrey Blakely, Karl Jordell, Peter Stearns, Diarmaid MacCulloch, John Klus, Yi-Fu Tuan, Sean Perrone, Attorney Joan Korb and Dr. Kathy Zanella-Albright.  All errors are mine.

[2]Jean Delumeau, Sin and Fear: The Emergence of a Western Guilt Culture 13th-18th Centuries, (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1990.) 296-303.

[3]Lawrence Duggan, "Fear and Confession on the Eve of the Reformation."  Archiv fur Reformationsgeshichte. 75 (1984): 153-175.

[4]A survey of research done of confession can be found in Ronald K. Rittgers,  The Reformation of the Keys  (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004),  29-46.  Rittgers accepts Duggan’s view that confession had scant influence.

[5]Thomas Tentler, Sin and Confession.  (Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 1976.)  This book focuses mostly on how confession was performed.  Of the sins, it only discusses lechery.

[6]Jean Delumeau, Sin and Fear, (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1990.)  Delumeau discusses some of the sins, but for some utterly incomprehensible reason he leaves out pride.  More serious yet, he totally fails to discuss the role of love in late medieval religious psychology.  As a result, his work gives a far too gloomy picture of late medieval and early modern Christianity.  At least according to the normative literature, the pain, suffering and fear that Delumeau focuses on were limited to the beginning of the conversion process, and they only lasted for a while.  Once people passed to more advanced levels of conversion/scale of perfection, their motivation changed to love/pleasure, and they experienced religion and the performance of its virtues as an enjoyable recreation.  See for example, Walter Hilton, The Scale of Perfection, tr. by Dom Gerard Sitwell, O.S.B.  (London: Burns Oates, 1953), 258-259.

[7]Odd Langholm,  The Merchant in the Confessional:  Trade and Price in the Pre-Reformation Penitential Handbooks, (Leiden: Brill, 2003).

[8]Richard Newhouser, In the Garden of Evil, (Toronto; Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 2006.)

[9]Anney T. Thayer, Penitence, Preaching and the Coming of the Reformation,  (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing, 2002). Thayer's bibliometric analysis is on pp. 202-207.  The linear-growth estimate of edition size from 200 to 1,000 copies between 1470 and 1500 means that Thayer’s numbers are not directly comparable to the estimates of confessors’ manuals (see below), which use 1,000 throughout.  Significantly, Thayer acknowledged that her estimate is conservative and very probably too low.  Furthermore, the difference is less significant than it appears, because the number of editions increased greatly toward 1500, so many of Thayer’s editions are close to the 1,000.  For a discussion of edition sizes in England, see Kari Konkola, ‘“People of the Book”: The Production of Theological Texts in Early Modern England’ The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, 94:1 (March 2000),  13-20.  See particularly the observation in fn. 30 that printers increased edition sizes whenever they could be reasonably certain of good sales.  In these “blockbusters”, editions were commonly 3,000-3,500 copies, which was old presses’ technological maximum.  (Type began to flex in the plates, and quality collapsed.) Confessors’ manuals were guaranteed best-sellers, so their editions wery probably were larger than the average.  For a discussion of French evidence, see Francis M. Higman,  Piety and the People: Religious Printing in French 1511 - 1551, (Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1996), 4.

[10]Thayer, ibid., 207.

[11]Thayer, ibid., 46-47.

[12]Delumeau, Sin and Fear, 203-204.  The manuals were Guy de Montrocher's Manipulus Curato­rum (98 known editions in the fifteenth century), Andreas d'Escobar's Modus Confitendi (86 known eds.) and St Antonino's Confessionale (119 known eds.).   

[13]From the perspective of bibliometric research, confessors’ manuals are exceptional.  Unlike ordinary books, the ideas contained in the manuals were not confined only to their readers, because when shriving penitents confessors taught these moral norms to a wider group of people.  The use of thse manuals as “teachers’ handbooks” gave them what could be called a "multiplier effect."  A second example of this phenomenon can be seen in collections of model sermons.  Their ideas also reached a group much larger than their readers.

[14]Russel Major, Civilization in the Western World, (New York:  J.B. Lippincott Company, 1971), 143.

[15]Oliver Thomson, A History of Sin, (Edinburgh: Canongate Press, 1993.), 161.

[16]A summary of early Protestant attacks on confession can be found in Steven E. Ozment, The Reformation in the Cities, (New Haven:  Yale University Press, 1975), 49-56.

[17]James F. McCue, "Luther and the Problem of Popular Preaching." The Sixteenth Century Journal, 1985, 16 (1), 32-43.

[18]McCue, op. cit., 37.

[19]Steven Pinker, “A History of Violence,”  The New Republic, March 19, 2007, pp. 18-21.

[20]Pinker’s oversight may have stemmed from his sources, because he accepted Thomas Hobbes’s view of human nature as dominated by a lust for power, which made people inherently asocial.  Hobbes, however, took his view of human nature from Christian psychology of the sin of pride.  This “original source” reveals a large and strange gap in Hobbes’s philosophy:  he discussed in great detail the harmful effects people’s innate desire for power/sin of pride had on society, but he totally overlooked the Christian effort to overcome pride/lust for power and to inculcate humility.  Considering Christianity’s large role in late medieval and early modern Europe, this was a very serious omission indeed.  In failing to consider the possibility that Christianity could have checked the asocial lust for power, Pinker simply perpetuated Hobbes’s oversight. 

Hobbes’s failure to contextualize his discussion of pride/lust for power was quite astonishing, because he noted very explicitly his reliance on Christianity’s view of human nature: ”Hitherto I have set forth the nature of Man, (whose Pride and other passions have compelled him to submit himselfe to Government;) together with the great Power of his Governour, whom I compared to Leviathan, taking that comparison out of the last two verses of the one and fortieth of Job; where God having set forth the great power of Leviathan, called him King of the Proud. "  Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, Richard Tuck, ed., (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1991), 220-221.  Failure to contextualize pride/lust for power to religious psychology means Hobbes also left out pride’s destructive effects to the individual.  These effects were so strong that they made lust for power self-limiting.  Over time proud people tended to self-destruct.

[21]Manuel Eisener, “Modernization, Self-Control and Lethal Violence”,  The British Journal of Criminology, 41 ( Autumn 2001), 618-638.  See p. 629 for the key data.  Note that Eisner sees 17th century as the key period in violence’s disappearance.  However, the table on p. 629 shows a massive change -- a decline by about a half -- already between  15th and 16th centuries.  

[22]A bibliometric analysis of The Imitation can be found in von Habsburg, Maximilian, Catholic and Protestant Translations of the Imitatio Christi 1425-1650: From Late Medieval Classic to Early Modern Bestseller, (London:  Ashgate, 2011)

[23]Thomas A. Kempis, Of the Imitation of Christ, (London, 1587), 148.  Significantly, Kempis several times notes that this humble behavior was a sign of manliness.

[24]Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene.  (New York:  Oxford University Press, 1976), 215.   “Memes” are an extension of the gene-centered version of Darwinism to the world of ideas.  Memes compete with other ideas, and they “increase the number of species” by planting themselves into ever more minds, pushing out other, competing memes (ideas) in the process.  “Mutations” of memes are new refinements to existing ideas.

[25]Barbara Rosenwein, ‘Worrying about Emotions in History”, The American Historical Review Vol. 107, Issue 3, pp. 836-837,

[26]Pitrim Sorokin, Social and Cultural Dynamics  (New York:  Bedminster Press, 1962.)  See esp. the discussion of changes in scientific approaches in vol. 2, pp. 3-181.

[27]Norbert Elias, The History of Manners, The Civilising Process: Volume I, (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978), 200.  For a guarded criti­cism of the view that religion was powerless to bring about significant control of emotions see Oberman "Europa Afflicta: The Reformation of the Refugees."  Archiv für Refor­mationsgeschichte, Jahrgang 83 (1992): 109-110.

[28]Alister McGrath, A Life of John Calvin, A Study in the Shaping of Western Culture, (Oxford: Basil Blackwell Ltd., 1990), 99. 

[29]A bibliometric estimatate of conservative Protestantism’s spread in England can be found in Kari Konkola and Diarmaid MacCulloch, “‘People of the Book’ Success in the English Reformation”  History Today, October 2003, 23-30.   Around 1640 some 30-40% of Englishmen were literate, and somewhere between one fourth and one half of these were committed Protestants -- these people found religion so interesting, that they regularly read long theological texts

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