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  Penance (Latin paenitentia, ‘repentance’) means the Christian sacrament which includes contrition, confession, satisfaction and absolution. ‘Satisfaction’, in this context, means the doing of works or acceptance of punishment to atone for the sin in question. Essentially simple, the process of confession was worked up in medieval European Christianity to a huge bureaucratic edifice: a hierarchy of sins, each with its appropriate form of ‘satisfaction’. The aims were to encompass the whole range of human behaviour, and to make the Church an infallible assessor of guilt and agent of God\'s mercy. The whole system was an adaptation of the bureaucratic hierarchy of imperial Roman law, appeals being allowed to higher and higher authorities (in Roman law ending with the Emperor, in religious law with the Pope). Acts of confession ranged from private moments with one\'s confessor-priest to huge public orgies of guilt and self-laceration; ‘satisfaction’ could similarly involve anything from saying the Rosary to surrender of all one\'s worldly goods, from small charitable acts to pilgrimages across the whole of Europe. Many masterpieces in architecture and the arts were the direct results of acts of penance. Whatever its religious importance, in social terms the system was a powerful binding-force throughout the continent for well over a millennium; hardly anyone was untouched by it, and until Luther hardly anyone challenged it. KMcL  



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