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Penitent Feelings: Confession and the Emotions in Catholic Europe, c.1600-1800

This project explores the history of confession as the history of religious practices that evoked a range of emotions and in which emotions played active shaping roles. The sacrament of confession and, more broadly, penitential practices have long been seen as either causes of or barometers of many different historical changes. The early modern period saw numerous developments in penance, including individual auricular confession and the continuing significance of other practices such as bodily mortification.

Confession is one of the most significant focal points for emotion in Catholic practice; it is the nexus between mundane existence and divine forgiveness, mediated by the priest. It involves recounting one’s actions, feelings and thoughts in the context of religious judgement with passions of love, anger and shame at play. This research project will investigate the range of emotions that played roles in practices of confession and how they were assessed. One focus will be an investigation of the seventeenth century ‘judicialization’ of confessing. Confessors became increasingly professionalized with large numbers of handbooks in which they were told their role was that of judges. The project will then survey the history of scrupulosity: the state of improper anxiety over sinfulness. What were the reactions of Catholic people to the new science of judgement and how did they construct emotional attitudes towards the process? What were the emotions of the scrupulous penitent who sought absolution but rejected the forgiveness of confessors? Did the practice of confession function as the emotional education in the consequences of sin that many hoped for?

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