The Penance Project

In 2022, trustees of NORAH agreed to support the Norfolk Record Office’s (NRO) programme Unlocking the Norwich Consistory Court Archive. The archive, forms part of the larger Diocese of Norwich collection. The trustees agreed a grant to the NRO, to help conserve, digitise, and catalogue a box of eighteenth-century documents.

Usually referred to as penances, these documents relate to punishments handed out by the Court. The most common crime is having sex outside of marriage, referred to in the documents as fornication. The punishment could be a public confession and shaming, or the payment of a fine.

Until now, these penance documents have been too fragile to catalogue in detail or to give to researchers to consult. NORAH’s trustees are keen to support the conservation, digitisation and cataloguing of the penances so they become freely available to the public. NORAH believes the penances offer a fascinating insight into how the Church involved themselves in the lives of ordinary people and are a valuable resource for family, local and social historians.


Conserving and Digitising the Penances

Most of the documents were threaded onto a piece of parchment, called a file. Though this method of storage kept the documents together, it makes it difficult to consult them. Furthermore, many of the documents are dirty, torn and folded at the edges, making it highly likely that any handling would probably result in the permanent loss of information.

NORAH’s grant will enable a conservator to remove the documents from a file, whilst retaining their order. Where necessary, the documents will then be cleaned and flattened. Tears will be repaired, and fragile edges stabilised. This will allow the documents to be handled by NRO staff and members of the public. They can then be digitised and catalogue.

Once the documents are safe to handle, they will be digitised to aid their cataloguing.


Cataloguing the Penances

penances' box contents
Contents of box of penances, NRO DN/CON 86

Until now, the documents were described in the NRO catalogue as a box of penance documents. No names or places are cited, making their discovery by researchers almost impossible. Early estimations suggest there may be about 5,000 names given in the penances, as well as names of the Court’s lawyers and clergy.

NORAH’s grant will enable NRO staff to provide a more accurate description of what can be found in the box. In fact, there are two files, one large and once small, a bound volume and several loose papers.

NRO staff will then recruit volunteers to catalogue each entry within the documents. They will pick out names, places, details of the ‘crime’, and what exactly the entry relates to. This information will then be included in the NRO catalogue, making the documents easily discoverable. Because the documents will be digitised, this work can take place online.

NORAH is looking forward to the completion of this work so these important documents become freely accessible. It is hoped they will feature in a small exhibition at the NRO.