Traces of Non-Christian Religious Practice in Medieval Pentitentials

Regino of Prüm's Canon Episcopi (ca. 906 CE)
Burchard of Worms' Corrector (ca. 1008-1012 CE)

[Introductory note: Converting the peoples of Europe to Christianity was a process that filled many centuries, roughly from 300 CE to 1100 CE. It was not always peaceful, of course; quite often, conversion following violent confrontation. Yet even when conversion was "by the sword," we should not imagine that new Christians simply cast aside their old beliefs and adopted the new without modification. On the contrary: conversion was a dynamic process of cultural exchange, which varied considerably in its patterns and outcomes according to changing social, economic, political, and intellectual circumstances [1]. Elements of indigenous religious practice were frequently mixed, often deliberately, with Christian belief and ritual; other practices were rejected as incommensurable with Christianity. Certain practices can be said to have "survived" the process of conversion; but it would be misleading to describe them for this reason as "non-Christian." After all, nearly every Christian ritual had some sort of pre-Christian antecedent or model.

We have more evidence of such "survivals" from the high Middle Ages than from earlier centuries, simply because more documentation of all kinds is scarce for the early medieval period. Thus, for example, we have more information on the synthesis between indigenous Scandinavian and Baltic religiosity and Christianity. For all periods, this evidence takes one of two general forms. On the one hand are texts that condemn indigenous, pre-Christian religious practices and pit "true" religion against "pagan" beliefs. These texts include laws, penitentials, sermons and the like, and often contain descriptions of practices deemed worthy of condemnation. A more complex set of sources contain descriptions of magical practices that appear to have been absorbed into the Christian framework, but which were have indigenous, pre-Christian origins. These are often contained in saints' lives, liturgical texts, medicinal manuals, and the like. The following two excerpts are of the more condemniong sort of evidence. The first was written by Regino, who became abbot of the monastery of Prüm in Lotharingia in 892, but then was expelled in 899. In about 906, the archbishop of Trier, Radbod, asked Regino to assemble a collection of regulations for church governance. This text is the famous Canon episcopi, which established the first authoritative definition of witchcraft under canon law. The second excerpt is from another collection of documents on church law and governance, the Decretum of Burchard of Worms, written about 1008-1012. Burchard was bishop of Worms from 1000 to his death in 1025. The excerpt is from Book XIX of his collection, called the Corrector et medicus, his collection of materials on penance.]

1. Regino of Prüm's Canon Episcopi (ca. 906 CE)[2]

Bishops and their officials must labor with all their strength so that the pernicious art of sortilegium [sorcery] and maleficium [malefice], which was invented by the devil, is eradicated from their districts, and if they find a man or woman follower of this wicked sect to eject them foully disgraced from the parishes. For the Apostle says, "Avoid the man that is a heretic after the first and second admonition" [Titus 3:10-11]. Those that have been subverted and are held captive by the Devil, leaving their creator, seek the aid of the Devil. And so Holy Church must be cleansed of this pest.

It is also not to be omitted that some wicked women, who have given themselves back to Satan and been seduced by illusions and phantasms of demons, believe and openly profess that, in the hours of night, they ride upon certain beasts with Diana, the goddess of pagans, and an innumerable multitude of women, and in the silence of the dead of the night to fly over vast spaces of earth, and obey her commands as of their lady, and are summoned to her service on certain nights. But if only they alone perished in their faithlessness, without drawing many other people into the destruction of infidelity. For an innumerable multitude, deceived by this false opinion, believe this to be true, and so believing, wander from the right faith and return to the error of the pagans when they think that there is any of divinity or power except the one God. Because of this, the priests in all their churches should preach with all insistence to the people that they may know this to be in every way false, and that such phantasms are sent by the devil who deludes them in dreams.

Thus Satan himself, who transforms himself  into an angel of light, when he has captured the mind of a miserable little woman and has subjugated her to himself by infidelity and incredulity, immediately transforms himself into the species and similitudes of different personages and deluding the mind which he holds captive and exhibiting things, whether joyful and mournful, and persons, whether known or unknown, and leads it through devious ways, and while the spirit alone endures this, the faithless mind thinks these things happen not in the spirit but in the body. Who is there that is not led out of himself in dreams and nocturnal visions, and sees much sleeping that he had never seen waking? Who is so stupid and foolish as to think that all these things that are done in the spirit are done in the body, when the Prophet Ezekiel saw visions of God in spirit and not in body, and the Apostle John saw and heard the mysteries of the Apocalypse in spirit and not in body, as he himself says "I was in the Spirit" [Apoc. 4:2]?.  And Paul does not dare to say that he was rapt in his body [2 Cor. 12:2-5]?

It is therefore to be publically proclaimed to all that whoever believes in such things, or similar things, loses the Faith, and he who has not the right faith of God is not of God, but of him in whom he believes, that is the devil. For of our Lord it is written, "All things were made by Him" [John 1:3]. Whoever therefore believes that anything can be made, or that any creature can be changed or transformed to better or worse, or be transformed into another species or likeness, except by God Himself who made everything and through whom all things were made, is beyond a doubt an infidel.

2. From Burchard of Worms' Corrector (Decretum, Book XIX) (ca. 1008-1012 CE)[3]

61. Hast thou observed the traditions of the pagans, which, as if by hereditary right, with the assistance of the devil, fathers have ever left to their sons even to these days, that is, that thou shouldst worship the elements, the moon or the sun or the course of the stars, the new moon or the eclipse of the moon; that thou shouldst be able by thy shouts or by thy aid to restore her splendor, or these elements [be able] to succor thee, or that thou shouldst have power with them--or hast thou observed the new moon for building a house or making marriages? If thou hast, thou shalt do penance for two years in the appointed fast days; for it is written, "All, whatsoever ye do in word and in work, do all in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ" [Col. 3:17].

63. Hast thou made knots and incantations, and those various enchantments which evil men, swineherds, ploughmen, and sometimes hunters make, while they say diabolical formulae over bread or grass and over certain nefarious bandages, and either hide these in a tree or throw them where two roads, or three roads, meet, that they may set free their animals and dogs from pestilence or destruction and destroy those of another? If thou hast, thou shalt do penance for two years on the appointed days.

65. Hast thou been present at or consented to the vanities which women practice in their woolen work, in their webs, who when they begin their webs hope to be able to bring it about that with incantations and with the beginning of these the threads of the warp and woof become so mingled together that unless the supplement these in turn by other counter-incantations of the devil, the whole will perish? If thou hast been present or consented, thou shal do penance for thirty days on bread and water.

65. Hast thou collected medicinal herbs with evil incantations, not with the creed and the Lord's Prayer, that is, with the singing of the credo in Deum and the Paternoster? If thou hast done it otherwise thou shalt do penance for ten days on bread and water.

66. Hast thou come to any place to pray other than a church or other religious place which thy bishop or thy priest showed thee, that is, either to springs or to stones or to trees or to crossroads, and there in reverence for the place lighted a candle or a torch or carried thither bread or any offering or eaten there or sought there any healing of body or mind? If thou hast done or consented to such things, thou shalt do penance for three years on the appointed fast days.

67. Hast thou sought out oracles (strigam holdam) in codices or in tablets, as many are accustomed to do who presume to obtain oracles from psalters or from the Gospels or from anything else of the kind? If thou hast, thou shalt do penance for ten days on bread and water.

68. Hast thou ever believed or participated in this perfidy, that enchanters and those who say that they can let loose tempests should be able through incantation of demons to arouse tempests or to change the minds of men? If thou hast believed or participated in this, thou shalt do penance for one year on the appointed fast days.

69. Hast thou believed or participated in this infidelity, that there is any woman who through certain spells and incantations can turn about the minds of men, either from hatred to love or from love to hatred, or by her bewitchments can snatch away men's goods? If thou hast believed or participated in such acts, thou shalt do penance for one year on the appointed fast days.

70. Hast thou believed that there is any woman who can do that which some, deceived by the devil, affirm that they must do of necessity or at his command, that is, with a throng of demons transformed into the likeness of women (she whom common folly calls the witch Hulda), must ride on certain beasts in special nights and be numbered with their company? If though hast participated in this infidelity, thou shouldst do penance for one year on the appointed fast days.

90. Hast thou believed or participated in this infidelity, that some wicked women, turned back after Satan, seduced by illusions and phantoms of demons, believe and affirm: that with Diana, a goddess of the pagans, and an unnumbered multitude of women, they ride on certain beasts and traverse many areas of the earth in the stillness of the quiet night, obey her commands as if she were their mistress, and are called on special nights to her service? But would that these only should perish in their perfidy and not drag many with them into the ruin of their aberration. For an unnumbered multitude, decieved by this false opinion, believe these things to be true, and in believing this they turn aside from sound faith and are involved in the error of the pagans when they think there is any divinity or heavenly authority except the one God. But the devil transforms himself into the form and likeness of many persons, deluding in sleep the mind which he holds captive, now with joy, now with sadness, now showing unknown persons, he leads it through some strange ways, and while only the spirit suffers this, the unfaithful mind thinks that these things happen not in the spirit but in the body. For who is not in night visions led out of himself, and who while sleeping does not see many things which he never saw while awake? Who then is so foolish and stupid that he supposes that those things which take place in the spirit only, happen also in the body? [...]

91. Hast thou observed funeral wakes, that is, been present at the watch over corpses of the dead when the bodies of Christians are guarded by a ritual of the pagans; and hast thou sung diabolical songs there and performed dances which the pagans have invented by the teaching of the devil; and hast thou drunk there and relaxed thy countenance with laughter, and, setting aside all compassion and emotion of charity, hast thou appeared as if rejoicing over a brother's death? If thou hast, thou shalt do penance for thirty days on bread and water.

92. Hast thou made diabolical phylacteries [i.e., small pouches holding papers inscribed with magical words or incantations] or diabolical characters, which some are accustomed to make at the persuasion of the devil, of grass or of amber; or hast thou observed Thursday in honor of Jupiter? If thou hast done or consented to such, thou shalt do penance for forty days on bread and water.

93. Hast thou plotted with other conspirators against thy bishop or against his associates so, I say, as to ridicule or mock at either the teaching or commands of thy bishop or priest? If thou hast done or consented to such, thou shalt do penance for forty days on bread and water.

94. Hast thou eaten anything offered to idols, that is, the offerings that are made in some places at the tombs of the dead or at springs or trees or at stones or at crossroads, or carried stones to a cairn, or wreaths for the crosses that are placed at crossroads? If thou hast, or hast given thy consent to any such things, thou shalt do penance for thirty days on bread and water.

96. Hast thou done or consented to those vanities which foolish women are accustomed to enact, who while the corpse of a dead person still lies in the house, run to the water and silently bring a jar of water, and when the dead body is raised up, pour this water under the bier, and as the body is being carried from the house watch that it be not raised higher than to the knees, and do this as a kind of means of healing? If thou hast, thou shalt do penance for ten days on bread and water.

97. Hast thou done or consented to what some people do to a slain man when he is buried? They give a certain ointment into his hand as if by that ointment his wound can be healed after death, and so they bury him with the ointment. If thou hast, thou shalt do penance for twenty days on bread and water.

98. Hast thou done or said anything by way of sorcery or magic in beginning any task and hast not invoked the name of God? If thou hast, thou shalt do penance for twenty days on bread and water.

99. Hast thou done anything like what the pagans did, and still do, on the first of January in the guise of a stag or a calf? If thou hast, thou shalt do penance for thirty days on bread and water.

101. Hast thou done what many do? They scrape the place where they are accustomed to make the fire in their house and put grains of barley there in the warm spot; and if the grains jump they believe there will be danger, but if they remain, things will go well. If thou hast, thou shalt do penance for ten days on bread and water.

102. Hast thou done what some do when they are visiting any sick person? When they approach the house where the sick person lies, if they find a stone lying nearby, they turn the stone over and look in the place where the stone was lying [to see] if there is anything living under it, and if they find there a worm or a fly or an ant or antyhing that moves, then they aver that the sick person will recover. But if they find nothing that moves, they say he will die. If thou hast done or believed in this, thou shalt do penance for ten days on bread and water.

103. Hast thou made little, boys' size bows and boys' shoes, and cast them into thy storeroom or thy barn so that satyrs or goblins might sport with them, in order that they might bring to thee the goods of others so that thou shouldst become richer? If thou hast, thou shalt do penance for ten days on bread and water.

104. Hast thou done what some do on the first of January (that is, on the eighth day after the Lord's Nativity)--who on that holy night wind magic skeins, spin, sew: all at the prompting of the devil beginning whatever task they can begin on account of the new year? If thou hast, thou shalt do penance for forty days on bread and water.

[1] Karen Jolly, "Medieval Magic: Definitions, Beliefs, Practices," in Bengt Ankarloo and Stuart Clark, eds., Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: The Middle Ages (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002), 1-72.
[2] Regino of Prüm: A Warn
ing to Bishops, the Canon Episcopi (ca. 906), n Henry Charles Lea, Materials toward a History of Witchcraft, 1:179-180.
[3] "Selections from the Corrector and Physician of Burchard of Worms (ca. 1008-12)," in McNeill and Gamer, Medieval Handbooks of Penance, 321-345.