Monks vs. Demons! Part 1: The Devil and Dying Monks

If there was anything that medieval monks were terrified of, it was demons. As monks were dedicated to God that meant they were good and holy. (Well, in theory at least. Check out my Misbehaving Medieval Monks series for examples of monks not behaving themselves!) Demons do not like it when people are good. Following this logic, it’s only natural that demons would look at a monk and decide to tempt him away from God. Or if the demon didn’t feel like tempting anyone, they would cause some mischief instead. There are a lot of medieval primary sources recording just that. This series will share stories of medieval monks and their run-ins with demons. Today’s source is A Monk’s Confession: The Memoirs of Guibert of Nogent.

A demon and a sleeping monk | Royal MS 10 E IV f.221r | Source: The British Library

A few notes before I begin. I don’t think it really matters whether or not these stories actually happened. I am recounting these cases as interesting stories that were important to the medieval people documenting them. I’ll be analyzing some of them, but as a whole, I’m not really concerned if Brother So-And-So actually saw the demon or if it was just a figment of his imagination.  Oftentimes, these stories were cautionary tales and/or moral lessons about how medieval people thought proper Christians should behave. (And sometimes they are just funny.) Second, I will include stories of nuns later on. (Who knows, I may also recount medieval stories about other Christian clergy and their encounters with demons as well.) At the moment, my sources focus on monks, so that’s why I’m calling this series “Monks vs. Demons!” For brevity’s sake, I will stick with this title.

***

Our first tale can be found in Book One, Chapter Twenty. The setting is Saint-Germer de Fly Abbey after it was attacked by Danes. Guibert does not specify exactly how long it’s been since the attack, but he does tell us that the abbey has been restored. The prior of Saint-Germer de Fly Abbey is a monk named Sugar. Guibert mentions that this monk is “a man of good life.” Unfortunately for Prior Sugar, he’s not doing so well. In fact, he’s very sick and is actively dying. To make his situation even more unpleasant, the Devil himself has decided to pay Sugar a little visit on his deathbed.

While he’s in bed, the Devil appears beside Sugar with a book. He tells Sugar to take the book and read it because Jupiter sent it to him. Note that the Devil said Jupiter, not God. By doing so, the Devil is implying that pagan gods are real, which is a big no-no in Christianity. Needless to say, Sugar is horrified. But the Devil isn’t done tormenting Sugar just yet! He asks Sugar if he loves his abbey. Of course, Sugar says yes. Then the Devil oh so casually mentions that soon the monks of Saint-Germer de Fly are going to stray from following The Rule as strictly as they should and oh yeah, soon the abbey is going to fall into absolute pandemonium. (Though depending on the translation, the Devil says that the brethren will be broken up instead.) Sugar is devastated and manages to tell the Devil off, despite the fact he is dying. Guibert doesn’t say exactly what Sugar said, but it was enough that the Devil left.

Now, I’m not sure if Prior Sugar was at the abbey when the Danes attacked, but clearly, this event is fresh in his mind. As soon as he told others what he had just witnessed, Sugar promptly had a mental breakdown. It must have been extremely bad because Sugar had to be chained up. I find this is extremely upsetting for multiple reasons. One, it’s sad to think that a dying man was so scared of the future for his brethren that he completely broke down. And two, his monks knew of no other way to help him mental health-wise. To quote the SNL skit Rick’s Model Ts, “that’s just where medicine is at.” Luckily for Sugar, before he died he regained his senses and was able to say confession. Confession was mandatory in the medieval period if one wanted to get into Heaven.

Guibert ends this tale by reminding his reader that “the Devil is ‘a liar and the father of lies'” and he probably said what he did because he was jealous. He mentions that (so far) the Devil’s prophecy has not come true. Saint-Germer de Fly Abbey did well even after Sugar died and is still doing well.

***

Our second tale is from Book One, Chapter Twenty-Four. Similar to the first story, this one is also about a dying monk. The unnamed monk was a devoutly religious man while alive. Well, he was until he wasn’t. Guibert does not specify exactly what sins the monk had committed, but they weren’t good. Apparently, they were vices that no one could stop him from doing. (Which only narrows the list down slightly and opens the imagination up to so many more interpretations.) Immediately after the monk began to give in to his vices, he fell deathly ill. While on his deathbed, he was constantly looked around the room. His friends asked him what he was looking at. The monk replied he saw “a house full of barbarous men!”

His friends interpreted this to mean he saw demons. They were not fazed by this. They told him to make the sign of the cross and pray to the Virgin Mary for help. In reply, the monk said something quite blasphemous: he had neither faith nor confidence in her, but he would if the “barons” weren’t bothering him so much. Guibert is amazed by this. According to him, baron comes from the Greek word meaning ‘heavy’ and wow, these demons sure are heavy because prayer won’t make them go away. (In reality, the word “baron” comes from the romantic languages’ word for man/warrior, so Guibert’s etymology is completely wrong.)

Eventually, the friends asked the monk which of his ailments were the most painful. The monk complained, “he felt as if an enormous, red-hot iron rod were burning his throat and his insides.” Certainly not a pleasant sensation at all! To make things weirder, the windows of the house they were in started to violently rattle as if a bunch of people were slamming the doors. No one was slamming any door. And just in case you think it might have just been the wind, Guibert assures his reader that there was no wind that night. There wasn’t even a breeze. If the house was poorly built, it’s possible they might have been able to feel any wind coming in from the slats between the walls. This freaked out the two monks who were watching the dying monk. They were convinced that it was a bad omen of sorts. And they were sort of right. The sick monk ended up dying that night.

Main Source:

Nogent, Guibert de. A Monk’s Confession: The Memoirs of Guibert of Nogent. Translated by Paul J. Archambault, The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996. 

Other Sources:

“Baron (n.).” Online Etymology Dictionary, www.etymonline.com/word/baron. 

de Nogent, Guibert. “Medieval Sourcebook: Guibert De Nogent (D.1124): Autobiography.” Internet History Sourcebooks, 2021, sourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/guibert-vita.asp. 

Medieval Christian Divination Part 2: Bibliomancy and Mantic Alphabets

In my last post on medieval Christian divination, I talked about oracle texts and the Sortes Sanctorum. While talking about the Sortes Sanctorum I mentioned that using the text to cast lots wasn’t the only type of bibliomancy one could do. There were a few ways one could practice bibliomancy. With the first technique, one would open a book (usually a bible or a psalter though by the later fifteenth century you could use any book), and the first passage that caught your eye would predict the future. The second way was to pretty much do the same thing, but you would use a mantic alphabet for your prediction. We will go into detail regarding mantic alphabets shortly.

Bibliomancy was a widespread practice during late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. It was used not only by laypeople but by clergy and church leaders as well! There was a lot of controversy regarding bibliomancy amongst church leaders. Condemnations about the practice can be found in canons, synods, capitularies, and penitentials. For example, in Charlemagne’s 789AD capitulary the practice is condemned. That being said, all these controversies did not stop people from practicing it, especially not clergy and saints!

Saint Francis of Assisi used bibliomancy before making any sort of major decision. In his memoirs, Guibert of Nogent documents a case where a monk used the first technique to see what kind of abbot Guibert would be when he first arrived at his new monastery. (The passage the monk saw was “Your eye is the lantern of your body,” in case you are curious.) Gregory of Tours also documents a few cases of bibliomancy in book five, chapter fourteen of History of the Franks. In that part of the text, Gregory uses bibliomancy after the son of a king begs for spiritual help. Later on, the same prince uses bibliomancy himself to see his future. However, he only does it after three days of prayer and fasting. Bibliomancy was a significant factor in Saint Augustine of Hippo’s conversion to Christianity. During a personal crisis, Saint Augustine heard a voice telling him to pick up the bible and read it. The first passage he saw basically said that you can only be happy if you follow Christ and to stop drinking so much and sleeping around. Funnily enough, in chapter twenty of his fifty-fifth letter, Saint Augustine would write how much he hated bibliomancy and that he thought no one should do it, but using the gospels to see the future was better than consulting demons. In my opinion, the passage has the same energy as a parent who disapproves of their teen drinking but would prefer them to do it in the house so they can at least supervise what’s going on.

***

Mantic alphabets were another way to tell the future. They are commonly found in European manuscripts, especially German ones. Though they are also found in English, Welsh, French, and Italian manuscripts too. However, alphabetical divination is found in Jewish, Arabic, and Greek cultures. It’s extremely likely that mantic alphabets were influenced by these cultures. Further evidence for this is that the late twelfth century was the same time nonwestern knowledge really started becoming prominent in Europe.

The most common format for mantic alphabets is as follows:

  1. An introductory paragraph explaining how to use it, including a ritual to do before any fortune-telling can take place.
  2. A list of the alphabet where each letter corresponds with a vague prediction.

Now, the rituals that needed to be done were simply just saying specific prayers/singing psalms. Different mantic alphabets have different instructions, so sometimes it included going to church, kneeling before the altar, or just praying in general. Doing this was vital for several reasons. First, they were a way to make sure God was listening to your question. Second, they gave the practitioner plausible deniability that what they were doing was Christian divination, approved by God, and in no way associated with demons. After all, a demon would not make someone go to church!

I will note that there are mantic alphabets out there that do not have introductory paragraphs. Instead, they just have the letter key. However, there are more mantic alphabets out there with introductions than ones without.

There are also a bunch of different letter keys out there. Some are simple, others are extremely complicated, others are written as riddles, some just relate to passages of the bible, some are acrostic, while others are not. Here is an example of one letter key:

A signifies life or power.

B signifies power among the people.

C signifies the death of a man.

D signifies disorder or death.

E signifies exultation or joy.

F signifies renowned blood.

Translator: László Sándor Chardonnens

One reason there was so much variation is probably due to the fact the practice was not an isolated phenomenon. They can be found in multiple different manuscripts. Textual evidence for mantic alphabets spans four centuries too. The earliest known one dates from the late twelfth century and it began to die out by the sixteenth century due to religious censorship and changing attitudes towards divination. In some manuscripts, later readers have written how divination is nonsense in the margins or have crossed out the mantic alphabets all together!

Sources:

Chardonnens, László Sándor. “Mantic Alphabets in Medieval Western Manuscripts and Early Printed Books.” Modern Philology, vol. 110, no. 3, 2013, pp. 340–366. JSTORwww.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/669251. Accessed 10 Jan. 2021.

Kieckhefer, Richard. Magic in the Middle Ages. Cambridge University Press, 2004. 

“Medieval Sourcebook: Gregory of Tours (539-594): History of the Franks: Books I-X.” Internet History Sourcebooks, sourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/gregory-hist.asp#book5. 

Meyer, Marvin, et al. Ancient Christian Magic: Coptic Texts of Ritual Power. Princeton University Press, 1999. 

Nogent, Guibert de. A Monk’s Confession: The Memoirs of Guibert of Nogent. Translated by Paul J. Archambault, The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996. 

Saint Augustine. “Letter 55 (A.D. 400).” Translated by J.G. Cunningham, CHURCH FATHERS: Letter 55 (St. Augustine), www.newadvent.org/fathers/1102055.htm

“THE CONFESSIONS OF SAINT AUGUSTINE.” The Confessions of Saint Augustine, by Saint Augustine, www.gutenberg.org/files/3296/3296-h/3296-h.htm#link2H_4_0008. 

Waldorf, Sarah. We Tried Medieval Divination-And It Worked. 5 Aug. 2016, blogs.getty.edu/iris/we-tried-medieval-divination-and-it-worked/. 

Medieval Christian Divination Part 1: Greek Oracular Texts and The Sortes Sanctorum

I think it’s safe to say that thinking about the future can be extremely scary. No one knows what is going to happen next, but that doesn’t mean that people won’t try to figure it out! Medieval people were no different. Medieval divinatory practices are an extremely broad category, so today I will be discussing a specific subject of that: Christian divination. When I say Christian divination, I am referring specifically to divinatory arts that invoke God and/or use Scripture to foretell the future. After all, if you are invoking God and/or using Scripture then it doesn’t count as demonic magic. You are asking God for answers, not the devil. (Though I will note later on in the medieval period divination was associated with the devil.)

Usually, I write about medieval Europe, however, our first example of Christian divination actually comes from fifth to seventh century Egypt. Some early medieval Greek-speaking Christians used divination through oracular texts. Oracular texts were questions written on papyrus that asked God what decision they should make. The texts are simple yes or no questions. My copy of Ancient Christian Magic: Coptic Texts of Ritual Power has English translations of six of these oracular questions. The topics vary widely, so here is a list summarizing the six to give you a better idea of exactly what could be asked:

  1. Should the writer go on that journey to Chiout?
  2. Should we bring Anoup to the hospital?
  3. Is it your [God’s] will for the writer to make a business offer to the bank?
  4. Should the writer let Theodora marry Joseph?

Now, as you can probably tell, I’ve only included four topics out of the six. This is due to two reasons. The last oracular text is worded extremely vaguely. However, it does still have a What-Does-The-Future-Hold-For-Me vibe:

✝ Do not harm your soul, for what has come to pass is from god.

Translator: Marvin Meyer

Then the business question is actually split into two. One version asks for a sign if the writer should not take the opportunity and the other asks for a sign if they should:

✝ My lord god almighty and St. Philoxenos my patron, I beseech you through the great name of the lord god, if it is not your will for me to speak about the bank or about the weighing office, direct me to find out that I may not speak. ✝ (verso)

✝ CH M G ✝ CH M G ✝ CH M G ✝

Translator: Marvin Meyer

✝ My lord god almighty and St. Philoxenos my patron, I beseech you through the great name of the lord god, if it is your will and you help me get the banking business, I invoke you to direct me to find out and to speak. ✝ (verso)

✝ CH M G ✝ CH M G ✝ CH M G ✝

Translator: Marvin Meyer

Despite five of them being yes or no questions, only the marriage proposal actually includes the answer they got. (It was a yes.) Interestingly enough that one also specifies that the writer is asking the “God of the Christians,” implying that other gods are popular in their area.

***

Our next oracular text is also known as the Sortes Sanctorum, a.k.a “lots of the saints.” There are different versions of this text, however, my translation is from a seventh to eighth-century papyrus fragment. Because it’s an earlier version it primarily references God, Christ, and biblical figures instead of actual saints. Later versions were written. To use the Sortes Sanctorum you had to roll die/cast lots to see what your future held. The text itself is basically a bunch of numbered predictions and whatever numbers you rolled, that would be your future. Here is an example of one such prediction:

[25. Do not go] forth but [believe] in god: You will experience something good that you do [not] foresee.

Translator: Marvin Meyer

To use later versions of the Sortes Sanctorum medieval Christians couldn’t just open the book and start throwing dice. It was mandatory to perform a few rituals (for lack of a better word) before. Rituals also needed to be done before performing other versions of bibliomancy (using a book in divination). (I will be writing a whole separate article on bibliomancy later!) For another version of the Sortes Sanctorum, you had to choose the right day to ask the question, fast for three days, read a bunch of religious readings, pray a lot, go to several masses,  receive the sacrament of communion, and cast your dice on an altar. It was certainly a lot of effort to know your fate!

That being said, doing all of these things was important to do. Some church authorities considered fortune telling to be extremely pagan. By going out of your way to pray, you could have a good excuse that what you were doing wasn’t pagan but Christian in case anyone came around asking.

Sources:

Chardonnens, László Sándor. “Mantic Alphabets in Medieval Western Manuscripts and Early Printed Books.” Modern Philology, vol. 110, no. 3, 2013, pp. 340–366. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/669251. Accessed 10 Jan. 2021.

Kieckhefer, Richard. Magic in the Middle Ages. Cambridge University Press, 2004. 

Meyer, Marvin, et al. Ancient Christian Magic: Coptic Texts of Ritual Power. Princeton University Press, 1999. 

Nogent, Guibert de. A Monk’s Confession: The Memoirs of Guibert of Nogent. Translated by Paul J. Archambault, The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996. 

Waldorf, Sarah. We Tried Medieval Divination-And It Worked. 5 Aug. 2016, blogs.getty.edu/iris/we-tried-medieval-divination-and-it-worked/. 

Early Medieval English Charms: Paganism, Christianity, and Medical Science

In early medieval England, the line between paganism, Christianity, and magic was much blurrier than one might think. This is especially evident in Anglo-Saxon charms. This particular genre of Old English literature can be found in both prose and poetic forms. Depending on the text, the charm may be comprised of both. While there are a lot of charms from the early medieval period, when one scholar, Elliot Van Kirk Dobbie, selected twelve specific charms for his book The Anglo-Saxon Minor Poems, these ones became well known. As a result, they are commonly given as examples in academic writing. However, there are many more out there. Two good sources for Anglo-Saxon charms are Bald’s Leechbook and the Lacnunga. Both works are early medical texts. (I will note that I haven’t read through the entirety of these yet, so I’m not sure how many remedies are actual charms, compared to other herbal cures.)

In the big twelve, about half of them are medical charms. I say about half because it’s not exactly clear what “Against A Dwarf” is supposed to be for, though the guess is that it’s supposed to be a cure of some kind. Another medicinal charm is called “For The Water-Elf Disease.” This one is clearly a cure for an illness. The first paragraph lists some symptoms (fingernails turning black, eyes getting watery, and the patient looking down), then it lists herbs the healer should use, and finally, it has the spell the healer needs to say as they prepare the remedy. While the verbal component is obviously magical, it does have some science to it. There were no reliable clocks in early medieval England, so reciting a charm is a great way to make sure the herbs have enough time to brew. (Some charms opted to have a person recite a prayer instead of a spell. I will go more into Christian elements later on in this post.) Finally, some medical charms had no scientific elements at all. For example, the charm designed to help a woman have a healthy pregnancy relies on religious and magical beliefs.

The other half is designed to make rural living easier. For example, there is the charm called “For a Swarm of Bees.” Like the charm for water-elf disease, this one has magical and scientific elements. Apparently, if your bees start to swarm one way to fix that is to throw dirt or gravel at them. That is the scientific part of the charm. Then there are two magical parts. The first part is the extremely specific instruction to step on the dirt with your right foot. The second part is the two spells you need to recite. The other rural living charms are for fixing barren land and what to do if your cattle are lost or stolen.

Interestingly enough, the cattle theft charm and the barren land charm have both pagan and Christian references. (As well as the medicinal “Nine Herbs Charm!”) Here are some examples:

***

“For Unfruitful Land”

Sing the Benedicte, arms stretched out, and the Magnificat and the Pater Noster three times, and commend it to Christ and to holy Mary and to the Holy Rood in praise and worship and grace for them who own that land and to all those who are subject to them.

[…]

Yrce, Yrce, Yrce, mother of the earth,
grant us that the All-Wielder, the Eternal Lord,
of the growing and sprouting fields,
propagating and growing strong,
of lofty creation, shining blossoms,
and of the broad barley-crops,
and of the white wheaten-crops,
and of all the other fruits of the earth.

(Of course, it’s possible that The Eternal Lord could be the Christain God, but the surrounding context makes me think that is unlikely.)

***

“The Nine Herbs Charm”

These nine herbs can avail against nine poisons.
The worm comes creeping, tearing into the man—
then Woden took up nine glorious boughs,
striking then the serpent—it flew into nine pieces.
There the apple and the venom were destroyed,
so that it never wished to bring down your house.

Thyme and fennel, a mighty powerful pair,
the wise Lord shaped these herbs,
holy in heaven, those he hung up—
set up and sent down into the seven worlds
for the wretched and the blessed, as cure for all.

***

“For the Theft of Cattle”

Nothing was stolen or concealed, after I owned it, any more than Herod could do to Our Lord. I thought Saint Eadelena and I thought Christ was hung upon the Rood—so I intend to find these cattle—they were not taken away, to be known and not harmed, and to be loved and not led away.
Garmund, the thane of God,
find those cattle and bear those cattle
and keep those cattle and hold those cattle
and bear those cattle home.

(It’s not clear who exactly Garmund is, but he may be a mythological figure.)

***

Due to the lack of written records, we don’t know a lot, if anything, about early medieval English gods. That being said, it’s fascinating that people called upon both Christian and pagan gods for help when they desperately needed it. (I suppose it’s a “Well, I really need help so I don’t want to anger anyone by slighting them!” kind of thing.) This implies that in the early days of Christianity, people worshipped the old gods along with the new ones. Or if they didn’t outright worship them, they were still a part of their lives.

If you’re interested in learning more about later medieval charms, I wrote an academic paper touching upon it a few years ago. You can find it here.

Sources:

Foys, Martin, et al., eds. Old English Poetry in Facsimile (Center for the History of Print and Digital Culture, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2019): https://uw.digitalmappa.org/58

Garner, Lori Ann. “Anglo-Saxon Charms in Performance.” Oral Tradition 19 (2004): 20 – 42. https://mospace.umsystem.edu/xmlui/bitstream/handle/10355/64982/OralTradition19-1-Garner.pdf;jsessionid=165F067E65F7EF873466D5A678DB2802?sequence=1

Anglo-Saxon Paganism by Philipp J. Rackl https://www.academia.edu/10540548/Anglo_Saxon_Paganism

Tornaghi, Paola. “ANGLO-SAXON CHARMS AND THE LANGUAGE OF MAGIC.” Aevum, vol. 84, no. 2, 2010, pp. 439–464. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20862333. Accessed 28 Nov. 2020.

Anglo-Saxon Medicine https://blogs.bl.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2013/10/anglo-saxon-medicine.html

Medieval Ghosts Part 2: The Revenant/Draugr

Even though we’re well past Halloween (as of my time writing this) I still want to discuss medieval ghosts. In my last article, I wrote about ecclesiastical ghost stories. These stories, often written by clergy, had a Christian motivation for why the dead returned. However, if there were Church-approved spirits, that implies the existence of nonapproved spirits. And there certainly were!

The Three Living and Three Dead | Yates Thompson MS 13 f.123r | The British Library

Revenants/Draugar

Thanks to popular belief, secular people had their own ideas of what the undead did and looked like. The undead were often found in Icelandic sagas. In these sagas, the ghosts were known as revenants or draugar. In this post, I will be using the terms “revenant” and “draugr” interchangeably. (As a side note, the word “draugr” is singular while the word “draugar” is plural.)

Despite the Church’s best efforts to Christianize revenant stories, many of them survived with their original pagan elements. That being said, they were written down by Christian scribes so it’s difficult to figure out just how much was changed. However, it can be quite obvious when the scribe decided to go all out when changing details. (One example is the epic poem Beowulf and its constant references to God. This includes the revenant, Grendel, being referred to as a descendent of the biblical figure Cain.) Icelandic sagas are one literary genre where the pagan elements are particularly strong.

Unlike ecclesiastical ghosts, revenants were not trying to get help to escape Purgatory. They were back on earth to cause chaos. Revenants were very similar to the modern idea of the zombie to the point that in some stories, draugar looked like rotting corpses. Instead of being immaterial, they had physical bodies. And not only did they have physical bodies, but revenants were also stronger and bigger than they were when alive. In some sagas, they were described as big as a cow! Due to their largeness, draugar were often too heavy to carry. If you were attempting to carry one to a church, the revenant would become heavier and heavier the closer you got. As long as they had flesh, revenants could rise from the dead.

Like the modern-day zombie, sometimes draugar were quite stupid. However, it was not uncommon for them to be eloquent and spout off prophecies to whoever was interacting with them. When they weren’t telling the living when they were going to die, draugar did the killing themselves. Revenants would kill livestock and terrorize then kill humans. Depending on the story they had different motives for terrorizing the living.

One such motive was reacting to grave robbers. Revenants “lived” (for lack of a better term) in barrows/howes where they had been buried. Because early medieval Scandinavian burials included treasure being buried alongside a body, it could be appealing to people to steal the treasure. After all, the person is dead so they aren’t using it! Revenants did not like that line of logic. So if you were unwise enough to try to steal a dead person’s treasure, the draugr could attack you either physically or with magic. Which, to be honest, I think is valid. But not all people visiting the howes wanted to steal from the dead. If you were related to the draugr you could go to the howe and politely ask for your relative’s stuff as a birthright. If you were lucky, they may even agree to give it to you.

Not all revenants stayed (sort of) peacefully in their howes. Some stories feature draugr wandering their old homes, terrorizing and sometimes even killing their living family members and servants. Other stories feature draugr wandering the farther countryside, also terrorizing and killing humans and livestock. When this happened, one solution was to simply move the howe to somewhere more isolated. Sometimes this worked. Other times it did not. If moving the howe didn’t work, one could get rid of a draugr by destroying their corpse. This could be either burning them or cutting off their head. In one story (the Icelandic saga Grettissaga) to defeat a revenant, the main character cuts off its head and placed it between its legs.

The sagas were written down when Iceland was completely Christian, so occasionally a few Christian characters and elements would slip in. In the Grettissaga, characters ask a priest to exorcise the local revenant. Unfortunately for them, this draugr was particularly smart. It hid until the priest got sick of looking for it and went away. In other sagas, it seems that chasing off revenants was an expected duty for priests.

Draugar did not live on in only the Icelandic sagas. Sometimes ghosts in ecclesiastical stories had traits similar to their pagan counterparts. This included attacking locals and looking like a rotting corpse. In one story written by a monk of Byland Abbey, the ghost of a priest gouged his ex-girlfriend’s eyes out! Obviously, he couldn’t go around doing that. Instead of having a good old fashioned exorcism, the local monastery decided to solve the ghost priest problem the pagan way: they dug up his corpse and chucked it into a lake. This apparently worked.

Not all clergy were gung-ho about solving revenant problems in the Scandinavian way. In the previous story, the author made his displeasure about the desecration of a corpse known in the text. In another story, a revenant caused trouble in Buckinghamshire. After trying to sleep with his still-living wife, pestering his still-living brothers, and then bothering some livestock, the locals decided the revenant had to go. Their quest for knowledge ended up going all the way to the bishop of Lincoln. The bishop’s advisors flat out told him that a common way to get rid of a pesky revenant was to cremate it. This was not an acceptable answer. In the end, the locals were told to open the revenant’s grave, put a scroll of absolution on the body’s chest, and rebury the body. (The bishop supplied the scroll by the way.) The Christian way worked and the revenant stayed dead.

Finally, another way to get rid of a revenant was simply to exorcise it.

Sources:

Hildebrandt, Maik. “Medieval Ghosts: the Stories of the Monk of Byland.” Ghosts – or the (Nearly) Invisible: Spectral Phenomena in Literature and the Media, edited by Maria Fleischhack and Elmar Schenkel, Peter Lang AG, Frankfurt Am Main, 2016, pp. 13–24. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv2t4d7f.5. Accessed 31 Oct. 2020.

Byland Abbey ghost stories: a guide to medieval ghosts https://blogs.bl.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2020/10/byland-abbey-ghost-stories.html

Medieval Ghosts https://www.medieval.eu/medieval-ghosts/

Afterlives: The Return of the Dead in the Middle Ages by Nancy Mandeville Caciola https://www.amazon.com/Afterlives-Return-Dead-Middle-Ages/dp/1501702610

Remnants of Revenants: The Role of the Dreaded Draugr in Medieval Iceland http://caitlinscrossroad.com/wp-content/uploads/Remnants_Revenants.pdf

Medieval Ghosts Part 1: The Religious Ghost

Happy (late) Halloween! Originally I was going to post this on Halloween, but I was unable to finish it in time. Today I want to talk about ghosts. Originally I was going to talk about ghosts in the secular mindset as well as ghosts in religious stories. However, I have to do more research on the folkloric type, so I am just going to focus on the religious today.

Ecclesiastical Ghosts

Because the Middle Ages was a period of about a thousand years (from the 5th century to the late 15th century) how people thought about ghosts changed over time. Someone from the 5th century may have a different idea of what a ghost was from someone in the 11th century and so on. In the early years of the Christian church, ghosts as a concept were not exactly welcomed. The idea that people could return from the dead was much too pagan for the Church’s liking. However, as time went on and Christianity became the norm, this changed. Ghosts could be used as a teaching tool for the living. Especially when you take into consideration the fact that by the late twelfth century Purgatory was an accepted part of the Christian afterlife.

Purgatory was an important part of ecclesiastical ghost stories. Due to it being an in-between place (you went there if you weren’t good enough for Heaven but not evil enough for Hell) it answered the question of how exactly ghosts returned to the living. After all, if you’re a ghost you are dead, but you’re still alive enough to interact with the living. Like Purgatory, ghosts are in a state of in-betweenness. It’s much easier to escape a state of transition than a state of permanence. A soul wouldn’t want to leave Heaven and it’s too late if you’re in Hell. There are a lot of different medieval writings on Purgatory. Depending on the source, souls either stayed there until the Last Judgement or they stayed until they had been purged of their sins. Either way, Purgatory is not a place one stays permanently.

Ecclesiastical ghost stories often had spirits returning from Purgatory to warn their loved ones about their sinful ways. Warnings about the afterlife would have a lot more impact on someone if it came from the dead rather than the living. A ghost has personal experience about what happens to your soul after death. The very much alive Father So-And-So does not. I’ll also note that some ghosts came from Hell to deliver their warnings. However, unlike the Purgatory ghosts, they were unable to ask for help. Once you’re in Hell it’s too late. You’re there forever.

So what kind of help did Purgatory ghosts ask for? Like modern-day ghosts, it was often unfinished business. Sometimes unfinished business meant returning something they stole while alive, apologizing to someone they had wronged, or even just begging people to pray for their souls so they could get out of Purgatory faster. It depended on the ghost and what they did.

However, if a ghost wanted help, they couldn’t just come up and ask for it. The living had to speak to them first by invoking God. Due to this restriction, sometimes ghosts would get creative to make people talk to them first. In one story, a ghost goes around staring at doors and into windows until a priest finally asks what they want. (The ghost wanted to say confession by the way.) In another story, a ghost literally throws a man over a hedge to get him to talk! (In the ghost’s defense, they do catch the guy before he hits the ground.)

Ghosts appeared in a bunch of different ways. Sometimes they appeared as their living selves, sometimes they looked like they had just before they died, and sometimes they took the form of animals, pieces of canvas, or a pile of hay. (Just to name a few examples!) A lot of ecclesiastical ghosts were described as apparitions. So they weren’t exactly immaterial, but not quite corporeal either. Again, it depended on the story.

Sources:

Hildebrandt, Maik. “Medieval Ghosts: the Stories of the Monk of Byland.” Ghosts – or the (Nearly) Invisible: Spectral Phenomena in Literature and the Media, edited by Maria Fleischhack and Elmar Schenkel, Peter Lang AG, Frankfurt Am Main, 2016, pp. 13–24. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv2t4d7f.5. Accessed 31 Oct. 2020.

The Birth of Purgatory by Jacques Le Goff

Byland Abbey ghost stories: a guide to medieval ghosts

Medieval Ghosts

Heiscerbach, Caesarius of, and G.G. Coulton. Dialogue on Miracles. Translated by H. Von E. Scott and C.C. Swinton Bland, vol. 1, Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1929, https://archive.org/details/caesariusthedialogueonmiraclesvol.1/page/n87/mode/2up

Magic, The Christian Church, and The Illusion of Control

Content Warning: Discussions of Anti-Semitism, Anti-Paganism, and Anti-Catholicism

This is something I wrote while studying at Oxford. It was written in May 2018. I will note that I posted this on my old blog. It has been moved here as it fits better thematically.

I will note that I discuss the medieval and Early Modern period in this essay.

Christianity’s stance on magic, and later on witchcraft, evolved over the course of the Middle Ages and Early Modern period. What was once thought of as benign slowly became evil and a crime worthy of the death penalty.  However, it is important to note that these opinions fluctuated depending on the sect of Christianity, what type of magic was being performed, where the magical power came from and who was doing the magic itself, as well as what time period the magic was done and what country or region the magical acts took place in. All of these factors influenced the Christian Church’s opinions and influences on magic and witchcraft as a whole. However, magic was what gave people and the Church comfort and control over their lives.

Before the fifteenth century, there were only two types of magic that a person could use. These types of magic could either be beneficial (white magic) or harmful (black magic/maleficium) (Levack). Generally speaking, the Christian Church frowned upon both types of magic during the Middle Ages. Harmful magic, or maleficium, was seen as the worst of the two. After all, maleficium was what caused “bodily injury, disease, death, poverty, or some other misfortune” (Levack 5). The beneficial type of magic was referred to as white magic. White magic was “productive…[it helped] crops to grow or women to bear children” (Levack 5). White magic was also used to heal the sick or it protected people from evil spirits or witches (Levack 5). However, both types of magic allowed people to have some sense of control. Maleficium allowed people to control the people around them through harm while white magic allowed people to control their situations through productive means, as well as to counteract any black magic that was either done to them or about to be done to them.

Harley MS 1526 f.4v demons monks key reading

Demons with a Key and Monks Reading | Harley MS 1526 f.4v | Source: The British Library

However, starting in the fifteenth century and going into the early eighteenth century, there was a third type of magic: demonic witchcraft (Larner 3). Demonic witchcraft is what changed the religious and secular perception of magic forever. Demonic witchcraft tarnished the reputation of white magic and it associated magic, in general, with Satan and his demons. At first, the concept of demonic witchcraft was primarily an elite idea. In fact, “it was developed by the ruling class” (Larner 4). Before demonic witchcraft came into play, the average medieval European peasant did not give much thought to the morality of magic. At least, medieval European peasants did not think of magic as so morally corrupt that using it was a crime. And they certainly did not believe anyone who practiced magic should be executed for demonic witchcraft. During the Middle Ages, European peasants did not think white magic was necessarily bad until the idea was forced upon them. It was only when “the logical conclusion of the idea of the demonic pact was the abolition of the traditional distinction between black and white magic” (Larner 4) did the witch-hunts and the executions of these so-called witches start.

Even though demonic witchcraft created an association of magic with evil, during the Middle Ages, before the fifteenth century, magic and religion were very much intertwined with each other. The connection between the two did not end abruptly once the Early Modern period started. The connection lasted through the Reformation and the rest of the Early Modern period. For example, Catholic rituals and prayers were often thought of in terms of magic. One way Catholic rituals were used by the general public was in magical healing. Magical healing used Catholic prayers because of “the old belief in the curative power of the medieval Church” (Thomas 178). Prayers such as “five Paternosters, five Aves, and a Creed, to be said in honour of the Holy Ghost and Our Lady” (Thomas 179) were used as part of healing charms. Even though church leaders during and after the Reformation attempted to forbid the Catholic elements, they failed. Protestant clergy did not realize that because Catholicism had the “power to give supernatural agency to the believer” (Purkiss 154), the rituals and prayers would not go away any time soon. This is significant because it means the average layperson could call upon the power of God to help heal a sick loved one, thus giving the laity the illusion of having more control over their lives. After all, without access to modern medicine, or any sort of health care besides folk medicine, and the Internet to research what could possibly be wrong with either themselves or their loved ones, magic and prayers were all some peasants had.

Now, it was believed by the general population that the only way to fight harmful magic was with more magic. However, in the sixteenth century, some elite Protestant clergymen did not believe in the existence of magic at all. It did not help the Protestant cause that one sixteenth-century writer, Reginald Scot claimed “only the Catholic Church took the subject of witchcraft seriously” (Clark 526). This meant that the average European population thought only Catholicism offered helpful solutions to healing and bewitchment. While Catholicism offered magical solutions such as “holy water, the sign of the cross, and all the paraphernalia of the Roman Catholic exorcists” the Protestant solution was “prayer and repentance” (Thomas 265). In fact, due to the Reformation, there was a “reduction in the power attributed to holy words and objects” and “the more extreme Protestants virtually denied the existence of any Church magic at all” (Thomas 256).

Needless to say, Protestant laity did not find this particularly helpful. Because of this new belief, Protestant laity began to go to cunning folk for help because they believed their church would not. It did not help the Protestant Church’s argument that some of the cunning folk’s customers thought the cunning folk were taught their magic by God. It also did not help that some cunning folk went along with that idea (Thomas 266). In fact, because the Protestant clergy did not believe magic was “theologically neutral” (Thomas 266), they essentially forced some cunning folk to claim they were demigods to avoid being accused of being devil worshippers. As a result of all this, Protestant churches began to see cunning folk as competition. The Catholic Church, however, did not have the same problem. Catholic laity could pray to a saint for the same problem and the saint was supposed to help answer their prayers (Thomas 273).

The Christian faith did not just consider cunning folk as competition. Christian clergy also saw other faiths as competition to their own. This thought process caused “Church fathers [to] consign the religions…both Jewish and pagan, to the kingdom of Satan” (Levack 30). For the Jewish faith in particular, “many contemporaries believed that Jews were a magical people who…practiced secret cabbalistic rituals” (Roper 40). Because Christian clergy considered other faiths evil, this resulted in them demonizing the other faiths’ God/gods (Levack 30). The Christian Church’s anti-Semitic views also contributed to associating Judaism with witchcraft (Roper 40). Brian P. Levack goes on to state that many traits associated with the Christian Devil are also traits associated with pagan gods. Early Modern witches were known to confess that they were worshipping at “a horned beast as a god” (Levack 30). He says that this theory is why some scholars believe that Early Modern witches were practicing “an ancient fertility religion” (Levack 30). But Levack argues, “these confessions cannot…be taken at face value” (30). It is also important to note that in the Church’s attempts to convert European pagan peasants, they forbid “everyday practices such as folk healing, using love potions, or searching for stolen goods with the aid of a sieve” and referred to these practices as “un-Christian superstitions” (Ankarloo 60). I should note that demonizing other religions happened within Christianity as well. Protestants “believed that Catholics were emissaries of the Devil and the Pope was…the Anti-Christ” (Roper 16).

Despite Protestants thinking Catholics were literally from Hell, both Catholic and Protestant churches had strong stances against witchcraft. Ironically, while the official Christian stance on magic was that it was sinful and you should never use it or consult someone who uses it. Some clergy did not get the message. This could in part be due to the fact “Protestants’ views about witchcraft ‘rested on narrower foundations’ than did those of Catholics” (Clark 528). Clergy on the lower rungs of the church hierarchy were actually known for using magic themselves. In fact, “the roles of priest and magician were by no means clearly distinguished in the popular mind” (Thomas 274). This is in part to do with the fact that medieval clergymen were most likely to be the most educated person in the community and would know how to read and understand spell books “and formulae of conjuration which were employed in the invocation of spirits” (Thomas 274). Keith Thomas goes on to point out that medieval clergymen were expected to know divination, invocation, as well as healing. His parishioners would ask him for help accordingly. And of course, a clergyman was expected to know the art of exorcism.

After the Reformation, the expectations of the clergy changed. In France, quite a few clerics were accused of using “witchcraft and black magic” (Monter 43). Some of the clerics were arrested, two were “tried…and both were liberated”, one “had his paraphernalia burned” and others were executed (Monter 43). While it does seem extremely contradictory that the Christian Church would speak out against magic, but clergy would still use it, Keith Thomas makes an excellent point regarding this hypocrisy: “it was precisely because the Church had its own magic that it frowned on others” (273-274). This means that when someone used magic, including the clergy, it was extremely important to know what the source of that magic was. Magic could come from a natural source, from God himself, or from Satan and his demons.

In the sixteenth century, the official view of popular magic by both the Protestant and Catholic Churches were not positive ones. In fact, their views towards popular magic have been described as “hostile” (Thomas 258). Not only did the Church continue to punish the use of maleficium, they also started to punish the use of popular magic (Ankarloo 60). This is important because it reflects the Church’s evolving anxieties in the early part of the Early Modern period concerning all types of magic, not just kinds that had sinister results. It also reflects the Church’s changing attitudes towards using magic in general. As previously stated, the medieval Church gave laity the agency to harness God’s power through magic to help themselves and others. Now that agency and control had been taken away. Bengt Ankarloo also makes a point to say, “the vigilance of the Church in these matters was bolstered by the Reformation and Counter-Reformations of the sixteenth century” (60). This reflects the Church’s determination to convert people to their sect of Christianity as well to keep the people converted. With the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, the Church was given the opportunity to fix issues the elite clergy found problematic, but it also gave them a chance to find an excuse to further their influence in the lives of the lower class.

In conclusion, before the rise of the idea of demonic witchcraft, magic was widely tolerated, if not outright accepted by European society. It was only when the Christian faith started to associate magic with Satan and evil in the fifteenth century did witchcraft become a crime worthy of death. If magic had never been linked to demons, would there still have been the witch trials? Or would have European society thought up another way to dispose of those who were inconvenient to them? Either way, the use of magic was extremely important in Europe, especially in terms of religion. For peasants all across Europe, magic gave them a way to feel like they had some sort of control over their lives. When Catholic clergy used magic it legitimized their job position much more than if they had not used magic at all. 

 

 

Sources:

Ankarloo, Bengt. “Witch Trials in Northern Europe: 1450-1700.” The Athlone History of Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: The Period of the Witch Trials. edited by Bengt Ankarloo and Stuart Clark, The Athlone Press, 2002, pp. 53-95.

Clark, Stuart. Thinking with Demons: The Idea of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe. Clarendon Press, 1997.

Larner, Christina. Witchcraft and Religion: The Politics of Popular Belief. Basil Blackwell Publisher, 1984.

Levack, Brian P.. The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe. Routledge, 2016.

Monter, William. “Witch Trials in Continental Europe: 1560-1660.” The Athlone History of Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: The Period of the Witch Trials. edited by Bengt Ankarloo and Stuart Clark, The Athlone Press, 2002, pp. 1-52.

Purkiss, Diane. The Witch in History. Routledge. 1996.

Roper, Lyndal. Witch Craze. Yale University Press. 2004.

Thomas, Keith. Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in popular beliefs in sixteenth and seventeenth century England. Weidenfeld and Nicolson. 1971.

 

Witchcraft and Gender in the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Period

Content Warning: Mentions of abuse and sexual assault

This is something I wrote while studying at Oxford. It was written in May 2018. I will note that I posted this on my old blog. It has been moved here as it fits better thematically.

I will note that I discuss the medieval and Early Modern period in this essay.

Throughout the Middle Ages and the Early Modern period, the perception of magic and how it was used went through many different iterations, especially in regard to women and men. Generally speaking, different types of magic were used, or mostly used, exclusively by either men or by women. Some of these types of magic were more accessible to both genders, thus both genders were more likely to use them. (Please note I use the phrase “both genders” here as in medieval times the concept of being non-binary did not exist and the medieval concept of gender, while occasionally flexible, was still determined by one’s sex (Salisbury 81).) Crimes concerning the use of magic were also prescribed to different genders. How society perceived the ways men and women used magic is placed upon on misogynistic ideas that we simply cannot ignore.

During the Middle Ages, the existence of magic was well known amongst the general European population, including men, women, laity and the clergy. While “Christian writers associated magic very strongly with demons” (Rider 29), in secular society magic was comfortably intertwined with science as well as with religion (Kieckhefer, Magic in the Middle Ages 1). Richard Kieckhefer goes on to point out that “magic is a crossing-point where religion converges with science”. This is especially true when one takes into consideration the relationship between medicine and cunning-folk in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (Smallwood 21). I will go into further detail about that later. However, the relationship between medicine and magic is also prominently seen in impotence magic, particularly in the eleventh century.

Impotence magic in the early Middle Ages was seen as a major problem for men and women alike, especially when it came to marriage. If a couple could not consummate their marriage, then that would be a perfectly valid reason for annulment (Rider 29). This put a lot of pressure on both parties, especially the woman. In one case documented by the medieval writer Hincmar of Rheims, a man who had been bewitched by his disapproving mother-in-law to be impotent, threatened to murder his wife unless the bishop granted him an annulment (Rider 32). Luckily for the man’s wife the bishop “recognized the work of the Devil” (Rider 32) and cured the man’s impotence through “penance and ‘ecclesiastical medicine’” (Rider 33). This story shows that even though women could be feared due to their use of magic, they still lacked agency over their lives due to masculine control. It also reminds the reader that men were willing to punish women who had not used magic against them if it meant they could break the charm causing them the inconvenience.

 

Harley MS 2965 f.37r charm against poison

A Charm Against Poison | Harley MS 2965 f.37r | Source: The British Library’s Medieval Manuscript Blog

 

As previously mentioned, the relationship between magic and medicine was already intertwined in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries with cunning-folk. However, to fully understand that relationship, it is important to know that while ‘“cunning’ men and women were regularly prosecuted for using charms,” they were not considered to be witches (Smallwood 21), at least in the earlier Middle Ages. But by the beginning of the fifteenth century, the Church had already considered cunning-folk and their folk magic to be demonic (Broedel 36). Before 1400 they were considered to be healers who used charms as medicine for “those who could not afford or appreciate the real thing” (Smallwood 21). These charms “had for the most part been orally passed down for many generations” (Smallwood 21) and amongst both genders. How “the secrets of healing” (Kieckhefer, Magic in the Middle Ages 59) were passed down varied. Sometimes women could only tell them to other women or men could only tell them to other men. In certain areas, the gender of the person receiving the knowledge had to alternate every time the information was passed down (Kieckhefer Magic in the Middle Ages, 59). And even though cunning-folk “had a mercenary interest in not passing on the knowledge [about their magic] to potential clients” (Smallwood 21), this did not mean that the extent of their knowledge was kept secret.

One case where the knowledge was not kept secret was with the career, trial, and execution of Matteuccia Francisci, who also combined folk magic, medicine, and witchcraft. Matteuccia Francisci “was a well-known folk healer and magician, who specialized in…magical remedies [and] counseling for battered wives” (Broedel 37). She was so famous and sought after that “clients came to her, sometimes from out of town” (Kieckhefer, Magic in the Middle Ages60). Now, while she sounds like she would be an upstanding and respected member of her community, “a large number of people” (Broedel 37) that the records refer to as ‘“honest and truthful citizens’” (Broedel 37) accused her of witchcraft. Given that Matteuccia was a woman who helped abused wives, it makes one wonder if these ‘“honest and truthful citizens’” (Broedel 37) were actually the abusive husbands who wanted to get rid of the woman who was taking away their control. After all, what better way to prevent their wives from getting help then to get rid of the powerful woman helping them? This is especially true when you take into consideration Matteuccia specialized in love magic (Kieckhefer, Magic in the Middle Ages 59), which is the equivalent of a modern date rape drug. Even so, people did not exactly appreciate having the tables turned on them. It did not help Matteuccia Francisci’s case that some of the magic she used required dubious ingredients, such as “a bone from an unbaptized baby” (Kieckhefer, Magic in the Middle Ages 59) and some of her magic transferred ailments from one person over to a completely innocent passerby (Kieckhefer, Magic in the Middle Ages 59).

Ironically, cunning-folk did not just strictly use magic in their medical treatments. Their use of magic was intertwined with the Catholic Christian faith as well. Folk magic “borrowed from Catholic practices” (Davies 36) and one man, Henry Clegate of Headcorn, had even been taught to do magic by the local priest (Davies 36). Owen Davies goes on to point out that the Reformation furthered the belief that cunning-folk were practicing demonic witchcraft and not regular magic, due to the elements of Catholicism that were thought of to be magical. It did not help that during the Middle Ages a chunk of “diocesan priests, men and boys in minor orders, monks, and friars” (Kieckhefer, Magic in the Middle Ages155) practiced the demonic art of necromancy. Necromancy was one type of magic that was mostly practiced by men, clergymen especially. Due to the fact they were able to gain access to this knowledge rather easily through written texts and necromancy required “some degree of learning in Latin and familiarity with ritual practices” (Kieckhefer, “Magic and its Hazards in the Late Medieval West” 20).

 

Harley MS 1526 f.5r demons monks reading

Demons and Monks | Harley MS 1526 f.5r | Source: The British Library

 

Another form of magic that was practiced by men was the art of exorcism. Exorcists were not always clergymen and they certainly “did not have the same standing in the Catholic church” (Ferber 577) as those who were ordained. The art of exorcism was not a widespread phenomenon either. For example, during the Reformation, exorcisms in France were seen as extremely creditable while in Spain and Italy it was not (Barry 20). It should be noted that during this time, French Catholicism “faced strong Protestant competition” (Barry 20) and the Catholic and Protestant faiths had very different views on witchcraft, thus on exorcisms. The Catholic Church wanted to seek “help for the witch” while Protestants “prosecuted [the witches] with comparable vigour” (Williams 81). However, whether or not exorcism was actually demonic magic, regular magic, or simply a miracle of God was hotly debated (Ferber). Either way, “many exorcists became subject to condemnation, derision, and regulation” (Ferber 575-576).

Male exorcists were not the only ones whose powers were debated about whether they were holy or demonic. One such phenomenon was ‘“positive possession”’ (Ferber 582) that afflicted mainly women. These women were thought of to be holy, yet to be possessed by demons. Needless to say, they toed the line when it came to being “seen as either the direct agents or the deluded victims of the Prince of the World, the devil” (Ferber 583). However, in the case of the mass possessions of nuns in the early modern period, it could be argued that the devil possessing these women was simply proof of how virtuous they truly were. According to Moshe Sluhovsky, it was thought that if the devil considered a group of nuns to be too good and holy, he would possess them as a way of soiling their purity. After all, if the nuns were “feared by Satan [they] therefore must be approved by God” (Sluhovsky 1394).

This is not to say that mass possessions, especially mass possessions of nuns, were considered to be the result of witchcraft. In fact, mass possessions happened a noticeable amount in both the Middle Ages and the early modern period amongst many different demographics (Sluhovsky 1381-1382). However, in a religious Christian setting, mass possessions of nuns in convents happened a significant amount more, especially when compared to mass possessions of monks (Sluhovsky 1381). Mass possessions of nuns eventually became such a common occurrence in the early modern period that writers started simply listing when and where the possessions occurred instead of including any further detail (Sluhovsky 1385).

Now, it should be recognized what the politics of the convents were like when the mass possessions occurred. Some convents were rather relaxed when it came to the living conditions for the nuns. However, some of these convents went through rather strict reforms, causing the nuns and their families to verbally protest their new living conditions (Sluhovsky 1392). Some of these reforms included “excessive mortification” and a priest who “forbade [his nuns] to eat anything but turnips throughout the [Lenten] fast” (Sluhovsky 1391). Naturally, the upper members of the clergy did not listen to the nuns or their concerns. It was only after the reforms were put in place, mass possessions of nuns happened. I suspect in actuality the possessions were not the result of Satan being angry at the nuns’ holiness; instead, it was a way for the nuns to protest the restrictive reforms as well as an opportunity to act out in the only way that could be considered safe. After all, if a demon was causing the nuns to misbehave, they could not be blamed or punished for trying to blow off some steam.

However, in the case of the nuns of St. Catherine, I do not think this to be the case. The agency of the nuns did not please someone for it was recorded that “only after the devil increased his attacks on the nuns…that the recalcitrant nuns surrendered their arrogance, accepted the reform, and [the devil] disappeared” (Sluhovsky 1390). This statement has a lot of unfortunate implications. It makes one wonder if it was not actually the devil tormenting the nuns, but the clergy who limited the nuns’ ‘“unrestricted freedom”’ in an attempt to control their behavior through fear (Sluhovsky 1390). If so, this would not be the only case where men used fear to control women they considered to be misbehaving.

 

Royal MS 10 E IV f.192r nun and demon drowning

A Demon Drowning a Nun | Royal MS 10 E IV f.192r | Source: The British Library

 

Throughout the early modern period accusations of and trials for witchcraft slowly focused more and more on badly behaved women. It was an excellent way to control women, especially when one takes into consideration that while both men and women practiced magic, women were much more likely to be accused and prosecuted for the crime of witchcraft (Kieckhefer, “Magic and its Hazards in the Late Medieval West” 20). In contrast, men were much more likely to be accused and prosecuted for heresy (Broedel 47). It should also be noted that of the women accused of witchcraft, more often than not, it was women who were considered undesirable to society. Women in this category included women in poverty, older women, and women who were either suspected of having or confirmed to be infected with syphilis (Ross). These three categories were undesirable in different ways, however, the last two had some overlap.

Eric B. Ross argues that dementia from syphilis was a contributing factor in older women’s strange behavior that led them to be accused of witchcraft. While this may or may not be true, I argue that their strange behavior could have also been a result of regular dementia and other age-related cognitive diseases. Older women “who were accused of witchcraft…were described as miserable, lewd, and generally antisocial” (Ross 336). Anyone who has ever visited an elderly relative suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s can safely confirm this description matches the cognitive diseases. It also does not help that when women are older they are no longer considered beautiful, therefore they are considered worthless and a burden.

Overall, while magic was a liberating tool for women or men who felt trapped in their living situation, it was a dangerous one that came with many risks. The risks were especially high for women in the early modern period. Whether it was being possessed by demons proving your holiness, creating love magic, causing impotence, or seeing into the future, someone would eventually be threatened by your abilities. Their fear of your power could very likely cause your downfall.

 

 

Sources:

Barry, Jonathan. “Introduction: Keith Thomas and the Problem of Witchcraft.” Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe: Studies in Culture and Belief, edited by Jonathan Barry et al., Cambridge University Press, 1996, pp. 1–45.

Broedel, Hans Peter. “Fifteenth-Century Witch Beliefs.” The Oxford Handbook of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe and Colonial America, edited by Brian P. Levack, Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. 32–49.

Davies, Owen. Popular Magic: Cunning Folk in English History. Hambledon Continuum, 2003.

Ferber, Sarah. “Demonic Possession, Exorcism, and Witchcraft.” The Oxford Handbook of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe and Colonial America, edited by Brian P. Levack, Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. 575–592.

Kieckhefer, Richard. “Magic and its Hazards in the Late Medieval West.” The Oxford Handbook of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe and Colonial America, edited by Brian P. Levack, Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. 13–31.

Kieckhefer, Richard. Magic in the Middle Ages. Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Rider, Catherine. “Magic and Impotence in the Middle Ages.” Oxford Scholarship Online, 2006, pp. 31–52.

Ross, Eric B. “Syphilis, Misogyny, and Witchcraft in 16th Century Europe.” Current Anthropology , vol. 36, no. 2, Apr. 1995, pp. 333–337.

Salisbury, Joyce E. “Gendered Sexuality.” Handbook of Medieval Sexuality, edited by Vern L. Bullough and James Brundage, Routledge, 2006, pp. 81–99.

Sluhovsky, Moshe. “The Devil in the Convent.” The American Historical Review, vol. 107, no. 5, Dec. 2002, pp. 1379–1411., doi:10.1086/532851.

Smallwood, T.M. “The Transmission of Charms in English, Medieval and Modern.” Charms and Charming in Europe, edited by Jonathan Roper, Palgrave McMillan, 2004.

Williams, Gerhild Scholz. “Demonologies.” The Oxford Handbook of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe and Colonial America, edited by Brian P. Levack, Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. 69–82.

 

King Ethelbert’s Fears About Magic and Other Interesting Stories from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History

In my last blog post about Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, I talked about the adventures of Bishop Germanus of Auxerre. (And even in my first post on An Ecclesiastical History I shared an excerpt about him!) Today I will be discussing another important man in the history of the English church: Augustine of Canterbury. In this post, I will focus on three stories about Augustine. (I will talk about Augustine’s letter to Pope Gregory next week as that deserves a post of its own.)

 

LeningradBedeHiRes

Augustine of Canterbury Source: Wikipedia

 

The first excerpt is from Book One, Chapter Twenty-Three. It is the year 596 A.D. and in the tenth year of his reign as pope, Pope Gregory decides to send missionaries to Britain. (As there are already a good amount of Christians in Britain, I believe that Pope Gregory wants to convert the Anglo-Saxons in Britain, as the Britons have already been converted.) Gregory chooses “his servant Augustine [and] several other God-fearing monks to preach the word of God to the English nation” (pg. 66). Augustine and his companions agree to go, but soon it becomes clear to them that they might be in over their heads. The group “progressed a short distance on their journey” (pg. 66) before wanting to return home. After all, none of them actually speak any English. And they consider Britain to be “a barbarous, fierce, and pagan nation” (pg. 66).

Besides the fact Augustine and his companions don’t want to go to Britain because they think it’s full of pagan barbarians, I do think they had some valid concerns. After all, it’s extremely difficult to preach and connect with people when you don’t speak the same language. There is a lot of risk for things to get lost in translation, among other dangers. However, Pope Gregory did not think that their concerns were valid. The group sent Augustine back to Gregory to ask that they might return home. Instead of saying yes, Gregory gave them a letter of encouragement and sent them on their way to Britain.

It really stood out to me that Augustine didn’t actually want to go to Britain. Usually, with missionary stories (at least the modern ones I’ve seen) people are enthusiastic about going to another country to convert non-Christians. (Sometimes these modern-day missionaries are a bit too enthusiastic…to state it lightly. But that’s a post for another day.) Instead of being enthusiastic, Augustine “humbly request[ed]” that the pope “recall them from so dangerous, arduous, and uncertain a journey” (pg. 67). Even if Augustine didn’t want to go for the glory of God, he actually had a lot to gain by going to Britain. He “was to be consecrated bishop in the event of their being received by the English” (pgs. 66-67). And as discussed in my last few posts, Britain wasn’t entirely pagan. Christianity was a thing in Britain and it had been for a while. However, instead of Roman Christianity, Britain practiced Celtic Christianity.

The second excerpt is from Book One, Chapter Twenty-Five. Augustine and his companions have landed on the British Isle of Thanet and they are finally comfortable with the idea of preaching to the English. I think it helped that “at the direction of…Pope Gregory, they had brought interpreters from among the Franks” (pg. 69). The monks send these interpreters to the king of Kent, Ethelbert with this message:

[T]hey came from Rome bearing very glad news, which infallibly assured all who would receive it of eternal joy in heaven and an everlasting kingdom with the living and true God (pg. 69).

Understandably, King Ethelbert was a bit thrown off by this. After all, that’s a lot of information to unpack. He sent a message back, which “ordered them to remain in the island where they had landed” (pg. 69). King Ethelbert made sure all the monks’ needs were taken care of while he figured out exactly what to do with them. Luckily for Augustine and his companions, King Ethelbert had a Christian wife so he wasn’t completely unfamiliar with Christianity. But it can still be off-putting to have someone want to preach to you, so I understand why King Ethelbert told the monks to stay put for a while. (Also, people preaching about religion is an almost guaranteed way for conflicts to start. King Ethelbert is aware of this as he later tells Augustine and the monks that he can’t “abandon the age-old beliefs that I have held together with the whole English nation” (pgs. 69-70).)

 

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Augustine and King Ethelbert (Note Ethelbert’s not historically accurate helmet.)

 

Putting King Ethelbert’s political decisions aside, we come to what I consider the meat of this excerpt. (If the meat is the part I find particularly fascinating!) In the second paragraph of this three-ish paragraph chapter, Bede documents “an ancient superstition” (pg. 69) of King Ethelbert. King Ethelbert is concerned that Augustine and the other monks are “practisers of magical arts” (pg. 69), so refuses to meet them inside a building. Instead, King Ethelbert meets the missionaries outside so they don’t “have [an] opportunity to deceive and master him” (pg. 69). It’s the little details like this that I find so interesting. Here we have a documented folk belief that might have been lost to history otherwise. As someone who writes historical fiction, it’s details like these that I love to collect so I can make my fiction more realistic. Plus from an anthropological standpoint, the fact that a king (or anyone really) had a belief like this that effected their behavior lets us see a past culture better.

The third excerpt is from Book One, Chapter Twenty-Six. The mission to convert the Anglo-Saxons is going pretty well. A lot of people have been baptized including King Ethelbert. However, after his own conversion, Ethelbert isn’t forcing anyone else to become Christians. While he is showing “greater favour to believers” (pg. 71) he’s doesn’t “compel anyone to accept Christianity” (pg. 71). Instead, Ethelbert “had learned from his instructors…that the service of Christ must be accepted freely and not under compulsion” (pg. 71). This is certainly a different way of doing things when you look at what other rulers from history (both distant history and more recent history) did when they converted.

 

Main Source:

Bede. A History of the English Church and People. Translated by Leo Sherley-Price, Penguin Books, 1970.