Witchcraft in the Penitentials
All translations from John T. McNeill and Helena M. Gamer's _Medieval Handbooks of Penance: A Translation of the Principal Libri Poenitentiales_ (Columbia University Press, New York, N.Y., 1938) Introduction and notes by Jenny Gibbons
A "penitential" is a handbook for Christian priests, listing various sins and the appropriate penalty (penance) which will atone for that sin. Witchcraft was one of the "sins" the medieval Church frowned upon. But contrary to what many assume, the early Church was not a Witch's deadly enemy, as it was in the Burning Times. Before the 14th century, the Church merely ordered Witches to repent and do penance. A Witch who refused was excommunicated (kicked out of the Church) and all good Christians were supposed to shun them. But it was extremely rare for the Church to imprison or kill Witches.
The following excerpts, taken from a variety of medieval penitentials, will give you an idea of how the early Church viewed Witches. No single penitential was the "official" ruling of the Catholic Church; there were all kinds of different and contradictory guidelines floating about. One note: many of these entries assign a period of fasting. "Fasting" does not mean going without food! It means avoiding certain delicacies (like meat and wine) or, in some places, eating only bread and water.
The Penitential of Finnian (circa 525-550, Ireland)
"18. If any cleric or woman who practices magic misleads anyone by the magic, it is a monstrous sin, but [a sin that] can be expiated by penance. Such an offender shall do penance for six years, three years on an allowance of bread and water, and during the remaining years he shall abstain from wine and meats.
19. If, however, such a person does not mislead anyone but gives [a potion] for the sake of wanton love to some one, he shall do penance for an entire year on an allowance of bread and water.
20. If some woman by her magic misleads any woman with respect to the birth of a child, she shall do penance for half a year with an allowance of bread and water and abstain for two years from wine and meats and fast for six forty-day periods with bread and water."
1) It's not clear what "misleads" means in these three passages. Several other penitentials which are based on the Penitential of Finnian use the word "destroy" instead of "mislead".
2) Article 20 is a prohibition against administering herbal abortificants. Three versions of this penitential begin, "If some woman by her magic destroys a woman's child..." In both variants, article 21 describes the penance to be assigned if the abortion fails and a child is born.
The Penitential of Columban (circa 600; Irish author, composed on the Continent)
"6. If one destroys another by his magic, he shall do penance for three years with an allowance of bread and water, and for three years more he shall abstain from wine and meats, and then at last in the seventh year he shall be admitted to communion. But if anyone is a magician for the sake of love and destroys nobody, that person, if a cleric, shall do penance for an entire year on bread and water; a layman, half that time; a deacon, two years; a priest, three. Especially if by this means anyone deceives a woman with respect to the birth of a child; for this each [of the above] shall add besides six periods of forty days, lest he be chargeable with homicide."
The Penitential of Theodore (circa 668-690, England)
"XV. Of the Worship of Idols
1. He who sacrifices to demons in trivial matters shall do penance for one year; but he who [does so] in serious matters shall do penance for ten years.
2. If any woman puts her daughter upon a roof or into an oven for the cure of a fever, she shall do penance for seven years.
3. He who causes grains to be burned where a man has died, for the health of the living and of the house, shall do penance for five years.
4. If a woman performs diabolical incantations or divinations, she shall do penance for one year or three forty-day periods, or forty days, according to the nature of the offense. Of this matter it is said in the canon: 'He who celebrates auguries, omens from birds, or dreams, or any divinations according to the custom of the Heathen, or introduces such people into his houses, in seeking out any trick of the magicians -- when these become penitents, if they belong to the clergy they shall be cast out; but if they are secular persons they shall do penance for five years.'
5. In the case of one who eats food that has been sacrificed and later confesses, the priest ought to consider the person, of what age he was and in what way he had been brought up or how it came about.
1) Here and throughout the remainder of these passages, the words "demon" and "devil" refer to Pagan God/desses, not Christian demons.
2) Notice how often the penitentials focus on women. After the arrival of Christianity, women preserved a great deal of Pagan lore and ritual. Many early Christian penitentials and sermons note this, and complain bitterly about women's attraction to Witchcraft. Later, when the Church's attitude towards Witchcraft worsened, the link between women and Witchcraft intensified the Church's misogyny.
3) "The canon" of article 4 is Canon 24 of the synod of Ancyra (held in 314 CE).
The Penitential of Bede (possibly 8th century, England)
"X. Of Auguries or Divinations
1. He who observes auguries or the oracles which are falsely called "sortes sanctorum," or divinations, or utters things to come by looking at some sort of writings, or takes a vow on a tree or on anything, except at a church, if clerics or laymen do this they shall be excommunicated from the Church; or else, a cleric shall do penance for three years, laymen two, or one and one-half.
2. If a woman places her child upon a roof or in an oven in order to cure a fever, she shall do penance for five years.
3. and 4. Do not employ adroit jugglers and chanting diviners when the moon is eclipsed, since by sacrilegious custom they trust they can protect themselves by their outcries and magical arts, even [by] the attaching of diabolical amulets whether of grass or of amber to their people or to themselves; nor celebrate Thursday in honor of Jupiter or the Kalends of January according to Pagan tradition. Offenders, if clerics, shall do penance for five years; laymen, for three or five years."
1. The "sortes sanctorum" ("lots or divinations of the Saints") is a form of bibliomancy (divination by book). The questioner took a bible or book of psalms, formulated a question, then opened the book at random. The first passage s/he noted contained the answer to the question.
2. The "adroit jugglers" of article 3 are "caragios", or illusionists.
3. The English God Thunor (Norse Thor) was equated with the Roman God Jupiter. "Thursday" literally means "Thunor's Day", so article 3 probably prohibits honoring Thunor on His holy day.
4. The Kalends of January is January 1st: New Year's Day under the Roman calendar. Throughout the Middle Ages, the Kalends were celebrated with riotous Pagan festivities. Men dressed as stags and old women. Often these rites were led by the village priest, and we have numerous sermons from the early Middle Ages fuming about how priests ought to know that it was un-Christian to dress as a stag and dance in the church on the Kalends of January.
The Burgundian Penitential (circa 700-725, France)
"9. If by his magic anyone destroys anybody, he shall do penance for seven years, three of these on bread and water.
10. If anyone is a magician for love and destroys nobody, if he is a cleric, he shall do penance for an entire year on bread and water; if a deacon, three [years], one of these on bread and water; if a priest, five, two of these on bread and water. Especially if by this anyone deceives a woman with respect to her child, each one shall increase [the penance] by five forty-day periods on bread and water, lest he be charged with homicide."
The Penitential of Silos (circa 800, Spain)
"VII (104). Of sacrilegious rites. -- If any Christian pays respect to diviners, enchanters, or fortune tellers to observe auguries, omens, or elements, or if they busy themselves with and seek after consultations of writings, dreams, woolen work, or magical practices, he shall do penance for five years. It is not permitted to observe [the customs connected with] wool at the Kalends, or the collections of herbs, [or] to give heed to incantations except to perform everything with the creed and the Lord's prayer.
XI (107). Of various cases of penitents. -- ...He who by means of some incantation, for whatever reason, bathes himself in reverse position, shall do penance for one year; but without the incantation, he shall do penance for forty days. If on account of illness he bathes below a mill with an incantation, he shall do penance for a year; but without it, he shall do penance for forty days. Those who in the dance wear women's clothes and strangely devise them and employ jaw-bones and a bow and a spade and things like these shall do penance for one year... He who makes images of or consults demons shall do penance for eight years. If for the health of the living, a woman burns grains where a man has died, she shall do penance for one year... If anyone believes that by his own power the devil makes thunder or lightning or storms or drouth, let him be anathema.
1. Article VII (104). In Spain, wool was a common offering to the spirits. On the Kalends of January (1/1), girls who wanted a husband would leave woolen offerings outside their doors.
2. Article VII (104). "The customs connected with the collections of herbs" means singing prayers or charms while gathering herbs. Herb songs are one of the most common forms of "spells" from the Middle Ages. These songs were a way of empowering herbs. They praised the plant and requested its aid in the healing. They also helped the healer keep her purpose firmly in mind at all times. The Church considered herb songs Pagan. It prohibited any "non-religious" or Pagan herb songs, but allowed healers to sing the creed or Lord's prayer while gathering their herbs.
3. Article VII (104). The "creed" is a poem listing the Articles of Faith for the Catholic Church -- the things that all Catholics must believe.
4. Article XI (107). Sorry, I don't know what "bathing in reverse position" means!
5. Article XI (107). "Dancing in women's clothes" refers to the rites of the Kalends of January (1/1) again. Oddly costumed characters often accompanied these dancers. Fake horses with snapping mechanical jaws appear in many Kalends festivals -- which may be what that confused section on strangely devised jaw-bones is trying to describe.
The So-Called Roman Penitential of Halitgar (circa 830, France)
"31. If one by his magic causes the death of anyone, he shall do penance for seven years, three years on bread and water.
32. If anyone acts as a magician for the sake of love but does not cause anybody's death, if he is a layman he shall do penance for half a year; if a cleric, he shall do penance for a year on bread and water; if a priest, for five years, two years on bread and water. But if by this means anyone deceives a woman with respect to the birth of a child, each one shall add to the above six forty-day periods, lest he be accused of homicide.
33. If anyone is a conjurer-up of storms he shall do penance for seven years, three years on bread and water.
34. If anyone commits sacrilege -- (that is, those who are called augurs, who pay respect to omens), if he has taken auguries or [does it] by any evil device, he shall do penance for three years on bread and water.
35. If anyone is a soothsayer (those whom they call diviners) and makes divinations of any kind, since this is a demonic thing he shall do penance for five years, three years on bread and water.
36. If on the Kalends of January, anyone does as many do, calling it "in a stag," or goes about in [the guise of] a calf, he shall do penance for three years.
37. If anyone has the oracles which against reason they call "Sortes Sanctorum" or any other "sortes" or with evil device draws lots from anything else, or practices divination, he shall do penance for three years, one year on bread and water.
38. If anyone makes, or releases from, a vow beside trees or springs or by a lattice, or anywhere except in a church, he shall do penance for three years on bread and water, since this is sacrilege or a demonic thing. Whoever eats or drinks in such a place, shall do penance for one year on bread and water.
39. If anyone is a wizard, that is, if he takes away the mind of a man by the invocation of demons, he shall do penance for five years, one year on bread and water.
40. If anyone makes amulets, which is a detestable thing, he shall do penance for three years, one year on bread and water.
41. It is ordered that persons who both eat of a feast in the abominable places of the Pagans and carry food back [to their homes] and eat it subject themselves to a penance of two years...
42. If anyone eats or drinks beside a [Pagan] sacred place, if it is through ignorance, he shall thereupon promise that he will never repeat it, and he shall do penance for forty days on bread and water. But if he does this through contempt, that is, after the priest has warned him that it is sacrilege, he has communicated at the table of demons; if he did this only through the vice of gluttony, he shall do penance for the three forty-day periods on bread and water. If he did this really for the worship of demons and in honor of an image, he shall do penance for three years.
43. If anyone has sacrificed under compulsion [in demon worship] a second or third time, he shall be in subjection for three years, and for two years he shall partake of the communion without the oblation; in the third year he shall be received to full [communion].
44. If anyone eats blood or a dead body or what has been offered to idols and was not under necessity of doing this, he shall fast for twelve weeks.
1) Article 42. "Communicated" means, basically, "ate a sacred meal." Communion is one of the central rites of Catholicism. The priest magickally transforms wine and bread into the body and blood of Christ. By "communicating" (eating the holy bread and wine), Catholics believe they take Christ into themselves.
2) Article 43. The "oblation" is the blessed wine and bread of communion. So a person guilty under article 43 can attend communion, but he's not allowed to "communicate".
Penitential Canons from Regino
of Pru..m's Ecclesiastical Discipline
Question: Hast thou done anything that the Pagans do at the Kalends of January, in [the guise of] a stag or a cow? Thou shalt do penance for three years.
Question: Hast thou done or said anything in any task, or hast thou begun it, with fortune telling or a magical trick? Thou shouldst do penance for one year.
Question: Has thou placed thy child on a roof or on an oven for some healing, or hast thou burnt grains where there was a dead man? Thou shouldst do penance for five years.
The Confessional of Egbert (circa 950-1000, England)
"If a woman works witchcraft and enchantments and [uses] magical philters, she shall fast for twelve months or the three stated fasts or forty days, the extent of her wickedness being considered. If she kills anyone by her philters, she shall fast for seven years..."
1. "Witchcraft" is McNeill's translation of "dry-cra/eft", literally "Druidic skill". "Magical philters" is literally "unlibban" -- magickal poisons and abortificants.
The Penitential of Bartholomew Iscanus (circa 1161-84, England)
"Of Magic. (fol. 32r, col. I)
If anyone pays respect to soothsayers, augurs, enchanters, or makes use of philters, let him be anathema.
Whoever by any magic turns aside a judgment of God, shall do penance for two years.
He who is a magician for the sake of love and does not bring it to success shall do penance for two years, If he does, five years. If adultery results, ten years...
He who strives to take away another's supply of milk or honey or of other things by any incantation, or [tries] by magic to gain it for himself, shall do penance for three years...
They who by any incantation disturb the calm of the atmosphere or who by invocation of demons confuse the minds of men shall do penance for five years.
They who, deceived by the illusion of a demon, believe and profess that they go or ride in the service of Her whom the stupid crowd call Herodias or Diana with a countless multitude and obey Her commands shall do penance for one year.
She who lays a table with three knives for the service of the Fates, that They may predestinate good things to those who are born there, shall do penance for two years.
A woman who by a magical trick [prevents the consummation of a legal marriage] shall do penance for five years.
Those who make vows beside trees or water, those who keep the New Year with Pagan rites, and those who make magical knots or charms and hide them in the grass or in a tree or at a cross roads to free their animals from pestilence must each do penance for two years.
He who places his child upon a roof or in an oven in order to restore his health, or who for this purposes uses charms or characters or things fashioned for sorcery or any trick, and not godly prayers or the liberal art of medicine, shall do penance for forty days...
He who practices divinations from the funeral of any dead person or from his body or from his clothing, lest the dead take vengeance, or in order that another not in the same house shall die, or to gain by this something toward his advantage or health shall do penance for forty days.
He who at the feast of St. John Baptist does any work of sorcery to seek out the future shall do penance for fifteen days.
He who believes that anything comes out favorably or unfavorably because of the croaking of a young crow, or a raven, or meeting a priest or any animal shall do penance for seven days.
He who casts into a granary or storehouse a bow or any such thing for the devils which they call fauns to play with, that they may bring more [grain], shall do penance for fifteen days.
He who in visiting a sick man draws any inference of good or evil from the moving of a stone in going or returning shall do penance for ten days.
He who believes that [a man or a woman] can be transformed into the shape of a wolf shall do penance for ten days.
The Penitential of Thorlac Thorhallson (circa 1178-93, Iceland)
"If anyone going about by night seeks illicit knowledge or practices a magical trick or anything pertaining to magic, or if anyone does what the Heathen do, the bishop shall indicate the penalty, provided it is confessed to the priest before being confessed to the bishop."