Fifteenth-century remedies against witchcraft, part 2


Wishing those who marked these days — belatedly — a meaningful All Souls’ Day and Día de los muertos! I miss living more directly in the Mexican diaspora and hope that anyone who had access to one ate a piece of pan de muerto in my honor (picture at right; source).


Turning to England, I was alerted this morning that the BBC HistoryExtra currently offers a quiz to determine whether you would have been accused of witchcraft. It’s well-constructed, if a bit simplistic, and based on the information I gave, I would have been accused. (Hmmm. And it’s not because I’ve read the Malleus maleficarum repeatedly.) There’s also a podcast on the significance of the Plantagenets to British history, which I am downloading for later. Apropos of Plantagenets, Sharon Kay Penman noted, on her fan club facebook page (you must join to see), that today marks the anniversary of the birth of the ill-fated Edward V and his younger sister, Anne.

[Left: The surviving main building at the abbey of Cluny, where Abbot Odilo originated the celebration of All Souls’ Day in the early eleventh century. The spread of the celebration of this holiday is associated with growing belief in the doctrine of purgatory in the western church after the mid-tenth century. Source.]


King Richard Magic Week continues below. Check out posts on the witchcraft’s threat to the crown in the fifteenth century, Gloucester’s witchcraft accusations in Richard III, and elite remedies against witchcraft.


Part II, question 2, ch. 6, of Malleus maleficarum, where exorcism to end bewitchment is discussed, is extraordinarily rich. A complete interpretation of it would explode the bounds of a single post. For instance, it treads perilously close to heresy several times — by proposing a remedy for witchcraft that is prohibited by canon law and was illegal in civil codes at the time in much of continental Europe (rebaptizing the victim); by charging that a priest in a state of grace is a more effective practitioner of an exorcism than a sinful one (a loophole may be that although the belief that a priest must be in a state of grace to perform a sacrament is heretical, exorcism is not a sacrament); and by suggesting that some baptisms were not effective the first time (clearly heretical because the sacraments work ex opere operato). But we’re interested in magic, not in heresy, here!

I noted in the previous post that the only remedy the Malleus maleficarum offers against witchcraft affecting the body is exorcism: the ritual or verbal casting out of demons or the Devil. In understanding the recommendations, it is helpful to consider what fifteenth-century authors might have meant by exorcism — since the common picture in the minds of most people today comes from an infamous 1971 film. (Maybe not so infamous to younger viewers — a review by a fellow Richard Armitage blogger expresses some confusion about the fame of the film.) And although the rank of “exorcist” was a minor order of the Church, it means something different now than it did in the 1470s. Indeed, the work stresses that one must not have taken the order in order to perform an exorcism.

Having thus discounted the possibility that exorcism differs from witchcraft because of the clerical status of its practitioner, the authors must set up a means by which an afflicted person can judge whether any exorcism would be lawful. They write:

The clergy have become too slothful to use any more the lawful words when they visit the sick. On this account … such lawful exorcisms may be used by a religious and discreet priest, or by a layman, or even by a woman of good life and proved discretion; by the offering of lawful prayers upon the sick. … And such persons are not to be prevented from practicing it in this way; unless perhaps it is feared that, following their example, other indiscreet persons should make improper use of incantations.

If the practitioner is pious, the victim may obtain help. The authors then list seven conditions for judging the lawfulness of remedies offered by such people: (1) no explicit or implicit invocation of devils; (2) no unknown names in charms; (3) nothing untrue in the words / no doggerel; (4) no written characters besides the sign of the cross — the authors note that this provision condemns most charms carried by soldiers; (5) no requirements regarding the method of writing or binding the charm on the person’s body; (6) use of scripture or words of saints must rely on effect from divine virtue or the relics of the saints; (7) the effect must be left open to divine will. “If none of these conditions be broken,” the authors conclude, “the incantation will be lawful.” These conditions established, the authors continue to note that a charm fixed around the neck is effective if the person who wears it understands the words in the charm; but if not, “it is enough if such a man fixes his thoughts on the divine virtue.”

If these simple measures have no effect, further steps can be taken. The afflicted person should make a good confession. Then, “let a diligent search be made in all corners and in the beds and mattresses and under the threshold of the door, in case some instrument of witchcraft may be found … and … all bedclothes and garments should be renewed, and … he should change his house and dwelling.” If these things do not avail, the afflicted should go the church on a feast day, take a holy candle, and pray. Various sacramentals (stole, holy water) should be employed. This ritual should be followed three times a week until successful. The victim should also receive the Eucharist, but only if he has not been excommunicated. Finally, the beginning words of the Gospel of John (“In the beginning was the Word …”) should be written and hung around his neck. (This widespread remedy against demonic attack in extremis is frequently evidenced in sources concerning women in childbirth, into the mid-sixteenth century.)

The authors then discuss reasons why exorcism — which is not a sacrament, so it doesn’t work automatically — may not work. Most of these relate to want of faith or piety in the victim, those praying for the victim or the exorcist, but the authors also suggest that the remedy may be flawed. Therefore the authors cite a final remedy for stubborn cases: rebaptism:

“It is said … of those who walk in their sleep during the night over high buildings without any harm, that it is the work of evil spirits who thus lead them; and many affirm that when such people are rebaptized they are much benefited. And it is wonderful that, when they are called by their own names, they suddenly fall to earth, as if that name had not been given to them in proper form at their baptism.”

Finally, the authors conclude with a discussion of natural remedies — which probably would have been the first resort of many people who sought to counter black magic with white. “If natural objects are used in a simple way to produce certain effects for which they are thought to have some natural virtue,” the authors conclude, “this is not unlawful. But if there are joined to this certain characters and unknown signs and vain observations, which manifestly cannot have any natural efficacy, then it is superstitious and unlawful.”


In the attempt to understand fifteenth-century piety and religion, we could make several observations about this body of remedies.

First, we’re clearly dealing with a mostly illiterate society here — so the shape of marks is more important than letters; and the remedies are claimed to work even if the victim is too uneducated to understand the sense of the words being used — which makes scriptural words hardly indistinguishable from magical marks, and one wonders how most people might have made the distinction.

Second, in contrast to the sort of universalizing statements the Latin church had regularly made about itself since at least the beginning of the thirteenth century, dealing with witchcraft gives the victim little reliance on the Church. After baptism, which includes a brief formula and prayer of exorcism (Exorcizo te, immunde spiritus, in nomine Patris + et Filii + et Spiritus + Sancti, ut exeas, et recedas ab hoc famulo …), the church has no additional tool to cast out the devil automatically, only a ritual (exorcism) that is dependent on the faith of the victim and those supporting him in his ordeal. Along the same lines, the authors suggest repeatedly that the clergy may not necessarily offer any help — they are too lazy, or not in a state of grace, or not pious enough. I tend not to be a big fan of the scholarly argument that Europeans on the eve of the Reformation were constantly tortured by the imminence of damnation and that medieval piety did nothing against such fears — but depending on how we understand it, this discussion of exorcism offers some anchoring for that position, even if the Reformation — which is only thirty years in the future at this point — clearly expanded both fears and persecutions of sorcery of various types.

Finally, and decisively, the remedies proposed look from our perspective suspiciously like witchcraft themselves in that they both explicitly legitimate the practice of witchcraft by giving it credibility (if you’re suffering, look for an enchanted object that’s causing it), and by suggesting mechanisms (charms, language, contact with relics) strongly similar to those used by witches to cause enchantments in the first place. Baptism is supposed to call demons out of the body of the baptizand — but the discussion if its efficacy implies that it also give the baptizand a name by which he may be called, putting him in a parallel position to beings, like demons and spirits, that may be summoned. The authors of the work seem unaware of or uninterested in this relationship, a parallelism that suggests that they themselves were incorporated into the paradigm that made witchcraft accusations simply “make sense” in explaining the world.


And Shakespeare’s Gloucester? He could have undertaken any of these things — but, the implication is, he himself is so implicated in the disordered and unlawful relationships exemplified by witchcraft that he choose to wreak further havoc rather than dealing with them.


Calendar-wise, Magic Week 2012 is over, but I had two more subjects planned for this series. I will try to get to them this week. I’m also happy to answer questions if anything’s unclear.

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