The Joy of Confessing: “Women’s Vices” and Burchard’s Decretum of 1003

Some people think medieval history is boring—all religion, suppression, and marrying for alliances—but we know better, don’t we? Medieval history is a Pandora’s box of surprises, and the deeper you go, the stranger they get. Case in point, penitentials. Yes, I’m going to get into sources here with you for a minute, but bear with me, it’s worth it.

When studying the Middle Ages, the temptation is to stop at Canon Law, that is, the rules and guidelines set by the Church. The mistake is in assuming everyone lived by it; even prominent people within the Church disagreed with each other on many key points, and the laws they reached by consensus were laws for an ideal world where everyone lived perfect Christian lives according to the standard of whichever pope they happened to have at the time. As you can imagine, not everyone lived the way Rome wanted them to. To get a more accurate picture of medieval life, we need to consider other sources like court documents, medical texts, and even popular literature. The source we’re going to be looking at today is a personal favorite of mine: pentitentials.

sex with a dragon

When I get busy with dragons, I never forget my crown

What, pray tell, is a penitential? It’s every bit as exciting as it sounds. Penitentials were confessional literature compiled by monks as guides to the theory and application of confession. Spanning hundreds of pages and multiple volumes, penitentials listed every sin imaginable in separate categories and advised punishments for each. Penitentials are fantastic sources for those studying the Middle Ages, but proceed with caution: while many of the sins do give us a better idea of the ways in which common people could misbehave, it is impossible to say how often some of the sins came up (or how many were products of a bored monk’s imagination. See also marginalia, below).

With that disclaimer firmly in place, we are going to take a look at the Decretum of Burchard of Worms.

Apart from having the best name ever, Burchard served as the bishop of Worms from 1000 until his death in 1025. During his tenure, he wrote his Decretum, a massive twenty-book list of every sin conceivable to the medieval imagination, drawing on a combination of earlier penitentials and things actually heard in confession at that time. Some of the penitentials he used as sources dated back to the seventh century, and this may help to explain some of the stranger sins below.

wolf as monk

A wolf dressed as a monk. Why not?

The nineteenth book of Burchard’s Decretum has a section dealing in sickness of the soul, including magic, divination, and “women’s vices.” It is worth noting that many of the “diabolical practices” mentioned here could be forgiven with a fairly light penance, as opposed to the death sentences handed out like candy four hundred years later with the publication of the Malleus Maleficarum. Many of these are framed as questions a priest would ask his penitent. I have included some of my favorites here, but if you want to read this in its entirety, you can also find it here.

As relevant art from these period is sadly limited, I have added some marginalia to our…erm…margins. Enjoy.

***

“Have you violated a grave, by which I mean, after you see someone buried have you gone at night, broken open the grave, and taken his clothes? If you have, you should do penance for two years on the appointed fast days.”

I mean, not since college. Is that bad?

bunny“Have you refused to attend mass or prayers or to make an offering to a married priest, by which I mean have you not wished to confess your sins to him or receive the Body and Blood of the Lord from him because you thought he was a sinner? If you have done so, you should do penance for one year on the appointed fast days.”

That’s right. Married priest. At this point, priests were still allowed to marry or have concubines. Clerical marriage wasn’t condemned by the pope until Leo IX in 1049, but the ban didn’t take hold until well into the twelfth century after the Lateran councils in 1123 and 1139. The more you know!

“Have you tasted your husband’s semen in order to make his love for you burn greater through your diabolical deeds? If you have, you should do seven years of penance on the appointed fast days.”

Okay, oral sex has magical properties. So far, so sensible. What next?

“Have you done what some women are wont to do? They take their menstrual blood, mix it into food or drink, and give it to their men to eat or drink to make them love them more. If you have done this, you should do five years of penance on the appointed fast days.”

fish

That poor fish.

How’s that for a binding spell? If that doesn’t work:

“Have you done what some women are wont to do? They take a live fish and put it in their vagina, keeping it there for a while until it is dead. Then they cook or roast it and give it to their husbands to eat, doing this in order to make men be more ardent in their love for them. If you have, you should do two years of penance on the appointed fast days.”

Wait, what?

“Have you done what some women are accustomed to do? They lie face down on the ground, uncover their buttocks, and tell someone to make bread on their naked buttocks. When they have cooked it, they give it to their husbands to eat. They do this to make them more ardent in their love for them. If you have, you should do two years of penance on the appointed fast days.”

Bread…on my butt?

“Have you done what some women are wont to do? They take a man’s skull, burn it, and give it to their husbands to drink for health. If you have, you should do one year of penance on the appointed fast days.”

Who hasn’t? Next…

nude knight on a hobby horse

See what happens when you don’t have your burnt skull potion?

“Have you believed what many women turning back to Satan believe and assert to be true: you believe that in the stillness of a quiet night, with you gathered in your bed with your husband lying at your bosom, you are physically able to pass through closed doors and can travel across the span of the earth with others deceived by a similar error? And that you can kill baptized people redeemed by Christ’s blood without using visible weapons and then, after cooking their flesh, can eat it, and put straw, wood, or something like this in place of their hearts, and, though you have eaten them, you can bring them back to life and grant them a stay during which they can live? If you have believed this, you should do penance for forty days (that is, a quarantine) on bread and water with seven years of penance subsequently.”

Do any women believe that? Show of hands, please.

“Have you done what some adulterous women do? As soon as they find out that their lovers wish to take lawful wives, then they use some sort of evil art to extinguish the men’s sexual desire so that they are useless to their wives and unable to have intercourse with them. If you have done this or taught others to, you should do penance for ten days on bread and water.”

baking magic butt bread

Baking some magic butt bread

Sure. Someone put a “spell” on you. Right.

“Have you done what some women are accustomed to do? They take off their clothes and smear honey all over their naked body. With the honey on their body they roll themselves back and forth over wheat on a sheet spread on the ground. They carefully collect all the grains of wheat sticking to their moist body, put them in a mill, turn the mill in the opposite direction of the sun, grind the wheat into flour, and bake bread from it. Then they serve it to their husbands to eat, who then grow weak and die. If you have, you should do penance for forty days on bread and water.”

Is this a sin or a recipe? And hang on, only forty days for murdering a spouse with magic bread?

Also included under “women’s vices”, for some reason:

“Have you eaten any food from Jews or from other pagans which they prepared for you? If you have, you should do penance for ten days on bread and water.”

BURCHARD. What. The. Heck? I guess there wasn’t a chapter for xenophobic culinary guidelines.

As batty as these sound, some of them are nevertheless revealing of superstitions and pagan rituals that had survived until the eleventh century through confessional literature, if not in real life. We do need to take these with a pinch of salt, however; while some of them could be indicative of real practice, others are just as likely to have been imagined or embellished by the monks painstakingly copying these manuscripts and doodling madness in the margins.

You can find this section translated here.

Jessica Cale

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Diabolical Filthiness vs. Divine Castration: Medieval Witchcraft and the Malleus Maleficarum

Witches are trouble. According to the Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches), a medieval treatise on the identification and punishment of witches, they may hurt you, your livestock, or property, offer aid to the saucy ex-girlfriend you ditched for your straight-laced wife, or eat your unbaptized children in a tasty soup. The enemy is everywhere and capable everything from the fantastic (controlling the weather) to the mundane (imagining themselves in other places).

First published in 1487 by monks of the Dominican Order, Henreich Kramer and Jacob Springer, The Malleus Maleficarum was written to prove the existence of witches and to advise magistrates on how to convict them. By 1669, thirty-six editions had been published, significantly contributing to the witch craze that saw an estimated 60,000 people executed across Europe. Though the content is presented as fact, there were some who did not take the guidelines at face value including, interestingly enough, members of the Spanish Inquisition.*

marginalia, Roman de la Rose

Filling up bags of dicks from the dick tree. As you do. Marginalia from Roman de la Rose.

Given that so many people were incarcerated, tortured, or killed for the crime of witchcraft, one would think people in fifteenth century Germany flew around on brooms with baskets of body parts (or trees full of them, see left). Not so! The Malleus Maleficarum assures us that actual proof was not necessary and should not even be sought:

“We pray God that the reader will not look for proofs in every case, since it is enough to adduce examples that have been personally seen or heard, or are accepted at the word of credible witnesses.”

That’s right, all you need for your life to be thoroughly ruined is to piss off a neighbor who can accuse you of bewitching them or otherwise causing you harm. Unfortunately, little advice is given for those who have been wrongly accused. It does encourage you to be on the lookout for witches, however, as no one is safe from their terrible powers:

“It is asked whether a man can be so blessed by the good Angels that he cannot be bewitched by witches in any of the ways that follow. And it seems that he cannot, for it has already been proved that even the blameless and innocent and the just are often afflicted by devils, as was Job; and many innocent children, as well as countless other just men, are seen to be bewitched, although not to the same extent as sinners; for they are not afflicted in the perdition of their souls, but only in their worldly good and their bodies.”

Fear not, there are a few people who are impervious to bewitchment: those who prosecute them in any public official capacity, those who use sacred objects from the Church to protect themselves, and people who are otherwise blessed by Holy Angels.

Why are Inquisitors safe?

When taken by officials of public justice, witches immediately lose all of their powers. Proof of this comes from an anecdote about a Judge named Peter, who oversaw the arrest of “most notorious warlock” Stadelein, an unfortunate man from Boltingen in Lausanne. According to the authors, Peter assured his officials they could not be hurt by Stadelein: “You may safely arrest the wretch, for when he is touched by the hand of public justice, he will lost all the power of his iniquity.” As Peter promised, Stadelein was burned at the stake without any supernatural interference.

Although this is the only example given of the inability of witches to defend themselves against the authorities, the Malleus Maleficarum assures us it was not the only occurrence:

“Many more such experiences have happened to us Inquisitors in the exercise of our inquisitorial office, which would turn the mind of the reader to wonder if it were expedient to relate them. But since self-praise is sordid and mean, it is better to pass them over in silence than to incur the stigma of boastfulness and conceit.”

When magistrates in the town of Ratisbon were asked why Inquisitors were safe from witchcraft, they said “they did not know, unless it was because the devils had warned them against doing so.” We can only assume they were also on his payroll.

Lord knows one shouldn’t brag about how many defenseless people they detained. So what if I’m not an Inquisitor?

If you’re not an inquisitor or working on behalf of one, fear not! Holy Water, Blessed Candles, Blessed Salt, and consecrated herbs can also be employed to protect yourself and your livestock from witches. While you’re stocking up at the Church, be sure to have your children baptized, because witches may try to eat them if you don’t. You can also protect yourself by crossing yourself, writing the triumphal name of Our Saviour in four places in the form of a cross**, or regularly attending Mass:

“There were also three companions walking along a road, and two of them were struck by lightning. The third was terrified, when he heard voices speaking in the air, “Let us strike him, too.” But another voice answered, “We cannot, for to-day he had heard the words ‘The Word was made Flesh.’” And he understood that he had been saved because he had that day heard Mass.”

Go to Church, kids.

How does one become blessed by an angel?

Bust_of_an_Angel-Filippino_Lippi_mg_9962

“You want me to do what?” Bust of an Angel, Filippino Lippi, 1495.

You will not be protected by a common blessing from just any old angel. While some angels may protect against witchcraft specifically, many do this by blessing “just and holy men … in the matter of the genital instincts.”

That is exactly what it sounds like, and before you get your hopes up thinking this is going somewhere sexy, it’s really not. A few examples are given of holy men who, after devoting themselves to lives of chastity, were granted the complete removal of sexual desire, which manifests itself in oddly surgical dreams.

According to the monk John Cassian, the Abbott S. Serenus was delivered from his earthly desires when “an Angel of the Lord came to him in a vision in the night, and seemed to open his belly and take from his entrails a burning tumour of flesh, and then to replace all of his intestines as they had been; and said: “Lo! The provocation of your flesh is cut out, and know that this day you have obtained perpetual purity of your body … so that you will never again be pricked with that natural desire…”

Erm, what if I like my provocation of my flesh where it is?

You can also be castrated by angels. In your dreams, of course. Heraclides tells of a monk named Helias who abandoned a monastery full of women (virgins, we are assured) when the temptation became too great. According to Heraclides, Helias was visited by angels in a dream to enable him to return to his work with the women: “One seemed to hold his hands, another his feet, and the third to cut out his testicles with a knife … when they asked if he felt himself remedied, he answered that he was entirely delivered.”

If you don’t enjoy prosecuting your neighbors, can’t regularly get to church (or belong to another religion), and don’t like the sound of divine castration, you might consider becoming a witch.

The Malleus Maleficarum warns us that all witches are evil regardless of what they use their powers for and they must be punished accordingly, but a lot of their abilities sounds useful for dealing with superstitious peasants or entertaining oneself when trapped in 15th century Germany.

There were three types of witches: Witches who caused harm but could not heal, witches who could heal but could not cause harm (we call them doctors now), and witches who could do both. Of those who harm, the most powerful are those who eat children. No matter how they used their powers, they always had congress with the devil as an Incubus who, rather helpfully, usually took the form of some random guy.

One woman who was later burned as a witch detailed her first encounter with an Incubus:

“When the Incubus devil had seen her, and had asked her whether she recognized him, and she had said that she did not, he had answered: “I am the devil; and if you wish, I will always be ready at your pleasure, and I will not fail you in any necessity.” And when she had consented, she continued for eighteen years, up to the end of her life, to practice diabolical filthiness with him…”

Olaus Magnus Historia om de nordiska folken

“Anything but diabolical filthiness!” On the Punishment of Witches. Olaus Magnus, 1555.

Okay, so eating children is obviously out, but if diabolical filthiness sounds a little more appealing than divine castration, the Malleus Maleficarum tells us witches can also do the following:

  • Inflame the lusts of certain wicked
    TheWitch-no1

    The Witch No. 1. Joseph E. Baker, 1892. Lithograph depicting Salem Witch Trials.

    men toward some women, while making them cold to others

  • Raise hurtful tempests and lightnings
  • Cause sterility in men and animals
  • Throw into the water children walking by the water side
  • Make horses go mad under their riders
  • Transport themselves from place to place through the air, either in body or imagination
  • Affect Judges and Magistrates so that they cannot hurt them (which directly contradicts what they said in the previous chapter)
  • Cause themselves and others to keep silent under torture
  • Bring about a great trembling in the hands and horror in the minds of those who would arrest them
  • Show to others occult things and certain future events, by the information of devils, though this may sometimes have a natural cause
  • See absent things as if they were present
  • Turn the minds of men to inordinate love or hatred
  • Strike whom they will with lightning
  • Make of no effect the generative desires, and even the power of copulation
  • Kill infants in the mother’s womb by a mere exterior touch
  • Bewitch men and animals with a mere look, without touching them, and cause death
  • Cause plagues

Witches can be male or female, and their power comes as a direct result of their copulation with the devil, however we should note that God “gently directs the witchcraft of devils, so that when they try to diminish and weaken the Faith, they on the contrary strengthen it and make it more firmly rooted in the hearts of many.”

So God is also with those accused while the devil protects the Inquisitors?

That sounds about right.

Jessica Cale

*If the Spanish Inquisition thinks you’re nutty, that might be a bad sign.
**Iesus + Nazarenus + Rex + Iudaeorum + , in case you were wondering)

Source
The Malleus Maleficarum of Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger. Translated with an Introduction, Bibliography, and Notes by the Reverend Montague Summers. Dover Publications, New York. 1971