Notable Medieval Penitentials

From the sixth century through the end of the twelfth century existed books known as penitentials. These were compiled by priests and contained lists of sins and how to seek penance for them. These lists were often lengthy and detailed, giving us a glimpse into the proscribed practices and beliefs of ordinary people. At times our only meaningful source of practices comes from these compiled lists.

Below I will present excerpts that are, in my mind, relevant to reconstruction or a more complete understanding of the past. As your opinions on such matters may differ, I recommend reading Medieval Handbooks of Penance by John T. McNeill and Helena M. Gamer, from whom I pull the excerpts unless otherwise noted.

In regards to this book, Allen Frantzen writes:

This collection omits the vernacular Anglo-Saxon documents and, with Victorian primness, suppresses references to unorthodox sexuality and other potentially awkward subjects. Its historical conclusions are a half-century out of date, but Medieval Handbooks was reprinted, unrevised, in 1991, testifying at once to a new interest in social history and to the moribund nature of scholarship in this field.

Take that as you will.

As a note of warning, the names of manuscripts may have changed over the decades. It is unfortunately rather difficult to know of these changes, as there is little discussion on the topic of penitentials. It is my intention to fix what I can and to update this post as I find new information.

The Penitential of Theodore (668–690)

Theodore of Tarsus was the eighth Archbishop of Canterbury. He was born in Tarsus, located in the Byzantine Empire, and was likely driven from his home by the Muslin invasion in 637. He died in 690.

  • Book one, chapter one, canon four: “If [the drunkenness is] due to weakness or because he has been a long time abstinent and is not accustomed to drink or eat much; or if it is for gladness at Christmas or Easter or for any festival of a saint, and he then has imbibed no more than commanded by his seniors, no offence is committed. If a bishop commands it, no offence is committed, unless he himself does likewise.”
  • Book one, chapter fifteen:
    • Canon one: “He who sacrifices to demons in trivial manners shall do penance for one year; but he who [does so] in serious manners shall do penance for ten years.”
    • Canon three: “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.”
    • Canon four: “If a woman performs diabolical incantations or divinations, she shall do penance for one year or the three forty-day periods, or forty days, according to the nature of the offence.  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.”
  • Book two, chapter one:
    • Canon four: “In a church in which the bodies of dead unbelievers are buried, an altar may not be sanctified; but if it seems suitable for consecration, when the bodies have been removed and the woodwork of it has been scraped or washed, [the altar] shall be reerected.”
    • Canon five: “But if it was previously consecrated, masses may be celebrated in it if religious men are buried there; but if there is a pagan [buried there], it is better to cleanse it and cast [the corpse] out.”
  • Book two, chapter six, canon four: “They do not forbid horse [flesh], nevertheless it is not the custom to eat it.”

Book one, chapter five, canon three states that people may not keep Easter with the Jews on the fourteenth of the month. This is not relevant to our needs. That particular issue is related to the First Council of Nicaea and the recently held Synod of Whitby in 664. The Council of Hertford in 673 was headed by Theodore of Tarsus and also dealt with the dating of Easter.

The Penitential Ascribed to Bede (Eighth Century)

Bede was a monk who lived from approximately 673 to 735 in the Kingdom of Northumbria. He had a major influence on English Christianity.

  • Chapter six, canon twelve: “Those who sacrifice to demons in great matters, if it is habitual, shall do penance for ten years; in small matters, one year.”
  • Chapter six, canon thirteen: “Auguries and divinations, five years.”
  • Chapter six, canon fourteen: “Those who conjure up storms shall do penance for seven years.”
  • Chapter ten:
    • Canon one: “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.”
    • Canons three and four: “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.”

Chapter nine deals with magical arts practiced by women, but I do not have a translation.

Scriftboc (950–1000)

Known formerly as the Confessionale Pseudo-Egberti. It was incorrectly associated with Ecgbert of York, an eighth century cleric.

  • Canon 29: “If a woman works witchcraft1drýcræft and enchantments2galdor and [uses] magical philtres3unlibban, 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 philtres, she shall fast for seven years.”
  • Canon 32: “If anyone sacrifices anything of a minor sort to devils, he shall fast for one year; if something of a major sort, he shall fast for ten years. Anyone who takes food that has been offered to fiends and afterwards confesses to a priest, the priest shall see of what rank the man is, or of what age, or how he is instructed, and then shall he give judgement as it seems to him wisest. Anyone who burns corn in the place where a dead man lay, for the health of living men and of his house, shall fast for five years.”

The Burgundian Penitential (c. 700–725)

  • Canon nine: “If by his magic anyone destroys anybody, he shall do penance for seven years, three of these on bread and water.”
  • Canon ten: “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.”
  • Canon 20: “If, indeed, anyone is a wizard, that is, a conjurer-up of storms, he shall do penance for seven years, three of these on bread and water.”
  • Canon 24: “If anyone commits sacrilege (that is, they call augurs those who pay respect to omens), whether he takes auguries by birds or by whatever evil device, he shall do penance for three years on bread and water.”
  • Canon 25: “If any soothsayer (those whom they call diviners) makes any divinations, since this is also of the demons, he shall do penance for five years, three of these on bread and water.”
  • Canon 28: “If anyone has what is called without reason the Sortes sanctorum, or other devices, or draws lots by any evil device or regards such practices with awe, he shall do penance for three years.”
  • Canon 29: “If anyone takes a vow or absolves from one by trees or springs or lattices or anywhere except in a church, he shall do penance for three years on bread and water; for this also is sacrilege or of the demons. He who eats or drinks in these places shall do penance for a year on bread and water.”
  • Canon 34: “If anyone [does] what many do on the Kalends of January as was done hitherto among the pagans, seats himself on a stag, as it is called, or goes about in [the guise of] a calf, he shall do penance for three years, for this is demoniacal.4Caesarius of Arles, who died in 542, complained elsewhere and elsewhen that such people wore the skins of cattle or put on the heads of beasts.
  • Canon 36: “If anyone is a wizard, that is, takes away the minds of men by invocation of demons or renders them mad, he shall do penance for five years, three of these on bread and water.”

The Penitential of St. Hubert (c. 850)

Hubert, Apostle of the Ardennes, died in 727. His associated penitential is substantially similar to the Burgundian Penitential.

  • Canon 25: “If anyone pays respect to soothsayers, that is, fortunetellers, criers, and quacks, or follows them, he shall do penance for three years and give alms.
  • Canon 42: “Anyone who performs dances in front of the churches of saints or anyone who disguises his appearance in the guise of a woman or of beasts, or a woman [who appears] in the garb of a man—on promise of amendment he [or she] shall do penance for three years.”
  • Canon 53: “If anyone lacerates himself over the dead with a sword or his nails, or pulls his hair, or rends his garments, he shall do penance for forty days.”
  • Canon 54: “If anyone sings enchantments for infatuation or any sort of chantings except the holy symbol or the Lord’s prayer, he who sings and he to whom he sings shall do penance for three forty-day periods on bread and water.”

The So-Called Roman Penitential of Halitgar (c. 830)

Halitgar was the bishop of Cambrai until his death in 831.

  • Canon 31: “If one by his magic causes the death of anyone, he shall do penance for seven years, three on bread and water.”
  • Canon 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 deacon, for three years, one 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 shall add to the above six forty-day periods, lest he be accused of homicide.”
  • Canon 33: “If anyone is a conjurer-up of storms, he shall do penance for seven years, three years on bread and water.”
  • Canon 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.”
  • Canon 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.”
  • Canon 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.”
  • Canon 37: “If anyone has the oracles which against reason they call “Sortes Sactorum”, or any other “sortes”, or with evil device draws lots from anything else, or practices divination, he shall do penance for three years, on year on bread and water.”
  • Canon 38: “If anyone makes, or releases from, a vow beside a tree 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.”
  • Canon 39: “If anyone is a wizard, that is, if he takes away the mind of a man by invocation of demons, he shall do penance for five years, one on bread and water.”
  • Canon 40: “If anyone makes amulets, which is a detestable thing, he shall do penance for three years, one year on bread and water.”
  • Canon 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, and so undertake what they must carry out; and [it is ordered] to try the spirit after each oblation and to examine the life of everyone.”
  • Canon 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 honour of an image, he shall to penance for three years.”
  • Canon 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].”
  • Canon 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.”
  • Canon 95: “If anyone cuts off his hair or lacerates his face with a sword or with his nails after the death of a parent, he shall fast for four weeks, and after he has fasted he shall then take communion.”
  • Canon 97: “A quack, man or woman, slayers of children, when they come to the end of life, if they seek penance with mourning and the shedding of tears, if he desists, receive him. He shall fast for thirty weeks.”

Regino’s Ecclesiastical Discipline (c. 906)

Regino was an abbot in Lorraine in 892, was expelled from the office in 899, and was later employed by the archbishop of Trier. He died in 915.

  • That diabolical songs be not sung at night hours over the bodies of the dead. Laymen who keep watch at funerals shall do so with fear and trembling and with reverence. Let no one there presume to sing diabolical songs nor make jests and perform dances which pagans have invented by the devil’s teaching. For who does not know that it is diabolical, and not only alien to Christian religion, but even contrary to human nature, that there should be singing, rejoicing, drunkenness, and that the mouth be loosed with laughter, and that all piety and feeling of charity be set aside, as if to exult in a brother’s death, in the place where mourning and sobbing with doleful voices for the loss of a dear brother ought to resound? If, indeed, we read that the fathers of the Old and New Testament in many places deplored with weeping the death of holy men, yet nowhere do we read that they rejoiced because they departed the world. […] And therefore such unsuitable rejoicing and pestiferous songs are on God’s authority to be wholly forbidden. But if anyone wishes to sing, let him sing the Kyrie eleison. But if he does otherwise, let him be quite silent. If, however, he will not be silent, he shall be forthwith denounced by all, or adjured that he no longer has God’s permission to stay there, but is to withdraw and go to his own house. On the morrow, moreover, he shall be so punished that others may fear.”

The Corrector of Burchard of Worms (c. 1012)

Burchard of Worms was made the bishop of Worms in 1000. He started his collection of canon laws approximately in 1012 and finished around 1023; the Corrector is book 19 of the overall collection. He died in 1025.

This section shall instead use primarily the translations and numbering as written in Medieval Popular Religion by John Shinners5A PDF of the relevant section is also available online.; I find that edition to be better. Bracketed numbers are those used in Medieval Handbooks of Penance, where available.

This particular text is stunningly useful and shows that Burchard of Worms knew a great deal about the practices around him.

  • Canon [35]: “If thou hast sworn by God’s hair or by His head or made use of any other blasphemous expression against God, if thou hast done so but once unwittingly, thou shalt do penance for seven days on bread and water. If after having been upbraided for it thou hast done it a second or a third time, thou shalt do penance for fifteen days on bread and water. If [thou hast sworn] by heaven or by the earth or by the sun or by the moon or by any other creature, thou shalt do penance for fifteen days on bread and water.”
  • Canon 52a [60]: “Have you consulted magicians, inviting them into your house to look for some lost article using magical arts, or to purify the house; or, following pagan practice, have diviners divined something for you, so that you might ask them about the future as you would a prophet; or have you invited to you those who cast lots, or those who hope to foretell the future for you by lots, or those who pay regard to auguries or incantations? If you have, you should do penance for two years on the appointed fast days.”
  • Canon 53 [61]: “Have you observed pagan customs which, as if by hereditary right and with the devil’s aid, fathers pass on to their sons even in these times: for instance, have you worshipped the elements, that is, the moon or sun, or the course of the stars, the new moon, or the waning moon whose light you hope to restore by your noise making or aid? Have you used those elements to try to bring you help or to help others, or have you consulted the new moon before building something or getting married? If you have, you should do penance for two years on the appointed fast days, for it is written: ‘Whatever do you in word or deed, do it all in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.'”
  • Canon 53a: “Have you observed the first of January using pagan rites, so that you did something more on that day because it was the new year than you would normally do either before or after it, by which I mean to say on that day have you either set your table with stones or food-offerings, or led singers and dancers through the neighbourhoods and streets, or sat on the roof of your house with your sword circumscribed with signs in order for you to see and know there what will happen to you in the coming year? Or have you sat at a crossroads on a bullskin in order to know your future? Or have you made loaves of bread to be cooked in your name the night before so that, if they rise well and are firm and tall, from this you foresee that your life will be prosperous in the coming year? If so, because you have abandoned God your creator and turned to idols and such vain things and have become an apostate, you should do penance for two years on the appointed fast days.”
  • Canon 54 [63]: “Have you tied knots, made incantations, or other various enchantments that wicked men, swineherds, oxherds, and sometimes hunters do while they sing devilish chants over bread, herbs, and certain foul bandages, and either hide these in a tree or throw them where crossroads meet in order either to free their animals or dogs from pestilence or loss or to cause the loss of someone else’s? If you have, you should do penance for two years on the appointed fast days.
  • Canon 55 [64]: “Have you been present at or approved of those foolish things that women perform while doing their wool-work or weaving, who, when they start their weaving, hope that they can make it come about either with incantations or with their first steps that the threads of both the warp and the woof get so tangled together that unless some opposing diabolical incantations again intervene, the whole weave will fail? If you have been present at or approved of such, you should do penance for thirty days on bread and water.”
  • Canon 56 [65]: “Have you collected medicinal herbs using other incantations besides the Creed or the Lord’s Prayer, that is, singing the credo in Deum or the paternoster? If you have done this, you should do ten days of penance on bread and water.
  • Canon 57 [66]: “Have you gone to any place to pray other than a church or some other religious place that your bishop or priest showed you; for example, to springs, rocks, trees, or crossroads; and have you burned candles or small torches there to venerate that place, have you brought bread or some other offering there, have you eaten there, or sought anything there for the health of the body or the soul? If you have done this or approved of it, you should do penance for three years on the appointed fast days.”
  • Canon 58 [67]: “Have you practised divination by looking in books or tablets as many are wont to do who presume to divine things in psalters, Gospel books, or books like this? If you have, you should do ten days of penance on bread and water.”
  • Canon 59 [68]: “Have you ever believed or taken part in this kind of faithlessness: that enchanters and those who say that they can summon up storms are able by demonic incantations either to stir up storms or influence men’s minds? If you have believed or taken part in this, you should do penance for one year on appointed fast days.”
  • Canon 60 [70]: “Have you ever believed that there is a kind of woman who can do what certain women, deceived by the devil, claim that they must do by necessity or command; namely with a band of devils transformed into the shape of women (which the foolish rabble calls Hulda the Witch) on some nights they must ride on various beasts and number themselves in this assembly? If you have believed or taken part in this, you should do penance for one year on appointed fast days.”
  • Canon 64 [69]: “Have you believed or taken part in this kind of lack of faith: there there is a kind of woman  who can influence men’s minds using spells or incantations; that is, she can change a man’s hatred into love or love into hatred or can either destroy or steal a man’s possessions using her enchantments? If you have believed or taken part in this, you should do penance for one year on appointed fast days.”
  • Canon 78b [90]: “Have you believed or taken part in this kind of faithlessness that some wicked women, turning back to Satan and seduced by the illusions and phantasms of demons, believe and proclaim: in the night hours they ride on certain animals with the pagan goddess Diana and a countless multitude of women, and they cross a great span of the world in the stillness of the dead of night, and they obey her commands as if she were a noble lady, and on some nights they are called to her service? Oh, if only these women alone perished in this faithlessness and did not lead many along with them down into utter wreck of their inconstancy! For countless multitude, deceived by this false belief, believe these things are true and stray from truth faith by believing them; they turn back to pagan error when they consider that anything is divine or godly outside the one God. But the devil transforms himself into the figure and likeness of various people, and he deceives the mind that he holds captive with dreams, sometimes showing it joyful things, sometimes sad things, sometimes unknown people, and leads it off the straight and narrow. Though only the spirit experiences this, the unfaithful mind believes that it happens to the body, not the spirit. For who is not led out of himself in dreams and nocturnal visions and sees many things sleeping which he never saw awake? But who is so stupid and dimwitted to think that all these things which happened only in the mind also happened to the body? […] If you have believed these worthless things, you should do penance for two years on appointed fast days.”
  • Canon 79 [91]: “Have you observed the funeral wake; that is, have you been present at vigils over the bodies of the dead where Christian bodies are watched over with pagan rites? Have you sung devilish songs there or danced those dances there that pagans devised at the devil’s instruction? Have you gotten drunk there and dissolved into laughter and, putting aside all piety and feelings of charity, have you seemed to rejoice at the death of your brother? If you have, you should do penance for thirty days on bread and water.”
  • Canon 80 [92]: Have you made diabolical amulets or markings as certain people are wont to do at the devil’s inspiration, or [employed magical] herbs or amber? Or have you honoured Thursday as Jove’s day? If you have done or approved of such, you should do forty days of penance on bread and water.”
  • Canon 82 [94]: “Have you eaten any offerings made to idols, that is, from offerings left in certain places at the tombs of the dead, or offered at springs, trees, rocks, or crossroads; or have you carried stones to cairns or put headbands on the crosses set up at crossroads? If you have done or approved of such, you should do penance for thirty days on bread and water.”
  • Canon 83: “Have you put your son or daughter on your rooftop or on your oven in order to gain some remedy for their illness, or have you burned grain where a dead man has lain, or tied a dead man’s belt in knots in order to harm someone, or have you clapped together over a corpse the combs which little women use to tease wool, or after a corpse has been carried from its house, have you cut the cart that carried it in half and had the corpse carried between the two halves of the cart? If you have done or approved of such, you should do penance for twenty days on bread and water.”
  • Canon 84 [96]: “Have you done or approved of this sort of foolishness which stupid women are accustomed to do who, when a cadaver of a dead man is still lying in his house, run to some water and quickly bring along a jug filled with it; and when the dead man’s body is lifted up, they pour some of this water underneath the bier, and they take care while the body is being carried out of the house that it is lifted no more than knee-high, which they do for purposes of some sort of healing? If you have done or approved of such, you should do penance on bread and water for ten days.”
  • Canon 85 [97]: “Have you done or approved of what some people do to a killed man when he is buried? They put a special ointment in his hand, as if his wound can be healed after death by this ointment, and they bury him in this way with the ointment. If you have, you should do penance for twenty days on bread and water.”
  • Canon 87 [99]: “Have you done the sort of things pagans did and still do on the first of January, going about [masquerading] as a little stag or a calf? If you have done so, you should do penance for thirty days on bread and water.”
  • Canon 89 [101]: “Have you done what many people do? They scrape the area in their house where they normally make the fire and put grains of barley on the still warm spot; if the grains pop, there will be danger; if they lie there, there will be good fortune. If you have, you should do penance for ten days on bread and water.”
  • Canon 90 [102]: “Have you done what some people do when they visit someone sick? As they approach the house where the sick person is lying, if they see any rock lying nearby they turn it over and look underneath it to see if anything alive is there. If they find a worm, a fly, an ant, or anything moving, they claim that the sick person will recover; but if they find nothing moving, they say the person is going to die. If you have done or believed this, you should do twenty days of penance on bread and water.”
  • Canon 91 [103]: “Have you made tiny shooting bows and shoes for little boys and thrown them down your cellar or in your shed for satyrs and gnomes6“pilosi”, literally “hairy ones” to play with so that they will bring you other people’s goods and make you richer? If you have, you should do penance for ten days.”
  • Canon 92 [104]: “Have you done what some people do on the first of January, that is, seven days after the Lord’s birth? On that holy night at the devil’s urging they wind thread, spin, and sew, doing all the work they can begin because of the new year. If you have, you should do penance for forty days on bread and water.”
  • Canon 137 [149]: “Have you believed what some people are wont to do? When they are going on any journey, if a crow flies from their left to their right and caws to them, they hope that it means that their journey will be prosperous. And when they are anxious about where to lodge, if that bird called a mouse-catcher7“muriceps”—because it catches mice and is named for what it eats—flies across the path before them, they entrust themselves more to this augury and omen than to God. If you have done or believed this, you should do five days of penance on bread and water.”
  • Canon 138 [150]: “Have you believed what some people are accustomed to? When they have need to go somewhere before daybreak, they do not dare, saying it is now the next day, and it is forbidden to go out before the cock crows, and that it is dangerous because unclean spirits have more power to do harm before cockcrow than after, and that the cock’s crowing is better able to repel and settle these spirits than that Divine Mind which resides in man through faith and the sign of the cross. If you have done or believed this, you should do penance for ten days on bread and water.”
  • Canon 139 [151]: “Have you believed what some people are accustomed to? That those beings which are popularly called the Fates either exist or that they can do what they are believed to do: namely when anyone is born, at that point they have the power to shape him into whatever they want, so that as often as he likes, he can be transformed into a wolf, which common stupidity calls a werewolf, or into any other shape? If you have believed this (which never did or could occur since the divine image can never be transformed into another form or likeness by anyone other than Almighty God) you should do penance for ten days on bread and water.”
  • Canon 140 [152]: “Have you believed what some people are wont to believe: that there are wild women called silvaticae8“the sylvan ones” who say that they are corporeal, and when they wish, they reveal themselves to their lovers, and they say that they amuse themselves with them; and also when they wish, they hide themselves and vanish? If you have believed this, you should do ten days of penance on bread and water.”
  • Canon 141 [153]: “Have you done what some women are accustomed to do during certain times of the year? You prepare a table in your house and put your food and drink with three knives on it so that if those Three Sisters (which ancient posterity and ancient stupidity called the Fates) should come, they can take repast there; and have you removed from the Divine Piety his power and name and given them to the devil, by which I mean have you believed those whom you say are the Sisters can help you either now or in the future? If you have done or approved of such, you should do penance for one year on the appointed fast days.”
  • Canon 154: “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.”
  • Canon 155 [167]: “Have you drunk holy oil to subvert a judicial ordeal, or have you done anything or taken counsel with others to do anything using herbs, words, wood, gemstones, or anything else foolishly believed in, or have you had something concealed in your mouth, sewn into your clothing, or tied around you, or contrived any other trick that you believed could subvert God’s judgement? If you have, you should do seven years of penance on the appointed fast days.”
  • Canon 156: “Have you done what certain women are wont to do and firmly believe, I mean to say that if their neighbour has an abundance of milk or honeybees, they believe that with their enchantments and charms they can shift this abundance of milk or honey—which they saw that their neighbour had before they did—to themselves and their own animals or to whomever they wish with the devil’s aid. If you have, you should do penance for three years on the appointed fast days.”
  • Canon 157: “Have you believed that certain women are wont to believe: that whatever house they enter, with a word, look, or sound they claim that they can cast the evil eye and destroy goslings, the chicks of peafowl, chicks, even piglets and the offspring of other animals? If you have done or believed this, you should do penance for one year on the appointed fast days.”
  • Canon 158 [170]: “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 the closed doors and can travel across the span of the earth with others deceived by a similar error? And that you can kill baptised 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 on bread and water with seven years of penance subsequently.”
  • Canon 159: “Have you believed what some women are wont to believe: that in the stillness of a quiet night while your doors are shut, you along with other minions of the devil rise up into the sky all the way to the clouds and fight there with others, and that you wound them and they wound you? If you believed this, you should do penance for two years on the appointed fast days.”
  • Canon 160: “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 the men be more ardent in their love for them. If you have, you should do two years of penance on the appointed fast days.”
  • Canon 161: “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 to their husbands to eat. They do this to make them ardent in their love for them. If you have, you should do two years of penance on the appointed fast days.”
  • Canon 163 [175]: “Have you done what some women do carrying out the devil’s lessons? They study the footprints and tracks Christians make when walking, and then they take some sod from their footprints and examine it, hoping to bear away their health or life. If you have, you should do five years of penance on the appointed fast days.”
  • Canon 164 : “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.”
  • Canon 164a: “Have you done what some women are wont to do? They take a man’s skull, burn it, and give the ashes to their husbands to drink for health. If you have, you should do one year of penance  on the appointed fast days.”
  • Canon 165: “Have you done what some women are wont to do? I speak of those who have bawling babies. They dig a hole in the ground and make a tunnel through to the other side; then they pull their baby through the hole and say that this stops the baby’s crying. If you have done or approved of such, you should do five days of penance on bread and water.”
  • Canon 166 [180]: “Have you done what some women are accustomed to do inspired by the devil? When any infant dies without baptism, they take the baby’s corpse, put it into some secret spot, and impale its little body with a stake, saying that if they did not do so, the infant would rise from the dead and cause many people harm. If you have done, approved of, or believed in such, you should do penance for two years on the appointed fast days.”
  • Canon 167 [181]: “Have you done what some women are wont to do filled with the devil’s boldness? When a woman is due to give birth and is unable, while she is struggling vainly to give birth, if she dies from her birth pangs, they impale the mother and her child into the ground with a stake in the same grave. If you have done or approved of such, you should do penance for two years on the appointed fast days.”
  • Canon 172 [186]: “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.”
  • Canon 179 [193]: “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 make 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.”
  • Canon 180 [194]: “Have you done what certain women are wont to do? When they have had no rain and need it, they gather together many young girls and put one small virgin in charge as their leader. They strip her and lead the naked girl outside the village where they find the henbane plant, called belisa9Bilsenkraut in Modern High German. in German. They make the nude virgin dig up the henbane with the little finger of her right hand and then make her tie it by its roots with some string to the little toe of her right foot. All the other maidens, each holding a single branch in her hand, lead the virgin dragging the plant behind her into a nearby river where they sprinkle river water on the virgin from their branches; by their incantations, they thereby hope to get rain. With the naked virgin turning and changing her footsteps to resemble the walk of a crab, they lead her back from the river to the village in their hands. If you have done or approved of such, you should do penance for twenty days on bread and water.”

Many of the above canons would be used by Bartholomew Iscanus, Bishop of Exeter, a century and a half later in his own penitential. Bartholomew Iscanus is famously connected to King Henry II and Thomas Becket.

Indiculus superstitionum et paganiarum (Eighth Century)

The Indiculus superstitionum et paganiarum is a list of proscribed beliefs and practices of northern Gaul and among the Saxons during Charlemagne’s wars.

  1. Of sacrilege at the graves of the dead.
  2. Of sacrilege over the departed, that is, “dadsisas”.10Some scholars, such as du Cange, interpret this as a feast, while Grimm believes that it’s a Saxon dirge. Still others believe that it is a Celtic keening-dirge.
  3. Of swinish feasts in February.11Evidently a feast that involves the slaughter of swine. Archaic words for February in Dutch, Low German, and High German may agree with this, but I don’t have any good sources that state this plainly; any found reference seems to come back to Medieval Handbooks of Penance unfortunately.
  4. Of the little houses, that is, sanctuaries.12A “fanum” or fane, to be precise. Likely a shrine or temple of some sort on consecrated land, although the term wasn’t always distinguishable from other structures in later Latin sources.
  5. Of sacrilegious acts in connection with churches.13There are various prohibitions of banquets, dances by women, and singing at churches.
  6. Of sacred rites of the woods which they call “nimidas”.14Possibly a grove related to Latin nemus.
  7. Of those things which they do upon stones.15Cairns and heargas, I would venture.
  8. Of the sacred rites of Mercury and of Jupiter.16Wōden and Þunor, respectively.
  9. Of the sacrifice which is offered to any of the saints.17Among various prohibitions of pagan rites for Christian saints.
  10. Of amulets and knots.
  11. Of fountains where sacrifices are celebrated.
  12. Of incantations.
  13. Of auguries, the dung or sneezes of birds or horses or cattle.
  14. Of diviners and sorcerers.
  15. Of fire made by friction from wood, that is, need-fire.
  16. Of the brains of animals.18For divination presumably.
  17. Of the observance of the pagans on the hearth or in the inception of any business.
  18. Of undetermined places which they celebrate as holy.
  19. Of the bedstraw which “good folk” call Holy Mary’s.19This is possibly Galium verum, also known as yellow bedstraw or lady’s bedstraw. According to the Wikipedia article and a single source, it has associations with Frigg. This aside, there are over 600 species of Galium, so I am potentially incorrect about the aforementioned species.
  20. Of the days which they make for Jupiter and Mercury.20It’s unclear if this refers to the days of the week or ceremonies for these gods.
  21. Of the eclipse of the moon—what they call, “Triumph, Moon!”
  22. Of storms and horns and snail shells.
  23. Of furrows around villas.21Bernadette Filotas in Pagan Survivals, Superstitions, and Popular Cultures (pg. 124) feels that ploughing in the direction of the sun’s movement strengthened protective magic against evil spirits lurking outside human settlement.
  24. Of the pagan course which they call “yrias”, with torn garments or footwear.
  25. Of this, that they feign for themselves that dead persons of whatever sort are saints.
  26. Of an idol made of dough.
  27. Of idols made of rags.
  28. Of an idol which they carry through the fields.
  29. Of wooden feet or hands in a pagan rite.22Of potential interest for the sake of comparison could be the hand of Sabazios, the sky father of the Phrygians and Thracians, which was used in ritual.
  30. Of this: that they believe that women command the moon that they may be able to take away the hearts of men, according to the pagans.

Capitulary for Saxony (775–790)

While not a penitential, it runs in a similar vein and is relevant to our interests.

This translation is provided in Translations and Reprints from the Original Sources of European History by the University of Pennsylvania Department of History.

  • Six: “If any one deceived by the devil shall have believed, after the manner of the pagans, that any man or woman is a witch and eats men, and on this account shall have burned the person, or shall have given the person’s flesh to others to eat, or shall have eaten it himself, let him be punished by a capital sentence.”
  • Seven: “If any one, in accordance with pagan rites, shall have caused the body of a dead man to be burned and shall have reduced his bones to ashes, let him be punished capitally.”
  • Nine: “If any one shall have sacrificed a man to the devil, and after the manner of the pagans shall have presented him as a victim to the demons, let him be punished by death.”
  • 21: “If any one shall have made a vow at springs or trees or groves, or shall have made any offerings after the manner of the heathen and shall have partaken of a repast in honour of the demons, if he shall be a noble 60 solidi, if a freeman 30, if a litus 15. If, indeed they have not the means of paying at once, they shall be given into the service of the church until the solidi are paid.”
  • 22: “We command that the bodies of Saxon Christians shall be carried to the church cemeteries and not to the mounds of the pagans.”
  • 23: “We have ordered that diviners and soothsayers shall be given to the church and priests.”

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. drýcræft
2. galdor
3. unlibban
4. Caesarius of Arles, who died in 542, complained elsewhere and elsewhen that such people wore the skins of cattle or put on the heads of beasts.
5. A PDF of the relevant section is also available online.
6. “pilosi”, literally “hairy ones”
7. “muriceps”
8. “the sylvan ones”
9. Bilsenkraut in Modern High German.
10. Some scholars, such as du Cange, interpret this as a feast, while Grimm believes that it’s a Saxon dirge. Still others believe that it is a Celtic keening-dirge.
11. Evidently a feast that involves the slaughter of swine. Archaic words for February in Dutch, Low German, and High German may agree with this, but I don’t have any good sources that state this plainly; any found reference seems to come back to Medieval Handbooks of Penance unfortunately.
12. A “fanum” or fane, to be precise. Likely a shrine or temple of some sort on consecrated land, although the term wasn’t always distinguishable from other structures in later Latin sources.
13. There are various prohibitions of banquets, dances by women, and singing at churches.
14. Possibly a grove related to Latin nemus.
15. Cairns and heargas, I would venture.
16. Wōden and Þunor, respectively.
17. Among various prohibitions of pagan rites for Christian saints.
18. For divination presumably.
19. This is possibly Galium verum, also known as yellow bedstraw or lady’s bedstraw. According to the Wikipedia article and a single source, it has associations with Frigg. This aside, there are over 600 species of Galium, so I am potentially incorrect about the aforementioned species.
20. It’s unclear if this refers to the days of the week or ceremonies for these gods.
21. Bernadette Filotas in Pagan Survivals, Superstitions, and Popular Cultures (pg. 124) feels that ploughing in the direction of the sun’s movement strengthened protective magic against evil spirits lurking outside human settlement.
22. Of potential interest for the sake of comparison could be the hand of Sabazios, the sky father of the Phrygians and Thracians, which was used in ritual.

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