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Dark Ages Paganism and Burchard of Worms (Part 1)

Author: Zan Fraser
Posted: December 12th. 2010
Times Viewed: 3,006

Like many another Church Father before and after him, Burchard (Bishop of the German city of Worms from the year 1000-1025) inadvertently did modern Pagans a huge favor, in compiling (with complaining manner) an impressively thorough catalog of Pagan practices continued in obstinacy by the people of Europe (well, at least Burchard’s region of Germany which, we imagine will not be super different from the rest of Europe) .

Clearly put out by the people’s resistance to abandoning the customs and habits which comprised their cultural past, Burchard compiles the Decretum, intended for use amongst the clergy in his diocese. Due to Burchard’s reputation as a canon lawyer, however, this work ended up circulated far and wide (implying a perception that it was widely useful) . Book XIX (called the Corrector, or the Physician, “Corrector, sive Medicus) is a penitential…a series of questions a confessor should ask a penitent.

As the eleventh century represents the last of the Dark Ages (the Middle Ages beginning in the 1100s) - Burchard’s Penitential is illuminating for the degree to which it describes on-going (hard-core) Pagan custom.

Text is taken from Witchcraft in Europe (400-1700) : A Documentary History, second edition; Alan Charles Kors and Edward Peters, ed. (revised by Edward Peters) : University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001, p. 63-67.

60: Have you consulted magicians and led them into your house in order to seek out any magical trick, or to avert it; or have you invited according to pagan custom diviners who would divine for you, to demand of them the things to come as from a prophet, and those who practice lots or expect by lots to foreknow the future, or those who are devoted to auguries and incantations? If you have, you shall do penance for two years in the appointed fast days.

This first “Item” assumes widespread consultation with “magicians, ” who are “led” (through the homeowners’ invitation) into a house, basically in order to perform a House-Blessing or a House-Purification, in the “seeking out and averting” of any malignant “magical trick” that might have been placed upon the domicile. For being the first thing mentioned, one might assume that Buchard considers it of primary importance- implying much “leading” of magicians into houses, “seeking out and averting magical tricks.”

Likewise would appear to be the habit of inviting (“according to Pagan custom”) diviners to divine for one. As this uncomfortably puts rough-hewn (quasi-Pagan) Dark Ages German diviners into the same category as Biblical prophets- this is apparently a no-no, as are throwing lots (dice, or I don’t know- maybe runes?) to “foreknow” the future, as well as “devoting” oneself to auguries and incantations (implying at least potential “devotion” to auguring and incanting) .

The final thing of note in this first Penitential Item (other than apparently widespread devotion to Magical House-Protection, Lots-Throwing, Auguring Incantation, and such related “future foreknowing”) - is the penalty: penance for two years, on appointed fast days.

Since, in another 400 years, the medieval Church will seize upon the handy and convenient way to combat Witchcraft and Paganism: Torturing people into agonized confessions of demon-worship, at which point (in a nifty one-two hat-trick) , thanks to their “confession” of demonism, the persons could be sentenced to death by burning at the stake- penance and fasting on especial days, for two years, seems extremely lenient, an admission of the Church’s relative impotence thus far in combating Paganism to any more serious degree.

The next Item is among the most extraordinary in the bunch.

61: Have you observed the traditions of the pagans, which, as if by hereditary right, with the assistance of the devil, fathers have ever left to their sons even to these days, that is, you should worship the elements, the moon or the sun or the course of the stars, the new moon or the eclipse of the moon; that you should be able by your shouts or by your aid to restore her splendor, or these elements [be able] to succor you, or that you should have power with them- or have you observed the new moon for building a house or making marriages? If you have you shall do penance for two years in the appointed fast days; for it is written, “All, whatsoever ye do in word and in work, do all in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

We find a reference to the Church’s bedrock contention with European Paganism- that it is accomplished with the “assistance” of the Devil: Lucifer; Satan; Beelzebub; the Fallen; the Scourge of Goodness and Righteousness. This is the contention that will (in 400 years) inflame (literally) the Burning Times.

Roughly one thousand years ago, however, we discover “the Devil” as a cranky retort to a remarkable admission: fathers have “ever left to their sons, ” “even to these days [the 1000s]”, the Traditions of Pagans- “as if by hereditary right.”

Presumably it is the misogynistic medieval Church attitude that causes Burchard to conceptualize this as a tradition of “fathers and sons”- I expect that Dark Ages German peasantry may well have “left” the Traditions “mother to daughter, ” or “older generation, to younger” as well. Nonetheless- what a bold statement of defiance and determination is implied spoken into these lines: the Traditions of Pagans are a “hereditary Right”- a right born of heritage- ever left, “even to these days, ” by one generation to another.

Is it any wonder that the Dark Ages Church finds itself trying feebly to combat such ardent and hard-held belief, through penance and confession?

And what (according to Burchard) are these Traditions of Pagans? Why, the “worship” of the Elements: the Moon, and Her phases; the Sun, and the Course of the Stars. Moreover, the “Elements” (apparently) are believed to “succor” (“nourish”) one; and one shall “have power” with them. (How many Pagans today seek “power” through the Elements, the Moon, the Sun, and the Stars?)

The Moon seems to receive particular veneration. The people “shout” during eclipses, in order to return the Lovely One’s radiant splendor; the time of the New Moon is held auspicious for the start of construction on a house, or the making of a marriage (the New Moon- a time propitious for New Beginnings, to judge.)

Well, these things, part of European Hereditary Right though the people might think of them- are anathema to the Church, and so “doing them” is properly warrant for two years’ fast-time, on appointed days. It also earns the admonishment that one should do ‘All in Word or in Work, in the Name of Jesus’.

The following Item addresses certain enchanting customs held by German outdoorsmen. “Evil men” (such as certain swineherds, ploughmen, and “sometimes” hunters) are (to judge) wont to “make knots, ” aligned with “incantations, ” resulting in various “enchantments.”

63: Have you made knots, and incantations, and those various enchantments which evil men, swineherds, ploughmen, and sometimes hunters make, while they say diabolical formulae over bread or grass and over certain nefarious bandages, and either hide these in a tree or throw them where two roads, or three roads, meet, that they may set free their animals or dogs from pestilence or destruction and destroy those of another? If you have, you shall do penance for two years on the appointed days.

Here is a reference to the performance of “Knot-Magic”, located in European habit for several more centuries and still practiced today, whereby one generates or liberates Magical Energy, through Knotting, or perhaps Un-Knotting, a rope or cord or ribbon. Burchard describes such guys as work outdoors (such as swineherds, or ploughmen, or “sometimes” hunters) , as making Enchantments by speaking “diabolical formulae” over bread, or grasses, or other “nefarious bandages”, then hiding these in trees, or pitching them at the site of a crossroads. (Crossroads are, of course, as potent a place for Magic in Dark Ages and Medieval Europe, as they are in Classical Greece and Rome.)

The purpose is (apparently) to “charm” pestilence away from their own animals- or if that should prove impossible, at least to toss the contagion another swineherd or ploughman’s way; hardly an altruistic impulse, but I suppose rather practical, in a cold-heartedly rational sort of way. Again, penance on appointed days for two years, Burchard deems sufficient for such transgression.

These three Items alone suggest a Europe (well, Germany- however, the fact that Burchard’s Penitential circulates well beyond his diocese, suggests consensus as to its pertinence) that stubbornly insists upon continuing the Magical, Pagan customs of its past; indeed, asserting it as “hereditary right” to so do.

The frustration that Church Fathers like Burchard must feel can be imagined.

[Coming next- European women who weave incantations and enchantments into their “webs”; gathering medicinal herbs, with “evil incantations”; and praying at any place other than a Church or “other religious place which thy bishop or your priest showed you.”]


Zan Fraser

Location: New York City, New York


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