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Dark Ages Paganism and Burchard of Worms (Part II)

Author: Zan Fraser
Posted: February 20th. 2011
Times Viewed: 2,274

Burchard (Bishop of the German city of Worms at the turn of the eleventh century) found himself much aggrieved by continuing Pagan customs and beliefs among the People. Therefore he compiled the Decretum (Corrector) , a penitential to be used by the clergy in his diocese, intended to uncover whatever Pagan “malingering” might be present. As Burchard apparently worked upon his project between the years 1008-1012, its median date of 1010-1011 would place its composition exactly one thousand years ago.

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.

Item #64 addresses in particular fashion a certain type of “women’s magick, ” to judge, the weaving of Magickal Intent into a piece of cloth, binding the intent and the fabric into one charmed unit.

64: Have you been present at or consented to the vanities which women practice in their woolen work, in their webs, who when they begin their webs hope to be able to bring it about that with incantations and with the beginning of these the threads of the warp and of the woof become so mingled together that unless they supplement these in turn by other counter-incantations of the devil, the whole will perish? If you have been present or consented, you shall do penance for thirty days on bread and water.

Burchard is concerned that a penitent might have “been present at or consented to” such Enchanting practices (which he considers a female “vanity”) . This not only implies an audience for such virtuoso workings, it suggests a certain widespread habit of commissioning Charmed Cloths. According to Burchard, what we might think of as “Web-Magick” (“web” being something woven on a loom, or I guess even knitted) works thus: women who “practice” in this wise start a “web” or weaving project “hoping to be able to bring ‘it’ about”- “it” being presumably the Intention that they wish to manifest.

Incantations are necessary, and with “the beginning of these [incantations], ” the threads of the warp and woof (the yarn or wool that is hung up-and-down on a loom, and that which is woven back-and-forth) become “mingled together”- certainly as cloth, but presumably also “fastened” with the Magickal Power of the incantation as well. Indeed, the charm appears to be so very great that only “counter-incantations” can possibly break it- counter-incantations of the devil, one notes.

A really, really common bias (I suppose one could call it a bigotry) among these early Church Fathers was the automatic identification of anything Pagan as “devilish” or “inspired by the devil.” This proclivity became first apparent in Burchard’s case in Item #63, wherein he discussed outdoorsmen (“evil men”) who “say diabolical formulae” over bread or grass, as well as “nefarious bandages, ” before throwing the same into trees or at crossroads, in order to protect their animals from illness (something that I expect would be a concern to an eleventh century outdoorsman) .

I am fairly certain that it is not actual “diabolical formulae” that these men say; I would be reasonably confident that these “formulae” are actually the time-honored incantations of the Germanic Pagan past; however, as Burchard is clearly not the sort of man to give Pagans a break of any kind- these “formulae” are “diabolical, ” that is to say, “of the devil!!”

In like form: only “counter-incantations of the devil” can (one imagines, to judge from Burchard) break the potent Spell woven into the “webs” of “Web-Working Magick-Women.” (All this reflexive attributing custom and practice to “the devil” will, of course, come to literally deadly consequence four hundred years later, when “Pagans deceived by the devil” and “Pagans misled by the devil” become and turn into- “Witches who actually and for real Worship the Devil!” Much Burning ensues.)

The penance that Burchard feels appropriate for “being present at or consenting to” such weaving-spell-bindings is notable for being among the harshest in the bunch (although even so, it does not compare to being broken on the rack and burned at the stake) . Thirty days of bread and water is to be the penalty for such a transgression against Christian thought and practice as being present at, or consenting to, an act of web-magick. Prior penances imposed were confined to various fast-days, over a small period of a few years. A month’s diet of bread and water seems a markedly more intense punishment. Perhaps it is the fact that weaving-magick will necessarily be a female business in 1011 that challenges Burchard so.

The next Item is one that I find extraordinary, in that it seems to concede the vital necessity of herbal-healing (I expect the only real form of healing known in the 1000s) .

65: Have you collected medicinal herbs with evil incantations, not with the creed and the Lord’s prayer, that is, with the singing of the “credo in Deum” and the paternoster? If you have done it otherwise [than with the Christian formulae mentioned] you shall do penance for ten days on bread and water.

One notices that it is not the collecting of “medicinal herbs” (i.e., “medicine”) to which objection is placed; it is collecting same with “evil incantations.” It appears as if herb-gathering is so established that it would be foolishness itself to attempt to forbid it; the best that a conscientious Christian Pastor can do is to link this activity with singing the “Our Father” and the “credo in Deum.” Anything else- any previous Pagan-influenced “incantation, ” for instance, is Evil, and subject to ten days’ bread and water (a mitigated version of the punishment before, although more severe than “penance on appointed fast days”) .

I kind of get a kick out of the next:

66: Have you come to any place to pray other than a church or other religious place which thy bishop or your priest showed you, that is, either to springs or to stones or to trees or to crossroads, and there in reverence for the place lighted a candle or a torch or carried thither bread or any offering or eaten there or sought there any healing of body or mind? If you have done or consented to such things, you shall do penance for three years on the appointed fast days.

Basically, this Item describes for us places where Pagan-minded folks are wont to pray- “other” than a church or “other” such appointed religious spots. We may see here that Germanic Pagan sorts-of-people often traveled to springs- or stones- or trees- or crossroads, in a sort of Pagan religious devotion. There, “in reverence for the place, ” they were apparently inclined towards lighting candles, if not torches, and offering bread (or other offerings carried “thither”) . Perhaps they ate in such places (I guess in a sort of Natural Communion with what I guess they recognized as a Sacred Spot) - perhaps they even “sought healing of body or mind.”

Well, this sounds like any number of modern Pagan Nature-Gatherings; however, according to Bishop Burchard’s way-of-thinking, it was grounds for three years’ penance, on the fast days.

And lastly, a rather extraordinary statement- but one well established in European Witch Folk-lore- the Causing or Generating of Tempests (which is kind of oddly mixed in Burchard’s brain with the “changing of men’s minds.”)

68: Have you ever believed or participated in this perfidy, that enchanters and those who say that they can let loose tempests should be able through incantation of demons to arouse tempests or to change the minds of men? If you have believed or participated in this, you shall do penance for one year on the appointed fast days.

A “perfidy, ” one notes, widespread enough to warrant inquiry, is the belief that “enchanters” can unleash and let loose tempests- storms- wreaking havocs of Nature. Granted, this is performed through “incantation of demons”- and such “incantations” are also effective in “changing the minds of men, ” that is, in shaping the thoughts and impressions of others (magickal mind-control, in other words) .

The thought that Witches and Wizards were able to control the elements, letting slip storms of ferocious might when it so pleased them, was deeply ingrained enough in European culture that more than one Witch-Hunt exploded out of a belief that a ruinous hailstorm or crop-destroying tempest must have been caused by malicious Witches.

[Coming next: women who control the minds of men through “spells and incantations”; and Burchard’s discussion of women who “believe and affirm” that they travel in a flying band (atop beasts) at night with the “Witch Hulda” and “Diana, a Goddess of the Pagans.”]





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