Eleventh Century European Folk Religion

In the early Eleventh Century, the Bishop of the German See of Worms was a man named Burchard. Burchard had a talent for writing and produced a vast work entitled Decretum, consisting of twenty books related to ecclesiastical law and moral theology. The nineteenth book – a collection of questions to be asked by confessors, along with appropriate penances – took on a life of its own and gained a much wider audience than the rest of Burchard’s texts. This book has come to be known as The Corrector and provides many examples of the kind of folk magical practices being carried out in the supposedly Christian Western Europe of that time. The following selection of quotes is drawn from The Corrector:

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 or incantations? If you have, you shall do penance for two years in the appointed feast days.

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 hid 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.

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 you shall do penance for ten days on bread and water.

66. Have you come to any place to pray other than a church or other religious place which thy bishop or thy 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 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.

167. Have you drunk the holy oil in order to annul a judgment of God or made or taken counsel with others in making anything in grass or in words or in wood or in stone or in anything foolishly believed in, or held them in your mouth, or had them sewn in your clothing or tied about you, or performed any kind of trick that you believed could annul the divine judgment? If you have, you should do penance for seven years on the appointed days.

175. Have you done what some women filled with the discipline of Satan are wont to do, who watch the footprints and traces of Christians and remove a turf from their footprint and watch it and hope thereby to take away their health or life? If you have done or consented to this, you should do penance for five years on the appointed days.


Alan Charles Kors and Edward Peters (eds, 2001) Witchcraft in Europe, 400-1700: A Documentary History, Second Edition (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press).

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