The stripping of the altars



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' Horstmann, Yorkshire Writers, 1 pp. 376-7. For Richard Ill's prayer, and a valuable discussion of the type as a whole, see Anne F. Sutton and Livia Visser-Fuchs, The Hours of Richard III, 1990, pp. 67-78.

268 PRAYERS ANI) SPELLS

{Richard} from the malicious foe and from all who hate me and from all dangers of soul and body now and in time to come (Pl. 104).4

Both these prayers, and that of Richard III, draw on the com­mendation of the departing soul, "Proficiscere anima Christiana", recited by the priest assisting at the deathbed: this is the source of the references to David, Daniel, Susannah, and the three young men. Realization of that indebtedness helps us define the enemies referred to in such prayers more clearly, for the "Proficiscere anima Christiana" is immediately preceded in the service of commenda­tion by a set of petitions which name them:

From the ancient enemy: free and defend his soul, O Lord From the stratagems and snares of the devil; free &c From the onslaught of malignant spirits: free &c From the fear of enemies: free and defend &c.s

As that passage suggests, the enemy most feared by late medieval men and women was the "malicious foe" of Hill's prayer, mankind's "ancient enemy" the Devil. There was no contradiction between this identification of the enemy with the spirit of evil, on the one hand, and Hill's evident preoccupation with concrete earthly toes on the other, for iii late medieval thought the Devil and his fallen angels were held to be the source of all the evils which afflicted humanity, including enmity and maleficence between people:

thay rerythe wart-es: thay ntakyth teutpestys in the see, and drownyth schyppes and men, thay ntakythe debate bytwyx neghtburs and nianslaght thcrwyth; thay tendyth Pyres, and brennen howses and townes; thay reryth wyndys, and blow yth don howsys, stepuls, and tres; thay make wynten to ouerlaye hor children; thay ntakyth nun to sic homsolfe, to hong hontsolfe othyr drowse hont in wanhope, and such stony othyr curset dedys.t'
Given the scope of the Devil's brief, it is no surprise to find that private devotional collections and the manuscript and printed Horne

lialliol MS 354, transcript pp. 2(1.3—4, my translation.



.Lnniale, pp. 116—17.

`' bestial, p. 150; Dives and Pauper, I p. 152 — the devils have leave of God "to causen hedows tempest, to enfectyn and envenymen the eyr and causen moreyn and sykness, hunger and droughte, dessencioun and werre be destruccioun of charite, be myspryde, covetyse, lecherye, wratthe, envye".

CHARMS, PARDONS, ANI) PROMISES 269

abound in prayers against him and all his works. It is the character of these prayers which is liable to surprise. At one level Thornton's and Hill's prayers are essentially extended intercessions, appealing to God for his help and invoking the incarnation and sufferings of Christ as part of their persuasive technique. But like many of the prayers against the Devil and other evils found in the Horae they also come very close to litany or invocation, at times indeed closer to spells or charms than anything else. A rubric regularly prefixed to the very similar prayer used by Richard III promised that if used on thirty successive days by one free from mortal sin, "all his trouble will turn to joy and comfort, whether he says it for himself or for another."' If prayers like the "Fifteen Oes" or the "Obsecro Te" take us into the mainstream of late medieval affective piety, and the centrality of the Passion of Jesus as a focus for prayer and meditation, these prayers for deliverance from evil seem to point rather to a devotional underground of dubiously orthodox religion in which the dividing line between prayer and magic is not always clear. Confronting such prayers, we seem worlds away from the élite piety of the disciples of Rolle, of the Carthusians of Sheen and Mount Grace, and of well-to-do lay devotees like the Lady Margaret. In fact, as we shall see, the issues are not so simple: the "popular" religion revealed in these prayers has more in common not only with the élite piety of the devout, but with the official liturgy of the Church, than might at first appear.

Consideration of three frequently recurring "magical" prayers will serve to highlight the complexities of the relationship between popular and élite or official religion in the Horae, and therefore in lay piety in general. 'l'hese are the prayer "I )eus propicius esto", for the protection of angels; the related invocation of the Cross "Crux Christi sit (semper) mecum"; and the invocation of the names of God "Onulipotens + Dominus + Christus".

Deus Propicius Jsto

God be favourable to me a sinner, and be my guard all the days of my life. God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, have mercy on rte, and send to my aid Michael your Archangel, that he may keep, protect and defend me from all my enemies, visible and invisible.

Holy Michael, the Archangel of God, defend me in battle, that I may not perish in the dreadful judgement. Archangel of

' The Hours of Richard III, pp. 68—9.

270 PRAYERS AND SPELLS

Christ, by the grace which you have merited I beseech you, through Our Only-Begotten Lord Jesus Christ, draw me today and always from deadly peril. Holy Michael, Holy Gabriel, Holy Raphael, all holy angels and archangels of God, hasten to help me. I beseech you, all you heavenly Virtues, that by the power of the most high God you give me your aid, so that no enemy may be able to condemn or oppress me, neither in my house nor out of it, neither sleeping nor waking.

Behold + the cross of the Lord, begone you enemies. The lion of the tribe of Judah has conquered; root of David, stem of Jesse, saviour of the world, who have redeemed me through your cross and blood, save me, help me, my God. Agios, Agios, Agios. Cross of Christ protect me. Cross of Christ, save me. Cross of Christ, defend me from every evil.'
This is, among other things, a prayer to the Archangels Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael. Devotion to the angels was a prominent feature of late medieval piety. They are strikingly depicted in Henry VII's window at Great Malvern, and they dominated the decorative schemes of more than one fifteenth-century parish church, like the nine orders of angels painted on the Rood-screen at St Michael's, Barton Turf in Norfolk (PI. 105), or at Southwold in Suffolk (Pl. 106), or the fluttering hosts carved in the root of St Wendreda's, March. Michael, symbol of God's power and providence, was the representative figure here, depicted in armour treading down the ancient enemy iii the form of a serpent or dragon, or weighing souls in paintings of the "iudiciuui trenienduui" of the prayer (Pl. 107). Ile appears in both these activities on several Norfolk Rood-screens, often paired on either side of the doorway with St George, who semis to have served the same function as a visual image of the triumph of invincible goodness over demonic evil (Pl. 108-9).' This placing by the doorways between nave and sanctuary, between profane and sacred, is certainly deliberate, and sometimes elaborately contrived. Michael was the guardian spirit of the boundaries between worlds, and in this role he featured largely in depictions of the deathbed, widely believed to be the scene of pitched battles for possession of the soul as the devils threw all their malevolent energies into a last desperate onslaught on the dying Christian. Prayers to the guardian or "proper" angel were a feature of all the Horan, and vernacular versions of these in verse and prose were very common.'

Hor. Ebor., p. 125.

9 For the angels in late medieval English art see G. McN. Rushforth, Medieval Christian

CHARMS, PARDONS, AND PROMISES 271

In the light of all this, the first part of the prayer, asking for the protection of the angels against peril from visible and invisible enemies, becomes readily intelligible. At first sight, the final part of the prayer, invoking the protection of the cross, also looks like a straightforward piece of pious self-exhortation. The presence of the sign of the cross in the text, however, suggests that something more complex is going on. The user of the prayer was expected at this point to make the sign of the cross, either on himself or in the air, as the priest did in ecclesiastical ceremonies, such as the blessing of holy water, and it is clearly envisaged that this act will cause the enemy to flee. This part of the prayer is an exorcism, and the exotic repetition of the Greek Trishagion and the threefold invocation of the cross are clearly designed to add to the incantatory effect. Incantations of this sort were extremely common at the end of the Middle Ages. The early sixteenth-century owner of a manuscript Horan now in the Cambridge University Library copied into it a typical example: "Agyos otheos sancte deus Agyos ischyros sancte fortis Agyos athanatos cleyson ymas. Sancte et immortalis miserere nobis Pater Noster Ave Maria + credo in deuni."'l' This elabora­tion of the Trishagion in Greek and Latin, "Holy God, Holy Strong One, Holy Immortal One, Have mercy on us," is taken direct from the "lniproperia" or "Reproaches" sung during the annual creeping to the cross in the liturgy of Good Friday. It was one of the most emotionally charged moments in the liturgical year, and it is not surprising to find it being used as "a good prayer ayenste the pestilence". Mirk has a story of a child "pult up ynto the ayre and soo ynto I [even" by angels during the Rogationtide procession, when the devils were being driven from the parish, in order to be



Imagery, 193O, pp. 204-16, and, more generally, Villette, 1,'Agte dans l'art d'Occident du Xlle au XI 'le sitvle, 19411. Fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century representations of the Angelic I licrarchy can be found in glass at Combe Martin in Devon, (loxwold in Yorkshire, Great Malvern iu Worcestershire, Great Snoring, I larpley, Salle, and Martham in Norfolk (more of the Marchant angels are at Mulharton), I lessen in Suffolk, Minster Lovell in Oxfordshire, All Saints, North Street, and St Michael, Spurriergate, in York. St Michael appears on panels on the screens at Barton "turf, Binhani (painted over, but clearly visible), Elsing, l'ilby, Gressenhall, Ranworth and Wellingham in Norfülk, and at Sonterleyton and Westhall in Suffolk. At Beeston next Mikhail), St Michael has not been painted on the screen, but he and St George have been carved into the spandrels of the panels inunediately on either side of the chancel door, Michael to the south, George to the north, as at Ranworth. Both carvings have been savagely defaced. The late medieval lore on die nature :nid work of the angels is conveniently set out in Golden Le'end, V pp. 180-99. For a series of English prayers to the angels, see British Library Add MS 195%, fols 55v ff. and see Dyboski, Songs, p. 51; Cambridge University Library MS I)d.vi.I fol. 144r has another such prayer "ad angelum proprium".

1O CUL MS Dd.vi.1 fol. 143r.


272 PRAYERS AND SPELLS CHARMS, PARDONS, AND PROMISES 273


taught these words: when he sang the words, God enabled the parishioners "forto feght wyth the fende"." In the inscription copied into the Book of Hours, the words were clearly being used as some sort of spell, depending on the innate power of the mysterious words, for the owner of the Horae noted "And ye must say this iii tymes."'2

Similar presuppositions to these are at work in the "Deus Propicius esto" prayer. In some printings it is described as having been divinely revealed in the year 1485 to "A monk of Bynham", but elsewhere it carries a different attribution:


Thys plriair was scewed un to saynt Augustine be revelation of the holy gooste & who that devoutly say thys prayer or here hyt rede or bereth abowte thaym schall not perische in fyer nor in wather pother batyll or in iugement and he schal dye no sodyne deeth and no wenowme schal poysyn hym that day and what he asketh of god he schal opteyne if yt be to the salvatyon of hys soul] and whan thy soull schall deperte from thy body yt scale not entre to hell.' 3
Such apocryphal attributions to important figures, combined with extraordinary promises, were commonly attached to devotions in the late Middle Ages. We have already encountered those in the legend of the "Fifteen Ors", and every devotional collection of the period contained many of them. "l'hc Yorkshire gentleman Robert Thornton was a sophisticated and devout collector whose commonplace book preserves many of the spiritual classics of the late Middle Ages, especially those associated with Richard Rolle and his followers. Yet Thornton's prayer against enemies, examined at the beginning of this chapter, was prefaced by just such a set of legendary promises. The prayer is attributed to St Paul "by the Ensencesynge of the haly gaste", and those who recited it daily were promised remission of their sins and protection from an "evylle" death. Neither thieves nor enemies in battle would have power to harm them. Those who carried it about them would win favour "before kyng or prynce or any other lorde". A cup of water blessed by reciting the prayer over it would bring safe delivery to women in labour, or, cast into stormy seas, would quell then]. Wheaten bread blessed in the sanie way was a speedy cure for diarrhoea!14

" Festial, p. 151.

'' CUL MS Dd.vi.l fol. 143r.

" Hoskins, no. 67. STC 15939, fol. lxxix (v); modernized version printed in Hoskins, p. 124.

Horstmann, Yorkshire Writers, I pp. 376.

The same pattern of apocryphal attribution, supernatural prom­ises, and invocations against the "ancient enemy" occurs in the Horae devotions associated with the so-called letter to Charlemagne, the "Crux Christi" and the "Omnipotens + Dominus + Christus". A typical version of the rubric before the "Crux Christi" runs "Thys epystell of our sauvyour sendeth our holy father pope Leo unto the emperour Carolo magno of the wyche we fynd wryteyns who that bereth thys blessyn upon hym and says ut ones of a day schall opteyne x1 yere of pardon and lxxx lentys. And he schall not peryshe wyrt soden deeth."15 The "epystell" which follows is an elaborate invocation of the cross, close in phrasing and content to the final section of the "Propicius esto":

Cross + of Christ be with me. Cross + of Christ is what I ever adore. Cross + of Christ is true health . . . May the Cross + of Christ banish all evil. Cross + of Christ . . . be ever over me, and before me, and behind me, because the ancient enemy flees wherever he sees you . . . Flee from me, a servant of God, o devil, by the sign of the holy Cross + behold the Cross of the Lord + begone you enemies, the lion of the tribe of _Judah, the root of ])avid, has conquered."
The Horne rubric about the letter to Charlemagne before this prayer is a brief and relatively bowdlerized version of a legend which is found in literally dozens of forms in manuscript. Sometimes declared to have been brought direct from Heaven by an angel to Charlemagne on the eve of a battle against the Saracens to free the Holy Land, or forwarded to him via the Pope, usually Leo, but sometimes Pope Gregory or Pope Sylvester, the promise varies only in degrees of extravagance. Whoever carried it about them and recited it, or a prescribed number of Paters and Aves, would overcome their enemies, spiritual and physical, would not perish ill battle and would not be robbed or slain by thieves. They would be immune to the dangers of pestilence, thunder, fire, and water, and would not be troubled by the evil spirits who turned all these to mischief: Pregnant women could ensure safe delivery and the survival of their children long enough to receive baptism by writ­ing the prayer on a strip of parchment and placing it or wearing it round their bellies, and the prayer preserved against attacks of epilepsy, a disease then commonly associated with demonic possession."

Hoskins, no. 67, RSTC 15939, fol. Ixxvn (v); modernized version in Hoskins, p. 124. Hoskins, no. 67, RSTC 15939, fol. lxxviii (r)—lxxix (r).

" C. F. I3uhler, Early Books and Manuscripts, 1973, pp. 564—575; "Prayers and Charms in Certain Middle English Scrolls", Speculum, XXXIX, 1964, pp. 27—80; W. R. Jones, "The Heavenly Letter in Medieval England", Medievalia et Hu,nanistica, ns VI, 1975, pp. 163—78.


CHARMS, PARDONS, ANI) PROMISES 275


The close correspondence between the benefits promised in the letter to Charlemagne and the conventional range of demonic activities listed by Mirk makes clear that the devotion, for all its extravagance, is essentially a prayer of exorcism. The prayer which makes up the epistle itself is not always the "Crux Christi", but the most usual alternative, the extraordinary invocation of the names of God beginning "Omnipotens + Dominus + Christus" is just as clearly an exorcism:

Omnipotens + Dominus + Christus + Messias + Sother + Emmanuel + Sabaoth + Adonay + Unigenitus + Via + Vita + Manus + Homo + Ousion + Salvator + Alpha + et Oo + Fons



  • Origo + Spes + Fides + Charitas + Oza + Agnus + Ovis

  • Vitulus + Serpens + Aries + Leo + Vermis + Primus + Novissimus + Rex + Pater + Filius + Spiritus Sanctus + Ego sum + Qui sum + Creator + Eternus + Redemptor + Trinitas + Unitas + Clemens + Caput + Otheotocos + Tetragrammaton

  • May these names protect and defend me from all disaster, and from infirmity of body and soul, may they wholly set me free and come to my help.

These names of the kings, that is, Jaspar, Melchior, Balthasar. And of the twelve Apostles Peter, Paul, Andrew, James, Philip, James, Simon, Jude, Thomas, Bartholomew. And of the four Evangelists, namely Mark, Matthew, Luke, John: may they assist me in all my necessities and defend and liberate nee from all dangers, temptations and difficulties of body and soul, and from every evil, past present and future, keep me now and in eternity.

O Lord Jesu Christ, I your unworthy servant 'name' commit myself this day and always to the protection of your angels and saints: commit inc to the protection of all your saints, as once, on the Cross, you committed the holy virgin Mary your mother to saint John the Evangelist, so that you may deign to keep nee your unworthy servant 'name' today and always, to bless, protect and save me from sudden and unprovided death and from every deceit of the devil, and from every enemy both visible and invisible. Amen.'

Once again, this prayer, like the preliminary legend, survives in countless permutations." It appears in printed English Horne without the Charlemagne legend, being presented simply as "A prayer of the names of Christ". The legend, in any case, was

Hor. Ehor., p. 126.

'`' R. Scot, The Discoverie of Witchcraft, 1584, pp. 232—6; Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries, 1877, pp. 302—3; Bodleian Library Lyell MS 30 fois 54v—55r.

attached to a range of texts, and indeed the place of these two prayers in the manuscript versions was often taken not by a text, but an image. The object which Charlemagne was to carry with him into battle was a representation or measure of the side Wound of Christ, or a cross which, multiplied fifteen or twenty-one times, gave the measure of Christ's body. Sometimes it is a drawing giving the measure of the nails of the Crucifixion. In these cases the references to Charlemagne often disappear altogether, while the other details of the promise remain, with their assurance of safety from death in battle or by fire or water, their protection for pregnant women, their guarantee of freedom from "unprovided" death, that is, death without the benefit of house] and shrift (Pl. 110, 112).2"

What are we to make of all this? Here, it seems, are prayers which reveal a great ocean of popular belief infinitely remote from Christian orthodoxy: the apocryphal legend of the Emperor, the angel, and the Pope, the grotesque and materialistic promises attached not merely to devout use but to the simple possession of texts or images, and the use of a catena of sacred names, coupled with forty-seven signs of the cross to conjure away evil spirits, all seem to point to a magical rather than an orthodox religious outlook. Even Robert Thornton, whose learning and devotion are everywhere evident in his manuscript collections, copied a charm against the fever based on portions of the "Omnipotens + Dominus + Christus" which involved writing it on (presumably unconsecrated) Mass wafers which were then swallowed, and on parchment which was then burned.' The version of the Charlemagne legend included in the Horne, it is true, has gener­ally been shortened and cleaned up, the promises reduced to the narrowly "spiritual" dimensions of indulgences and a guarantee of the Sacraments at death, yet the full-blown version of the legend was so widely known and so universally used that it is hard to believe that the users of the Horne could have been expected not to know it.

And the context which they would have supplied for it seems a bizarre mixture of piety and magic. The version copied into his commonplace book by the rural Norfolk church-reeve, Robert Reynes, combined the names of God with the ''Christus vincit .. . fugite partes adverse" texts associated with invocations of the cross, but also contained among the names of God the magical words ANAZAPTA and AGLA, and the benefits promised were

2° Buhler, Early Books, pp. 564—76. Liber de Diversis Medicinis, p. 63.


276 PRAYERS AN]) SPELLS CHARMS, PARDONS, ANI) PROMISES 277
attributed to "the grace of God and the vertue of these names". An early fifteenth-century version written in Worcestershire claimed that "in this wrytyng ar to names ho-so nem rth hem tht day he schal not dye they he were hongud on a tre. "`2 Most of the texts we have been considering occur regularly on medicinal or magical rolls, long strips of parchment inscribed with the prayers and their attached promises, evidently worn round the waist by women in labour and others in danger. The names of God and other exotic-sounding names, the manual signs and invocations of the cross, together with other texts possessing "vertu", such as the prologue to St John's Gospel, were regularly used in conjurations of spirits for purposes of divination, from the fourteenth to the eighteenth century." Significantly, the Charlemagne legend and its promises never found their way into French printed Florae, and where any version of the prayer was included in printed Horae in France it was invariably shorn of its talismanic character. Though the full-blooded version of the legend does occur iii surviving French Horne, it has generally been copied into the books, in untrained, non-scribal hands and often apparently from memory, by lay owners themselves. This suggests sonic effective French eccle­siastical concern about such prayers. English clerical control over the Sarum Horne seems to have been slacker, perhaps because most were printed in France or the Low Countries, and so a range of such texts made their way into print. Their presence in the Sarum and York Fform' seems on the face of it to point to a demand among their readers for a folk religion which owed more to the survival of pagan and magical ways of thinking than to orthodox Christian piety. They cater, it would seem, for the saute primitive level of folk belief represented in the night prayers of the shepherds in the Wakefield First Shepherds play:

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