The stripping of the altars



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For ferde we be fryght, a c rosse lett us kest — Cryst-crosse, benedyght eest and est — For drede,



Jesus ouaZarns Crucyefixus, Marcus, Andreas

God be oure spede! 4

Bodleian Library Tanner MS 407 fill. 36r—36v, Reynes Commonplace, pp. 247—8; A Worcestershire Miscellany, p. 154.

23 Scot, Discoverie of Witchcraft, pp. 401—20; W. Sparrow Simpson, "On a Seventeenth Century Roll Containing Prayers and Magical Signs", Journal of the British Archaeological Association, XL, 1884, pp. 297—332, and "On a Magical Roll Preserved in the British Library" Journal of the British,4rchaeolo'ical Association, XLVIII, 1892, pp. 38—54.

'a V. Reinbcrg, Popular Prayer in Late Medieval and Refnrtnation France pp. 288—300; The Wakefield Pageants in the Towneley Cycle, ed. A. C. Cawley, 1958, p. 50.

There can be no doubt that the guardians of official Christianity — theologians, pastors, inquisitors — did find such prayers and invoca­tions in the mouths of the unlettered problematic, even in England. The Doctrinal of Sapyence, a manual for priests published by Caxton in 1489, tackled the Charlemagne prayers directly:

Ther ben summe that make wrytynges and bryvettes full of crosses and other wrytynges. And sayen that alle they that bere ruche brevettys on them may not perysshe in fyre ne in water: ne in other peryllous place: And ther ben also somme brevettis and wrtytynges whyche they doo bynde upon certeyn persones for to hele them of somme sekenesses and maladyes: And for admonycyon. ne for predycacyon. ne for excommynycacyon that may be doo to them they wyl not leve it: Alle they that make suche thynges / or doo mak it. or bere it. or do it to be born / And have trust and affyaunce therm. And they that selle it. gyve or leve it synnen ryght grevously. But yf they be symple people and so ignoraunt of syntplesse / that by ignoraunce they be excused.'"

There is here a clear association of the use of such prayers and charms with "symple people ... ignoraunt of symplesse", and this is a view which has been taken up by historians of popular religion. For Jean I)elumeau, the peasantry of late medieval Europe "were in fact polytheistic and deeply magical, making use of pagan rites and deflecting christian sacraments to this-worldly ends". Keith Thomas's discussion of late medieval English attitudes is more carefully nuanced, and he recognizes the sophistication of much lay religious belief and practice, but his overall view is not substantially different. Many theologians, he argues, were strongly "rationalist" in temperament, viewing "cautiously" the rites and ceremonies inherited from "a more primitive era", and regarding even the sacraments "as symbolic representations rather than as instruments of physical efficacy". Moreover, "the late medieval Catholic laity were not all ignorant peasants: they included educated urban dwellers who were intellectually more sophisticated than many of the clergy", and they had "a realistic social outlook". It was thus

only at popular level" that sacraments and other ecclesiastical rituals, prayers, and popular devotional practices "were credited with an inexorable and compelling power".`'c'

The printing of the Charlemagne prayers and related invocations and charms in the Florae does not bear out these generalizations,

" The Doctrinal of Sapyence, fol. 4v.

26 Natalie Davis, "Some Tasks and Themes in the Study of Popular Religion", p. 308; Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, p. 53.

l'ItA I GKJ lIIV 1/ JI'CLLJ



CHARMS, PARDONS, AND PROMISES 279

o
and neither does the provenance of many of the surviving manu-script versions. There certainly are indications that such devotions were attractive to peasant Catholics of "symple" outlook. Robert Reynes, the Norfolk country church-reeve, provides a good example. The religious items in his collections all indicate just such an unsophisticated and credulous faith as Delumeau and Thomas describe: verse legends of the saints, or the signs of the end of the world and its attendant horrors; a circumstantial version of the legend of the "Fifteen Oes", charms for making angels appear in a child's thumbnail, the Charlemagne prayers. Yet such items can all be found just as readily in sources whose overall sophistication and orthodoxy cannot be doubted. The clerical compilers of the great collections of late medieval devotions found in Lyell Ms 30 in the Bodleian, and li vi 43 in the Cambridge University Library both preserved a number of charms and invocations of the Charlemagne type, as did the devotional compilation prepared at the begin­ning of the fifteenth century by the Worcestershire cleric John Northwood.27 The versions of the "Deus Propicius esto" and the "Omnipotens + Dominus + Christus" in the 1536 York horde were said to have been arranged and printed in the form of a "treatyse concernynge the helthe of mannes souk" at the request of Sir George Darcy, son of Lord Thomas Darcy who was to be beheaded in the following year for complicity in the Pilgrimage of Grace.25 And perhaps most strikingly of all, the collection of private prayers commissioned by the Lady Margaret for her third husband, Thomas Stanley, and now at Westminster Abbey, includes four distinct versions of the Charlen)a ;ne legend and its accompanying invocation of the names of God.- ~' Lady Margaret's prayer-book is highly representative: though not a Book of I lours, it contains not only many of the illustrations commonly found in the Ionic, but a very large number of the prayers most commonly found there, such as the "Obsecro 'l'e'' the Prayer of St Bede, and the "O Bone Jesu". This is not the devotional underground, it is the devotional mainstream, and the prominence within it of the Charlemagne legend and other related invocations and prayers suggests that any attempt to explain this dimension of late medieval

" Bodleian Library I.ycll MS 311 lids 13v—15r, 51v—55rv. For a list ol'sonte of the many other MS versions, sec A. I)e it Marc, Catalogue of the Collection of Medieval Manuscripts Bequethed ... By /anus 1 yell, 1971, pp. 63—4; Cambridge University Library MS h. vi. 43 Lois 20v—22r; A Worcestershire Miscellany Compiled by John Northwood (. 1401), ed. N. S. Baugh, 1956, p. 154.

" NNor. Ehor., p. 125.

29 Westminster Abbey, MS 39; the relevant section is printed in Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries, 2nd Series VII, 1877, pp. 302—3.

piety in terms of pagan survivalism among the uneducated peas­antry is misconceived. These prayers were clearly a manifestation of popular religion, but it was a popular religion which extended from the court downwards, encompassing both clerical and lay devotion, which could place the Charlemagne prayers, without any apparent sense of incongruity, alongside classic devotional texts such as the "0 Bone Jesu" or the "Anima Christi".

And in any case, it would be a mistake to see even these "magical" prayers as standing altogether outside the framework of the official worship and teaching of the Church. The world-view they enshrined, in which humanity was beleaguered by hostile troops of devils seeking the destruction of body and soul, and to which the appropriate and guaranteed antidote was the incantatory or manual invocation of the cross or names of Christ, is not a construct of the folk imagination. Such ideas were built into the very structure of the liturgy, and formed the focus for some of its most solemn and popularly accessible moments. This will become clear if we consider three such moments: the Rogation processions, the administration of baptism, and the blessings of salt and water every Sunday and of wax candles at Candlemas.

The Rogationtide processions took place on the three days lead­ing up to Ascensiontide and were one of the principal focuses of parish identity. Everyone was expected to turn out for them, when the parish notables were expected to provide food and, especially, drink for their poorer neighbours. All the church banners were carried through the parish, and the processional crosses, and a standard of a dragon, carried with a long cloth tail before the procession on the first two of these "Cross-days" or "gang days", and carried, shorn of its tail, after the procession on the last day, as a symbol of the Devil's overthrow. For that was the principal purpose of the processions, to drive out of the parish, with bells and banners and the singing of the litany of the Saints, the spirits "that Hye above in the eyer as thyke as motes iii the sonne". At the centre of the ritual was the solemn reading of portions of the Gospel at stations on the boundaries of the parish, often marked by large wayside Crosses: the virtue of the words of the Gospel brought cleansing and fertility to the fields, and it was considered fortunate to hear these Gospels. This aspect of the ritual struck the reformers as particularly superstitious, and they bitterly condemned this "saying of the gospels to the corn in the field in the procession week, that it should the better grow". 30 Above all the ceremonies

'" William Tyndale, Answer to Sir Thomas More's Dialogue, Parker Society, 1850, pp. 61—2.


2811 PRAYERS ANI) SPELLS CHARMS, PARDONS, ANI) PROMISES 281
centred on the carrying of the cross into the fields and lanes. Rogationtide was "Cross-tide", for the cross was the triumphal banner of Christ the conquerer, and the "spyrytes that flyethe on lofte in the eyer dredythe moch ... cristis baners that ben the crossis a reysed." As John Longland declared, "wher soo ever the devyll ... doo see the sync of this crosse, he flees, he byddes not, he strykys not, he cannot hurte.";n

The baptismal liturgy was even more explicitly concerned with the expulsion of the Devil, not merely by the act of baptism itself, but by the elaborate prayers and ceremonies which preceded the immersion of the child in the font. These ceremonies centred on the exorcism and blessing of salt and of the baptismal water, and finally of the child, whose liberation from the power of Satan was symbolized by the imposition of the sign of the cross on head, breast, and hands. In a typical prayer, after putting salt in the child's mouth and invoking the protection of the angels on her, the priest addresses the devil:

Therefore, cursed devil, know now your doom, and give honour to the true and living God, to his Son Jesus Christ, and to the Holy Spirit, and depart from this servant of God Namel, because that same God and Lord Jesus Christ has deigned to call her to his holy grace and blessing and to the baptismal tent by the gift of the holy spirit. And do not dare to violate, o cursed devil, this sign of the holy Cross + which we now make on her forehead. Through I lint who shall come to judge the living and the dead and the world by fire. Amen.-`'

As in the Rogationtide processions, everything about the baptismal rites emphasized the objective power of holy words, gestures, and things over the I )evil. The blessed water in the font was kept under lock and key to prevent its removal and use in magical rites. The rubrics of the Sarum Manual forbade its use inn the asperging of the people in other parts of the liturgy. 'Phis was not a simple matter of preventing superstition: the water itself was clearly considered to be both powerful and holy, and the priest was strictly charged to prevent anyone except the child from even touching the baptismal water. The chrisonl or cloth tied over the anointed spot on the child's forehead was to be returned to the priest by the mother when she came for her churching, and he was to burn it, or keep it for "the uses of the church". The godparents were required to wash their hands before they left the church in case any of the holy oils

Owst, Preaching in Medieval England, pp. 211)—12; John Longlande, A Sermond, sig. G

(r).


32 Manuale, p. 27.

remained from contact with the child. The service ended with the priest reading over the child the Gospel "Respondens unus de turba" from St Mark, describing the casting out of a demon by Jesus because "according to the greatest scholars it was good for the falling sickness." This reading was followed immediately by the prologue of St John's Gospel, a text which, as we have already seen, was regularly used in exorcism, healing, and against thunder and storms.3 

The same insistence on the objective power of sacred things and formulae, and especially of the sign of the cross, to banish the Devil characterized the service of blessing of salt and water, performed before Mass each Sunday. Both salt and water were exorcized with repeated signs of the cross, and the words of the exorcism attribute to the substances so hallowed actual power. The salt is to be "salvation of body and soul to all who take you", and "wherever you are sprinkled, let every delusion and wickedness, and every craftiness of devilish cunning, scatter and depart when called upon." The water was to acquire "effectual power" to cast out demons and drive away disease. It was to have such power not merely for people, but over inanimate objects, so that "whatever in the houses or places of the faithful shall be sprinkled with it, may be freed from all pollution, and delivered from harm." In all this, the instrument of blessing was the invocation of God's name, "per invocationenl sancti tui nominis". By the repetition of that name every invasion of the unclean spirit was to be turned away, and "the dread of the venomous serpent driven far away"» Similarly, in the Candlemas ceremonies, candles were solemnly blessed "by the virtue of the holy Cross", and thereby acquired the power, wherever they were lit or set up, to send the Devil and all his ministers "trembling away". I here at the heart of the liturgy, and not simply iii the uninformed minds of ignorant peasants, was the assertion of "an inexorable and compelling power" inherent in the name and cross of (;hristi5

Unlike baptism, where the objects used inn the sacrament were jealously guarded against lay misuse or contamination, the blessings of salt, water, and wax were intended to provide the laity with sources of "inexorable and compelling power" which they them-selves could use against demons, diseases, and distress of every kind. One of the principal perquisites of the parish clerk was the holy-water fee he exacted when he carried supplies of it to every



Manuale, pp. 25—43. sa Manuale, pp. 1—4. Manuale, pp. 7—9.


282 PRAYERS ANI) SPELLS CHARMS, PARDONS, AND PROMISES 283


household. There it was sprinkled on the hearth to fend off evil, in byres and fields and even the marriage-bed to promote fertility. Ailing animals were fed blessed salt or given holy water to drink. The candles blessed in the Candlemas ceremonies were lit during thunderstorms, to drive away the demons which were believed to be especially active when the air was thus agitated. They were placed near women in labour, and in the hands of the dying, to keep the Devil at bay. The blessing of these "sacramentals", as such sacred objects were called, put into lay control powerful spiritual weapons: 6

And in fact, the blessing ceremonies in which these holy objects were made, together with the baptismal and Rogationtide services, created a set of paradigms for the use of the sacramentals which seemed to be fairly closely adhered to even in the "magical" abuses which worried theologians and confessors. The texts of the bless­ing ceremonies clearly presuppose that their effects would by no means he confined to the merely spiritual — holy water, salt, bread, candles, as well as the herbs blessed at Assumptiontide or the meat, cheese, and eggs at Easter, were for the healing of bodies as well as souls. The application of the sacramentals to this-worldly concerns, which some historians have seen as a mark of the superficiality of late medieval Christianity, was amply legitimated by the liturgy itself.

It is iii this overall context that the "charms" and incantations of the How and the private prayer collections need to be read, for they have clear and close similarities to the sacramentals. Their use of the sign of the cross, their direct address to the devils they seek to exorcize, in fact their whole rhetorical strategy is borrowed from this area of the Church's official practice. It is worth considering here the "charm" against thunder and storms provided iii some of the Sarum florae:

The triumphal superscription "Titulus triunlphalis''I Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. Christ conquers; may Christ reign: may Christ vindicate us, and from all thunder, tempest and every evil free and defend us. Amen. Behold + the Cross of the Lord, flee you enemies: the lion of the tribe of Judah, the root of David, conquers.'

"' The best short introduction in English to the significance of sacramentals in this period is R. W. Scribner, Popular Culture and Popular Movements in Germany, 1987, pp. 1—49. 'Fhe standard work is the two-volume study by A. Franz, Die Kirchliche,, Benedictionen in Mittelalter, 1909. There is a useful brief account of the official theology of sacramentals by H. Leclercq in The Catholic Encyclopedia, X111, pp. 292—3.

;' Hoskins, p. 115.

This charm may have been intended to accompany the lighting of the Candlemas candles used to banish thunder, and the employment of the sign of the cross prescribed in the prayer was probably intended to accompany the use of holy water, scattered in the air crosswise to the four corners of the earth in a gesture borrowed from the baptismal liturgy. It incorporates phrases and gestures which we have already encountered in other charms, and the "Titulus Triumphalis", Ihesus Nazarenus Rex ludaeorum, or its initials INRI, regularly appeared on protective amulets and similar magical objects, as well as on rosaries, chalices, and other religious objects.38 Yet the prayer is neither more nor less than the transla­tion into action of the teaching of countless Rogationtide sermons on the power of the cross and the nature of the Devil. All this, as we have seen, had impeccable ecclesiastical precedent and rationale. That is not to suggest that all such invocations remained within the bounds even of fifteenth-century orthodoxy. My point is simply that the rhetoric and rationale at work in such incantations cannot sensibly be called pagan. Instead, they represent the appropriation and adaptation to lay needs and anxieties of a range of sacred gestures and prayers, along lines essentially faithful to the pattern established within the liturgy itself. This is not paganism, but lay Christianity.

Even the least promising aspects of such invocations can be traced back to liturgical use. Consider here the extraordinary catena of divine names so often turned to magical use, and much in evidence the Charlemagne prayers. This list, in which God is described as "Egg, Calf, Serpent, Rani, Lion, and Worm", seems the least likely of candidates for orthodox liturgical origin. In fact, it is a hymn dating back at least to the eleventh century, and occurring in a variety of liturgical contexts. It was used as the hymn at conlpline on Whit Sunday and the three days following, and as the sequence at the nuptial Mass, where its presence would have ensured that every elan and woman in England would be familiar with it. Even more significantly, from the 1480s it was employed as the compline hymn on the Feast of the Holy Nalne of Jesus. The historian of the "new feasts" in late medieval England found it "hard to imagine" this hymn being sung "with a straight face", yet its presence in the liturgy of the Feast of the Holy Name was an extraordinary testimony to, and legitimation of, the widespread equation of this magical sequence of names with the Church's solemn use of the name of Jesus.39

'" J. Evans, Magical Jewels of the Middle Ages, 1922, pp. 128—9; Louth CWA, p. 153. '`' Sarum Breviariu,n, I1 col. 236; Manuale, p. 52; Pfaff, New Feasts, p. 71.


284 PRAYERS ANI) SPELLS CHARMS, PARDONS, AN]) PROMISES 285


This is strikingly brought home by one of the documents we have already considered in this chapter. In late fifteenth-century England the cult of the Holy Name of Jesus was spread, and at length established as a feast, through the patronage of the Lady Margaret Beaufort. The text of the Office of the feast was probably composed by a former dean of her chapel. It is not surprising, therefore, to find that a large section of the prayer-book com­missioned by the Lady Margaret for Thomas Stanley is made up of a series of devotions "de nomine Ihesu", in honour of the Holy Name. In the light of the inclusion of the Charlemagne sequence of names in the Office of the Holy Name, the presence in Stanley's prayer-book alongside these prayers to the Holy Name of Jesus of no fewer than four versions of the Charlemagne charm becomes more readily intelligible. Neither the Lady Margaret nor those responsible for assembling the book drew any hard and fast dis­tinction between "orthodox" devotions to the Holy Name, such as the "O Bone Ihesu", and the "magical" invocations we have been considering. That fact alone has far-reaching implications for the concept of "popular" piety in late medieval England.4"

The point to be grasped here, of course, is that the reliance on the "vertu of these names" in the Charlemagne charm was close to the way in which the late medieval Church understood the power of the Holy Name of Jesus itself. The daily Offices began "Our help is in the Name of the Lord." Mark 16, one of the four Gospel passages regularly included in primers and used in the fields at Rogationtide, was constantly quoted in justification of ecclesiastical conjuration and exorcism, and promised that "in niy Name they shall cast out devils ... they shall take up serpents ... They shall lay hands on the sick and they shall recover." This teaching was reiterated in the Office of the I Poly Name, where the third lection for the first nocturne of matins insisted: "This is the Name which bestows sight on the blind, hearing on the deaf, makes the crippled walk, gives speech to the dumb and life to the dead: the virtue of this name has put to flight all the power of the devil from the bodies of the possessed."'" This insistence on the salvific power of the Holy Name is evident in the New Testament, and has been a perennial feature of Christian practice and piety. It underlies not only the form which many exorcisms take, but the devotion of respectable modern Church of England matins congregations singing St Patrick's breast-plate:

Westminster Abbey, MS 39; and sec N. Ker, Medieval Manuscripts in British Libraries, 1 London, 1969, pp. 412, 413.

4' Sarum Breviarium, III col. 623.

I Bind unto myself the Name

The Strong Name of the Trinity By Invocation of the Same

The Three in One and One in Three.42

But faith in the "vertu" of the Holy Name was particularly strong in the late Middle Ages, and its mere repetition seemed full of power and blessing, a belief magnificently testified by the decora­tion of the roof of Blythburgh church, where the Holy Name is the principal motif, a splendid visual equivalent to the hypnotic litany of the Name enshrined in a devotion like the Jesu Psalter or Richard of Caistor's prayer.

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