The stripping of the altars



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This sense of the symbiotic relationship between the official practice of the Church, orthodox devotions like that to the Holy Name, and even apparently superstitious practices and prayers is evident in a number of late medieval discussions of magic, perhaps most strikingly in the Malleus Maleficarum, the magisterial treatment of this whole area. Though it spelt out at some length the conven­tional warnings against sorcery and reliance on the Devil in con­jurations, and laid down strict conditions for the lawful use of charms and incantations, the Malleus nevertheless recognized that many popular "magical" practices, though fallen into the hands of "indiscreet and superstitious persons", were in their origin "entirely sacred", and were legitimate when "applied by pious men", even lay men or women. It brought arguments from St Thomas to justify the use of charms and benedictions invoking sacred names and things, and therefore "let us by all means invoke the name of God . . . by the Triumphant Inscription, by the three nails, and by the other weapons of Christ's army against the Devil and his works. By these means it is lawful to work, and our trust may be placed in them, leaving the issue to God's will." Again drawing on St Thomas, the Malleus even permitted the use of written charms, such as passages from the Gospels or other "sacred words", to be hung round the neck or placed by the sick or given them to kiss. Even if the lay user of such charms could not understand the words thus written the practice might he legitimate, for "it is enough if such a man fixes his thoughts upon the Divine Virtue, and leaves it to the Divine Will to do what seems good to his Mercy.""

The scope given by this, the most exhaustive manual against witchcraft and superstition produced in the Middle Ages, to the sort of practices and prayers I have been discussing, was enormous. It expressly legitimated the use as charms not only of prayers, but


42 The New English Hymnal, 1986, p. 361.

43 Malleus Male/icarum, pp. 381-7.


286 PRAYERS ANI) SPELLS CHARMS, PARDONS, ANI) PROMISES 287
of the names of God and such symbolic objects as the Five Wounds, the Nails, or specific sayings of Jesus, comparing their power to that of relics, for "the words of God are not less holy than the relics of the saints." This broad approach was no doubt in part dictated by realism in the face of popular practice: it was certainly amply reflected there. The Malleus had cited St Thomas to the effect that the incidents of the Passion or the words of Jesus might be invoked as "lawful means" of working the signs promised in the last chapter of St Mark. These signs were as concrete, miraculous, and con­cerned with life's ills and dangers as anyone could desire – casting out demons, drinking poison unharmed, healing the sick, taking up serpents unharmed. Therefore charms against unstaunchable wounds, invoking the Wounds of Jesus or the nails or lance that caused them seemed legitimate. Joshua's prayer that made the sun stand still and Christ's word that made the sea stand still might be invoked to make thieves unable to move if they touched the devotee's goods. Phrases from the Gospels such as "Jesus passed through the midst of them" might be used to ensure safe passage through perils, or "not a bone of hits shall be broken" to heal a toothache. Christ's harrowing of Hell and breaking of its gates might even be invoked to open jammed locks.44 To a twentieth-century eye this is clearly a form of sympathetic magic; to its users and to the ecclesiastical authorities it might seem a perfectly legitimate application of the principles set down by St Thomas or the Malleus, and an extension of the practice of the liturgy. Was this "Medicina pro Morba Caduco et le Fevr", for example, a prayer, or a spell?

What nlancre of Ivell thou be

In Goddis name I coungere the.

I coungere the with the holy crosse That Iesus was done on with fors. coniure the with nayles thrc

That Iesus was nayled upon the tree.

I coungere the with the croune of thorne That lesus hede was done with skorne. 1 coungere the with the precious blade That lesus shewyd vpon the rode. I coungere the with woundys fyve That lesus suffred be his lyve.

I coungere the with that holy spere That Longenus to Iesus hert can bere.
as Evans, Magical Jewels, p. 128; Scot, Discoverie of Witchcraft, pp. 233, 244; Carleton Brown, Secular Lyrics of the XIV—XV Centuries, 1952, pp. 58—61.

I coungere the neuertheless

With all the vertues of the masse

And all the prayers of Seynt Dorathe.

In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti. Amen.43

Some charms confused the matter further by inserting a clause that made what clearly operated as a binding conjuration into a prayer of supplication. Thus one charm against thieves conjures potential robbers in no uncertain terms by the Trinity, the "vertu of every masse / that ever was seyde", by herb and stone and tree, "that they stand still as stone / they have ne powere away to gon / By the vertu of the holy trinite / Tylle they have lyve of me". But it concludes as a straightforward petition – "Lord iesu, Graunte nie thys / as ye bell in heven blys.''46



Pardons and Promises

The charms and invocations found among the popular prayers of the Florae and related prayer collections are not the only texts which raise problems for ally understanding of the nature of popular religion in the late Middle Ages. The indulgences or pardons and other promises in the rubrics which accompanied not merely the charms, but even such impeccably mainstream devotions as the "Obsecro 'Fe" and the "Fifteen Oes" raise similar questions about the relationship between official and popular piety.

These rubrics offered essentially two types of promise. The first of these consisted of indulgences, ranging from a sober forty days to a spurious 4(1,(1)0 years; the second type consisted of promised benefits in this world or the next – the conversion of fifteen kinsmen and the release of fifteen souls from Purgatory, prefaced to the "Fifteen ()es", the promise of immunity from death by poison, battle, judicial process, fire, or water attached to the "Deus Propicius Esto", or the promise prefixed to the "Obsecro Te" that the Blessed Virgin would appear to the devotee to give them warning of the day and hour of his or her death, and would guarantee them salvation.47

Before the indulgence rubrics can be understood, it is necessary to define exactly what an indulgence or pardon was believed to be.



w 'l', Silverstein (cd.), Medieval English Lyrics, 1971 p. 126; on the whole question sec I). Gray, "Notes on Sonic Middle English Charms'', in 13. Rowland (ed.), Chaucer and Middle English Studies, 1974, pp. 56-71.

CUL MS Add. 5943f 170r.

;' Hor. Ehor., pp. 66, 76; a representative group of these promises arc conveniently gathered in Hoskins, pp. 124—7.


288 PRAYERS ANI) SPELLS CHARMS, PARIONS, AND PROMISES 289


The pardon concerned was remission not of sin, but merely of the penance or temporal punishment believed to be still due to God after a sin had been repented, confessed, and forgiven. The origin of the concept lay in the ecclesiastical penance imposed on penitents by confessors in the early Middle Ages, which was often prolonged and severe, involving arduous and dangerous pilgrimages or lengthy fasting. Such penances often exposed the penitent to public shame, and were found burdensome and off-putting. Compassion and pastoral realism led to the gradual evolution of commutation of such severe penances, and the emergence of the system by which a comparatively mild penance, involving prayer, fasting, or alms-giving, was imposed by the priest in confession. The unfulfilled balance of a penitent's debt of penance was believed to be made up from the treasure of merits acquired by Christ and by his saints, in a transaction rather resembling the transfer of credit to an over-drawn current account from an abundant deposit account. This transfer was often conceived of as an exercise of the power of the keys, and therefore lay in the hands of the bishops and the Pope. The imposition of the earlier form of penance had been by days or years, and individual indulgences were therefore measured in the same way — the standard grant was forty days. On rare occasions, such as the declaration of the Jubilee at Rome, or the displaying of some mighty relic at some other pilgrimage site, they alight be total or plenary. In every case the indulgence could only be obtained by a Christian in a state of grace, that is, one who had truly repented, sincerely confessed, and been duly absolved of all grave sins, and the pardon was awarded in return for the per­formance of specific pious acts, such as pilgrimage or the recitation of particular indulgenced devotions.

I)espite some theological problems implicit in the notion, indulgences in the late Middle Ages were almost universally believed to be applicable to souls in Purgatory, to shorten their torments. Inevitably, this belief promoted interest in the gaining of indulgences, and there is abundant evidence that they were eagerly sought by every class of English society in the later Middle Ages. The well-to-do purchased letters or bulls of pardon by contributing to charitable causes, such as the notorious rebuilding of St Peter's, or by associating themselves with particular religious orders or gilds. Those who had them took great comfort in articulo mortis in the possession of such pardons, often specifying that they be displayed on or near the grave, and some of the later medieval Manuals preserve special forms of absolution for those who pos­sessed them.4s Margery Kempe, for all her mystical intimacy with


as York Manuale, p. 129.

Christ and repeated visionary assurances that she would never have to endure the pains of Purgatory, showed herself once again a woman of her time by taking the liveliest possible interest in clocking up the "great pardon and plenary remission" of all the pilgrimage sites she visited. One of the most spectacular signs of divine favour granted to her was the ability to gain the indulgences attached to the Holy Places in Jerusalem without needing to make pilgrimage there, and apparently the right to grant these indulgences to others.

Margery's appetite for pardons was very widely shared. Indulgences were considered an indispensable incentive in con­nection with a variety of fund-raising activities, for example, the building or restoring of churches and religious houses. But the incentive might be attached not merely to ecclesiastical projects, but to secular causes, such as the repair of bridges and roads.s" Wealthy Londoners sought burial in the indulgenced "Pardon Churchyard" in the cloisters of St Paul's, and evidence of the quest for pardons at the highest level was found in the later Sarum Horae, many of which printed details of an indulgence of 300 days at each recital, secured from Pope Sixtus IV by Edward IV's queen, Elizabeth, for all who used a particular devotion in honour of the Virgin three times a day at the Ave or Angelus bell.' Perhaps the most macabre testimony to the demand for indulgences was the custom of grant­ing forty days' indulgence to anyone who brought a faggot to the burning of a heretic, whereby, according to Foxe, "many ignorant people caused many of their children to bear billets and faggots to their burning." Nor was this appetite confined to ignorant people. At the burning of the Suffolk Protestant Nicholas Peke one of the officials proclaimed the indulgence "To as many as shall cast a stick to the burning" upon which "Baron Curson, Sir John Audley, knight, with many others of estimation, being there present, did rise from their scats, and with their swords did cut down boughs, and throw them into the fire, and so did all the multitude of the people.''

Set against this background, the proliferation of indulgenced devotions in successive editions of the Horae is readily understand-able. The indulgences were prominently advertised on the title-pages or colophons of Sarum primers, and clearly constituted one



°" The Book of Margery Kempe, p. 75.

s" See below, The Pains of Purgatory" pp. 367—8.

'1 Hoskins, p. 126. The indulgence was granted on 2 January 1480/1 — Calendar of Entries in the Papal Re'isters relating to Great Britain and Ireland, XIII, Part 1 pp. 90—1. 52 Foxe, Acts and Monuments, IV p. 581, V p. 254.


290 PRAYERS AND SPELLS CHARMS, PARDONS, AND PROMISES 291
of their principal selling-points. Equipped with his or her primer and an hour or two to spare for pious browsing, the devout lay person could clock up an impressive tally of days of pardon. But it would be a mistake to see this as a merely mechanical process: the indulgences were not intended as an incentive to mindless parroting of the maximum number of prayers. They could not be gained without inner devotion. John Mirk told his congregation that every fifty years the Pope of Rome "yn more confort of all Godys pepull" granted a plenary indulgence to all who came to Rome. But because not all could go to Rome, "the Pope of Heven, Ihesu Cryst, of his specyall grace grantythe all men and woymen full pardon of hor synnys yn hor deth-day" in return for three things — "full contrition with schryft, full charite wythout fcynyng, and stabull fayth wythout flateryng". And indeed, Mirk adds, "wythout then thre, ther may no mon have pardon at Rome ne clleswhere. "s The indulgence rubrics which preceded most of the extra prayers in early sixteenth-century Horac reflect this same insistence. The indulgence granted at Queen Elizabeth's request by "our holy fathers the Archbishops of Canterbury and York with other ix bishops of this realm", for example, was offered "to all them that be in the state of grace able to receive pardon". The forty days of pardon attached to the "Gaude Virgo, Mater Christi" was offered "to all them that say thys prayer in the worschyp of our blessyd lady, beyng penitente and trewly confessed of all theyr synnes". The indulgences were for "them that devoutly say these prayers".s'1

There were, of course, wrong perceptions and misunderstandings of all this. Many of the indulgences promised were for tens of thousands of years, and were clearly apocryphal. Other rubrics betray a fundamental confusion about what an indulgence was. The indulgence attributed to Alexander VI, attached to a prayer in honour of St Anne, St Mary, and the child Jesus, was for "V thousand years of pardon for deadly sins, and XX years for venial sins" implying that the indulgence could actually remit sins.ss This confusion was rare in the printed Home, but fairly frequent in prayers circulating manuscript, even those in comparatively learned collections like the Bodleian manuscript Lyell 3U. A variant of a common rubric in that collection runs:

Whoo ever saith this orison every day: ther is graunted to hym yaf he be in the state of everlastyng dampnacion, God woll turne

53 Festial, p. 74.

51 Hor. Ehor., p. 63; Hoskins, pp. 124—7. 55 Hoskins, p. 125.

everlastyng peyne into the peyne of purgatori. And yef he be in the state of the peynes of purgatory; God woll change thilke paynes of purgatori & him will cut purgatori to everlastyng ioy. To all thilke that seyn this orison, xx dayes contynewyng there is graunted to hym playn remission as hit is retyn at Rome in the mynster of Seynt Peter under a bul of led.5`'


As that reference to the "bul of led" in St Peter's suggests, the purpose of these extraordinary rubrics was to impress on the devotee the great power and authority of the prayers they accompanied. So in sonic of the printed Horae the "O Bone Ihesu" is recommended to the user not merely by that same promise of the commutation of the fires of Hell to those of Purgatory, and of Purgatory for the joys of Heaven, but by the fact that its use brought St Bernard "a singular rewarde of perpetual! consolation of our lorde Jesu Grist". And should anyone doubt the ecclesiastical credentials of the prayer, it was, the rubric claimed, "wrytten yn a thabell that haungeth at rome'' near the high altar in St Peter's where the Pope "ys wonte to say the office of the masse". Not all the rubrics went in for this sort of overkill. Often the incentive is strategically vague, like the rubric to the "Ave Maria Ancilla Trinitatis": "this prayer was showed to saint Bernard by the messenger of God, saying that as gold is most precious of all other metal so exceedeth this prayer all other prayers, and who that devoutly says it shall have a singular reward of our blessed Lady and her sweet son Jesus."S7

In all this, we are clearly the same mental world as that reflected in many of the miraculous and fabulous exempla used to illustrate and flavour parochial preaching. Mirk's story of the child "pullt" up to !leaven to be taught the "Sancte et lmmortale" prayer, with which he then banished the Rogationtide devils, is a case in point, but any collection of late medieval sermons would yield dozens. These exempla, with their circumstantial details of miraculous happenings, were not pious frauds; they were pious fictions, whose use was governed by clear sets of conventions, and they were used and reused in sermon after sermon. They were collected into encyclopaedias and preaching dictionaries, and topped and tailed with different place and personal names as circumstances and pastoral needs demanded.5s The legends and indulgences

Bodleian Library Lyell MS 30 fois 51r—51v; also in CUL MS I )d.vi.l fol. 144r. 57 Hoskins, p. 124.

ss On exempla and their use see G. R. Owst, Literature and the Pulpit in Medieval England, 1961, especially chapter 4 "Fiction and Instruction in the Sermon Exempla"; for a collection in English see An Alphabet of Tales, ed. M. M. Banks, EETS, 1904—5.

292 PRAYERS ANI) SPELLS CHARMS, PARIONS, ANI) PROMISES 293


attached to the prayers of the laity seem equally conventional and stereotyped in character, and should probably be seen in much the same way.

Yet there is no escaping the peculiarity of the gulf between the beauty, coherence, and power of many of the prayers collected in the Horae, and the tawdry oddity of many of the promises and indulgences promised in the rubrics. Should we therefore assume a two-tier readership, reflecting a high and a low, an élite and a popular piety? Were there sonic users of these prayers who sought in them that devout and recollected interiority which devotions like the "Fifteen Oes" seem to demand, and others, a rabble of indulgence hunters spawned by cheap printing, with cruder palates and coarser perceptions, who thumbed through their primers in search of marvels and quantifiable dividends, temporal as much as spiritual?

There may be something in this, for indulgences and apocryphal attributions did multiply as successive editions of the primers rolled from the presses.59 But once again we should resist any simplistic division of late medieval religion into high against low, élite, churchly, or official against popular. The "Fifteen ()es" were among the best and most theologically sophisticated of the prayers of the Horae and among the most widely used. Yet the legend attached to them, with its tale of visionary solitaries, demons in the woods, and its extravagant and circumstantial promises in multiples of fifteen, was as suspect as anything to be found in the whole repertoire of late medieval religion. As we have seen, the crudest of supernatural promises, the most grandiloquent offers of indulgences, the most apocryphal of legends, are to be found in collections used by educated, pious, and orthodox lay people and clerics. No easy stratification along these lines seems possible. Even the distinction between official and unofficial piety, which might seem promising, given the undoubted concern of many of the ecclesiastical author­ities to prune the wilder extravagances of folk religion, is not here very helpful. Strange legends and extravagant promises were not confined to the periphery of unofficial or lay religion, for they were strikingly represented in the most clerical and official of books, the missal, in the material prefixed to the votive Mass against the pestilence, "pro Mortalitate evitanda", the Mass of the Five Wounds, and in the instructions for the celebration of the Trental of St Gregory.

s`' It is worth comparing the indulgences, and the claims made about them, in Hoskins, no. 7, RSTC 15875, with later books such as Hoskins, nos 37 (RSTC 15909), 43 (RSTC 15916), or 67 (RSTC 15939).

The "Missa pro Mortalitate Evitanda" or Mass against the pestilence, generally known, from its opening word, as the Mass "Recordare", was apparently compiled and authorized by Pope Clement VI at Avignon during the Black Death there in 1348-9. With its appeals for mercy to "pie Jesu" and its reliance on the intercession of the Mother of Mercy, it is a very characteristic product of the later Middle Ages. In our present context, how-ever, its real interest lies in the prefatory rubric which explained Clement's authorship, promised 260 days of indulgence to all who heard the mass "truly contrite and confessed", and, most spectacularly, guaranteed that all who heard it on five consecutive days, kneeling with a burning candle in their hands, would not succumb to sudden death. And it concludes, in a sentence which immediately recalls the Horae references to prayers authenticated by "buts of led" in Rome, "Et hoc est certum et approbatum in Avinione et in partibus circumvenis.'''

The Mass of the Five Wounds, whose enormous popularity we have already noticed, was preceded by a more circumstantial if less historically reliable rubric. This attributed the text of the Mass to the Archangel Raphael, who had revealed it to an unspecified Pope Boniftce, when he lay close to death. The Archangel commanded the Pope to rise and write the Mass down, and then to say it five times, on which he would recover. Thereafter, anyone in trouble in this world who said it five times, or caused it to be said, "without doubt, would be set free". If said for a soul in Purgatory five times, they would be released to Heaven. These promises Raphael assured the Pope were delivered with the authority of God, to which the Pope added his apostolic authority, and granted to all those "truly contrite and confessed" who said five Masses a "seventh part of the remission of all their sins", and to those who caused it to be said, forty days' remission of mortal sins and a year's remission of venial sins.'

The Trental of St Gregory was an even more complex devotion, much and increasingly favoured by fifteenth-century English testa-tors. It involved the saying of thirty Masses spread out over a year, three each in the octaves and using the Masses of the Nativity, Epiphany, Purification, Annunciation, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost, Trinity, the Assumption of the Virgin and her Nativity, together with daily recitation of "Placebo" and "Dirige". The devotion was accompanied by a legend, in which Pope Gregory's deceased mother appeared to him, monstrously disfigured by her torments in

`iO Missale, col. 886*. (1 Missale, col. 750*.

294 PRAYERS AND SPELLS

Purgatory, the result of unconfessed sins. She asked her son to celebrate the Trental of thirty masses, and when this was done, she reappeared so radiantly beautiful that he mistook her for the Blessed Virgin. The story, duly versified in English, was immensely popu­lar. It linked up with the lay habit of recitation of the primer Office for the Dead and this, combined with the fact that the Trental represented a sort of recapitulation of the whole liturgical year and seemed to produce such dramatic and guaranteed effects, led to an enormous demand for its celebration.`' Rigorous Catholic opinion, represented by the author of Dives and Pauper, strongly disapproved of the "Pope Trental" on both theological and historical grounds. Nevertheless, detailed instructions for its celebration found their way into the missal.

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