15 October 2013

Witchcraft and Sorcery: The medieval Franks’ complicated relationship with magic

Officially, the Church in the days of Charlemagne prohibited magic, but in practice, the Franks’ employed the supernatural in everyday life.

As noted in other posts in this series, medieval folk were rational, but their world did not include the science and technology that we use to explain and manipulate our reality. For people in the Middle Ages, magic and religion were the means.

Someone hearing voices telling them to burn down the house? Must be demon possession. A hailstorm devastate your crops? Must be an angry God. Or sorcery. Or both.
Interestingly, Bishop Agobard of Lyon did not believe in witches, but he was in a distinct minority. To most medieval folk, you ignored supernatural forces at your peril.

Charlemagne did not take chances. Before a 791 battle with the Avars, he participated in three days of litanies, with barefoot priest and abstinence from wine and meat (or giving alms instead) – and he wrote to his wife, Fastrada, to make sure these rituals were also performed at home. This was all done to make sure God would favor the Franks in the coming war.

A ninth century piece called Talisman of Charlemagne
(photo by Garitan, shared under
Creative Commons Attribution license)
But his contemporaries did not turn to religion only. Both clerics and the laity wore amulets and charms alongside their crosses (like the heroine of my first novel, The Cross and the Dragon) and paid fortune tellers and dream interpreters. A midwife might whisper spells to a woman in labor to hasten the birth, and peasants recited incantations to keep their horses from being injured. A sick child might be brought to the roof a house to heal while herbs burned. Models of arms and legs were hung in trees for healing the actual limb. Funerals included wakes, a way to appease the dead.

The belief in magic was too powerful for the Church to stop, so it adapted. It tried to replace pagan spells with prayers for rain, a good harvest, and healing of the sick. The Host was place in a dead person’s mouth instead of a coin.

But the Church and its followers were not completely tolerant.  After a storm, three men and a woman were brought to in chains Agobard to be stoned. Another penalty: being sealing in a cask and thrown into the river, the fate of a nun Charlemagne’s grandson King Lothar wanted to be rid of.

Empress Judith, as portrayed in
a circa 1510 manuscript
(public domain image)
Allegations of sorcery were a political cudgel, especially against a woman (thought to be more vulnerable to the devil). Lothar’s partisans accused his stepmother, Empress Judith, of ensnaring her husband, Louis the Pious, through witchcraft, and they threw in adultery for good measure. Judith was able to acquit herself by swearing an oath in front of an assembly.
A less friendly audience would have required her champion to go through a trial by ordeal – for instance sticking his hand in boiling water and grabbing a rock. If the wound was not infected, that was a divine sign of innocence. The same system that threatened someone sometimes could free them.

Images via Wikimedia Commons

Kim Rendfeld is the author of The Cross and the Dragon (2012, Fireship Press) and The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar (forthcoming, Fireship Press). Magic and religion play a strong role in both novels, set in the earlier years of Charlemagne’s reign. Learn more about Kim and her work at kimrendfeld.com.