Medieval Black Magic

In the early 11th century, Burchard of Worms, a German bishop and theologian, compiled a penitential handbook to aid priests in administering confession. Known as The Corrector, it listed dozens of potential sins and what the penance would be if someone committed them – usually the punishment be fasting for a few days on bread and water. Many of these sins involved people observing or practicing old pagan folk rituals, or what Burchard considered to be evil magic. Here are a few of these sins.

1. Burning a skull

“Have you done what some women are wont to do? They take a man’s skull, burn it, and give the ashes to their husbands to drink for health.”

2. Secret Burials

“Have you ever done what certain women are said to have done? If they have a child which dies unbaptised, they take the corpse and put it in a secret place, and place a stake through the tiny body, saying that if they do not, then the little child will rise up and cause them much damage.”

3. Fishy Seduction

“Have you done as certain women are said to do? They take a live fish and place it in their private parts until it is dead, then serve it boiled or roasted to their husbands. They do this in order to increase the husband’s ardour for them.”

4. Storms and Demons

“Have you believed, or ever fallen into the perfidy of thinking that those conjurors who claim to be able to raise storms may indeed be able to conjure up storms or demons by incantation, or that they may be able to affect the minds of men?”

5. Collecting herbs

“Have you ever collected herbs for medicinal purposes, and while doing so chanted wicked magic spells, and not liturgical or holy ones, such as the Creed or the Our Father?”

6. Little Toys and Tools

“Have you ever made little toys, or toy bows, or small tools, and placed them in the cellar or in the storeroom, so that goblins and demons can play with them there, and will then be favourable to you in other things?”

7. Werewolves

“Have you ever believed, as certain people are said to believe that those women commonly known as the Fates exist, or are able to do what is believed of them, namely that when a man is born, that they can change him into anything he wants, and that there are some men who can at will change themselves into wolves – they are known as “werewolves” in the Germanic tongue – or into other things?”

8. Dealing with Corpses

“Have you put your son or daughter on your rooftop or on your oven in order to gain some remedy for their illness, or have you burned grain where a dead many has lain, or tied a dead man’s belt in knots in order to harm someone, or have you clapped together over a corpse the combs which little women use to tease wool, or after a corpse has been carried from its house, have you cut the cart that carried it in half and had the corpse carried between the two halves of the cart?”

9. Evil Eye

“Have you believed what certain women are wont to believe: that whatever hose they enter, with a word, look, or sound they claim they can cast the evil eye and destroy goslings, the chicks of peafowl, chicks, even piglets and the offspring of other animals?”

10. Rising into the sky

“Have you believed what some women are wont to believe, that in the stillness of a quiet night while your doors are shut, you along with other minions of the devil rise up into the sky all the way to the clouds and fight there with others, and that you wound them and they wound you?”

11. Footprints

“Have you done what some women do carrying out the devil’s lessons? They study the footprints and tracks Christians make when walking, and then they take some sod from their footprints and examine it, hoping to take away their health or life.”

12. Adultery

“Have you behaved as certain adulterous women are said to do? As soon as they see that their lovers wish to take lawful wedded wives, they ensure by certain black magical arts that the male vigours of the men are extinguished, so that they cannot please their lawful wives, nor make love to them.”

A list of the sins from The Corrector can be found in translation in The Dedalus Book of Medieval Literature: The Grin of the Gargoyle, edited by Brian Murdoch, and in Medieval Popular Religion, 1000-1500: A Reader, edited by John R. Shinners.

To learn more about medieval magic, please see:

Anaphrodisiac Charms in the Nordic Middle Ages: Impotence, Infertility, and Magic

`The Evil Eye’ in early Irish literature and law

Magic for the dead? The archaeology of magic in later medieval burials

Demonic Magic in the Icelandic Wizard Legends

Runic Magic

Anglo-Saxon Magico-Medicine


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