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Sorcery, Heresy, and the Authority of the Christian Church

Sorcery, Heresy, and the Authority of the Christian Church
© Photograph by Daniel Kelly

The Church in medieval Europe had a stronghold on the knowledge that was provided to the community. As a means of maintaining their superior position, they persecuted heretics, including sorcerers, who had allegedly acted against the Church. However, sorcery was not originally associated with heresy. There was a shifting mentality among Church officials towards that use of magic that resulted in sorcery transitioning from an error to a heretical behaviour.

Understanding the various forms of heresy including sorcery, is essential to knowing how the Church was able to impose orthodoxy on the people of Europe. Orthodoxy among the laity was essential to the Church maintaining its superiority within Europe. Sorcery and magic were a threat to the Church, not only because lay people were circumventing the Church by appealing to otherworldly powers, but also because the Church would lose their control over the souls of the people.

The meaning of heresy is important for analysing the documents of the Church regarding heretics and heretical behaviour. The original meaning of heresy, haeresis, was used to label choice in Ancient Greece before it was adopted into the Latin vocabulary. As time went on, the meaning of the word shifted to designate the Greek and Roman schools of thought. Once Christendom was thoroughly in place, the term came to mean learning or teaching against church doctrine.

However, being labelled a heretic was not an automatic result of someone acting against the Church, they had the opportunity to be corrected, cautioned against their behaviour, or publicly denounced as a means of dissuading any further heresies. A heretic, therefore, was someone who had been caught acting against the Church and was taught how to behave correctly, but continued to behave against church doctrine.

Heresy also largely stemmed from people wanting to interpret the Bible their own way, which was a form of dissent and took power away from the Church. A medieval author, Robert Grosseteste, the Bishop Lincoln, defined heresy as “an opinion chosen by human faculties, contrary to sacred scripture, openly held, and pertinaciously defended.” This excerpt demonstrates that the act of heresy was purposeful and done knowingly against the Church and in an effort to oppose the Church.

Many of the groups who chose to interpret the Bible their own way, including the Cathars of the twelfth-century and the Lollards of the fifteenth-century, did so because of the contradictory and unstable nature of Christianity. The Cathars especially posed a serious problem for the Church because they were able to gather a sizeable following. They preached that everything that was the material world was evil, causing great concern within the Church.

Another teaching of the Cathars was that souls were trapped in the material body, the world being hell and the souls needed to escape. For the Church, this would imply that it too was evil both as an institution and those who occupied the clergy; the Church’s power over the populace was corrupted by its materiality. These dissenters, and others who felt that they needed something more from their religion, indicate that the Church was not sensitive to the needs of the people, rather they were more concerned with what the laity were doing wrong.

With the rise of heretical sects, including the Cathars, the Church needed to react and impose strict canonical laws to secure their position of power. The Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 marked the official definition and need for the persecution of heretical behaviour. The council was made up of prominent church leaders, including the Pope, to establish church laws that that laity across Europe were meant to abide by. Multiple groups, including the Cathars, were interpreting the Bible for themselves, and no longer required the Church. This threatened the conformist nature that had been established and preserved for hundreds of years.

The canons that were the result of the council outlined the distinctions in law of the difference between orthodoxy and heresy, ensuring these two were clearly different. Canon Three of the Fourth Lateran Council was written specifically about heresy and “condemning all heretics under whatever names they may be known, for a while they have different faces, they are nevertheless bound to each other by their tails.” This excerpt was meant to demonstrate that heretics were not a specific people, but that heresy could have been committed by anyone, and that all heretics were linked by their devilish ways.

The Canon describes the punishments that would be carried out against heresy and mentions that it is the secular authority who will punish the heretics. These punishments included that all property was to be confiscated, and that heresy could even result in excommunication.

Excommunication was the ultimate punishment for the medieval individual because it barred them from entering heaven. The loss of property meant that the individual was excluded from the community, and in conjunction with excommunication, ensured that the person was destined to a life and afterlife of suffering. Additionally, Canon Three details that rulers who have heretics in their realm faced excommunication if they were unable to rid the area of these dissenters.

The Church was exercising their authority over the secular world by ensuring that they had the power over the king and other rulers. The king, under threat of excommunication, was at the mercy of the Church, and therefore had to abide by their rules. There was also an obvious power struggle between the Church and secular authorities, exemplified by the Church insisting that kings adhere to their demands.

The entire community was subject to the possibility of excommunication, including anyone who helped believed in the preaching of a heretic. The Church demanded vigilance on the part of the bishops because of the strict rules placed on society to ensure that no one fell into heresy, the bishops were also meant to control the faith of the people by imposing Canon Law and not allowing others to preach against Church doctrine.

The Fourth Lateran Council is significant to the study of heresy because it was the first Canon Law about heretical behaviour and the impending punishment for heretics, through time the use of magic was placed under the aegis of heresy. With the new canon laws, the Church had increased power over the people and marked longstanding behaviours as heretical. Magic use had become ingrained in many practices among laity because in the early years of the Church many pagan rituals had been integrated into Catholic practices. This shift resulted in centuries of witch hunting that killed thousands of innocents.

The Fourth Lateran Council was not the first church gathering to discuss the issues of heresy. Several meetings were held in centuries before, and these gatherings also resulted in writings by clergy to discuss the differences between error and heresy. One such writer was Burchard of Worms (ca. 950-­‐1025). Before sorcery became equated to heresy, it was considered an error.

Burchard of Worms wrote a document about errors that people could commit and the penance related to each type of wrongdoing. The document “Corrector and Doctor” was one of the largest collections of errors, and there was an entire section that discussed sorcery. Several sections of the document were concerned with the magical arts, including a description of women who ride around at night hailing Satan. This activity was still only considered an error and resulted in two years of penance in the form of fasting during holy days.

This example is especially important because this theme would be carried through the centuries to the early modern European witchcraft trials that would kill many women. Burchard of Worms, however, merely sees this activity as an error, not heresy, and suggested that the transgressor perform penance.

With the rise of dissenters towards the Church, as well as the increasingly severe punishments established in the Fourth Lateran Council, there was a need to find and persecute those who were acting contrary to Church teachings. As a response to heretical behaviour, the inquisition was implemented to find the heretics and put an end to their wrongdoing.

The inquisitorial process began with an appointed church official coming to a town suspected of having heretics, the official would teach a sermon denouncing heresy, and then would ask any heretics of those who knew of heretics to come forward and confess.

Once people came forward, or were brought in, the questioning would begin. Heretics who would not repent their beliefs would suffer harsher punishments than confessed heretics. The inquisitors had an arsenal of tactics that they could employ to acquire a confession, including psychological tricks, as well as threats against the accused’s inances. The inquisitors falso use extreme measures to obtain confessions, often by giving the accused heretic over to the secular authorities who would then torture the victim — those found guilty of heresy after the inquisition were to become social pariahs. They lost their homes, could not be buried in church land, and could not inherit or leave any property in a will.

Confirmed heretics were also made to wear special markings on their clothes, therefore the whole community would be reminded of the Church’s severity in the punishment of those who acted against them. In the most severe cases, heretics were put to death.

A fine line divided orthodoxy and heresy, the inquisitor’s were responsible for distinguishing the difference, but this often led to an error being interpreted as heresy. The ultimate motivation for the inquisition was to correct incorrect behaviours, beliefs, and practices to ensure that there would be no further damage to Church doctrine. As sorcery began to become more commonly used, there was an increasingly large number of heretics accused of using magic. These heretics were seen as the ultimate threat to church orthodoxy because they were appealing to supernatural forces, rather than scripture.

The desire for knowledge was a constant power struggle between the lay people and the Church. Heresy was a threat to the Church and their power, but not all heresies were treated equally. Heretics were only seen as heretics because they had lost their battle against the Church for more power.

The inquisitorial process that was imposed to find heretics became a method of repression keeping documents as “its ultimate source of power.” The different methods used to find heretics and combat heresy were outlined in different church documents and doctrine. However, by maintaining a stronghold on the available documents, the laity were not made aware of the differences between possible crimes against the Church.

This lack of knowledge would lead to many people attempting to find their own solutions to existential issues that they were facing on a daily basis.

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