Canon Episcopi

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The text of the canon Episcopi in Hs. 119 (Cologne), a manuscript of Decretum Burchardi dated to ca. 1020. Canon Episcopi Hs119.jpg
The text of the canon Episcopi in Hs. 119 (Cologne), a manuscript of Decretum Burchardi dated to ca. 1020.
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The title canon Episcopi (also capitulum Episcopi) is conventionally given to a certain passage found in medieval canon law. The text possibly originates in an early 10th-century penitential, recorded by Regino of Prüm; it was included in Gratian's authoritative Corpus juris canonici of c. 1140 (Decretum Gratiani, causa 26, quaestio 5, canon 12) and as such became part of canon law during the High Middle Ages.

Canon law is a set of ordinances and regulations made by ecclesiastical authority, for the government of a Christian organization or church and its members. It is the internal ecclesiastical law, or operational policy, governing the Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox churches, and the individual national churches within the Anglican Communion. The way that such church law is legislated, interpreted and at times adjudicated varies widely among these three bodies of churches. In all three traditions, a canon was originally a rule adopted by a church council; these canons formed the foundation of canon law.

A penitential is a book or set of church rules concerning the Christian sacrament of penance, a "new manner of reconciliation with God" that was first developed by Celtic monks in Ireland in the sixth century AD. It consisted of a list of sins and the appropriate penances prescribed for them, and served as a type of manual for confessors.

Regino of Prüm Benedictine monk, chronicler and music theorist

Regino of Prüm or of Prum was a Benedictine monk, who served as abbot of Prüm (892–99) and later of Saint Martin's at Trier, and chronicler, whose Chronicon is an important source for late Carolingian history.

It is an important source on folk belief and surviving pagan customs in Francia on the eve of the formation of the Holy Roman Empire. The folk beliefs described in the text reflect the residue of pre-Christian beliefs at about one century after the Carolingian Empire had been Christianized. Its condemnation of the belief in witchcraft was an important argument used by the opponents of the witch trials during the 16th century, such as Johann Weyer.

Middle Francia former country

Middle Francia was a short-lived Frankish kingdom which was created in 843 by the Treaty of Verdun after an intermittent civil war between the grandsons of Charlemagne resulted in division of the united empire. Middle Francia was allocated to emperor Lothair I, the eldest son and successor of emperor Louis the Pious. His realm contained the imperial cities of Aachen, the residence of Charlemagne, as well as Pavia but lacked any geographic or ethnic cohesion which prevented it from surviving and forming a nucleus of a larger state, as was the case with West Francia and East Francia.

Holy Roman Empire Complex of territories in Europe from 962 to 1806

The Holy Roman Empire, also known as Holy Roman Empire of the German nation, was a multi-ethnic complex of territories in Western and Central Europe that developed during the Early Middle Ages and continued until its dissolution in 1806 during the Napoleonic Wars. The largest territory of the empire after 962 was the Kingdom of Germany, though it also included the neighboring Kingdom of Bohemia and Kingdom of Italy, plus numerous other territories, and soon after the Kingdom of Burgundy was added. Its size gradually diminished over time, particularly from 1648 onward, and by the time of its dissolution, it largely contained only German-speaking territories, plus the Kingdom of Bohemia which was bordered by the German lands on three sides.

Carolingian Empire final stage in the history of the early medieval realm of the Franks, ruled by the Carolingian dynasty

The Carolingian Empire (800–888) was a large Frankish-dominated empire in western and central Europe during the early Middle Ages. It was ruled by the Carolingian dynasty, which had ruled as kings of the Franks since 751 and as kings of the Lombards in Italy from 774. In 800, the Frankish king Charlemagne was crowned emperor in Rome by Pope Leo III in an effort to revive the Roman Empire in the west. The Carolingian Empire is considered the first phase in the history of the Holy Roman Empire, which lasted until 1806.

The conventional title "canon Episcopi" is based on the text's incipit, and was current from at least the 17th century. [1]

Textual history

It is perhaps first attested in the Libri de synodalibus causis et disciplinis ecclesiasticis composed by Regino of Prüm around 906. [2] It was included in Burchard of Worms' Decretum (compiled between 1008 and 1012), an early attempt at collecting all of Canon law.

Burchard of Worms Roman Catholic bishop

Burchard of Worms was the bishop of the Imperial City of Worms, in the Holy Roman Empire. He was the author of a canon law collection of twenty books known as the Decretum, Decretum Burchardi, or Decretorum libri viginti.

The text was adopted in the Decretum of Ivo of Chartres and eventually in Gratian's authoritative Corpus juris canonici of c. 1140 (causa 26, quaestio 5, canon 12). Because it was included in Gratian's compilation the text was treated as canon law for the remaining part of the High Middle Ages, until Roman Catholic views on European witchcraft began to change dramatically in the late medieval period. [3] The text of Gratian is not the same as the one used by Burchard, and the distinctive features of the Corrector text were thus not transmitted to later times.

Ivo of Chartres French bishop

Saint Ivo of Chartres was the Bishop of Chartres, France from 1090 until his death, and an important canonist during the Investiture Crisis.

High Middle Ages Period in European history from 1000 to 1250 CE

The High Middle Ages, or High Medieval Period, was the period of European history that commenced around 1000 and lasted until around 1300. The High Middle Ages were preceded by the Early Middle Ages and were followed by the Late Middle Ages, which ended around 1500.

European witchcraft

Belief in and practice of witchcraft in Europe can be traced to classical antiquity and has continuous history during the Middle Ages, culminating in the Early Modern witch hunts and giving rise to the fairy tale and popular culture "witch" stock character of modern times, as well as to the concept of the "modern witch" in Wicca and related movements of contemporary witchcraft.

The text of Regino of Prüm was edited in Patrologia Latina, volume 132; the Decretum of Burchard of Worms in volume 140. The text of Burchard's Corrector has been separately edited by Wasserschleben (1851), [4] and again by Schmitz (1898). [5]

The Patrologia Latina is an enormous collection of the writings of the Church Fathers and other ecclesiastical writers published by Jacques-Paul Migne between 1841 and 1855, with indices published between 1862 and 1865. It is also known as the Latin series as it formed one half of Migne's Patrologiae Cursus Completus, the other part being the Patrologia Graeco-Latina of patristic and medieval Greek works with their medieval Latin translations.


The incipit of Gratian's text, which gave rise to the title of "canon Episcopi" reads:

Episcopi, eorumque ministri omnibus modis elaborare studeant, ut perniciosam et a diabolo inventam sortilegam et magicam artem ex parochiis suis penitus eradicent, et si aliquem virum aut mulierem hujuscemodi sceleris sectatorem invenerint, turpiter dehonestatum de parochiis suis ejiciant.
"The bishops and their ministers should by all means make great effort so that they may thoroughly eradicate the pernicious art of divination and magic, invented by the devil, from their parishes, and if they find any man or woman adhering to such a crime, they should eject them, turpidly dishonoured, from their parishes."

This condemnation the "pernicious art of divination and magic" (magicam being changed by Gratian from maleficam ) is justified by a reference to Titus 3:10-11 on heresy. Then follows a description of the errors of "certain wicked women" (quaedam sceleratae mulieres), who deceived by Satan believe themselves to join the train of the pagan goddess Diana (to which Burchardus added: vel cum Herodiade "or with Herodias") during the hours of the night, and to cover great distances within a multitude of women riding on beasts, and during certain nights to be called to the service of their mistress. Those holding such beliefs are then condemned by the text in no uncertain terms ("that they would only perish in their perfidy without drawing others with them"), deploring the great number of people who "relapse into pagan error" by holding such beliefs. Because of this, the text instructs that all priests should teach at every possible instant that such beliefs are phantasms inspired by an evil spirit.

The following paragraph presents an account of the means by which Satan takes possession of the minds of these women by appearing to them in numerous forms, and how once he holds captive their minds, deludes them by means of dreams (transformat se in diversarum personarum species atque similitudines, et mentem quam captivam tenet in somnis deludens, modo laeta, modo tristia, modo cognitas, modo incognitas personas, ostendens, per devia quaeque deducit).

The text emphasizes that the heretic belief is to hold that these transformations occur in the body, while they are in reality dream visions inspired in the mind (Et cum solus spiritus hoc patitur, infidelis mens haec non in animo, sed in corpore evenire opinatur). The text proposes that it is perfectly normal to have nightly visions in which one sees things that are never seen while awake, but that it is a great stupidity to believe that the events experienced in the dream vision have taken place in the body. Examples are adduced, of Ezechiel having his prophetic visions in spirit, not in body, of the Apocalypse of John which was seen in spirit, not in body, and of Paul of Tarsus, who describes the events at Damascus as a vision, not as a bodily encounter.

The text concludes by repeating that it should be publicly preached that all those holding such beliefs have lost their faith, believing not in God but in the devil, and whosoever believes that it is possible to transform themselves into a different kind of creature, is far more wavering (in his faith) than an infidel (procul dubio infidelis; to which Burchard added: "and worse than a pagan", et pagano deterior).


The Canon Episcopi has received a great deal of attention from historians of the witch craze period as early documentation of the Catholic church's theological position on the question of witchcraft.

The position taken by the author is that these "rides of Diana" did not actually exist, that they are deceptions, dreams or phantasms. It is the belief in the reality of such deceptions which is considered a heresy worthy of excommunication. The position here is that the devil is real, creating delusions in the mind, but that the delusions do not have bodily reality. This skeptical treatment of magic sharply contrasts with the sanction of witch trials by the church in later centuries, beginning with the bull Summis desiderantes affectibus (1484). [6] The proponents of these trials were aware of this problem, and the authors of the Malleus Maleficarum , a witch-hunter's manual from 1487 that played a key role in the witch craze, were forced to argue for a reinterpretation of the Canon Episcopi in order to reconcile their beliefs that witchcraft was both real and effective with those expressed in the Canon. [7] Their detractors in the 16th and 17th century also made reference to the canon, e.g. Johann Weyer in his De praestigiis daemonum (1563).[ page needed ]

Burchard of Worms added the New Testament figure Herodias to his copy of the document in one passage, and the Teutonic goddess Holda in another.[ dubious ] In the 12th century, Hugues de Saint-Victor quoted the Canon Episcopi as reading "Diana Minerva".[ citation needed ] Later collections included the names "Benzozia" and "Bizazia". [8] In modern times, the text's description of "witches sabbaths" dedicated to Diana has given rise to a hypothesis concerning a supposed medieval witch religion, [9] a theory mostly associated with Margaret Murray, and later adopted by Gerald Gardner and his followers. Burchard's mention of Herodias is relevant especially the theories of Charles Godfrey Leland presented in Aradia, or the Gospel of the Witches (1899), and taken up in the Stregheria of Raven Grimassi.

Notes and references

  1. Pedro Antonio Iofreu, Defensa del Canon Episcopi , in Pedro Cirvelo (ed.), Tratado en el qual se repruevan todas las supersticiones y hechizerias printed by Sebastian de Cormellas (1628)
  2. Russell, Jeffrey Burton (1972). Witchcraft in the Middle Ages . Cornell University Press. pp. 75–82. "Book 8, Chapter 9, A History of the Spanish Inquisition, vol. 4" . Retrieved October 15, 2005.
  3. Alan Charles Kors, Edward Peters, Witchcraft in Europe, 400-1700: a documentary history, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1972, pp. 28-31; 2nd revised ed. 2001, ISBN   978-0-8122-1751-3, pp. 72-77.
  4. Wasserschleben, Die Bussordnungen der abendländischen Kirche, Halle, 1851.
  5. H. J. Schmitz, Die Bussbücher und das kanonische Bussverfahren, vol. 2, Düsseldorf, 1898, pp. 381-467.
  6. Russell, Jeffrey (1984). Witchcraft in the Middle Ages. Cornell University Press. ISBN   0-8014-9289-0.
  7. Malleus Maleficarum , Part II: Chapters 2, 8 and 11.[ clarification needed ]
  8. "Excerpt from A History of the Inquisition of the Middle Ages" . Retrieved October 15, 2005.
  9. Hutton, Ronald (2000). Triumph of the Moon. Oxford University Press. ISBN   0-500-27242-5.

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