Love Potions, Goblins and Werewolves – Bishop of Devon’s Warning on Magical Beliefs


An ancient text written by a Devon bishop revealed how our ancestors were obsessed with love, sex and magic.

It shows how they stubbornly refused to abandon pre-Christian ideas, relying on strange folk remedies and sorcery, and believed in the presence of goblins, demons and even werewolves in the Devon countryside.

The author of the text, Bishop Bartholomew, was put in charge of Exeter Cathedral in 1161, less than a century after the Norman Conquest.

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He was a leading churchman after learning alongside Thomas Becket, the famous archbishop assassinated at Canterbury Cathedral for defying the king.

An expert in theology and church law, Bartholomew’s writings include a penitential, which is a kind of manual for sinners, setting out the length of the penalty, known as penance, for going against the Christian beliefs.

People should have been expected to perform fasts, prayers and pilgrimages.

The book includes a section on the use of magic, which was clearly still a big part of people’s lives in the Westcountry in the early Middle Ages.

He disapproves of the use of spells to win lovers, and criticizes the lingering belief in fortune-telling, folk remedies, goblins, and werewolves.

What this tells us is that ideas still had to be spread if a bishop decided the situation was serious enough that he needed to issue a formal condemnation.

Although Christianity was well established in England by the time it came to Exeter from Canterbury in 1155, the old beliefs clearly persisted.

Bartholomew is known to have traveled extensively in the Diocese of Exeter, so he would have had a good idea of ​​the pagan practices that still linger.

The part of his book dealing with penalties for the use of magic begins by recommending excommunication for anyone who “pays homage to soothsayers, augurs, enchanters, or makes use of potions (love potions)”.

Exeter Cathedral

Obviously, there were still quite a few of these characters, practicing old country customs and promising a love potion to capture the heart of your loved one.

Anyone who uses magic to ward off a judgment from God must do penance for two years.

Using magic for love carries two years of penance if it fails, five if it succeeds, and 10 if it results in adultery.

Then comes three years of penance for whoever “shall endeavor to take from another the supply of milk or honey or other things by any incantation, or (attempts) by magic to procure them for himself- same”.

Then there is a more serious accusation – calling demons. The text says: “Those who, by any incantation, disturb the calm of the atmosphere or who, by the invocation of demons, confound the minds of men, will do penance for five years.”

According to Bartholomew, there is a lesser penalty for those who accept magic.

He states: “Those who, deluded by the delusion of a demon, believe and profess that they go or ride in the service of her whom the stupid crowd calls Herodias or Diana with an innumerable multitude and obey her commands, shall do penance during a year .”

This seems to be a reference to what we would call witchcraft. The name Herodias is confusing, but he is a historical figure whose second husband was Herod Antipas, king of Judea, who executed John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth, founder of the Christian faith.

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Rita Hayworth started in the 1953 film Salome
Rita Hayworth started in the 1953 film Salome

According to the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, she used the dance of her daughter Salome, in front of her husband and his guests, to ask for John’s head. It was delivered on a platter, according to the biblical accounts.

Diana is a goddess in Roman and Greek mythology, in charge of the countryside, hunters, crossroads, the underworld and childbirth, and was considered a triple deity, merging her role as a huntress with the moon and the moons. hells.

Trying to influence or predict the future must have been deeply ingrained.

The Penitential gives two years’ penance to anyone who lays a three-knife table for the Fates, “so that they predestine good things to those who are born therein.”

Then there is a strange reference to a woman who, by a “magical trick”, prevents the consummation of a legal marriage, who obtains five years of penance.

The next section highlights the pagan practice of worshiping water and trees, which were sacred places dating back to pre-Roman Druids, and the use of charms to protect animals.

He says: “Those who make wishes beside trees or water, those who celebrate the New Year with pagan rites, and those who tie magic knots or charms and hide them in the grass or in a tree or at a crossroads to free their animals from the plague must each do penance for two years.

Folk remedies are the next to be criticized. The text condemns to 40 days of penance whoever “places his child on a roof or in an oven in order to restore him to health”, or who for the same purpose “uses charms or characters or things fashioned for witchcraft or any cunning” instead of “divine prayers or the liberal art of medicine”.

The idea of ​​putting a child on a roof or an oven to cure a fever was apparently widespread, probably by the principle of sympathetic magic, associating the heat of an oven with the extraction of heat from a fever.

There is a stern warning on how to deal with the dead, with an additional 40-day penance for anyone who attempts “divination” at a funeral, or uses the body or clothing of the dead, to prevent the dead from to avenge, to kill another, “or to derive something from it for his benefit or his health”.

Trying to predict the future with witchcraft on the feast of Saint-Jean-Baptiste, June 24, obtains 15 days of penance.

The following article gives a penance of seven days for believing “that something happens favorably or unfavorably because of the croaking of a young crow, or a crow, or meeting a priest or any animal “.

Common Raven (Corvus corax)
Common Raven (Corvus corax)

Next we encounter the belief in ‘little people’, known as pixies in Devon.

The penitential gives 15 days penance to anyone who throws a bow, or anything else, into an attic or warehouse “for the demons they call fauns to play with” so they bring in more grain , probably by looting a neighbor’s store, armed with the provided bows and arrows.

Then we hear of people who draw an inference of good or evil from the movement of a stone on their way to or from a visit to a sick man. This would give the right to a penance of 10 days to compensate for the fact of having believed in it.

Next is the belief that the form of any animal, male or female, can transform into a wolf, which requires 10 days of penance.

So our Devon ancestors believed in shapeshifters and werewolves.

Next we hear of the practice or watching where a Christian is walking, due to the belief that removing grass he has walked on can remove the person’s voice.

The bishop’s writing suggests that there was still widespread worship of sacred places, dating back to the beliefs of the Druids.

The priestly class was wiped out when the Romans arrived, and their multiple gods were likely merged into the belief system of the foreign invaders.

When the Romans left Britain after four centuries, Christianity was the established religion, at least among the upper classes.

But a new set of pagan invaders arrived in the form of Angles, Saxons and Jutes, from northern Germany and Denmark.

They brought their multiple god system headed by Woden, whose name lives on in the day of the week Wednesday, and supernatural beings including elves, water spirits and dragons.

After a few hundred years, Christianity spread across the country.

But the remnants of pagan beliefs must have been difficult to move among the largely illiterate population.

Bartholomew became Bishop of Exeter just over a century after the cathedral was founded in 1050. He died on 15 December 1184 and is probably buried at Exeter Cathedral.

The translation of Bishop Bartholomew’s Penitential is from A Medieval Hand-Book of Penance, by John T McNeill and Helena M Gamer, published by Columbia University Press in 1938.

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