Apart from rare occasions, nobody today doubts anymore about the reality of witch hunt. Not many of us though know its real range, that has been anyway matter of discussion for many years.
Itís a commonplace to associate witch hunt with Middle Ages, a period that we, children of Renaissance and of Illuminism, consider a period of superstitions. But the first sentence to the stake for charge of witchcraft "only" happened in 1340 and the two papal bulls that we could consider the beginning of the witch hunt are dated 1326 and 1484. Itís only since the 13th century that the church started to seriously talk about witches and diabolic gatherings. What was its opinion before?
We have to say that, until 14th century, at the end of which the last pagan country in Europe became christian, the church declared itself commited in fighting pagan "superstition", including, as we can read in Longobard laws by Liutprand or in Capitularia de partibus Saxoniae (Saxon capitulary, laws by Charlemagne for the newly conquered Saxon people), the belief in witches.
The first ecclesial text to affirm this position, denying the existence of witches, was the Canon Episcopi; scholars recognize it as the more ancient text dealing with the problem of witches and itís a letter of instructions to bishops about how to behave facing the belief in the fact that some women, during certain nights, flew following Diana.
This is the text (this English translation comes from the site http://esoterica.bichaunt.org/canon.html, with the addictions made by Burchard of Worms):
"To the end that bishops and their ministers work to labor with all strength to entirely uproot from their parishes the pernicious and devil-invented sorcery and malefic arts, if they find any man or woman sectarian of this wickedness, they eject them dishonorably disgraced from their parishes. Truly the Apostle agrees: "Avoid a heretic after the first and second warning, knowing he is subverted who is of that kind." They are subverted, and they are held captive by the devil, who, leaving their creator, curry support from the devil. And therefore, such a pest ought to be cleansed from the holy Church. This also is not to be omitted, that certain wicked women, turned back toward Satan, seduced by demonic illusions and phantasms, believe of themselves and profess to ride upon certain beasts in the nighttime hours, with Diana, the Goddess of the Pagans, (or with Herodias) and an innumerable multitude of women, and to traverse great spaces of earth in the silence of the dead of night, and to be subject to her laws as of a Lady, and on fixed nights be called to her service. But would that they alone perished in their falsehood, and did not, through faithlessness, hand over many to ruin with themselves! For an innumerable multitude, deceived by this false opinion, believe this to be true, and so believing, avoid the straight faith, and are again caught in the errors of the Pagans, by judging there to be anything of divinity or divine will beyond the one God. Therefore, priests throughout their churches are required to pronounce this crime to the people, with all insistence, so this will be known to be lies in every way; and not from a divine, but from a malignant spirit are such phantasms imposed on the minds of the unfaithful. Since Satan himself, who transforms himself into an angel of light, begins with the mind of whatsoever girl - and he will subjugate her to himself through unfaithfulness and disbelief Ė he immediately transforms himself into the species and resemblances of various persons; and the mind which he holds captive, deluded in sleep, is shown things now joyful, now mournful, and persons, now known, now unknown; through deserted places he leads it away; and though only the spirit endures this, the unfaithful mind believes this to happen not in the soul, but in the body. Who truly has not, in sleep and at night, been summoned to visions outside of himself, and seen many things asleep which never are seen awake? Who in truth is stupid and foolish enough to decide all this which is done only in the spirit, actually happens in the body, when Ezekiel the Prophet saw visions of the Lord in the spirit, not in the body; and John the Apostle saw and heard the sacred things of the Apocalypse in the spirit, not in the body, just as he himself declares: "Firmly I say, I was in the spirit." And Paul does not dare to declare he was snatched away in the body. Therefore, publicly announce to all: any who believe such and similar things destroys the faith, and whoever has not the straight faith in God, is not his, but is of whom he believes, that is, the devil. For about our Lord is written: "All things are made by him, and without him nothing is made." Whoever, then, believes anything can be made, or any creature can be changed to better or worse, or transformed into another species or resemblance - except by the Creator himself who made all things, and through whom all things are made - is an unbeliever beyond doubt and worse than a Pagan."
In Middle Ages the Canon Episcopi was believed to be dated back to the Council of Ancyra in 314 e.v., probably because of a mistake in the interpretation made by Burchard of Worms at the beginning of 11th century, who maybe read a text of the Canon copied immediately before some of the dispositions of Ancyraís Council. It was probably Burchard who added the name of Herodias and the final sentence "worse than a pagan". Actually the Canon is a Frank capitulary, according to what the historian Carlo Ginzburg says in his Ecstasies: deciphering the witchesí Sabbath, written by Regino, bishop of Prum. The church considered it valid for a long time, as itís proved by its inclusion in some collection of following centuries: Burchardís collection, the Decretum by Ivo of Chartres and the Decretum by Gratian, that some scholars consider the first codification of the coming canon law.
It seems that other texts before hint at "Dianaís society", so the Canon wouldnít be the first to talk about it. But itís certainly the first to centre the attention on the matter; it never uses the word "witch" and only centuries later Diana (or Hecate, or Herodias, or "the Lady of the Game") will be replaced by the devil. Of course the Canon canít deny the work of the devil behind all this, but this work is limited to deception, to illusion. Women who believe to travel at the service of Diana are weak-minded people, whose poor faith allows the devil to deceive them, but they arenít intentionally signing a deal with him. These women donít cast curses: Dianaís society appears to play only a ludic role and itís clear the Regino is fighting the last, maybe unconscious, rests of paganism.
The declaration that these gatherings of "witches" are just fantasy, must not lead us to think that witches werenít condemned; in the Canon the condemnation appears to be limited to be out of the Grace of God and so to the banish from the parish, which we can consider a light sentence if compared with the death by stake sentence of following centuries, with the charge of heresy first and then of witchcraft, when ecclesiastics, popes and learned men will believe and try to demonstrate the reality of wicked actions of witches. The Canon Episcopi will become a support not only for those who continue to deny the reality of witch gatherings (the belief in them will be considered a heresy until about 13th-14th century), but also for those who will affirm this reality: theyíll simply say that what the Canon is talking about is not what they are persecuting.
Surely in the Canon we can find all the elements that will participate to the "diabolic sabbath" persecuted by the church: practices of divination and magic, the devilís presence, the night fly riding certain animals, being at another entityís service, the shapeshifting.
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