Biblical Curses During the Era of the Witch Trials

Adam and Eve expelled from the Garden of Eden - stained glassFor this blog, spring is probably going to have a lot of articles about either cursing and diaries. I’ve got a paper coming up at a very exciting conference just as (hopefully) the weather is picking up (and by that, I mean ‘the temperature should be above 10°C’.) Therefore, the lion’s share of my writing will be taken up with research on cursing from the medieval era to the Early Modern.

Today’s will be the first of the cursing posts: curses and execrations were all around for the medieval and Early Modern citizen. It’s little wonder that, with the growing belief in providentialism that accompanied the Reformation, the English more and more believed that witches could lay lethally effective curses. Even the grave of William Shakespeare, a resolutely mainstream figure, is decorated with the words, “Good Friend for Jesus sake forbeare, To dig the dust enclosed here. Blessed be the man that spares these stones, And cursed be he that moves my bones.”

A significant part of the draw of the curse, as it existed in a licit context, was the idea of appeal to a higher power. Even in a modern society, with supposedly reliable access to the machinery of justice, a significant gap exists between law and practise. In medieval and Early Modern England, with courts convened cyclically, laws poorly understood, and where justice could be put on hiatus by anything from heavy rains to plague, an extra supernatural deterrent would have been reassuring.

Curses in the Bible

A central feature of biblical cursing is that, in the main, it appears in exactly the fashion that the English used curses themselves.

In Judges 17:2, when Micah’s mother loses or has eleven hundred shekels taken from her, she lays a curse on the stolen money, only raised by receiving her blessing when he confesses to having taken it.

In Deuteronomy 27, after Moses has given God’s commandments to the Israelites, he gathers the tribes and has the priests pronounce a series of curses:

“Cursed is the one who makes a carved or moulded image… cursed is the one who treats his father or mother with contempt… cursed is the one who moves his neighbour’s landmark… cursed is the one who makes the blind to wander off the road… cursed is the one who perverts the justice due to the stranger, the fatherless, the widow… cursed is the one who lies with his father’s wife…”

Likewise, in Deuteronomy 28 we are given a list of consequences for transgressive acts: transgressors shall be cursed in the country and the city, in body and in their works, whether they return or flee.

Even more explicitly, Deuteronomy 28:20-68 is a paragraphs long list of punishments that the lord will visit upon those who disobey his word:

“The Lord will send on you cursing, confusion, and rebuke in all that you set your hand to do, until you are destroyed and until you perish quickly, because of the wickedness of your doings in which you have forsaken Me. The Lord will make the plague cling to you until He has consumed you from the land which you are going to possess.  The Lord will strike you with consumption, with fever, with inflammation, with severe burning fever, with the sword, with scorching, and with mildew; they shall pursue you until you perish. And your heavens which are over your head shall be bronze, and the earth which is under you shall be iron. The Lord will change the rain of your land to powder and dust; from the heaven it shall come down on you until you are destroyed…”

There are also curses used in other way that we would expect: as execrations against enemies. We see in Psalm 40:

“Let them be ashamed and abashed together that seek after my soul to sweep it away,
Let them be turned away backward and brought to confusion that delight in my hurt,
Let them be appalled by reason of their shame that say unto me, ‘aha, aha!’”

Again, in Jeremiah 12, the prophet begs God to curse the wicked:

“Pull them out like sheep for the slaughter,
And prepare them for the day of slaughter.”

With medieval and Early Modern life in Western Europe centred around Christianity, this tradition of biblical cursing would naturally influence society.

Curses in Daily Life

In the, written somewhere between the 13th and 14th centuries, the scribe documents a curse laid by St. Malarchy: during the 12th century, after Robert de Brus had lied to him about sparing the life of a thief, Malachy had laid a curse on both the community and the Brus family in particular. While I’ve written elsewhere about the relatively flexible use of fact in medieval Chronicles, there is evidence that the curse of St. Malarchy, or at least one man’s belief in it, was real.

Two hundred years after St. Malarchy’s original curse, a different Robert de Brus visited St. Malarchy’s tomb every two years to pray for forgiveness and eventually, after crusading with the future Edward I, created a charter endowing the tomb with monies for three silver lamps.

In 1898, Dr. George Neilson found the physical charter at Clairvaux:

“Charter by Robert de Brus lord of Annandale granting to God and blessed Mary and to the house and monks of Clairvaux, in order to maintain lights before the blessed Malarchy and for the good of his own soul and the sould of his predecessors and successors…”

This is far from the only document showing the imminence (and biblical influence) of curses in medieval life. In Anglo-Saxon England, a resolutely Christian curse appears in the Will of Wulfgyth from 1064:

“And he who shall detract from my will which I have now declared in the witness of God, may be deprived of joy on this earth, and almighty God who created and made all creatures exclude him from the fellowship of all Saints on the day of Judgement and may he be delivered into the abyss of hell to Satan the devil and all his accursed companions and there with God’s adversaries without end and never trouble my heirs.”

Valuable items might also be cursed, especially books, since one of the prevailing beliefs of the time was in the inherent power of the written word. Here, a curse from 9th century Lyons:

“This book is dedicated to the altar of St. Stephen in accordance with the vow of Regimus, the humble bishop; may grace be to the reader, indulgence to the benefactor, and anathema upon it’s thief.”

Even after the Reformation, the idea of God dispensing supernatural justice lived in the minds of citizens. Foxe’s Acts and Monuments abounded with stories: after a chancellor called Whittington condemned a protestant woman to death during the reign of Henry 7th a bull broke loose and gored him to death – or so Foxe wrote.

A story that, for legal reasons, dropped in and out of Acts and Monuments was that of the Marian Martyr Cooper: after a Hitcham man called Grimwood perjured him at the Bury Assizes supernatural retribution ended his life in a most visceral fashion:

“Sodenly his bowells fel out of hys body, and ymmediately, most miserably, he died.”

Even during the 17th century the Curse of Meroz – the biblical curse against inaction – was used to gourd various factions from pillar to post through the English Civil War. For a citizen of the era of the witch trial, the curse was a fact of life. A feature of law, a record from history, and a message from the holy book. Belief in the witch’s curse was merely the belief that supernatural retribution could used both licitly and illicitly: like bombs dropped by the military and those left by terrorists; the drug administered by the medic, and the work of the poisoner. The witch’s curse was not a stretch from natural to supernatural, but a felonious use of the paranormal retribution present in everyday life.


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