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31 October 2017

An excellent day for an exorcism

To celebrate Halloween we are taking a look at the subject of exorcisms. As part of the ongoing England and France 700-1200 joint project with the Bibliothèque nationale de France, the British Library has digitised a 12th-century psalter and collection of prayers (now Harley MS 2928), which includes an interesting exorcism performed in a traditional Christian rite.

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Exorcism of salt in a prayer for baptism, from Harley MS 2928, f. 10r

There are several accounts of exorcisms in the Gospels, and from the early Middle Ages, the practice of exorcism has been closely linked to the Christian rite of baptism. Evidence suggests that exorcisms were first performed during baptismal services as early as the 3rd century, in ceremonies to convert pagans to Christianity, and exorcism remained popular in works of liturgy which outlined the services and prayers followed in medieval Christian worship.

Exorcisms were performed on people, but could also be used on animals and even objects. Baptism involved the use of salt and water by a priest to bless a person, symbolising their purity as they were admitted to the Christian faith. As the salt and water were tools of purification, these also needed to be pure themselves to prevent demons from entering the person being baptised. A 12th-century baptism prayer in Harley MS 2928 contains an exorcism for salt and water (ff. 10r–11r) to rid them of any demons that might be lurking within. Below is an extract in Latin from the exorcism of salt, followed by an English translation. The + sign represents when the sign of the cross was made during the ritual:

Exorcizo te, creatura salis, per Deum + vivum, per Deum + verum, per Deum + sanctum, per Deum, qui te per Eliseum Prophetam in aquam mitti jussit

‘I exorcise thee, creature of salt, by the living God +, by the true God +, by the Holy God +, by the God who by the prophet Eliseus commanded thee to be cast into the water’


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Full-page miniature of the Baptism of Christ, from Harley MS 2928, f. 16r

The manuscript features later 13th-century illuminations attributed to an anonymous artist known as the 1285 Master, and these miniatures depict biblical scenes including the Baptism of Christ showing him being immersed into blessed water. Several medieval manuscripts contain illuminations depicting exorcisms being performed, such as the Tsar Ivan Alexander Gospels (Add MS 39627). Composed in 14th-century Bulgaria, the Gospels are accompanied by decorated scenes of Christ expelling demons from men. One colourful image depicts a scene from Scripture in which Christ expels demons from a man, which then enter a herd of pigs. The now-possessed pigs rush to a nearby lake and are drowned.

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Christ exorcising demons from a man which enter a herd of swine, from the Tsar Ivan Alexander Gospels, Add MS 39627, f. 162v

Exorcisms were just one practice performed in the Christian Church to protect its followers from harm. The collection of prayers in Harley MS 2928 includes three prayers for the absolution of penitents (ff. 12r–v), used by priests to forgive those who may have committed sins. The sinner could confess their misdeeds, and if they wished to be forgiven, the priest would absolve them with prayer. Absolution was an important rite, as having received forgiveness for wrong-doing, that person’s soul could now enter Paradise after death.

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Text containing three prayers of absolution for penitents, from Harley MS 2928, f. 12r

The exorcism of salt and water shows that this ritual could be used as a positive force to protect the faithful. Yet, dark rituals did occur outside the authority of the Christian Church. One magical charm survives from the late 4th century (now Papyrus 123) that could be used to summon demons against others and depicts two demons that have been invoked by the charm.

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Depiction of demons, from a magical incantation, Egypt, Papyrus 123

It is small wonder then, that exorcisms survive in many forms from the medieval period to protect oneself, one’s animals and objects from demonic possession. The Anderson Pontifical (Add MS 57337) produced in 11th-century England even features an exorcism of bread and cheese.

Happy Halloween!

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Prayer to exorcise bread and cheese beginning ‘Incipit exorcismus panis’, from the Anderson Pontifical, Add MS 57337, f. 80v


Alison Ray

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