How to deal with tenacious demons, or: why an early medieval priest sometimes needed holy water by the bucket

Image:  London British Library Add. 19725, f.74v.  Digitisation funded by the Polonsky Project, and hosted by the British Library. Images in the public domain

Among the many challenges that an early medieval priest could encounter in the daily pastoral care of his flock were individuals possessed by demons. As every medieval Christian knew, the devil and his ilk were never far away, and unsuspecting sinners could fall prey to them quite easily. Once a person was possessed, it was sometimes very hard to drive the demon out again: it took a religious specialist and the power of ritual to do so. We know many spectacular stories of exorcisms from hagiography, but saints did not have the monopoly: driving out demons was just part of the job for every priest.

London British Library Add. 19725, f.74v

This is probably why, at some point in the tenth century, somebody added an elaborate and rather unique description of an exorcism procedure to the margins of a late ninth-century pastoral manual. The manuscript was filled with texts useful for pastoral care, but it contained no exorcism until the anonymous scribe inserted it. The image below shows how the text was written in the margins around four folia that contain a part of Theodulf of Orléans' first episcopal statute.[1] Even though there is no direct connection to the text on these pages (Theodulf does not mention exorcisms or demons at all), there surely is an indirect one, for this is the most elaborate Carolingian text that describes the duties and responsibilities of those priests who were in charge of a lay flock - and their demons.

We can, of course, only speculate about why the scribe decided to write down this text: did a priest add it to his book himself because he had a possessed person prowling around in his church? Was it somebody who saw this text and thought it may come in handy in future? Whatever the case, the scribe certainly knew that dealing with demonic possession was a real, every-day problem, and that priests needed to know how to deal with it.

As the text shows, driving out a demon was not just a matter of saying a few prayers: a worst-case scenario could take weeks of praying, with the possessed person (the text is explicit that both men and women could fall victim to a demon) sleeping on a bed wet with holy water. Possessed people even needed to follow a special diet (no cheese, old bread only, no alcohol), hoping all the time that God would have mercy.


How to deal with demoniacs
/ Super demoniacii

Note about the translation: the text clearly expresses the idea that the possessed person can be either male or female. In order to avoid the awkward 'he/she', I have used 'they' or 'them'
instead, for readability

When the unwell person arrives, that is, a patient tortured by a demon, first take them into church before the altar, and ask them (whether they be male or female) diligently for their confession about how or in what way this has happened to this unwell person. And then, while they stand in front of the priest and the priest makes the sign of the cross over their chest, he [= the priest] should say 'The Lord be with you', to which [the patient] responds 'and with your spirit'. Then the priest should say the following prayer: 'Chase, o Lord from Your servant' (an antiphon) or the prayer 'God of angels'. After that another one: 'That the Lord may heal'. In the same way anoint them between the shoulders with the three prayers just mentioned.

When that is done, tell them to exit the church and take off their clothes in a secret place, and they should be dressed in no more than a cloth around their private parts, be they male or female. In the meantime, the priest, standing in church, recites a litany. After the litany, he blesses salt and water with the appropriate prayers: 'Bless o Lord this salt' with those prayers that belong [to this ritual]. Then, he does the same with water [saying the prayer] 'Bless, o Lord, this water' with this prayer and all others that belong [to this ritual]. Then, finally, [the priest] makes the demoniac sit in a corner, and sprinkles them with blessed water, and with a small vessel pours blessed water on their inclined head once in the shape of a cross, and the demoniac is given the vessel full of water, after which they put on their clothes, but first sprinkles these clothes carefully with blessed water. Then they should get dressed and goes before the altar, and stretch out there [on the floor] in the shape of the cross, and prays and fasts until the ninth hour.

And the priest sings a Mass for him and gives him the sacrifice, and does this for seven days. And if the priest wants to sing (the Mass) earlier, then he (= the priest) should fast until the ninth hour for seven days. And if this should not work, he should do this for twelve days, and the possessed person should stay in a secret place close to the same priest, with his men with him, or if the possessed is a woman, with her servants until this shall be finished.

And the possessed person shall only eat unleavened bread, and should not eat it fresh but a day old. And they should eat nothing warm with the exception of beans and peas, and fish if there is any, with salt, and they should only drink water and gruel, and no beer, wine or mead, nor beer mixed with water, and they should drink [water or gruel] twice per day until the seventh day, and if by that time the enemy has not been vanquished, they should keep this up until the fifteenth day, or until God will see fit to have mercy upon him. For He says [Mat 17,20] But this kind is not cast out but by prayer and fasting. And they should not eat or drink anything unless he or she first [takes] that holy water and that salt and mixes it with the drink or with the food. And the little room where he or she has to stay should be sprinkled with holy water, as does his or her bed, and the sheets that are on the bed, and (more holy water should be sprinkled) under the bed and behind the bed, and around it, all of this should be sprinkled with holy water.

They should not eat or drink anything warm, but only cold things, and very little of those. They should not eat pike, nor those foods we have mentioned before, nor goat's meat, nor milk, nor cheese, nor butter, nor anything that is produced with that, nor the heads of any domestic animal or of fish. And he should abstain from his wife until the fifteenth day, and she should in the same way abstain from her husband. And they should not eat bread made on Sundays for a full year, nor meat slaughtered on that day, nor drink warm beer on Sundays.

CvR, with thanks to Alice Hicklin

In primis quando infirmus homo uenerit hoc est paciens quia demonio uexatur duc eum in eclesiam ante altare et diligenter inquire suam confessionem, siue masci sit siue femina quomodo aut qualiter illo infirmo haec contingebant. Et stans ante sacerdotem atque sacerdos faciens crucem in pectore dicet Dominus uobiscum. R ille et cum spiritu tuo. Deinde orationem hanc dicat presbiter, Repelle domine ab hoc famulo tuo A uel OR deus angelorum. Dei<nde> aliam. Sanet deus. Similiter inter scapulas consignes eum cum istis tribus collectis supradictis.

His factis iube eum exire foras de eclesia et dispoliare se uestimentis suis in secreto loco et non habeat in se nisi tantum linteum circa uerecundia sua siue masculum sit, siue femina. Interim sacerdos stans in eclesia dicat letaniam. Post letaniam sanctificet sal et aquam cum istis orationibus, Benedic domine creaturam salis cum illa que ad hoc pertinet. Deinde super aquam Benedic domine hanc creaturam aquam cum illa oratione que et adhoc pertinet. Tunc demum in eclesia uno angulo faciat eum sedere et stillat ipsam aquam benedictam, infundat [infundat add.sup.l.] in modum crucis super caput ipsius recumbentis cum uasculo una uice, et ipsum uas hydriam plenam capiat aquae, tunc induat se uestimentis suis et ipsa uestimenta prius aspergantur aque benedicta satis diligenter. Tunc induat se et uadat ante altare atque exspandat se ibi in crucem et oret ac ieiunet usque ad horam nonam.

Et sacerdos cantet pro eo missam et det ei sacrificium hoc faciat per vii dies et si sacerdos antea uult cantare tamen ipse ieiunet usque ad horam nonam per dies vii. Et si hoc non preualuerit tunc faciet hoc per xii dies et ibi manet apud ipsum sacerdotem in loco secreto apud suos homines, si autem femina sit et ipsa cum suis mancipiis donec hoc compleat.

Et nihil aliud comedens nisi panem azimum et ipsum panem calidum non comedet sed uno die ante factum fiat ac sic comedet nec calidum quid manducet nisi fabas et cicerculas et si est piscis tantum cum sale et aqua et potum bibat tantummodo, ceruisam uinum nec medonem bibat nec miscatam ceruisam nequaquam bibat, et semel hoc faciat per diem usque ad vii dies et si tunc non preualuerit inimicum superare usque ad xv dies hoc faciat usque dum deus dignetur super illum facere suam misericordiam, quia ipse dixit hoc genus non eicitur nisi per ieiunium et oratione et nihil comedet nec bibat nisi prius de ipsa aqua benedicta et de ipso sale miscet siue in potu sit siue in cibo. Et cubiculum ubi ipse manere debet aspergatur aqua benedicta similiter in lecto suo et ipsos panes qui super lectum iacent, et sub lectu et subter lectu et in circuitu per totu<m> aspergatur aqua benedicta.

Nihil calidum comedet nec bibat nisi tantum fri<gi>dus et dum uix erit. Non comedet piscem luzium nec cibos quos superius nominavimus nec carne de capra nec lac nec caseum nec butturum nec nil que illa generat, nec caput ullius pecudis, nec de pisce et usque ad xv diem abstineat se ab uxore sua similiter et illa a uiro suo. Et usque ad plenum annum non commedat panem die domica factum, nec hanc carne que eodem die occiditur, nec calidam ceruis<a> die dominica [domica a.c.].


[1] Peter Brommer ed., MGH Capitula episcoporum I (Hanover, 1984), pp. 73-141.