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Dives and Pauper: Superstition and Catechesis in the Fifteenth Century
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Permanent Link: http://ufdc.ufl.edu/UF00091523/00635
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Title: Dives and Pauper: Superstition and Catechesis in the Fifteenth Century
Series Title: Journal of Undergraduate Research
Physical Description: Serial
Language: English
Creator: Fay, William Dylan
Publisher: University of Florida
Place of Publication: Gainesville, Fla.
Publication Date: Fall 2012
Subjects / Keywords: superstition
15th century
Dives and Pauper
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Abstract: The Middle Ages are popularly remembered as a dark period of uneducated superstition. A careful study of primary sources, however, reveals a more nuanced picture of the period before the Renaissance. While superstition was prevalent—and would remain so well through the Renaissance and Enlightenment—such superstitions competed with widespread educational efforts by the clergy and scholarly elite. Both the Catholic Church and the leaders of the Reformation fought—often against each other—to reduce the superstition that they saw as a threat to the integrity of their beliefs. This article will explore the Church’s response to some common medieval superstitious beliefs by closely examining Dives and Pauper, a fifteenth-century theological treatise that explores questions of religion, magic, and superstition in everyday life. Structured as a homily in the tradition of Peter Abelard’s Sic et Non, the text was used by members of the clergy in their fight against magical practices among the faithful.
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University of Florida | Journal of Undergraduate Research | Volume 14, Issue 1 | Fall 20 12 1 Dives and Pauper : Superstition and Catechesis in the Fifteenth Century William Dylan Fay College of Liberal Arts and Science s University of Florida The Middle Ages are popularly remembered as a dark perio d of uneducated superstition A careful study of primary sources, however, reveals a more nuanced picture of the period before the Renaissance. While superstition was prevalent and would remain so well through the Renaissance and Enlightenment such superstitions competed with widespread educational efforts by the clergy and scholarly elite Both the Catholic Church and the leaders of the Reformation fought often against each other to reduce the superstition that they saw as a threa t to the integrity of their beliefs This article will explore some common medieval superstitious belief s by closely examining Dives and Pauper a fifteenth century theological treatise that explores questions of religion, magic, a nd superstition in everyday life. Structured as a homi Sic et Non the text was used by members of the clergy in their fight against magic al practices among the faithful. INTRODUCTION A proud man, riding along the path from London, came upon two friars walking along a footpath to avoid the foul roadway. Coming up behind them near the edge of a ditch, and tried to cross onto the footpath so the two mendicants would pass to his left. When one friar asked the man to stay on the horse path so that they could use the footpath, the man refused and began to press in with his horse between the two hapless travelers and the steep ditch on the right side of the road. Frustrated, one of the brothers shoved both man and horse into the ditch, where they lay for several hours u ntil a passerby helped drag them out. For what reason was the man on horseback so insistent that the friars pass to his left, even if it required them to step onto the muddy main roadway? A literal reading of Chapter 25 of the Gospel of Matthew had him sup left h and side would doom him to hell. Because those placed at 1 presumably the man was afraid that gett delegates would earn him the same punishment as being to the left of God himself. 2 The above story is found in the fifteenth century manuscript Dives and Pauper a lengthy theological exposition on the Ten Commandments, and is but one example of the superstition, magic, and misunderstood theology that permeated pre modern England. Medieval people ascribed mystical powers to clergy and the religious, carried charms and amulets, and said prayers to cure illness or ward off bad weather. In response, many members of the Church, such as the two friars above, fought a constant battle against the superstitious and magical beliefs they considered parasiti c to official Chur ch teaching. While scholarship on the period has amply demonstrated the prevalence of superstition in medieval and early modern England, there is less research on the counterpoint to this culture of magic: the efforts of a small but zealous group of clerg y and elites who fought fiercely to educate the laity about the danger superstition posed to orthodox belief. They did not deny the existence of magic, but rather cast it as the treacherous deceits of Satan, since true supernatural power could emanate only from God himself. 3 Though scholars such as Keith Thomas and Euan Cameron make brief mention of early Church attitudes toward magic, they and most scholars consider the main thrust of anti superstition efforts to have begun during the Reformation and count er Reformation. A close analysis of Dives and Pauper a text written in the vernacular and so clearly intended for a wide audience, suggests that a strong and organized catechetical effort to counter superstition predates the Reformation by centuries. AUT HORSHIP Though the author of Dives and Pauper is unknown, a close reading suggests that he was a member of the educated elite well educated and literate. The text is structured as a conversation between two men divided into that each correspond to one of the Ten Commandments Dives, the rich man, usually propose s a theological question or make s an observation, which Pauper, the poor man, rebuts or clarifies Pauper nearly always prevails in these discussions and t he obvious superiority of his arguments make s it easy to assume that the author at least identified with the character, even if he did not intend it to be a self portrait.


WILLIAM DYLAN FAY University of Florida | Journal of Undergraduate Research | Volume 14, Issue 1 | Fall 20 12 2 Other portions of the text offer further hints to his identity, such as this passage: DIVES: Of what country art thou? PAUPER: By dint of heritage, my country is Once I was free as others are but for dear, I have made myself servant to all men rich my clothing. DIVES: Thou seemst to have been a lettered 4 The above passage suggest s that the author is a wanderer perhaps a friar or a monk who has taken a vow of poverty and lives to preach the gospel. He was quite possibly a friar, either of the Franciscan order or intimately familiar with Franciscan writings, 5 especially since he men Precept Four In any case, the man who wrote Dives and Pauper was a demonstrably learned theologian, literate in Latin and well versed in the laws and teachings of the Church. He is able to quote such erudite figu res as St. Augustine in his attack on astrology 6 and cite canon law with ease 7 DATE The author of the work references two specific historical events that suggest he began writing between 1402 and 1405. 8 The first of these is a spectacular comet that brightene d the skies over Europe in 1402. 9 Th e second is a reference to the fact that the kalends of January fell on a 10 The first e vent is a terminus post quem for the date the author began work, and his reference to terminus ante quem for the work. AUDIENCE hint as to the wider audience in Precept I: Much of my nation is enchanted and blinded by such fantasies, many more than I can tell, and so they forfeit highly against the first c ommandment and there is neither bishop nor prelate nor curat e nor preacher that will speak against these vices and errors that 11 Dives hopes that Pauper will take on the duties that the bishops, priests, and other preachers have neglected : superstitions) and vices that plague the nation of England. But as a written text, the audience for these teachings would seem to be limited to those able to read and understand English. An examination of the scope of the ore hinges on an understanding of literacy in the late Middle Ages. Modern medieval scholars have made a strong case decline in the period after the barbarian invasions, followed half a millennium later by an equally dramatic rebirth, to 12 In the Middle Ages, the ability to read was not necessarily linked to the ability to write, and a minimal capability in both was not described as literacy. 13 While most of the common people did not possess the scholarly learning of the literati and the clergy, there nevertheless 14 An increase in demand for books and literature in the vernacular led to a rise in the number of texts available, which in turn led to more readers, so that 15 of who could not read them. 16 Such a culture enabled the author of Dives and Pauper to address his work to a wide audience, including those ignorant of Latin, for whom he translates passages from the Vulgate into English whenever he cites the Bible. A large number of extant manuscripts and editions suggest that this text was quite popula r. 17 In 1490, it was widespread enough for a London merchant, John Russhe, to finance a first printing of six hundred copies, which was followed by a second printing in 1496. 18 Such popularity indicates that it was relevant to the people reading or hearing i magic especially magic derived from corrupted religious belief can therefore be considered representative of common occurrences in fifteenth century England. SACRAMENTALS AND REL IGIOUS MAGIC Pauper was by no m eans a skeptic. He readily believes in the power of witches and charmers to summon the devil and in the power of priests to cast such demons out, 19 and 20 In most cases however, Pauper had little patience for magical practices not in line with traditional Church doctrine. Magic and religion were intrinsically linked in the collective consciousness of the Middle Ages. As Keith function were often inseparable from the devotional 21 for many of the faithful. Like the thin line that divided veneration from idolatry, the distinction between prayer and charm was often too vague and undefined for the masses to fully under stand. Many practices straddled


DIVES AND PAUPER : S UPERSTITION A ND CATECHESIS IN THE FIFTEENTH C ENTURY University of Florida | Journal of Undergraduate Research | Volume 14, Issue 1 | Fall 20 12 3 this line, such as the celebration of Mass for a special purpose, but the most common conflation of superstition and religion came from the use of sacramentals and prayer. Sacramentals are objects, devotions, and rituals blessed by the Catholic Church and believed to have special religious power. T virtue to drive away evil spirits whose mysterious and baleful operations affect sometimes the physical activity of m 22 Although they do not work ex opere operato i .e. of their own accord 23 Prominent examples of objects regarded as sacramentals include holy water, b lessed salt, and amulets dedicated to Jesus or the saints. Ritualistic sacramentals include anything from the simple sign of the cross to more sophisticated devotions, such as novenas and fasting. The objective power that the Church granted to such objects made them easy targets for abuse. Holy water in sacred fonts was often kept under lock and key to prevent it from being used for magical spells, 24 and priests presided over the sacred fires on the Nativity of John the Baptist to prevent their misuse. 25 The friar of Dives and Pauper is especially concerned with the use of sacramentals by witches: All that use [for charms and conjurations] holy water of the font, holy chrism, singing in the Mass, penance, and such others, in their witchcraft they make a high sacrifice to the devil. 26 But he is quick to point out that it is not the holy objects themselves that enable the witch to do evil: DIVES: What have the Pater Noster [Our Father] and the holy candle done there by? PAUPER: Nothing. But since the witch worshipped the devil so highly with that holy prayer and with the holy candle and used such holy things in his service, against the will of God, 27 When sacrament als are properly used the objects themselves hold no power, but rather move God to act. Similarly, in this example of improper use, the holy candle was used to induce the devil to act, but possessed no evil power in and of itself. A key feature distinguis hing sacramentals from the sacraments is that sacramentals are not guaranteed to work. As the author of Dives and Pauper 28 29 and trust Him to make the final decision regarding their petition and not believe that the temporal objects themselves hold the power. Such a distinction e.g. that holy w ater works as a facilitator of divine grace, rather than on its own merits would have been a difficult concept for people without theological training to grasp. To the theologically educated clergy, divine power and false superstitious power competed in a cosmic conflict for the allegiance of the faithful. But for the majority including many in the clergy itself that cosmic conflict did not take place. Rather, overlapping and mutually supporting forms of spiritual energy were available to see them through t he perils of life. 30 This majority considered countless forms of religious magic acceptable, even without a full understanding of the theology behind them. For example, the use of holy water or relics to cure illness in livestock and people was an acceptabl e practice as was crossing oneself to fend off demons, ringing bells to dispel storms, and the use of prayer in ex opere operato fashion. 31 Along similar lines, the author of Dives and Pauper child, or beas t for sickness, with scripture or figures or oster Ave, or 32 i t would seem that it is not unlawful to wear divine words at 33 Pauper believes that the wearer must place his faith in God and not in the object itself. In contrast to such benign blessings, the twisting of religious practice for superstitious or nefarious means was unacceptable in any manner. A communicant who carried away the host in his mouth possessed a source of great power, with which he could cure blindness, avoid ill fortune, or protect his home, 34 even though the Church forbid any use of the Host except consumption. A person might fast in order to cause the death of an enemy or use attendance at Mass as a way to ascertain the guilt or mon in primitive societies, 35 and some corrupt priests even tried to use the Requ iem Mass as an imprecation against the living. 36 Dives and Pauper also warns of witches who pray use holy water, holy oil, and chanting to summon the devil. 37 r holy miracle and by his prayer and holiness, when in fact he did 38 Fasting to avoid sudden death and fasting on certain days based on the Church calendar in hopes of a lucky year are both sinful, 39 as is the use of witchcraft to turn men and women into the likeness of beasts or birds. 40 CONCLUSION The Church did not encourage its adherents to attach magical significance to religious observances. In fact, since


WILLIAM DYLAN FAY University of Florida | Journal of Undergraduate Research | Volume 14, Issue 1 | Fall 20 12 4 its arrival in England, the Christian Church had consistently campaigned against the resort of the laity to magic and magicians. 41 It is unsur prising, however, that such beliefs persisted, since the subtleties of Church doctrine were incomprehensible to the average person in 1400. Transubstantiation, for example, seemed especially magical a priest muttered incantations and gestured over simple b read and wine, which then physically changed into the body and blood of Christ. When such mystical processes were official practices of the Church, the persistence of superstition in the face of institutional attempts to educate or suppress believers of m agic is unsurprising. Dives and Pauper is just one of the many attempts by well educated theologians to address the problem of superstition among the faithful and explain the difference between acceptable religious custom and heretical magic. In fact, evid ence of a series of sermons by the same author has recently been discovered, 42 which offers further evidence that the homily was intended to provide clergy a tool with which to educate their flock. Countless other examples of magic and superstition can be f ound in Dives and Pauper including fascinating discussions of astrology, witches, religious curses, and miracles. The topic is too vast to explore at any proper depth within the restrictions of this short paper, 43 but it provides at least a glimpse of the fascinating, enchanted world of the fifteenth century and the struggle the Church faced to keep its teaching clear amidst a sea of superstitious belief. In a treatise on divination published in 44 BC, Cicero declared destruction 44 Although the author of Dives and Paupe r wrote 1500 years later it seems likely that he who did his best to encourage one and destroy the other, would have agreed with the Roman orator. ENDN OTES 1 Matthew 25:46. 2 The entire episode of the superstitious horseman and the irritated friars can be found in: Priscilla Heath Barnum, ed. Dives and Pauper Vol. I (London: Oxford University Press, 1976), p. 187. 3 Alan C. Kors and Edward Peters Witchcraft in Europe: 1100 1700: A Documentary History. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001), pp. 149 180. The fifteenth century, when Dives and Pauper was written, was the era when the concept of witches a s diabolical servants began to dominate theological discussions of magic. Real magic had to emanate from the devil and was harshly punished. Superstitious belief could be gently corrected. 4 When quoting the critical edition of Dives and Pauper I have transliterated the text from Middle English to modern English. In a few places, where I have merely cited or paraphrased the text, I include the full original in an endnote. Barnum, ed. Dives and Pauper Vol. I pp. 52 53. 5 Roland Bishop Dickiso Homiletic Tract (Gainesville: University of Florida, 1950), p. 38. Evidence for his footgear, which seems to describe Franciscan sandals rather than Dominican high shoes. Franciscans are also the only religious order mentioned favorably in the text. The only indication that he might not be a Franc iscan is the frequent translation of Bible passages into English, a practice anathema to Franciscan leadership. 6 Seynt Austyn sey Barnum, ed. Dives and Pauper Vol. I, p. 135. St. Augustine is a frequently quoted figu re in the work. 7 And erefor seith e lawe at e offys of teching and chastysyng longyth nout only to e buschop but to euery gouernour aftir his name & his degre, to e pore man gouernynge his pore houshold, to e riche man gouernynge his mene. Ibid, p 328. The canon laws cited here are Causae 23 q.4 c.35 and 23 q5 c.41. Emil Friedberg, ed. Corpus Iuris Canonici Vol I. (Leipzig: Bernhard Tauchnitz, 1879). 8 Barnum, ed. Dives and Pauper Vol. III (London: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. xviii. For an extended discussion of the date of the text, see also Dickison, p. 23. 9 at wondyrful comete and sterre quiche apperydde vpon is lond e er of oure lord M CCCC II Barnum, ed. Dives and Paupe r Vol. I p. 147. 10 Ibid, p. 183. 11 Ibid. p. 188. 12 Charles F. Briggs, "Literacy, Reading, and Writing in the Medieval West," Journal of Medieval History 26, no. 4 (2000): pp. 397 420. 13 M.T. Clanchy, From Memory to Written Record, England, 1066 13 07 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979), p. 183. 14 The Medieval World ed. D. Daiches and A. Thorlby (London: Aldus Books, 1973), pp. 555 76. 15 Ibid. 16 420. 17 Dickison, p. 19. 18 Barnum, ed. Dives and Pauper Vol. III, p. lxxxiii. 19 Barnum, ed. Dives and Pauper Vol. I, pp. 155 56. 20 Dives: How is it at sprytis walkyn so aboutyn whan men ben dede? Pauper: Ibid, p 171. 21 Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic (New York: Charles 22 The Catholic Encyclopedia Vol. 13 (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912), http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/13292d.htm. 23 Ibid. 24 Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), p. 280. 25 Euan Cameron, Enchanted Europe (London: Oxford University Press, 2010), p 219. 26 Barnum, ed. Dives and Pauper Vol. I, pp. 162 63. 27 Ibid.


DIVES AND PAUPER : S UPERSTITION A ND CATECHESIS IN THE FIFTEENTH C ENTURY University of Florida | Journal of Undergraduate Research | Volume 14, Issue 1 | Fall 20 12 5 28 And erfor God graunteth hem nou t at ende ne e effect at fastyn t artyn God ne puttyn hym to no lawys, and erfor we shuldyn Ibid, p. 172. 29 To hel ou a man in e doynge seye his Pater noster or som holy preyere, clepynge e grace of God in his doynge, it is no wychecraft but it is wel don. The friar finds it acceptable to use holy oil [ olee] and chanted prayers to heal a wound, so long as 69. 30 Cameron, Enchanted Europe p. 62. 31 For the use of relics, see ibid p. 28. For the use of holy water, the sig n of the cross, and church bells see ibid p. 49. For the use of prayer as a charm that worked simply by virtue of the words said, see ibid p. 42. 32 Barnum, ed. Dives and Pauper Vol. I pp. 157 58. 33 St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Second and Revis ed Edition (Fathers of the English Dominican Province, 1920), Secunda Secundae Partis, q. 96, a. 4, www.newadvent.org/summa. 34 Thomas, Religion p. 34. 35 Ibid, p. 44. 36 He o at for hate or wratthe at ey beryn a messe of requiem for hem at ben olyue in hope at ey shuldyn faryn e werse and e sonere deye, e preest shulde ben disgradit, and boe e prest and he at styrde hym erto for to don it shuldyn ben exylyd foreuere. Barnum, ed. Dives and Pauper Vol. I, p. 1 59. 37 Barnum, ed. Dives and Pauper Vol. I, p. 162. 38 Dives: What peple wenyn at it is don be weye of miracle and for his preyere and his holynesse, wan he doth it be resoun and werkyng of kende? Pauper: an is it a wol gret ypocrysye and wel greuous synne in hym. Ibid, p. 169. 39 Dives: [Is it] leful to trostyn in ese fastyngis newly foundyn to flen sodeyn deth? Pauper: It is gret foly to Ibid, pp. 172 3. 40 And alle o at seyn or leuyn at men and women my tyn be wychecraft ben turnyd into bestis / or into e lyknesse of bestis or bryddis bodyly ben warse an ony paynym. Ibid, pp. 158 59. 41 Thomas, Religion p. 253. 42 Ann Hudson, The Premature Reformation (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988), p. 118. 43 My forthcoming undergraduate honors thesis will contain a much longer study of Dives and Pauper, relating the work and the beliefs it describes to the writings of later Rena issance scholars such as Sir Thomas Browne. 44 Nec vero, id enim diligenter intellegi volo, superstitione tollenda religio tollitur. Cicero, De divinatione, Book I, Chapter LXXII, sec. 148.