Tim O’Mara investigates the evidence of this most dreadful of Medieval ecclesiastical punishments held in Worcester Cathedral Library and Archive.
“We denounce all those openly accursed so that they be departed from God and holy church, from the sole of the foot unto the crown of the head, sleeping and waking, sitting and standing, and in all their words and works doing – and unless they have the grace of God to amend in their lifetime – to dwell in the pains of Hell for ever without end! Amen.”
Surprisingly, Medieval English churchgoers would not have been surprised to hear such impassioned words regularly spoken by their parish priest. They were from the General Sentence of Excommunication, delivered three or four times every year since its institution by Archbishop Stephen Langton in the 1220s.
Expressions of the Sentence are found in many different medieval manuscripts, and the modernised passage above is taken from one of two examples from the Cathedral Library. It comes from the religious anthology F.172, from the second half of the 15th Century, complete with lengthy biblical and theological references (folios 148-155). The second version is in a book of Latin sermons, Q.9, where the curse has been added, in English, on two spare page (folios 259 and 316), and although much shorter is no less vehement in its denunciations! The English addition is also probably from the 15th Century.
A long list of crimes and misdemeanours follows the denunciation. Some were designed to protect the Church, forbidding violence against clergy and church property, and condemning non-payment of tithes, or paying with poor quality produce. Others demanded good behaviour from clerics themselves, such as not performing religious rites without proper licences. It could be debated whether you were actually married if an unlicensed priest had performed the ceremony. Clergy should not indulge in common vices such as gambling or drinking or swearing by holy things such as the head or hair of Christ.
The penalty applied to civil misdemeanours, being extended to “all false minters or coiners” and people using “false measures or weights.” Making money by lending it at a rate of interest was forbidden, condemning “false usurers.” Excommunication condemned attempts at contraception and abortion, and also abandoning unwanted children: “All women that in folds fields common ways or other where else lain their children christened or unchristened and gone there from for ever.”
Mention was even made of Magna Carta, finally accepted as binding by King Henry III, together with the lesser-known Forest Charter, excommunicating “all they that break any point of the great charter of the freedoms of England in the which be xxxv points or break the charter of the forest which comprehends xv points.”
Excommunication was a serious penalty that entailed loss of the sacraments, and the services and prayers of the Church, including ecclesiastical burial. It barred people from the society of other Christians in business and social relations, though without releasing them from family or hierarchical duties. Excommunicated people who made no effort to obtain absolution for a year could be condemned as guilty of heresy, attracting even more penalties. English bishops could request the arrest of anyone who had not attempted to gain absolution from excommunication after forty days, a procedure apparently without parallel in Western Europe.
By the time the Worcester Cathedral manuscripts were written the General Sentence had been in use for over 200 years and had accumulated many extra items, from Convocations called by various Archbishops. The practice was abolished during the English Reformation, but there are echoes in the “Commination or Denouncing of God’s Anger and Judgements against Sinners” in the Book of Common Prayer, which mentions “the general sentences of God’s cursing against impenitent sinners”, although the misdeeds suffering this curse are little more than fairly standard offences against the Ten Commandments.
Boudinhon, Auguste. “Excommunication.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 5. (New York, 1909). <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05678a.htm>. 9 Sept. 2014
D. Logan Excommunication and the Secular Arm in Medieval England: A Study in Legal Procedure from the Thirteenth to the Sixteenth Century (Brepols, 1968)