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History of the Christian Church, Volume IV: Mediaeval Christianity. A.D. 590-1073.
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§ 86. Ecclesiastical Punishments. Excommunication, Anathema, Interdict.


Friedrich Kober (R.C.): Der Kirchenbann nach den Grundsätzen des canonischen Rechts dargestellt. Tübingen 1857 (560 pages). By the same author: Die Suspension der Kirchendiener. Tüb. 1862.

Henry C. Lea: Excommunication, in his Studies in Church History (Philadelphia 1869), p. 223–475.


The severest penalties of the church were excommunication, anathema, and interdict. They were fearful weapons in the hands of the hierarchy during the middle ages, when the church was believed to control salvation, and when the civil power enforced her decrees by the strong arm of the law. The punishment ceases with repentance, which is followed by absolution. The sentence of absolution must proceed from the bishop who pronounced the sentence of excommunication; but in articulo mortis every priest can absolve on condition of obedience in case of recovery.

1. Excommunication was the exclusion from the sacraments, especially the communion. In the dominions of Charlemagne it was accompanied with civil disabilities, as exclusion from secular tribunals, and even with imprisonment and seizure of property. A bishop could excommunicate any one who refused canonical obedience. But a bishop could only be excommunicated by the pope, and the pope by no power on earth.394394    But during the papal schism, the rival popes excommunicated each other, and the Council of Constance deposed them. The sentence was often accompanied with awful curses upon the bodies and souls of the offender. The popes, as they towered above ordinary bishops, surpassed them also in the art of cursing, and exercised it with shocking profanity. Thus Benedict VIII., who crowned Emperor Henry II. (a.d. 1014), excommunicated some reckless vassals of William II., Count of Provence, who sought to lay unhallowed hands upon the property of the monastery of St. Giles,395395    Aegidius (Αἰγίδιος); Italian: Sant Egidio; French: S. Gilles. He was an abbot and confessor in France during the reign of Charles Martel or earlier, and much more celebrated than reliably known. He is the special patron of cripples, and his tomb was much visited by pilgrims from all parts of France, England and Scotland. Almost every county in England has churches named in his honor, amounting in all to 146. See Smith and Wace I. 47 sqq. and consigned them to Satan with terrible imprecations, although be probably thought he was only following St. Peter’s example in condemning Ananias and Sapphira, and Simon Magus.396396    Bened. Papae VIII. Epist. 32 (ad Guillelmum Comitem). In Migne’s Patrol. T. 139, fol. 1630-32. Lea translates it in part, l.c. p. 337. “Benedict Bishop, Servant of the servants of God, to Count William and his mother, the Countess Adelaide, perpetual grace and apostolic benediction .... Let them [who a tempted to rob the monastery] be accursed in their bodies, and let their souls be delivered to destruction and perdition and torture. Let them be damned with the damned: let them be scourged with the ungrateful; let them perish with the proud. Let them be accursed with the Jews who, seeing the incarnate Christ, did not believe but sought to crucify Him. Let them be accursed with the heretics who labored to destroy the church. Let them be accursed with those who blaspheme the name of God. Let them be accursed with those who despair of the mercy of God. Let them be accursed with those who he damned in Hell. Let them be accursed with the impious and sinners unless they amend their ways, and confess themselves in fault towards St. Giles. Let them be accursed in the four quarters of the earth. In the East be they accursed, and in the West disinherited; in the North interdicted, and in the South excommunicate. Be they accursed in the day-time and excommunicate in the night-time. Accursed be they at home and excommunicate abroad; accursed in standing and excommunicate in sitting; accursed in eating, accursed in drinking, accursed in sleeping, and excommunicate in waking; accursed when they work and excommunicate when they rest. Let them be accursed in the spring time and excommunicate in the summer; accursed in the autumn and excommunicate in the winter. Let them be accursed in this world and excommunicate in the next. Let their lands pass into the hands of the stranger, their wives be given over to perdition, and their children fall before the edge of the sword. Let what they eat be accursed, and accursed be what they leave, so that he who eats it shall be accursed. Accursed and excommunicate be the priest who shall give them the body and blood of the Lord, or who shall visit them in sickness. Accursed and excommunicate be he who shall carry them to the grave and shall dare to bury them. Let them be excommunicate, and accursed with all curses if they do not make amends and render due satisfaction. And know this for truth, that after our death no bishop nor count, nor any secular power shall usurp the seigniory of the blessed St. Giles. And if any presume to attempt it, borne down by, all the foregoing curses, they never shall enter the kingdom of Heaven, for the blessed St. Giles committed his monastery to the lordship of the blessed Peter.”

“Hardened sinners” (says Lea) “might despise such imprecations, but their effect on believers was necessarily unutterable, when, amid the gorgeous and impressive ceremonial of worship, the bishop, surrounded by twelve priests bearing flaming candles, solemnly recited the awful words which consigned the evil-doer and all his generation to eternal torment with such fearful amplitude and reduplication of malediction, and as the sentence of perdition came to its climax, the attending priests simultaneously cast their candles to the ground and trod them out, as a symbol of the quenching of a human soul in the eternal night of hell. To this was added the expectation, amounting almost to a certainty, that Heaven would not wait for the natural course of events to confirm the judgment thus pronounced, but that the maledictions would be as effective in this world as in the next. Those whom spiritual terrors could not subdue thus were daunted by the fearful stories of the judgment overtaking the hardened sinner who dared to despise the dread anathema.”

2. The Anathema is generally used in the same sense as excommunication or separation from church communion and church privileges. But in a narrower sense, it means the “greater” excommunication,397397    Corresponding to the Cherem, as distinct from Niddui (i.e. separation), in the Jewish Synagogue. See J. Lightfoot, De Anathemate Maranatha, and the commentators on Gal. 1:8, 9 (especially Wieseler). which excludes from all Christian intercourse and makes the offender an outlaw; while the “minor” excommunication excludes only from the sacrament. Such a distinction was made by Gratian and Innocent III. The anathema was pronounced with more solemn ceremonies. The Council of Nicaea, 335, anathematized the Arians, and the Council of Trent, 1563, closed with three anathemas on all heretics.

3. The Interdict398398    Interdictum orprohibitio officiorum divinorum, prohibition of public worship. A distinction is made between interd. personale for particular persons; locale for place or district; and generale for whole countries and kingdoms. extended over a whole town or diocese or district or country, and involved the innocent with the guilty. It was a suspension of religion in public exercise, including even the rites of marriage and burial; only baptism and extreme unction could be performed, and they only with closed doors. It cast the gloom of a funeral over a country, and made people tremble in expectation of the last judgment. This exceptional punishment began in a small way in the fifth century. St. Augustin justly reproved Auxilius, a brother bishop, who abused his power by excommunicating a whole family for the offence of the head, and Pope Leo the Great forbade to enforce the penalty on any who was not a partner in the crime.399399   9 Aug. Ep. 250, § 1; Leo, Ep. X. cap, 8—quoted by Gieseler, and Lea, p. 301. St. Basil of Caesarea is sometimes quoted as the inventor of the interdict, but not justly. See Lea, p. 302 note. But the bishops and popes of the middle ages, from the eleventh to the thirteenth century, thought otherwise, and resorted repeatedly to this extreme remedy of enforcing obedience. They had some basis for it in the custom of the barbarians to hold the family or tribe responsible for crimes committed by individual members.

The first conspicuous examples of inflicting the Interdict occurred in France. Bishop Leudovald of Bayeux, after consulting with his brother bishops, closed in 586 all the churches of Rouen and deprived the people of the consolations of religion until the murderer of Pretextatus, Bishop of Rouen, who was slain at the altar by a hireling of the savage queen Fredegunda, should be discovered.400400    Gregory of Tours, Hist. Franc. VIII. 31. Hincmar of Laon inflicted the interdict on his diocese (869), but Hincmar of Rheims disapproved of it and removed it. The synod of Limoges (Limoisin), in 1031, enforced the Peace of God by the interdict in these words which were read in the church: “We excommunicate all those noblemen (milites) in the bishopric of Limoges who disobey the exhortations of their bishop to hold the Peace. Let them and their helpers be accursed, and let their weapons and horses be accursed! Let their lot be with Cain, Dathan, and Abiram! And as now the lights are extinguished, so their joy in the presence of angels shall be destroyed, unless they repent and make satisfaction before dying.” The Synod ordered that public worship be closed, the altars laid bare, crosses and ornaments removed, marriages forbidden; only clergymen, beggars, strangers and children under two years could be buried, and only the dying receive the communion; no clergyman or layman should be shaved till the nobles submit. A signal in the church on the third hour of the day should call all to fall on their knees to pray. All should be dressed in mourning. The whole period of the interdict should be observed as a continued fast and humiliation.401401    Conc. Lemovicense II. See Mansi XIX. 541; Harduin VI. p. 1, 885; Hefele IV. 693-695; Gieseler II. 199 note 12.

The popes employed this fearful weapon against disobedient kings, and sacrificed the spiritual comforts of whole nations to their hierarchical ambition. Gregory VII. laid the province of Gnesen under the interdict, because King Bolislaw II. had murdered bishop Stanislaus of Cracow with his own hand. Alexander II. applied it to Scotland (1180), because the king refused a papal bishop and expelled him from the country. Innocent III. suspended it over France (1200), because king Philip Augustus had cast off his lawful wife and lived with a concubine.402402    See the graphic description of the effects of this interdict upon the state of society, in Hurter’s Innocenz III., vol. I. 372-386. The same pope inflicted this punishment upon England (March 23, 1208), hoping to bring King John (Lackland) to terms. The English interdict lasted over six years during which all religious rites were forbidden except baptism, confession, and the viaticum.

Interdicts were only possible in the middle ages when the church had unlimited power. Their frequency and the impossibility of full execution diminished their power until they fell into contempt and were swept out of existence as the nations of Europe outgrew the discipline of priestcraft and awoke to a sense of manhood.



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