If any one deceived by the devil shall have believed, after the manner of the pagans, that any man or woman is a witch [striga] and eats men, and on this account shall have burned the person, or shall have given the person’s flesh to others to eat, or shall have eaten it himself, let him be punished by a capital sentence.
If any one shall have sacrificed a man to the devil, and after the manner of the pagans shall have presented him as a victim to the demons, let him be punished by death.
(Capitulatio de partibus Saxoniae, translation after Dana Carleton Munro)
In 782 Charlemagne (747-814), presumably at an imperial assembly in Lippspringe issued this decree on the death penalty for eating or believing in striga. Shortly before Charlemagne had defeated the Saxons in the northern Germany. The Capitulatio de partibus Saxoniae was intended to ensure the integration of Saxony into the kingdom of the Franks and the existence of the Church in Saxony. Since 772 Charlemagne and the Frankish Empire waged war against the Saxons, which was to last until 804. Initially, these were border wars, but over the years Charlemagne’s aim changed. He now wanted to subjugate the Saxons and to integrate their territories into his kingdom. In 782 he was mostly successful and faced only isolated resistance.
Little is known about the Saxons in pre-Christian times. Written sources have only been available since the 8th and 9th centuries. Prior to that, only archaeological sources are available. However, sources such as the Capitulatio de partibus Saxoniae, help shed light on the conditions of the Saxons at that time. Through the prohibition of certain practices written down in the Capitulatio we can attempt to reconstruct those practices – like for example the belief of the Saxonians in the striga.
Charlemagne issued this decree because of a certain unease towards the ongoing belief among Christians (some just forcefully baptized) in people with supposed pagan, magical abilities. Those abilities ranged from the conjuring of storms, the use of poisons, to various incantations. The striga was also one of these beliefs.
STRIGA – THE FLESHEATING WITCH
The striga (also known as strix or stria) was used in the Middle Ages and early modern times in German-speaking countries to describe a malevolent woman who practiced magic and was a synonym for ‚witch‘. She was known as the murderer of babies and small children. Already in classical Latin striges (English: screech owl) referred to an ominous bird feasted on human entrails and drank their blood. Various authors of the late Roman empire referred to this bird in their works. The Roman poet Ovid (43 BC – ca. 17 AD) described them as birds of prey that flew during the night and attacked infants in their cradles, ripped them open, and drank their blood. Already in the 2nd Century AD, the striga was associated with malevolent women who could fly. All the elements associated with the term striga in the Middle Ages were already present in literature long before. The striga was thus linked to cannibalism, as the decree of Charlemagne picked up on.
In the Christian view at that time everyone believing in flesheating witches (striga) was possessed by the devil and should be sentenced to death – but not the striga herself! The striga (witch) was identified as a Germanic belief that had to be counteracted. Persons who sacrificed humans or ate supposed striga-meat should be sentenced to death. Human sacrifice, the burning of witches, and ritualistic cannibalism were rejected by the worldly as well as Church leaders at the time of Charlemagne.
The practice of killing and burning witches (striga) among the Saxonians was not solely about eradicating them, as would be the case in the persecution of witches centuries later. But it was also about consuming the striga’s flesh to gain her strength and powers. Charlemagne interpreted this pagan belief as the devil’s seduction to sin.
But when did the views of the Christians turn and they themselves began to persecute witches? How did this change come about? This and more will soon be the topic of further articles while we explore the historical twists and turn that lead to the persecution of witches in Marburg.
Further reading: Rainer Decker (2003), Die Päpste und die Hexen. Aus den geheimen Akten der Inquisition, Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft.
P.G. Maxwell-Stuart (2004) Striga in, Richard M. Golden (Hrsg.), Encyclopeida of Witchcraft. The Western Tradition, Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO.
Karl (I.) d. Große, 3. Sachsenkrieg, in Lexikon des Mittelalters, 10 vols (Stuttgart: Metzler, 1999), vol. 5, Sp. 957-958.
Dana Carleton Munro (2004) Selections from the Laws of Charles the Great, Whitefish, Montana.