Tuesday, 18 September 2012


Becket Excommunicates the Guilty

During the Middle Ages, excommunication, styled also as "drawing the sword of St. Peter", was a dramatic ceremony performed by the church as a severe punishment of last resort on an unrepentant sinner. The ceremony was contrived to cause the most consternation and to have the deepest psychological effect on all those known to the offender. The sentence was pronounced by candlelight: a bell was tolled (as if for the dead), the book of the gospels was slammed shut, and lit candles were upturned and snuffed out — whence the idiom "to condemn with bell, book, and candle." derives. Following the sentence a messenger was then sent to all the clergy within the jurisdiction of the bishop who had pronounced the punishment; the order was then repeated in all the churches of the diocese, and notices concerning the judgement posted on all the church doors. And to all those to came into knowledge of the punishment, they were forbidden, on pain of a similar punishment, to have any communication whatsoever with the excommunicated person, who was to be completely shunned.

Becket, as archbishop, frequently used his power to excommunicate persons of great importance on several different occasions, causing sensation throughout England and, if the pope concurred with the punishment, throughout Europe as well. Canon Law generally required that the person being excommunicated should be given due warning and an opportunity to atone for their transgression. It seems, however, that Becket ignored this rule on many occasions, and excommunicated many without due warning. He could do this if the offence were serious enough to justify removal of the guilty party from the Christian community - sententia latae or automatic excommunication, where the priesthood had already warned their flock regularly which offences could be punished with excommunication (this satisfied the Canon Law requirement). Or more possibly he was observing the older and simpler system of excommunication, spontaneous or charismatic excommunication, which Helmholz terms the saint's curse. The rules regarding excommunication were evolving during the twelfth century; by the end of that century it had been "judicalized", and its procedure more formally and legally defined by Canon Law.

Once a person had been excommunicated they were forbidden by Canon Law from making appeals; the appeal as an appellant, an expensive and lengthy process if made to Rome, had to be made before the sentence was passed: an excommunicate had the same status as a heathen or a publican, a person to be utterly shunned by the Christian community. Being outside of and not a member of the Christian community anymore, an excommunicate could only make a penitential "appeal".

Ceremony of Excommunication 
(as described in The Catholic Encyclopedia)

Anathema remains a major excommunication which is to be promulgated with great solemnity. A formula for this ceremony was drawn up by Pope Zachary (741-52) in the chapter Debent duodecim sacerdotes, Cause xi, quest. iii. The Roman Pontifical reproduces it in the chapter Ordo excommunicandi et absolvendi, distinguishing three sorts of excommunication: minor excommunication, formerly incurred by a person holding communication with anyone under the ban of excommunication; major excommunication, pronounced by the Pope in reading a sentence; and anathema, or the penalty incurred by crimes of the gravest order, and solemnly promulgated by the Pope. In passing this sentence, the pontiff is vested in amice, stole, and a violet cope, wearing his mitre, and assisted by twelve priests clad in their surplices and holding lighted candles. He takes his seat in front of the altar or in some other suitable place, amid pronounces the formula of anathema which ends with these words: "Wherefore in the name of God the All-powerful, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, of the Blessed Peter, Prince of the Apostles, and of all the saints, in virtue of the power which has been given us of binding and loosing in Heaven and on earth, we deprive N-- himself and all his accomplices and all his abettors of the Communion of the Body and Blood of Our Lord, we separate him from the society of all Christians, we exclude him from the bosom of our Holy Mother the Church in Heaven and on earth, we declare him excommunicated and anathematized and we judge him condemned to eternal fire with Satan and his angels and all the reprobate, so long as he will not burst the fetters of the demon, do penance and satisfy the Church; we deliver him to Satan to mortify his body, that his soul may be saved on the day of judgment." Whereupon all the assistants respond: "Fiat, fiat, fiat." The pontiff and the twelve priests then cast to the ground the lighted candles they have been carrying, and notice is sent in writing to the priests and neighbouring bishops of the name of the one who has been excommunicated and the cause of his excommunication, in order that they may have no communication with him. Although he is delivered to Satan and his angels, he can still, and is even bound to repent. The Pontifical gives the form for absolving him and reconciling him with the Church. The promulgation of the anathema with such solemnity is well calculated to strike terror to the criminal and bring him to a state of repentance, especially if the Church adds to it the ceremony of the Maranatha.

Under Canon Law, excommunication was the most serious sanction the Church could wield against those disobedient of its laws. In Gratian's Decretum (c. 1140) excommunication is described as equivalent to "handing the person over to the Devil: (C11 q 3 c 21)
Et dicuntur homines tradi Satanae, cum a tota ecclesia separantur. Quoted in S. Hamilton,
Curse or procedure? Excommunication in practice, 900-1050, (IMC Leeds, 2007), p. 1, n1. For a discussion of the  influence of the decretals in the latter half of the twelfth century see, Duggan, Decretals and the creation of  "new law" in the twelfth century: judges, judgements, equity and law (Aldershot, 1998);  idem, Twelfth-Century Decretal Collections and their importance in English History (London, 1963).

Excommunication is ancient church law

Matthew 18:17
And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.

1 Corinthians 5:11
But now I have written unto you not to keep company, if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such an one no not to eat.

2 Thessalonians 3:14
And if any man obey not our word by this epistle, note that man, and have no company with him, that he may be ashamed.

The Middle Ages distinguished two degrees of excommunication:

1st the minor, involving deprivation of the sacraments;

2nd, major, or anathema, which involved interdiction of all intercourse with the faithful. The wickedness of an excommunicated offender spread like that of a leper, to those who approached him, even to his wife and children; access to the courts was forbidden him; he could not act as a witness or exercise any right; and excommunicated sovereigns lost their authority. Sometimes this penalty was  incurred in full right, sometimes it was announce by the ecclesiastical authority.

The excommunication ceremony was a kind ritual involving magic spells: liturgical formulae or curses.

The Medieval Latin Formula for Excommunication in England

Felix Lieberman  Die Gesetze der Angelsachsen. Cambridge University Press. pp. 441–. ISBN 978-1-108-08362-1.

Forma Solemnis Excommunicationis

Ex auctoritate Dei Patris, et Filii, et spiritus sancti, necnon et Sanctae Mariae genetricis Dei, et Domini nostri Jesu Christi et Sancti Michaelis, et Sanctorum Angelorum et Archangelorum, et Sancti Petri et Pauli; et Sanctorum Apostolorum, et sancti Stephani et sanctorum Martyrum, et sancti Martini et sanctorum Confessorum, et Sanctae Mariae Magdelenae, et sanctae Katerinae, et omnium sanctarum Virginum et omnium sanctorum Dei, Excommunicamus, damnamus, anathematizamus, et à liminibus sanctae matris ecclesiae sequestramus illos; Ut quos maledicere statuimus maledictisint, intus et extra, nullam societatem habeant Christianorum, maledictisint ambulando, sedendo, stando, manducando, bibendo, vigilando, dormiendo: Maledicti sint in domo, in vico, in agris et in sylvis, in terris et in aquis; Maledictisint in omnibus membris, a planta pedis usque ad verticem, non sit in is sanitas. Sit pars eorum cum Dathan et Abiram, et Nerone, et Symone Mago, et cum Juda proditore Domini; nisi resipuerint, et ad emendationem venerint: et sicut extinguuntur Candelae istae, ita extinguantur animae eorum in inferno, Fiat, fiat, fiat, Amen. Ex. Biblioth. Cotton. Witellius. E. xviij.


Hugh James Rose; Samuel Roffey Maitland (1833). The British magazine. John Turrill. pp. 150–.

Boudinhon, Auguste. "Excommunication." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 5. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05678a.htm>.

Excommunication - Wikipedia <en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Excommunication>

Bell, book, and candle - Wikipedia <en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bell,_book,_and_candle>

Frederick Pollock (Sir)); Frederic William Maitland (1966). The History of English Law. CUP Archive. pp. 478–80.

Frederick Pollock; Frederic William Maitland . The History of English Law Before the Time of Edward IExcommunicates The Lawbook Exchange, Ltd. pp. 457–. ISBN 978-1-58477-718-2. 

Excommunication Scene from film "Becket"

Gignac, Joseph. "Anathema." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 1. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. 18 Sept. 2012 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01455e.htm>.

Helmholz, R. H. (1994). Excommunication in Twelfth Century England. JL & Religion11, 235.

Cultural Expressions Of Episcopal Power, 1070 - c. 1150

by Charlotte Lewandowski
Thesis submitted to The University of Birmingham

Henry Charles Lea (1869). "Excommunication"Studies in church history: The rise of the temporal power.--Benefit of clergy.--Excommunication. H. C. Lea. pp. 223–.

Sarah Hamilton (2001). The Practice of Penance: 900-1050. Boydell & Brewer. pp. 82–. ISBN 978-0-86193-250-4.

Francesca Tinti (2005). Pastoral Care in Late Anglo-Saxon England. Sarah Hamilton; Remedies for 'Great Transgressions': Penance and Excommunication in Late Anglo-Saxon England. Boydell Press. pp. 83–. ISBN 978-1-84383-156-3.

Laurence Echard (1707). The History of England. pp. 199–.

John Foxe; George Townsend (1843). The acts and monuments of John Foxe: with a life of the martyrologist, and vindication of the work. Seeley, Burnside, and Seeley. pp. 228–.

Richard Hurrell Froude; James Bowling Mozley (1839). Remains of the Late Reverend Richard Hurrell Froude: v. 2. History or the contest between Thomas à Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, and Henry II, king of England, chiefly consisting of translations of contemporary letters. J. G. & F. Rivington. pp. 51–.[many references in this work to excommunication]

Papal Authority and Bishop's Privilege
Binding and loosing - Wikipedia
Encyclopaedia Biblica: Binding and Loosing - Wikisource

Excommunication in Twelfth Century England
Richard H. Helmholz
Journal of Law and Religion
Vol. 11, No. 1 (1994 - 1995), pp. 235-253
Published by: Cambridge University Press
DOI: 10.2307/1051632
Legendæ Cantianæ. William de Eynsford, the excommunicate; a Kentish legend. 1842.

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