Zeitschrift Aufsätze

Marta Cerrito*

Boundaries between law and religion. Considerations regarding the use of curses in the documents of Norman Sicily

1Eleventh-century documents often made use of a curse or, more precisely, of an anathema as a penalty clause that must affect one of the parties in case of violation of the legal content of the act1. Sicily, under Norman domination (1060-1198), was not an exception and, additionally, it represents a particularly important historical and legal context allowing to identify a very thin border between secular power and spiritual one and, consequently, between law and religion. The purpose of this paper is to investigate the relevance and the meaning of different anathema and curse formulas that can be found in some Latin documents dating back to the Norman period of Sicily. The symbol of pyramid is a topos that conveys the idea of medieval sovereignty, thus explaining the complexity of the political and legal context at that time. In Medieval times the concept of descending2 power (especially secular power) was expressed in very different ways. The use of anathema clauses is one of these. In the kingdom of Sicily, Latin Christian élites ruled over a heterogeneous population, made up of Greek Christians, Arabic-speaking Jews and Muslims. At that time, Latin, Greek, and Arabic were administrative languages that rulers used in documents, coinage and inscriptions. Under the Normans, every aspect of life, from art to law, represented the fusion of forms, motives, and styles deriving from Byzantium, Islam, and many other influences in Latin Europe. It is, above all, this highly conspicuous, visual evidence that conveys the enduring and powerful image of Sicilian multiculturalism.

2In terms of the use of curses in documents itself, some characteristics of the kingdom of Sicily make this case different from others that have been already studied and are well known to historians. These anathema formulas can be found in Latin documents3 only during the Norman age, a very important time for the secular and spiritual power strengthening of the Church, and the use of curses by the lay-power highlights a blurred line dividing ecclesiastical power from the temporal one. Going through some documents, this paper aims at understanding, from a legal point of view, the meaning of these curses: are they simple notary formulas, without legal significance or, as penalty clauses, a fundamental part of legal documents?

3The use of curses in other political-institutional contexts has already been studied, but scholars often didn’t focus on their juridical value. A pivotal article by Helen Saradi4 about curses in Greek documents (mainly those in the archives of Athos) examines the origins and the evolution of this practice. Approximately in the same years, Michel Zimmermann5 published a study on the Latin lexicon of curses in Catalan documents in the period from 9th to 12th century, referring in particular to the works by Lester K. Little6 concerning the French experience. As regards the historical legal studies, it should be emphasized that they have mainly focused on the search for the origin of this practice, especially in relation to the Byzantine influence in southern Italy. It must be said that the search for origins is a great topos of legal historiography that often stretches historical and legal interpretation. With respect to Norman Sicily, it is widely believed that the use of curses in Latin documents is due to the influence of Byzantine culture that has a consolidated and much longer tradition in this field7. Certainly, the coexistence of Greeks and Latins in Sicily has determined a considerable cultural influence, but it is necessary to remember that, as for anathemas, the use and form of curses in Greek documents, in comparison with the Latin ones, is completely different. In support of this, the Greek documents making use of cursing clauses have almost exclusively their origin beyond the sphere of courts, the church or secular rulers and contain much more complex formulas in reference to the cited biblical sources (as it also happens in nearby Sardinia). Weighed against this, the curses in Latin documents are simpler, preferring a generic expression of curse, and are almost exclusively found in public documents that are related to donations, ecclesiastical gifts and, in general, to issues concerning the res sacrae.

Three different examples of curses in Norman Sicily

4The first document, taken into consideration to analyse this practice, is the foundation deed of the royal palace chapel (Cappella Palatina) by King Roger II in 1140. In this document the king founds the Cappella Palatina, and, at the same time, he attributes a series of properties and rights to it as a dowry. At the end of the privilege, the sovereign places two different penalty clauses, depending on the type of the offender, to safeguard his decision. If the offender is a subject of the kingdom (persona de regno nostro), they will suffer a secular punishment, related to the gravity of the committed crime. If the transgressor is not a subject of the kingdom (si persona de regno non fuerit), they will suffer a double curse: they will be punished with the penalty of excommunication8 (anathematis gladio fodiatur) for the rest of their life and they will suffer eternal damnation (omnipotentis Dei Patris Filii et Spiritus Sancti iram sentiat sempiternam) after their death.

5(…)If anyone, who is a subject of the kingdom, tries to contravene our privilege, he will be punished with the penalty that is provided for the crime of sacrilege and lese-majesty. If anyone, who is not a subject of the kingdom, attempts to violate what has been established, they will be pierced by the sword of anathema and they will be condemned to the eternal wrath of God Almighty Father, Son and Holy Spirit, unless he repents and he remedies by paying an adequate penalty. Amen, Amen, Amen 9 (…).

6The second document10 is older than the previous one. In 1093, Count Roger appointed Gerlandus as bishop of the church of Agrigento and, at the same time, he also donated some goods to the church. The anathema in this act has a much simpler structure not being differences between subjects and foreigners with reference to the punishment. Moreover, the curse is only to be intended for a synonym of excommunication.

7(…) If anyone steals something from the above-mentioned church or from its bishop or if anyone unjustly holds something (that belongs to the church), he will be condemned to the penalty of anathema11.

8In conclusion, the third document12, playing an important role in the historical juridical research on curses, concerns the construction of the church of Santa Margherita in Agrigento by Robert of Malcovenant and the concurrent donation of some lands and five peasants to the church. This document was drawn up by the abbot of the church in 1108, confirming the donations that were previously made by Robert. The main characteristic of the penalty clause, used in this act, is the following. It consists of two parts: the first part contains a curse, the second one a blessing. In the first part, two words stand out: anathema and maranatha13. The term maranatha,combined with the word anathema in sanction clauses, suggests that offenders will be damned on the Judgment Day. On the contrary, in the second part of the clause, the abbot blesses those who will donate in the future other goods to the church (gaudia eterne vite cum sanctis peremniter percipiat).

9(…)if anyone steals something that belongs to the church of Sancta Margarita, that is under the control of the church of Agrigento, he will be punished with anathema Maranatha. On the contrary, if anyone increases the property of the church through the donation of movable or immovable things, he will be rewarded with the joy of eternal life with the saints forever14.

10What the first two texts have in common is that curses are elements of documents whose legal authors are public entities: King Roger II and Count Roger. From a lexical point of view, the curses that the two rulers place at the end of their acts seem to be a disposition and, consequently, from a legal point of view, they apparently have the value of a penalty clause. In this sense, secular authority seems to have the power to excommunicate, to inflict a spiritual sanction, that is a prerogative belonging to the holder of spiritual power. On the other hand, the third investigated document is very different: the deed is drawn up by a private subject who does not have the power to impose neither a temporal sanction nor a spiritual one, even if they belong to the clergy. The curse formula, used in this passage, is not immediately enforceable but it is presented as a prayer, a wish15. In this case, the anathema should not be interpreted as a latae sententiae excommunication, because it can only have ferendae sententiae16effect. The same curse formula is used in two different ways, depending on the legal author of the document. When the king disciplines, grants or authorizes something that is related to the world of the res sacrae, he assumes the authority to impose a spiritual sanction in case of violation of his will; the same thing does not occur when the content of the act is referred to a secular context. On the contrary, if it is a private entity that uses the same penalty clause, the curse does not act ipsofacto but appears to be a prayer, that is addressed to the subjects who are entitled to legally protect the content of the act such as God, the pope, the secular ruler.

Historiographical questions concerning the validity and the raison d'être of anathemas

11As for the use of spiritual sanctions in these documents, the most controversial aspects concern two fields: the reason why curses are not only used in ecclesiastical context but also in secular one, and their legal function. Referring to the first field, scholars agree upon considering spirituality, in Medieval times, a very powerful cultural element, a shared value generating social cohesion thus justifying the use of anathema clauses by sovereigns in terms of generating impacts and consequences. This sociological explanation analyses the social value of the curse, thus justifying its use as deterrent, but it is unable to explain what the legal nature of the curse is. Historiography emphasizes the medieval mindset, reflecting the strong spiritual connotation of this time. This consideration describes a matter of fact, but it is not answering the question of the legal function of these clauses. Referring to this, some historians17 have interpreted the curses as authentication elements of the acts: the anathemas are formally compared with the seal or with the witnesses list. From a legal point of view, this theory is not convincing, implying the use of curses in every act, as it happens for the seal and the witnesses list.

12The thesis that the use of curses in southern Italy is due to the strong Byzantine presence between the 10th and the 11th centuries only partially explains this phenomenon. Written in Greek documents, having a Byzantine tradition, are characterized by a strong presence of spiritual sanctions, not only in donation documents and wills but also in sale and concession deeds, and the spiritual sanction is frequently combined with a pecuniary penalty. In particular, it must be pointed out that curses in Sicily, where the Normans have a powerful and organized administration, have almost exclusively an official nature. Some historians18 deem that their use would be marginal and would derive from Greek Calabria. This argument is mainly based on the analysis of the acts that were written by Robert Guiscard and his wife Sikelgayta (published by Ménager19). Indeed, the spiritual punishment only appears in a quarter of the documents, furthermore resorting to a not homogeneous formulation. This lack of uniformity is considered to be due to the fact that Robert neither repeated the diplomatic forms that were used by his predecessors, nor created a completely new one. Referring to the experience of southern Italy, historiography has not taken exception to the common Greek origin of the practice and it affirms that the peculiarities of the different geographical areas (Calabria, Campania, Apulia, Sicily and Sardinia) depend on many cultural, social and ethnic reasons20. Moreover, the steadiness of the administrative apparatus and central power is a cause of historians’ reflections: if the king's power is strong, he does not need to use curses or other spiritual acts; on the contrary, a large use of excommunications and anathemas stands out if the central power is weak and not legally effective. This idea originates from a partially true assumption: the anathema is certainly a spiritual sanction but, from a juridical point of view, it cannot be equated with the canon law regulated excommunication21. The use of spiritual punishments can be interpreted as the spreading of secular power across the spiritual field, and not as a sign of weakness of the lay-power.

The use of anathema clauses in the Anglo-Saxon charters: border or point of contact?

13On the question of the origin issue, the comparison with the Anglo-Saxon22 experience could be appropriate. From a conceptual and formal point of view curses are, by Normans, similar to those contained in the Anglo-Saxon charters23 (that are prior to the year one thousand, the oldest ones dating back to the 7th century). One argument in favour of this is that the largest number of surviving charters are diplomas or royal charters, granting privileges and rights, usually over land, and the typical diploma has three sections: protocol, corpus, and eschatocol. In the corpus, usually in Latin, the legal author mentions the beneficiary, records the grant or the transfer (dispositive clause), reserves common burdens (reservation clause) and invokes the wrath of God on anyone who failed to observe it (anathema or sanction)24. A key aspect is that the diplomas language is explicitly religious: grants are generally written to obtain the salvation of the grantor's soul and, as a consequence, whoever contravenes the charter will be damned. It is undeniable that the example of Anglo-Saxon curses shows a close cultural and temporal relation with the experience of Norman Sicily: there are common elements that can explain the raison d'être of anathemas that were used by the secular power.

14The Anglo-Saxon charters have been at the centre of numerous historical researches and, in particular, Charles Insley25 suggested interpreting the spiritual and infernal imagery of the tenth-century royal degrees proems as manifestations of the ideology of royalty26. Indeed, the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons to Catholicism begins, approximately, at the end of the 6th century and the use of anathemas, in this period, could be explained as the result of a variety of beliefs, often of pagan origin27. Examining Anglo-Saxon curses, starting from the 8th century, a variety of spiritual sanctions is evident. At the beginning, common punishment themes in these clauses include the threat of the Judgment Day, the need to account for one's transgressions to God (S.28 56, 65, 89, 96, 106, 248, 264, 266, 1184) and various forms of separation (S. 24, 31, 88, 123, 266). On the contrary, excommunication stands out only once (S. 31)29:

15(…) Anyone who (…) tries to intentionally violate or cancel our donation, has to know that, during their life, they will be excommunicated from the body and blood of Christ because of their wickedness, and, after death, they will be separated from those who will have earned, on account of their works of piety, to stand on the right side of Christ and to hear the blessed voice ‘Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world’ (…).

16Ninth-century curses do not provide for excommunication threats, while damnation (S. 177, 187, 1266, 1431a) as well as anathematization (S. 169, 177, 188, 214, 282, 293, 1204) is often invoked. During this century the chancellery style continues changing and, for this reason, it is common to read particularly suggestive variations of the classic anathema formulas such as the one in the charter S. 33830:

17(…) if anyone (…) tries to modify or to decrease the value of my gift, (…) they will be considered guilty before the terrible tribunal (God's judgment) like those who sold and crucified the son of God, unless they first wish to make amends (to God and men) with (worthy) satisfaction (…).

18This clause doesn’t limit itself to threatening the transgressor with damnation penalty, but it also condemns them to the same destiny that was reserved to those who sold and crucified Christ.

19In a large part of tenth-century documents, penance clauses follow the pattern of the previous centuries ones because they allow offenders to make amends (satisfactio) for their transgressions. In particular, in S. 470 and S. 795, containing royal concessions from King Edmund and King Edgar, the required penance is secular. S. 795 states, unless they have first made amends with legal satisfaction31. S. 470, the first of the two concessions, also requires that a worthy penance has to be done to God: unless they first make amends to God through worthy penance to obtain divine pardon through legal satisfaction.32. Three further charters (S. 786; 876 and 880) contain another clause (after the sanction clause) emphasizing that neither forgiveness nor rest will be granted to offenders: let him, apostate, obtain neither pardon in this practical life nor rest in the theoretical life33. These innovations highlight a process of legalization of the anathema clauses that preserves their strong religious value and, at the same time, underlines the secular effects they begin to have.

20The large use of the hellish punishment in the 10th century can be noticed in the 11th century too. The lexicon of the curse remains obscure and the differences between anathemas and curses begin to blur: one term is equally replaced by another. Anathema, as a spiritual sanction, is getting closer and closer to the secular sphere as in the case of charter S. 102734.

21(…)We want the donation of this estate to be perpetual and secure from all contradiction, and anyone who attempts to infringe the donation should not define himself a Christian. Moreover, if anyone conspired against it, may it not happen, let them be sentenced to avenging punishments by these witnesses, until they pay the last farthing of this debt burning hellfire.

22Although the clause is far from resembling a fine, the presence of pecuniary references is noteworthy. Within the punitive clause, a scene of a judicial dispute is described, perhaps foreseeing counterclaims to the concession of the land, and the importance of paying the debt is emphasised.

23This digression, referring to Anglo Saxon charters, is useful to underline the differences between pre-conquest English charters and Norman ones. However, documents belonging to these traditions were equally likely to include sanction clauses, and even if Norman diplomacy soon begins to use temporal punishment, it continues to include spiritual sanctions as well35. Certainly, it is not possible to say that there is a total continuity between pre-conquest England and Norman England, but, as already pointed out, the use (not only formal) of spiritual sanctions does not disappear in the Norman age: it is adapted36 to new and different social and legal needs. It is safe to say that radical changes in the diplomatic form did not immediately follow the transition from an English ruling élite to a Norman one37. In this sense, an illustrative English charter, containing a spiritual sanction, is the number 13838. In this document39, dating back to 1069, William I consents to a grant from Bishop Leofric of Exeter to the church of St Peter of Exeter.

24If anyone, instigated by the devil, dares to overturn my royal concession – may it not happen – with intent either to revoke the canons and the privileges I granted the aforementioned church or to decrease it in any way, let them be damned by the divine voice on Judgement Day and be part of demons’ community, unless they converted and made amends by restoring and giving back ill-gotten gains twofold to the Holy Church of God40.

25The elements that are present in this clause are the ones that have been pointed out in this chapter: the use of the curse by the secular authority, the fear of divine judgment and the religious factor as a social bonding. However, with the inclusion of a secular punishment, William's post-conquest charter clearly shows its entire Anglo-Saxon diplomatic legacy.

The king as Christ on earth and pastor pastorum

26According to the Byzantine model, the author of the document, both a layman and a clergyman, can strengthen its validity by applying an anathema clause, used in terms of penalty clause. Indeed, firmitasacstabilitas of juridical acts are extremely difficult to achieve, thus justifying the reference to the fear of God. This consideration is valid for private subject but is questionable regarding the royal power legibus solutus, as the one developing in Sicily in Norman age.

27Medieval culture, by virtue of its high consideration of hierarchy, sets great store by power. Indeed, the society is organized as a network of relationships that are based on submission, having at its apex the sovereign and following the model par excellence: Christocentric model41. The use of curses by the secular rulers in the documents of Norman Sicily is part of a much wider phenomenon that concerns, on the one hand, the border between law and theology and, on the other hand, the concept of political power in the Middle Ages. According to the Christian model, the king is the vicar of Christ, the pastor pastorum. This symbiosis can be clarified if related with the context of late Anglo-Saxon England and of early Norman age. Indeed, that time a clear distinction between the ecclesiastical and secular spheres would have been anachronistic. The idea of ​​a sovereign power having divine origin is common in several forms of government in medieval Europe: monarchical and papal power.

28In this sense, the use of spiritual sanctions in the previously analysed documents is ideologically justified because it promotes the status of the king as Christ on earth. At the same time, spiritual sanctions were themselves ideological tools: they showed the divinely ordered authority of the kings and, by means of them, kings fulfilled their pastoral duties42.

29The relationship between the religious and the secular sphere can be understood by reading another example43 of a spiritual sanction, dating back to the end of the 11th century, used by Count Roger in Sicily.

30With reference to my decision, I, Count Roger, grant Giraldus, bishop of Mileto, and Ansgerius, bishop of Catania, the right to excommunicate and curse anyone who, after my death, will violate this donation or will steal something from the monastery, unless they have first made amends with legal satisfaction44

31The formula has a double purpose: the threat of a curse protects the donation, and the Count grants the bishops of Miletus and Catania the power to excommunicate and to curse. Roger’s attitude towards the high members of the clergy, clearly shows the concept of sovereignty according to the Norman ruler and, above all, his idea of the relationship between secular and spiritual power. Count Roger acts like a pope45, he puts himself above the bishops of his territory and he delegates them to excommunicare et maledicere. All these considerations emphasize the idea of ​​sovereignty characterizing the Norman kingdom of Sicily. The curses and anathema clauses, used by sovereign power, acquire a different meaning: they are not only the result of a cultural influence46, but they also represent one of the various ways through which the theocratic monarchy shows itself in the Christian Middle Ages.

Aufsatz vom 30. August 2022
© 2022 fhi
ISSN: 1860-5605
30. August 2022

DOI: https://doi.org/10.26032/fhi-2022-008