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Eastern Orthodox icon of Theodore of Tarsus, Archbishop of Canterbury
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Liber Poententialis is a 7th-century set of ecclesiastical laws dealing with practices that the Christian church would later characterise as witchcraft. Introduced by Theodore, the seventh Archbishop of Canterbury (668–690), the penalties were mild when compared with those laid out in the later Witchcraft ActsUntil the passage of Henry VIII’s Act of 1542 witchcraft was dealt with by the ecclesiastical courts rather being seen as a secular felony. It is unknown what triggered the perceived need for such a law, but it undoubtedly suited Henry’s agenda of wresting power from the Catholic Church. of the 14th century onwards, and they applied only to women, not to men. The punishments laid down were as follows:[1]

  • Divination: one year’s penance
  • Using astrology or raising storms: five years’ penance
  • Resorting to demons: one to ten years’ penance
  • Killing by the use of spells A spell is a verbal charm to be spoken or chanted, sometimes a single magic word such as Abracadabra or the Renervate encountered in the fictional Harry Potter series of books. : seven years’ penance, three of them on bread and water
  • Practising as a magician: excommunication

The Liber Poenitentialis is considered by Jeffrey Burton Russell, Professor of History at the University of California, to be one of the most influential books of penance. It distinguishes between trivial matters attracting a penance of one year to more serious matters, requiring a penance of up to ten years, even though all of the offences listed are believed to be derived from the invocation of demons by way of nocturnal sacrifice.[2]