William, abbot of Saint-Theodoric in Reims, disciple and biographer of Saint Bernard, recounts that the saint had come one day to preach in the Frogney church. Frogney is one of the first abbeys founded by him in this region, and belongs to the diocese of Laon.
He was about to mount to the pulpit, when a prodigious swarm of bees invaded the church, troubling and annoying the faithful by their buzzing. The saint just pronounced these two words: “Eas excommunico, I excommunicate them”.
The author of this story assures us that the bees fell to the floor in such great numbers that the paving-stones of the basilica were covered by them. They were gathered by spadefuls and thrown out of the sanctuary. The hagiographer concludes that this miracle was given such renown, that the Frogney bees became proverbial, although they are usually called flies.
A bishop also fulminated excommunication against sparrows who had soiled a church with their excrements.
According to Saint Ambroise, a priest was distracted during Mass, one day, by the croaking of frogs in a nearby marsh. He ordered them to be quiet, and they were not heard from that moment on.
It is said, elsewhere, that a Grenoble bishop, in the XIth Century, while at Aix-les-Bains, excommunicated the snakes which had infested this town. From that day forward, the reptiles’ bites ceased to be venimous.
It is also said that the Bishop of Aoste, under the reign of Charlemagne, succeeded in purging that valley of the moles which were ravaging it, by the same means. This pontiff is also supposed to have obtained from the excellent beasts, that they henceforth exercise their depredations at a distance of three miles around this part of the country. It is not said whether or not the neighbours were particularly happy with this result.
The collections of legends of the Middle Ages are full of stories of saints who give orders to animals and make them subservient to their power. Water was also exorcised and blessed, to communicate to it the virtue of making demons flee and annihilating damaging beasts.
This exorcism formula merits reporting: “I order you, water creature, I order you by the living God, the holy God… that you retain in your substance no phantom, but that you convert yourself into an exorcised source, into a source of redemption, so that, when you are thrown on houses, on vines, on trees, on stables or on flocks, or when someone has touched you or tasted you, you become a defence, a remedy against the traps of Satan.
“That by you plague epidemics go away… that at your contact weevils, caterpillars, grasshoppers and moles flee… ”
People often came from afar to take part in the distribution of exorcised water. Some time after the death of the prelate who had invented miraculous water, the Tarentaise having been invaded by insects, its people sent a deputation to the canons of Aoste Cathedral, to obtain from them the favour of a certain quantity of water, with which they chased away the annoying beasts.
Apart from water, air, earth and fire were commanded to refuse aid and assistance to the common enemy. On this occasion, a fumigation of sulphur, hypericum (St John’s wort), assa foetida, aristolochia and rue was employed. This last plant in particular, plays a big role in exorcisms and is sometimes united with gold, incense and myrrh, in memory of the Three Wise Men.
It is therefore understandable that a case brought against insects who devastate crops, belongs to the competence of the ecclesiastic judge, because the principal object of the destined sentence is the malediction. On the other hand, it is difficult to understand why these cases were tried according to the rules of the civil courts and not according to the forms used in criminal matters, since malediction was a real punishment, and even a very serious punishment, assimilated to excommunication.
A reason for this apparent anomaly could be found in the fact that all creatures were considered as having the right to remain at the place where their instinct of conservation had led them. This would then raise a real question of custom, of usufruit, of property, which could only be regularly decided by civil law. Therefore, pronouncing the expulsion of the insects which had caused the damage was believed to be founded only when a specific location could be assigned to them.
Fourth part tomorrow.