Burchard of Worms 965–1025

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Burchard of Worms

Burchard of Worms, born to a wealthy Hessian family, was bishop of the diocese of Worms (south of Frankfurt) from 1000 until his death. He is mainly remembered for his Decretum, an encyclopedic collection of Church canons or regulations, which he and his assistants completed by 1023.

For most of the Middle Ages the regulation of marriage and all other forms of sexual behavior fell predominantly to the Church. As the most comprehensive and systematic compilation of Church canons up to that time, Burchard's Decretum constitutes a valuable, authoritative resource for attitudes toward sexuality in the early Middle Ages (that is, the period from the sixth century to the eleventh). Textual evidence suggests that Burchard's work continued to be consulted until the end of the Middle Ages. Two sixteenth-century print versions remain extant, and Book 19, a self-contained penitential manual known as the Corrector, served as a source for the Milan Penitential, compiled after the Council of Trent (1545–1563) by one of the leading architects of the Counter-Reformation, Cardinal Saint Charles Borromeo (1538–1584). Thus Burchard's Decretum also provides important evidence for continuities between early-medieval sexual beliefs and those that existed from the later Middle Ages into early modernity.


Modern scholars have generally viewed Burchard's Decretum as part of the prehistory of the discipline of canon law, which begins with the appearance of canon lawyer Gratian's Decretum in 1140. However, the work itself explicitly orients itself toward penance. In his preface Burchard explains that he has compiled the work to aid priests in their administration of penance, and penitential concerns are as prominent throughout the work as juridical or ecclesiological issues. Indeed, even at its most juridical, canon law typically retains some penitential cast, and as canon law grew more systematic in the later Middle Ages, and ecclesiological courts grew more purely juridical in outlook and procedure, precepts that had begun as penitential doctrine became regularized and routinized. Burchard's Decretum consists of twenty books. Nine concern Church orders, the nature and sources of Church authority, Last Things (death, judgment, heaven, and hell) and the sacraments of Baptism, the Eucharist, and the Anointing of the Sick. One book deals with magic. Burchard returns to this topic later, and, concentrating on female magic, is concerned both with proscribing a variety of folk rituals associated with women and denying their efficacy. Four books deal with criminal offenses and legal procedures and punishments, in particular excommunication. The remaining six books are all entirely penitential and most of them concern sexual behavior, marriage, and marital status. Book VII adumbrates the basic framework of the extensive incest prohibitions advocated by the early medieval Church—intermarriage forbidden up to the seventh degree of relatedness. Books VIII and IX discuss forms of celibacy, those in clerical orders and for virgins and widows; Book XVII deals with all forms of fornication.

Book XIX, or the Corrector, covers some of the same ground as the earlier books, though it does so in the form of interrogatories, or lists of questions confessors should ask penitents. Consistent with penitential doctrine on sexuality, the only form of sexual activity that the Corrector does not view as sinful is that which takes place within marriage for the sole purpose of reproduction. Nonreproductive sexual acts, such as oral sex, are sinful even between married partners. The same is true of sex when a wife is menstruating or pregnant. Though intercourse from the rear "in the manner of a dog" (canino more) is reproductive, it too is sinful, perhaps because of its visual analogy with nonreproductive anal intercourse. Christianity had established the teleology of reproduction in marriage as the sole justification for sex in the Pauline letters, that is, in the earliest texts in the New Testament. The penitential writings of the early Middle Ages distinguish themselves from what came before, and most of what came afterward, mainly in the anatomical specificity and detail with which they apply this teleological, reproductive rationale. In his aspiration to provide an authoritative statement of the entire tradition, Burchard is, if anything, even more explicit than his predecessors.

Burchard's treatment of homosexuality offers perhaps the most striking instance of this tendency. Homosexuality has traditionally been known as the love that dare not speak its name; in more properly Christian terms, as an unspeakable sin. Since the late twentieth century, following French philosopher Michel Foucault (1926–1984), many scholars have viewed sodomy as "an utterly confused category." Nevertheless, the penitential tradition of the early Middle Ages provides a counterexample of some considerable duration, when the category was neither confused nor unspeakable. The Synod of the Grove of Victory, written by penitentials in Wales in the mid-sixth century, defines sodomitic fornication as comprising four distinct sexual acts: anal intercourse, interfemoral intercourse, mutual masturbation, and masturbation. This definition remained stable for the next five centuries.

Burchard's discussion in Book XX may well be the most explicit in the entire tradition. His confessor is to ask penitents, "Have you committed fornication as the Sodomites committed it, have you thus inserted your rod (virgam) in male backsides and posteriors, and have you thus coupled with them in the Sodomitical custom?" And then, with equal specificity, "Have you committed fornication with yourself, as some do, such that you take your male member in your hand, drawing away your foreskin and rubbing so that through this pleasure semen rushes out of you?" Some thirty years later, a more subdued version of this four-fold definition began Peter Damian's Book of Gomorrah (1049), arguably the most important treatment of homosexuality in the entire medieval period, and the text which may have coined the actual term sodomy (sodomia). Nevertheless, the influence of this definition waned, especially in the period after the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), as subsequent penitential tradition sought to limit discussion of the topic and offered more abstract definitions.

see also Homosexuality in the Christian Church; Homosexuality, Contemporary: II. History; Sodomy.


Austin, Greta. 2004. "Jurisprudence in the Service of Pastoral Care: The Decretum of Burchard of Worms." Speculum 79: 929-959.

Burchard of Worms. 1990. "Selections from the Corrector and Physician." In Medieval Handbooks of Penance: A Translation of the Principal "Libri Poenitentiales" and Selections from Related Documents, ed. and trans. John T. McNeill and Helena M. Gamer. New York: Columbia University Press. (Orig. pub. 1938.)

Burchard of Worms. 1997. "Corrector" In Medieval Popular Religion 1000–1500: A Reader, ed. and trans. John Shinners. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press.

Burchard of Worms. 1998. "Preface to the Decretum." In Prefaces to Canon Law Books in Latin Christianity: Selected Translations, 500–1245, trans. Robert Somerville and Bruce C. Brasington. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Hamilton, Sarah. 2001. The Practice of Penance, 900–1050. Rochester, NY: Royal Historical Society, Boydell Press.

Rampton, Martha. 2002. "Burchard of Worms and Female Magical Ritual." In Medieval and Early Modern Ritual: Formalized Behavior in Europe, China and Japan, ed. Joëlle Rollo-Koster. Boston: Brill.

                                             Larry Scanlon

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