Witches and witchcraft are addressed in four separate clauses in Rothari’s Edictus of 643 CE. Three of the clauses address accusations of woman as being vampires (striga) or witches (masca), with Nos 198 and 199 addressing accusations made against free woman by, first, their guardians and, second, by someone not holding their guardianship; No. 376 addressing the killing of ancilla (female slaves) and aldia (half-free women). The other clause, No. 368, addresses duellers carrying what Fisher-Drew translates as ‘witches herbs’ into combat. The Latin of this latter clause, however, gives it as ‘herbas quod at maleficias pertenit’ [herbs which pertain to bewitching], and may not necessarily represent the same type of witchcraft as the ‘eating of a living man from within’ addressed in the other clauses. It is on the treatment of these apparent masca that I wish to focus here.
The traveller on the Clapham Omnibus might well imagine that the punishment for witchcraft proscribed in the ‘barbarian’ early medieval laws of the Lombards might include burning, torture and execution. Such expectations would certainly fit with the biblical proclamation that one must not ‘suffer a witch to live’ (Exodus 22:18), especially considering the widespread tendency of early medieval royal ideology to present itself within a framework of biblical kingship. The laws, however, stand apparently at odds with this. Rothari No. 376 begins stridently and with clear direction:
No one may presume to kill another man’s aldia or woman slave as if she were a vampire (striga), which the people call witch (masca), because it is in no wise to be believed by Christian minds that it is possible that a woman can eat a living man from the within.
The Lombard Laws, trans. Katherine Fisher-Drew, p. 126
Despite the biblical model for witchcraft that the Lombard legislation could have been drawn on, then, Rothari and his advisors took a distinctly different direction. The belief in witchcraft is denounced as being against the rationality of Christian belief, and the guilty party is actually the accuser who has killed the aldia or ancilla, for an imagined crime. The clause then continues to stress that the action is both ‘illegal and impious’ and reinforces this with relatively weighty penalties on top of the composition for the killing itself. In addition to the sixty solidi for killing an aldia (as per Rothari No. 129) the clause outlines a further fine of 100 solidi. In the case of an ancilla, the composition for the killing varies depending on whether she was a household or field slave (again, as per Rothari Nos 130-136, and ranging therefore between sixteen and fifty solidi). The additional fine is set at sixty solidi regardless, however, and is split in two equal parts, with half going to the owner of the aldia or ancilla and the other half going to the king. As such, royal interest in preventing the killing of women as masca or striga can be clearly seen, and even if a man killed his own ancilla or aldia on grounds of witchcraft he would still be liable to pay either thirty or fifty solidi, respectively, for his impious and un-Christian act.
That Rothari and his advisors, had set themselves against such un-Christian behaviour, of course, does not mean that the average Lombard agreed with the sentiment. That the clauses existed at all indicates that women were being accused of – and killed for – ‘eating a living man from within’ and sometimes it seems that this occurred at the instruction of a judge who had presumably overseen the accusation of witchcraft. To counter this Rothari No. 376 concludes by stating that:
If indeed a judge has ordered him to perpetrate this evil act, then the judge shall pay composition according to the above written penalty from his own property.
The Lombard Laws, trans. Katherine Fisher-Drew, p. 127
Judges, then, it seems were considered as likely as ordinary Lombards to participate in the killing of women for witchcraft, and the opposition to such behaviour began at, and was perhaps limited to, the uppermost echelons of royalty and royal advisors.
The two clauses addressing accusations of being a masca or striga made against free women or girls, Nos 197 and 198, differ from the previous clause in their severity. Both clauses assume only the accusation was made, not the woman in question was killed, and appear in a swathe of other clauses that address the legal protection of women and crimes made both against or by them. The first focuses on an accusation made by a man who holds the guardianship (mundium) of the woman in question, and nominally results in the accuser losing her mundium and it being transferred to either her relatives or the king, as she wishes. However, the law specifically excludes the father or brother from inclusion in this crime, indicating that if her mundium is already held by her immediate relatives and it is they who make the accusation, then there is no further legal protection for her. In the case of No. 197, where the accusation is made by a man who does not hold her mundium, the crime is framed as an assault on her honour and unjustified imputation of shame. Where the other clauses relate accusations of being a witch (masca) or vampire (striga) together, here the emphasis shifts to be an accusation of being a witch/vampire (strigam) or a harlot (fornecariam). As such, the crime has moved from the supernatural to the misogyny and sexual control of fragile masculinity.
This shift to the regulation of female honour and sexuality is reflected in the next part of clause No. 197, in which, if the man can prove that the accusation was made in wrath rather than in certain knowledge, then he pays a composition of twenty solidi and is not further liable. If the accuser maintains his claim, however, then its validity is to be determined by the ordeal of a judicial dual (camfio): and if proven false here once more the accuser pays composition equal to her wergeld. Conversely, if the duel proves the accusation to be correct, the she is ‘guilty and [to be] punished as provided in this code’ (The Lombard Laws, Trans. by Fisher-Drew, p. 90). Fisher drew cross-references this to the 100 solidi composition outlined in Rothari No. 189 for fornicating free women, and to the previously discussed clause on the killing of aldiae and ancillae. How the latter of these would have worked in practice remains unclear, would an accusation of witchcraft proved by the camfio simply have resulted in the same punishment as for fornication? Or, did the strident terms of Rothari No. 376, denouncing accusations of witchcraft as illegal and impious, rise to the surface and take precedence once more?
Considering that the judicial duel would surely have been overseen by a judge who was, presumably, in possession of a copy the law-code, the punishment for the guilty must surely have been determined by him. Whether or not the capital punishment of a freewoman for witchcraft at the instigation of a judge led to said judge paying the composition and fine as for the killing of an aldia or ancilla, however, remains unclear.