Four cloud pirates from the floating land of Magonia had been chained and imprisoned for days before the Bishop heard of them.
These so-called cloud-dwellers, three men and one woman, had allegedly paid storm-makers, the tempestarii to raise a gale and destroy the crops of the hardworking farmers. The tempestarii used their magic to guide the cloud sailors to the farmers’ fields, where they could steal the grains and leave the crops in ruins, ensuring the farmers would starve.
Someone had to pay. The Magonians from the ‘Land of Thieves’ had to be punished. The local tempestarii had to be found and lynched.
Luckily for those facing a gruesome death by stoning, the Bishop Agobard of Lyons convinced the accusers that they had become unbalanced, and that the accused were flesh and blood and not mystical creatures hailing from ships floating above the clouds (Eastman, 2007). Agobard, so incensed by the matter, wrote a letter calling out the stupidity of the common man in a 9th century piece entitled, “Contra insulsum vulgi opinionem de grandine et tonitruis.” To those of us who don’t speak Latin, the title translation boils down to: “Against the foolish belief of the common sort concerning hail and thunder,” or commonly referred to as, “On Hail and Thunder.”
In these regions, nearly all men, noble and common, city and country dwellers, old and young, believe that hail and thunder can be produced by human will. For as soon as they hear thunder and see lightning, they say ‘a gale has been raised.’When they are asked how the gale is raised, they answer (some of them ashamedly, with their consciences biting a little, but others confidently, in a manner customary to the ignorant) that the gale has been raised by the incantations of men called ‘storm-makers,’ and it is called a ‘raised gale’.
This wasn’t the Bishop’s first run-in with the tempestarii. The belief in weather magic was an ancient practice tracing back to Greco-Roman, Celtic, and Teutonic roots (Kwiatkowska, 2010). Earthquakes, thunderstorms, and hailstorms shaped the fears of those living in Medieval Europe. Full of power, lightning, and incredible winds, meteorological events struck terror in the hearts of the farmers desperate to raise crops that would feed their families through the winter. Without understanding the cause of such destructive forces, the belief in weather magic conjured by storm-makers—also called weather witches, or tempestarii—remained culturally strong despite the turnover in religious practices.
If the common folk had been converted to Christianity, how did the tempestarii survive? Were these weather witches waging an underground religious war against the Christian monks? Or had they been declared Christians on paper, yet still honed their black art skills on the side? The fact was exactly that in 815 A.D.: “Many people were nominally Christian, and their world view remained pagan for many centuries” (Meens, 2014). Agobard wasn’t the first to be frustrated by the pagan practices surviving within the seemingly Christian flock. St. Augustine considered witchcraft a lie, and any who believed that humans could rule the weather had been deceived by the devil. Charlemagne declared that those who accused another of witchcraft should be punished instead, because believing in magic enough to accuse someone of magic was deceit, and deceit was the language of the devil (Kwiatkowska, 2010).
As Christianity usurped the idea of pagan rituals by slipping in their own, such as ringing church bells or weaving special Sunday charms to stave off bad weather, surprisingly, the issue of pagan persistence wasn’t the crux of the Church’s irritation with the tempestarii (Meens, 2014). For the common folk, persecuting the tempestarri wasn’t worth the risk of supernatural wrath when they could pay the witches a small fee, called a canonicum, for a united alliance against the Magonias. The pay-off system worked—except when the tempestarii didn’t do their duty to stop a raised gale—until the Christian Church came calling, asking for a tithe.
Suddenly, taxes had increased and we all know what happens when taxes go up.
Farmers refused to pay the tithes. After all, they’d already paid the magicians. God wasn’t responsible for storms, and keeping the local weather witch happy was more important than supporting faith. Survival was on the line.
Finally, the Bishop Agobard of Lyons deemed it necessary to put an end to the pagan nonsense and prove that weather magic wasn’t a man-controlled force, but something only God had omnipotent power over. He had the Holy Scripture to prove it.
It is necessary that we examine by the authority of Holy Scripture whether it is true as the masses believe. Moreover, if it is false, as I believe without any doubt, then it must be emphasized most strongly how much lying a person is guilty of when he attributes divine actions to men. For by making this claim he is shackled between two deadly and enormous lies, since he claims that man can do what God alone is capable of, and that God does not do what He in fact does.
By picking apart the perceived power balance between man and God, Agobard essentially explained that a man who lies about his power, believes that lie, and spreads that lie disrespects God. While that spelled potential sin for those walking the line between religious conversion, a diatribe on diction interpretation proved to be not enough. Citing numerous examples from the Holy Scripture where God called down storms, one of Agobard’s first arguments comes from the first mention of hail in the Holy Scripture: The seventh plague of Egypt and the myth of Moses.
‘Behold, I will cause it to rain tomorrow at this same hour, an exceeding great hail: such as hath not been in Egypt form the day that it was founded until this present time.’ In these words, the Lord said that He Himself, not some human, would send hail on the next day — certainly not Moses or Aaron, who were righteous and men of God, nor Jamnes or Mambres, the Egyptian enchanters, who are recorded as the Pharaoh’s magicians, whom the apostle said resisted Moses.
In a masterful psychological twist, Agobard cinched his argument for those who didn’t quite buy his other points. If farmers still believed the tempestarii controlled the weather, then why didn’t the common folk pay them money to bring good rain? Where was their magic when you needed it?
In our own time, too, we sometimes see, after the crops and vintage have been gathered, that the farmers are unable to sow on account of drought. Why don’t you arrange with your storm-makers that they send ‘risen gales’ which would water the earth, and afterwards you would be able to sow?
While Agobard’s letter was lost until 1605, his argument remains a central idea depicting logic during the Carolingian Renaissance before the witch hysteria that would arise decades later. Now, as our oceans rise and our ice melts, it seems like a longed-for wish to ask a hidden weather witch to re-shape our climate with an exchange of coin.
Eastwood, Bruce. “Order the Heavens: Roman Astrology and Cosmology in the Carolingian Renaissance.” History of Science and Medicine Library. (2007): 172-173.
Kwiatkowska, Theresa. “The Light was Retreating Before Darkness: Tales of the Witch Hunt and Climate Change.” Medievalla. Vol. 42 (2010): 20-27.
Meens, Rob. “Penance in Medieval Europe, 600-1200.” Cambridge University Press, 2014. Print.