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Agobard of Lyons (9th Century): On Hail and Thunder

One of the great difficulties that the early Medieval Church faced was the challenge of popular beliefs in superstition, magic and mysticism.  Christian leaders obviously did not want to deny the potential of the supernatural, but they wanted to make it clear that such power only had one source.  A bishop at Lyon in France, Agobard (779-840 CE) spent much of his career arguing against and persecuting peasant beliefs and supposed witchcraft.


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’.

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. And if we are truly to believe what is written concerning lies about lesser matters (Wisdom 1:11): "An obscure speech shall not go for nought, and the mouth that belieth killeth the soul," and also (Psalm 5:7), "Thou wilt destroy all that speak a lie," and (Proverbs 21:28), "A lying witness shall perish," and (Proverbs 19:5), "A false witness will not go unpunished", and also this, which is written in the Apocalypse of John the apostle (22:14-15): "Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life and may enter by the gates into the city. Outside are dogs and the sorcerers and the immoral persons and the murderers and the idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices lying" -- if we believe these, then how much more would it apply to a lie so serious that it (this topic about which we are now speaking) can be shown to be considered no less than the lies of certain heretics.

The blessed apostle Paul said (1 Corinthians 15:15-16), "Moreover we are even found to be false witnesses of God, because we testified against God that he raised Christ, Whom He did not raise, if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised." If therefore, all who preach that Christ the Lord was resurrected by the Father were found to be false witnesses against God if the dead were not raised, then someone who takes God’s amazing and quite terrifying work away from God, so as to attribute it to man, is without doubt a false witness against God.


(Exodus 9:23-24): "And Moses stretched forth his rod towards heaven, and the Lord sent thunder and hail, and lightning running along the ground: and the Lord rained hail upon the land of Egypt. And the hail and fire mixed with it drove on together." See how this passage shows the Lord alone as the creator and producer of hail, not some man.

Perhaps the ones who attribute the making of hail to men would say that Moses reached his staff up to heaven and in this sense the storm was sent by human agency. Certainly Moses, the servant of God, was good and righteous, but these people do not dare to say that the so-called ‘storm-makers’ are good and righteous, but rather evil and unrighteous, deserving of both temporal and eternal condemnation, nor are they servants of God, except perhaps by circumstance rather than willing service. For if there were men who could cause hail, in imitation of Moses, they would surely be servants of God, not servants of the devil; although the passages cited above show that neither servants of God nor those of the devil cause of hail, but only omnipotent God.


Therefore, if the omnipotent God, whose hand is impossible to flee, punishes the enemies of the righteous by the strength of His arm using strange waters and hail and rains, then people who believe that men can do these things are completely ignorant of God. For if men were able to send hail, obviously they would also be able to send rain, for no one ever saw hail without rain. They would also be able to avenge themselves on their enemies, not only by destroying their crops, but also by taking their lives. For when it happens that the enemies of the storm-makers are on the road or in the fields, in order to kill them the storm-makers would be able to pour down a vast hailstorm on them in a single mass and overwhelm them. For some people also say that they are acquainted with storm-makers of such a sort that they can cause scattered hail falling widely throughout an area to pour down on a single spot of river or useless woods, or over a single barrel, as they say, under which one has hidden himself.

Indeed, we have repeatedly heard it said by many people that they know such things have certainly happened in places, but we have yet to hear someone swear that he has seen these things. At one time I was told about someone who claimed that he himself saw these events. I undertook with great eagerness to see him and so I did. But when I spoke with him, and he tried to say he had seen such things, I bound him with many prayers and oaths, even with threats of God, asking him repeatedly not to say anything other than the truth. Then he swore that what he had said was true, naming a man, a time, and a place, but nevertheless he admitted that he himself had not been present at that time.


Translated by W. J. Lewis (aided by the helpful comments and suggestions of S. Barney) from the Latin text in p. 3-15 of: Agobardi Lugdunensis Opera Omnia, edidit L. Van Acker. Turnholt: Brepols, 1981 (Corpus Christianorum. Continuatio Mediaevalis, 52); Biblical quotations are translated following the Douai translation of the Vulgate with adjustments as necessary.

W. J. Lewis, 2001. The text may be used for non-commercial educational purposes, including use course packets. Further publication in other forms (including by university presses) requires permission. Do not reproduce this text on other websites.


NOTE: Selected passages of this work have also been translated by P. E. Dutton in: Carolingian civilization: a reader (Peterborough, Canada: Broadview Press, 1993). Dutton also provides a discussion of this text as it relates to medieval concepts of weather in "Thunder and hail over the Carolingian countryside", found in: Agriculture in the Middle Ages, ed. D. Sweeney (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1995)

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Paul Halsall, February 21, 2001