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Sortes Sanctorum

 

Sortes sanctorum was a late antique and early medieval practice of deciding by lots, but its exact meaning remains obscure. It was once believed to be identical with the practice of Sortes biblicae,[1]biblical lot divination, whereby one would seek guidance by opening the Bible at random and consulting the verses therein. The confusion between the two practices has been noted in a study by William Klingshirn.[2] The mistaken identification of Sortes sanctorum with Sortes biblicae seems to have originated with Edward Gibbon in the third volume of his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, published in 1781.[3] More recent studies hold that the practice consisted of writing names on lots, which were then cast as part of a decision-making process.[4][5] Evidence for this comes from, among others, the tenth- or eleventh-century canonical collection known as the Collection in Five Books. In book III chapter 328 it reads that "Sortes sanctorum are those which are cast in the bosom or in the lap for whatever reason" ("sortes sanctorum sunt quas in sinu vel in gremio mittuntur pro qualicumque causa").[6]Another, more radical hypothesis, argues that the expression Sortes sanctorum "referred neither to biblical lot divination nor to any genre of divination at all".[7] Rather, according to this hypothesis, "Sortes sanctorum" was simply the title of a specific text, which is still extant in a number of medieval manuscripts. The practice of Sortes sanctorum was condemned by two early church councils: Vannes (AD 461), canon 16, and Agde (AD 506), canon 42.

  1. "Sortes biblicae".
  2. William E. Klingshirn (2002). "Defining the Sortes Sanctorum: Gibbon, Du Cange, and Early Christian Lot Divination" Journal of Early Christian Studies v.10:1. pp. 77-130, at pp. 80-81
  3. Edward Gibbon (1781). The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Volume 3. p. 184 n. 51. https://books.google.de/books?redir_esc=y&id=iCc-AAAAcAAJ&q=%22this+mode+of+divination%22#v=onepage&q&f=false
  4. D. Harmening (1979). Superstitio Überlieferungs- und theoriegeschichtliche Untersuchungen zur kirchlich-theologischen Aberglaubensliteratur des Mittelalters Germanistik Aberglaube Deutsche Sprachwissenschaft Deutschsprach. pp. 197-204, at pp. 203-4.
  5. Pieter W. van der Horst (1998). Sortes: Sacred books as instant oracles in late antiquity, in The Use of Sacred Books in the Ancient World, ed. L. V. Rutgers et al. pp. 143-174, at p. 158.
  6. M. Fornasari (1970). Collectio canonum in V libris. p. 488.
  7. William E. Klingshirn (2002). "Defining the Sortes Sanctorum: Gibbon, Du Cange, and Early Christian Lot Divination" Journal of Early Christian Studies v.10:1. pp. 77-130, at p. 81