The pre-Enlightenment world was simultaneously both fascinating and frightening. People often ad no choice but to rely on their imaginations to make sense of the myriad phenomena around them. The result was a world where everything seemed magical; a place teeming with angels, demons, fairies, and witches. Only through uncanny and sometimes ‘ridiculous’ superstitions did many people of the Dark Ages (or Middle Ages or Medieval Period) in Europe try to make sense of their world. Jamil Bakhtawar explains.

The devil swapping a baby. Artist: Martino di Bartolomeo, 15th century.

The devil swapping a baby. Artist: Martino di Bartolomeo, 15th century.

The Lucky Horseshoe

There are reasons why people of the Medieval period believed that horseshoes were lucky. The first was that they were made of iron, a metal that was believed to ward off evil spirits. Another comes from the legend of Saint Dunstan in the 10th century. It was said that that Dunstan worked as a blacksmith and one day the Devil came into his shop. Dunstan pretended not to recognize him and went about getting horseshoes for the Devil’s horse.

However, instead of nailing the horseshoes to the horse, Dunstan nailed them to the Devil instead. The horseshoes caused the Devil immense pain but Dunstan said that he would only discard them if the Devil promised never to enter a home with a horseshoe on the door. The horseshoe was also believed to ward off witches and that is why it was believed that they rode on brooms. Therefore, it was said that a witch would be reluctant to enter any home with a horseshoe over the door. There were also rules regarding the horseshoe. The first was that it had to be iron, and the second was that it had to come off the horse on its own and not be taken off by any man. And then, the horseshoe would need to be nailed over the door with iron nails. There is some debate about the orientation of the horseshoe. Some believe that the horseshoe should point up so as to prevent the luck from spilling out of the horseshoe. Others believe that it should point down so that the luck can be poured upon those who enter the home.

 

The Royal Touch

People often accepted that kings and queens, by virtue of their divine right to rule, had the power to heal disease by their touch. One particular malady called scrofula, a tubercular inflammation of the lymph glands in the neck, was believed to be healed when touched by a sovereign. This healing was seen as validation of the monarch’s appointment from God. It was claimed that the first to practice the healing touch was Edward the Confessor, ruler of England from 1042 to 1066.

In medieval times, grand ceremonies were held in which the ruler touched hundreds of people afflicted with scrofula, or the “King’s Evil.” These people then received special gold coins called “touchpieces” that they regarded as amulets.

Edward the Confessor as shown on the  Bayeux Tapestry .

Edward the Confessor as shown on the Bayeux Tapestry.

God Blesses After a Sneeze

One of the most well-known superstitions that is believed to come from the Middle Ages is the need to say, “bless you” after someone sneezes. There was a belief that sneezing gave Satan the opportunity to enter the body and the person who sneezed needed the help of God to exorcise the devil. Saying “God bless you” was believed to be a way to keep the Devil from entering the body and therefore save the person who had sneezed. It was a way to explain the death that sometimes occurred after a person sneezed and it instilled in people the sense that they could do something to help.

There was also the prevailing belief that a person could ’sneeze out their soul’. This was also counteracted by a person saying “God bless you” or covering the face to keep the soul in. This superstition was encouraged with the spread of illness during a time where there was little way to help people to overcome devastating ailments.

 

Spilling Salt 

In the Middle Ages, salt was a precious resource, and it was believed to have medicinal properties. If salt was ever spilled, it was no longer able to be used for medicine and therefore it was gathered up and thrown over the left shoulder in order to blind the evil spirits that were said to constantly follow people around.

There is an even older reasoning behind the superstition that salt was known to make soil barren for an extended time, and this is the basis for the belief that spilling salt is akin to cursing the land.

 

Changelings

One prevalent superstition in Medieval Britain was the fear that a child could be taken and replaced with a changeling. One of the stories of the changeling comes from the tale of a blacksmith who noticed one day that his son suddenly became lethargic and was wasting away.

The blacksmith was told that his son was taken and replaced with a changeling. To prove it, he was told to put water into empty egg shells and place them around the fire. The child then sat up and spoke in the voice of the changeling stating that he had lived for centuries and had never seen something like that. The blacksmith then threw the changeling into the fire. The man journeyed into the land of the fairies with his bible and the fairies, unable to harm him due to the Bible, returned his son.

There were a number of unusual tests that people performed to try and see if their child was a changeling. They typically involved doing something so strange that it would draw the changeling out in surprise. One test was to place a shoe in a bowl of soup, and if the baby laughed it was a changeling. Also, making bread inside of egg shells was said to be so amusing to changelings that it would cause them to expose themselves. Some scholars have suggested that changelings may have been used as a way to explain autistic children, especially since the changes can come on quickly. When a child’s behavior and verbal skills rapidly declined or changed, it was blamed upon the doings of the changeling.

 

Magic and Witchcraft

Throughout Europe, during the Middle Ages, belief in magic and sorcery was pervasive. Magic involved attempts to take advantage of ‘supernatural’ powers for personal benefit. A fascinating combination of magic and religion was involved in the lives of ordinary people and at times they would utilize spiritual practitioners who specialized in a multitude of beneficial magical services. Charms, prayers and rituals, which also incorporated some aspects of Christianity, were routinely employed in attempts to provide a diverse array of benefits. Also, this acted as a protective barrier against harmful magic, or maleficium, which was blamed for many of the hardships that plagued the European population during this period. For the most part, attempting to manipulate these powers was deemed superstitious by the religious establishment.

Consequently by the beginning of the 13th century, witchcraft in the Middle Ages began to be considered as ‘demonic-worship’ and was feared throughout Europe. People believed that magic represented Satan and was associated with devil worship. The types of magic that were said to be practiced during the Dark Ages were:

1. Black Magic

Black Magic was also known as the ‘harmful’ type of magic. Black Magic had more of an association with the devil and satanic worship. If someone fell ill of unknown causes, this was frequently said to be caused by witches who practice black magic. Other harms caused to society, such as accidents or deaths were also said to be caused by Black Magic.

 

2. White Magic

The basis of White Magic was Christian symbolism, and it focused on the power of nature and herbs. It was considered as the ‘good’ type of magic. White Magic was used for good luck, love spells, wealth and spells for good health. Astrology constituted another significant part of White Magic. Alchemy, which is the practice of making potions, was a part of White Magic as well.

 

The 1486 book Malleus Maleficarum(often translated as the Hammer of Witches) decreed that witchcraft was heresy. It asserted that witches were mostly women and that female lust formed pacts with the Devil. Midwives were especially singled out for their alleged ability to prevent conception and terminate pregnancies. It accused them of eating infants and offering live children to the Devil. But the real heinousness of the Malleus Maleficarumwas in the procedures drawn up to identify and exterminate witches.

The accused were stripped and searched for the ‘devil’s marks’, then dunked in water or burned. Using the Malleus Maleficarumas a guide, torture was liberally used to extract confessions or implicate other people throughout the period witch hysteria. Gruesome torture devices were developed that could crush or dislocate bones, mangle bodily orifices and tear out fingernails. Red-hot pincers were applied to tear out pieces of flesh as well. Those found guilty of witchcraft were burned at the stake. All in all, there is no more damning testament to the dangers of superstition than the Malleus Maleficarum.

The cover of 1 1520 edition of the  Malleus Maleficarum .

The cover of 1 1520 edition of the Malleus Maleficarum.

The Bride’s Garter

Bridal garments were considered blessed. The bride would have all her clothes ripped from her by the guests on the wedding night as everyone tried to snatch a piece. Gradually attention focused on the bride’s garter-ribbon – a symbol of sexuality and fertility.

In Medieval times, unmarried men fought for the bride’s garter to ensure they would be the next to find a beautiful and fertile wife. Bachelors even mobbed the bride as she stood at the altar, throwing her to the ground and ripping the garters from her during the wedding ceremony. When the church protested, the custom evolved to the groom removing the lucky garter from his new wife in the bridal chamber and tossing them down to the waiting men.

 

Number 13: A Troublesome Phobia

The belief that the number 13 is cursed primarily had a religious reasoning in the Middle Ages. For instance, there were 13 people who attended the Last Supper and therefore it was believed that 13 people at a gathering were a bad omen. Many believed that if a party was held for 13 people, whoever was the first to get up would be dead within the year.

With this superstition, people of the Dark Ages ensured there would never be 13 people gathered together. In fact, by the 16th century, it was claimed a person was a witch if they had 13 people together.

 

Conclusion

When one thinks of magic and superstitions of the Dark Ages, a number of assumptions and sometimes misguided beliefs come to mind. Witch hunts and superstitions caused many deaths and worried the minds of countless people. The world in which most Europeans lived involved belief in supernatural and mystical elements, over which humans could exert some influence with not only evil intentions and outcomes, but with good results as well. Although doing so was forbidden by the church, magical activities and beliefs were an integral part of the ordinary life of the people.

 

What Middle Ages superstitions do you know about? Let us know below.

Sources

http://www.thefinertimes.com/Middle-Ages/witches-and-witchcraft-in-the-middle-ages.html

Stuart Clark, “Witchcraft and Magic in Early Modern Culture,” in Witchcraft and Magic in Europe, ed, Bengt Ankarloo and Stuart Clark (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002), 

Bailey, Magic and Superstition, 193.

https://hchroniclesblog.wordpress.com/2013/08/01/superstitions-of-medieval-england/

https://prezi.com/6caqxk-lpxhh/superstitions-of-the-medieval-times/

https://www.historyextra.com/period/medieval/historical-superstitions-why-friday-13th-unlucky-kiss-under-mistletoe/

What comes to mind when the ‘Dark Ages’ is mentioned? Religious conflict? Anti-science sentiment among the illiterate and uneducated? Noble knights conquering on horseback amid plagues and unsanitary cities? In contrast, the Middle Ages were marked by the preservation of knowledge following the collapse of the Roman Empire and the pursuit of further innovation that birthed the Renaissance. Casey Titus explains four infamous myths about the Medieval Era. 

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    King Richard II of England (1367-1400) holding an orb and scepter for his coronation nearly a century before Christopher Columbus made his famous sail across the ocean blue. 

King Richard II of England (1367-1400) holding an orb and scepter for his coronation nearly a century before Christopher Columbus made his famous sail across the ocean blue. 

Myth 1#: Medieval Woman had no rights

As opposed to the image of an oppressed, powerless peasant woman in the Middle Ages, women wielded considerable power outside of domestic duties. In the church, women could hold high positions as abbesses of convents or the female head of a community of nuns. This position possessed great responsibility and superior authority over the monks. Women also exercised political power, most prominently as queens and substitutes for the male monarchs during their periods of absence, illness, or due to their youth. Some queens were remarked in history as powerful and influential. In one historical example, Isabella of France or the “She-Wolf of France,” joined forces with her lover, exiled Marcher Lord, Roger Mortimer, to end the reign of her husband, Edward II, and took the English throne for herself. While an overwhelming majority of women did not hold such positions of power, taking up the role of wives and nuns instead, those that were widowed had legal independence. It is worth noting that both young aristocratic men and women had little say in their choice of spouse. By all historical accounts, women in the Medieval Era were resilient, skillful, and practical people.

 

Myth #2: Medieval people had terrible hygiene and a low life expectancy

The disastrous effects of the Black Death (1346-1353) prompted people during the Dark Ages to explore the link between health, hygiene, and disease. It was during this time the crusaders brought soap from the Far East to Europe along the Silk Road. People generally bathed in cold water with the exception of the wealthy who bathed in hot water. Before entering the Great Hall in Medieval Castles, guests and nobility alike were expected to wash their hands. Teeth were brushed with the use of a cloth or mixtures of herbs and even ashes of burnt rosemary. Bad teeth could be pulled out – the only remedy – without the use of anesthetic or painkillers.

In 1388, the English Parliament issued the following statement in an effort to improve hygiene in Medieval London: “Item, that so much dung and filth of the garbage and entrails be case and put into ditches, rivers, and other waters… so that the air there is grown greatly corrupt and infected, and many maladies and other intolerable diseases do daily happen… it is accorded and assented, that the proclamation be made as well in the city of London, as in other cities, boroughs, and towns through the realm of England, where it shall be needful that all they who do cast and lay all such annoyances, dung, garbages, entrails, and other ordure, in dithes, rivers, waters, and other places aforesaid, shall cause them utterly to be removed, avoided, and carried away, every one upon pain to lose and forfeit to our Lord the King the sum of 20 pounds…”

 

Myth #3: People believed the earth was flat

The full common myth follows: Christopher Columbus’ voyage to the new world disproved the Church’s teachings of a flat earth. This was a belief defended vigorously by people living in the Medieval Era on punishment of imprisonment or worse – similar to Galileo’s case while championing heliocentrism (that the earth and other planets revolve around the sun) in the 1610s, over a century after the end of the Dark Ages. In reality, that popular myth was coined in 1828 by author Washington Irving who wrote a biography of Columbus, depicting him as a “radical thinker” who turned his back on a backwards Old World in favor of the rationalism promised to the New World without historical and factual backing, in favor of popularity and publicity. During some kings’ coronations, a golden sphere was held in the king’s left hand to symbolize the earth (see the above image of King Richard II of England). In a collection of German sermons dated to the thirteenth century, its  peasant audience was told that the earth was “round like an apple.”

 

Myth #4: The “Dark Ages” had no technological and scientific breakthroughs which is why progress was stalled for centuries

With the Western Roman Empire’s collapse in 476AD, funding for engineering and large-scale infrastructure depleted. Many of the skills necessary to create monumental buildings and complex technology withered away to history. Then over time, the decline of long-distance trade between Europe and Asia resulted in self-sufficient production to solely meet local needs. This method was used in communities so efficiently that it led to its continental spread across Europe and the invention of the horse-collar, mouldboard plough, water mills, and power mills. The blast furnace and development of cast iron were two innovations that advanced metal technology in Medieval times that even exceeded that of the Romans!

Moreover, innovations in wind and water-power during the Second half of the Middle Ages (1000 – 1500 AD) revolutionized agrarian Europe, turning the continent into a rich, populous, and expanding Christian power. In the thirteenth century, the first mechanical clocks were installed across Europe. This clock was the most complex form of mechanism at the time, taking eight years to complete its full cycle of calculations. Universities were on the rise in Medieval Europe, providing a large market for books, while experiments with block printing led to the best known Medieval invention: the printing press.

 

A closer look into Medieval Europe debunks our perceived image of the infamous “Dark Ages”. In between two revolutionary eras of breakthroughs, innovation, and artistic expression lies a thousand-year period of struggles, self-sufficiency, and a bridge into future human progress.

 

What do you think of progress during the Dark Ages? Let us know below…

References

Frater, Jamie. "Top 10 Myths About The Middle Ages." Listverse.com. N.p., 7 Jan. 2009. Web. 6 June 2017.

Gabriele, Matthew. "Five Myths about the Middle Ages." The Washington Post. N.p., 23 Sept. 2016. Web. 6 June 2017.

O'Neill, Tim. "How the Middle Ages Really Were." The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 08 Sept. 2014. Web. 06 June 2017.