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Superstitions: A Heritage from the Middle Ages “Superstition sets the whole world in flames; philosophy quenches them.”1 The philosophies that dominated medieval Europe were those of the Catholic Church, and instead of putting out the flames of superstition, these philosophies contributed to their creation. Augustine of Hippo was a bishop who developed theology in western society during the decline of Rome.2 During a discussion with a friend about his latest theological book he stated: We can only be sanctified, made whole, and holy, by faith. But it is faith that God gives to some and not others. We can’t love God unless He loves us first. And every day I see practical confirmation of this teaching. Just look at the rottenness and depravity, the violence and terror, the corruption and devastation all around us.3This is the harsh, pessimistic philosophy that found its way into the medieval Church. The result of such beliefs was a plethora of superstitions created, and clung to by devout Christians trying to stay on the good side of the judgmental dictator they saw God to be. Though they have evolved and become secular 4, these original superstitions from the Middle Ages are the ancestors to many superstitions of today. They developed, because some medieval beliefs prompted Christians to fear the unholy forces present in the world: evil spirits, witches, and worldly vicissitudes, while others encouraged their attachment to the holy: the Bible and relics. Medieval Christians naturally came to fear the mean, vengeful God they heard about in the sermon, and many superstitions developed as a result of this fear. Middle Age people believed that the world was full of evil spirits for many of the very same reasons that Bishop Augustine of Hippo mentioned in his conversation. It was evil forces that brought them hardship, destruction, and disease. Christians also came to believe that if they came in contact with one of those spirits, they could become evil. “Thus, the preponderance of superstitious beliefs they inherited involved ways to protect themselves from evil”5. One such superstition involved yawning. Today it is customary to cover a yawn. This practiced originated because medieval Christians feared that upon opening their mouth to yawn, the devil would enter and take up residence in the body.6 With the devil residing within, salvation was, for obvious reasons, hopelessly unattainable. Covering a yawn protected people from an invisible spirit, but they were also continuously looking for any sign of visible evil. For this reason “people with a dazed, crazed, or canny look were liable to be burned at stake.”7 Christians were afraid of falling under the influence of an “evil eye”, thus falling out of God’s grace. Mention of the evil eye is not uncommon today, although it is most likely not in reference to a dangerous spirit lurking behind the eyes of another. Much like evil spirits, the Black Death was also viewed as an evil sent by God to punish the unholy, so naturally superstitions arose that were aimed at protecting people from this wrath of God. This fear of God’s wrath felt in the Middle Ages formed superstitions concerning the plague that remain to this day. Christians believed that God sent the devastating plague as “divine retribution for human sins.”8 People found solace from the horror and fear of this punishment in superstitious practices whose tracings have survived, though the people who originally used them are long gone. To not bless a person after they sneeze is almost unheard of today. This trend goes back much further to a time when sneezing meant death was on its way. When a sneeze was heard in the Middle Ages during the plague, it was obviously because that person had been unholy enough to deserve God’s wrath in the form of the horrifying plague. Upon hearing a sneeze, one would say “God bless you”, hoping that God would show mercy on the soul of the “sinner”.9 The fear of evils like the plague was a constant drive behind the forming of common superstitions. Nowhere can that be more clearly seen than in the medieval Church’s fear of witches. Evils inflicted by witches were another block on the road to salvation that had to be avoided by Christians, and superstitions were developed as a form of protection. The Catholic Church recognized the practice of witchcraft, and adamantly condemned it. Churchgoers became so afraid of witches that anyone suspected of witchcraft would be burned alive10. Perhaps the greatest superstitions that arose from this fear of witches are those involving cats. Today when a black cat crosses a walking path, it is seen by some as a bad omen. The origin of this belief stems from two fears held by medieval Christians. For one, they believed that witches could turn into cats. They were also seen as assistants to the witches, because so-called “witches”, commonly poor and lonely women, were often found feeding and caring for stray cats.11 It was common practice for cats to be burned, drowned and flung from roofs for these reasons. Today belief in witchcraft is viewed mainly as a superstitious practice, but in a time when fear of evil was such a force in everyday life it was a serious issue, that in fact prompted many superstitions. While many superstitions originated from fears of anything sacrilegious or evil like witches, spirits, and the plague, others originated because Christians would do anything that was thought to honor God in order to win his favor.

Medieval Christians believed in a God who picked some and not others to love, provoking a need to reassure one’s self that he was in God’s favor, and this reassurance came through the use of superstitions. Christians looked for any opportunity where they could gain or demonstrate holiness, and often they found answers in the Bible. An ironic aspect of this fact, is that the average Christian servant could not read, so Bible interpretation was left for the priest who in turn bestowed his “wisdom” on his illiterate parishioners. Superstitions were created, because people used their limited bible knowledge to make exaggerated connections that they applied to their lives. The unlucky thirteen originates from a connection in the bible “resoundingly reinforced by history’s most famous meal: the Last Supper. Christ and his Apostles numbered thirteen. Less than twenty-four hours after the meal, Christ was crucified. In a medieval household, to invite thirteen guests was to court disaster.”12 Friday the thirteenth was especially approached with caution, and it still is today. This was not only because of the thirteen, but also because Jesus died on a Friday.13 According to a report published in 1990, “this fear costs Americans more than one billion dollars a year in absenteeism, travel cancellation, and drops in trade.”14 One billion dollars today, because the logic of Christians in the 500 years ago said that the warnings from the bible such as the unlucky thirteen, should be used to stay in God’s favor! Why bring God’s wrath upon one’s self when it could be avoided? For this very reason medieval Christians would not walk under a ladder15, carried around lucky three leaf clovers16, and wore their wedding rings on the third finger in from the thumb17. These three superstitions evolved, because the Bible highlights the importance of the Trinity consisting of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. People during the Middle Ages took this belief to a new level. It became custom to honor the Trinity wherever honor could be given, and hope their gesture would win them God’s favor. Evidence of this custom still exists today in the form of the superstitions it created. Similarly, knocking on wood today is not a custom to be considered a religious gesture. However, it was a religious custom for medieval Christians who regarded holy relics as an important tool in attaining salvation just as much as they regarded holy doctrine. Christians believed that if they wanted to be holy they needed holy things, relics. For that reason, medieval beliefs and associations with relics are the basis for at least two common superstition found today. A biography of medieval lives highlights the life of Helena Augusta, the mother of Constantine. She is credited with finding “relics of the True Cross.”18 She set out on her journey to find the Cross, because like so many other people of her time, she believed that relics had the power to get God on your side. Helena hoped that if she could get relics of the Cross, God would look with favor on her family who had recently committed several murders. “Knocking on wood” has its origins from the belief in this power of Christ’s cross.19 A knock on wood is thought to secure fortune in today’s world, as would a knock on the True Cross help secure fortune with God in the medieval world. Another superstition involves, the veil of Mary, which was also an esteemed relic during the Middle Ages. It is unlucky if a modern bride does not have something blue on her wedding day. This custom originates from the commonly accepted attire for Mary. “The mother of God has always been clad in blue, hence the special association of a virgin bride with this color.”20 As demonstrated with the Cross and Mary’s veil, items that were considered holy relics during the Middle Ages have lent themselves to modern superstition. The origin of so many common superstitions and practices of the modern day is commonly overlooked or forgotten, but at one time they did have an actual meaning.21, and a number of those meanings are rooted in medieval religious beliefs. The Church had a hand in so many aspects of medieval life politically, economically, and especially spiritually. It has been said that “the hold the Church had on men’s affairs, no less their minds was enormous.”22 The highly influential Church presented a judgmental concept of a God who punished with war and disease. Fear of his domineering power created a black and white spiritual reality for Christians that consisted of the holy and the unholy. The unholy was avoided at all costs, and an exaggerated power was given to the holy all in an attempt to gain salvation. This practice gave birth to many superstitions and customs found in today’s world that range from sneezing, to wedding customs. There is evidence enough to say that the Middle Ages was a world ablaze with the fire of superstition. Even today such irrational beliefs continue to sneak their way into this world of scientific reasoning. Throughout time, they remain cherished not because they can be justified philosophically, but because they provide comfort. A person today can find comfort in the hope that a lucky penny will pull through once again, just like a person of the Middle Ages could find comfort in the hope that a piece of the True Cross would be a sure ticket into heaven.

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