18 November 2014

Curses and Cures: Where Christian and Pagan Beliefs Intersect

An eighth-century pilgrim on his way to pray before the relics of a saint might recite a charm to protect his horse from injury. A midwife might whisper spells in an expectant mother's ear to hasten the birth, and if she feared the newborn was near death, she baptized the child. Such was the blend of Christian and pagan practices in the Dark Ages.

My Christian characters would insist the charms and spells were white magic, nothing to do with paganism, which they equated with devil worship. They weren’t cursing their neighbors with illness or inducing storms to destroy crops. Their intentions were good. They wanted a sick child to be cured or their fields to yield an abundant harvest.

A 13th century amuletic broach, shaped like an A and inscribed with the abbreviated prayer of AGLA: Atha Gebri Leilan Adonai ("Thou art mighty forever, O Lord"). Walters Art Museum, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license, via Wikimedia Commons
Officially, the Church preached against magic and the people who practiced it such as enchanters, dream interpreters, and fortune tellers. But to the populace, magic was a tool that could be used for good or evil.

The penalty for magical bad deeds was high. In the Carolingian era, witches and sorcerers were sealed in barrels and thrown into the river, or they were stoned to death.

However, the most popular uses of magic were beneficial and sometimes profitable. Amulets and their religious cousins, phylacteries, were sold to anyone who wanted to buy them. In Rome, the heart of Christianity, women tied phylacteries to their arms or legs.

A 13th century phylactery worn for protection. Walters Art Museum, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license, via Wikimedia Commons
Despite Church teachings, even clerics might ask an expert to interpret their dreams, or a manuscript copied by monks might contain a square to predict the course of an illness with the letters of the patient’s name and the number of the day they got sick.

Magic was so much a part of daily life that the Church realized it needed to take a different tack. If you can't beat them, co-opt them. Want rain? Don't use an incantation. Say a prayer instead. If you need to recite something while gathering medicinal herbs, try the Pater and the Credo.

Still, I can imagine desperate parents of a sick child praying to a saint and giving alms, then taking the child to the peak of the roof, where herbs were cooked while a spell was recited. Perhaps, they were appealing to any supernatural power who would listen.


Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne by Pierre Riché, translated by Jo Ann McNamara

Daily Life in Medieval Times by Frances and Joseph Gies

“Capturing the Wandering Womb” by Kate Phillips, The Haverford Journal, April 2007

Magic and prayer play an important role in Kim Rendfeld's novels, The Cross and the Dragon (2012, Fireship Press) and The Ashes of Heaven's Pillar (2014, Fireship Press), both set in the days of Charlemagne. To read the first chapter of either of Kim’s novels or learn more about her, visit kimrendfeld.com. You’re also welcome to visit her blog Outtakes of a Historical Novelist at kimrendfeld.wordpress.com, like her on Facebook at facebook.com/authorkimrendfeld, or follow her on Twitter at @kimrendfeld, or contact her at kim [at] kimrendfeld [dot] com.

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