Mythology And Folklore

Superstitions of Medieval England

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Superstitions are a principle or practice, consequential of a fear of the unknown, they are a set of beliefs and rituals that give believers a sense of control over things that are seemingly uncontrollable. Many superstitions are the result of a regional moral panic, whose origins date back to medieval times when there was widespread illiteracy and ignorance in society. Medieval times or the Middle Ages, was a period in history lasting roughly from the 5th to the 16th century. The dates are approximate, as there is some discrepancy with dating this period, due to differences in studies of individual researchers and academics.

During the middle ages, it was a general belief that witches were associated, or in league with bats, therefore, it was said to be bad luck if you saw bats in flight and or heard their cries. It was also a belief that horses repelled witches, which is why they chose to ride brooms or pitchforks instead. Many more superstitions involved animals such as - Once when bears used to roam ancient Britain, a notion emerged that if a child rode on on the back of a bear he or she would be protected from whooping cough. The idea of the 'lucky horseshoe' was brought about by the medieval belief that they ward off witches, (as do the horses) and by placing a horseshoe over a door, any witch would be reluctant to enter. However, not just any horseshoe would do, it had to be an iron one that had come off the horse by natural means and not taken off by man. The horseshoe then had to be placed at a certain angle above the door and secured with iron nails, for example - pointing upward so that the curve was at the bottom to prevent the luck from spilling out.

Many a fearful child believed Halloween was the night when witches walked the earth or flew the skies on a broomstick. Many an adult has assumed or believed it to be a pagan or pre-Christian celebration of the dead. Contrary to either belief, neither is true. Halloween was recorded not as early as BC but in AD800. In the Catholic Church, it was known as the 'festival of hallowtide', November the first being All Hallows or All Saints day, and 2nd November All Souls day, these two days were the time for commemoration of the departed faithful, the days when their souls can leave purgatory and enter heaven.

The tale of Jack o' lantern associated with Halloween tells that Jack was a fellow who could not enter heaven because he was a miser. However, he could not go to hell either because he had previously played tricks on the devil. Therefore, he had to walk the earth forever. With a hollowed out turnip with a candle inside for a lamp, he spent his time visiting homes and knocking on doors of the newly departed, offering prayers for the dead in return for cakes, hence the term soul-cakes. Even though the story is not dated, it seems to be the most rational reason we have trick or treat and the pumpkin lantern of this modern day.

During or around the year 1001, according to an ancient recorded letter from Abbot Aelfric to Bishop Wulfsige, the sacrament consecrated on Easter day by English priests was to be put to one side and stored for administering to sick men throughout the coming year. This Christian service was the origin of the superstition that - bread baked on Easter day was lucky, or even had healing properties when fed to the sick. Still on the subject of ingesting for healing purposes - Salt, used mainly for medicinal intent during the middle ages, was so expensive spillage was avoided. Throwing salt over the left shoulder was linked to its healing use. The next best thing to administering it was to throw it into the eye of the evil spirits that lurked behind the shoulder, waiting sickness upon us.

Church doorways, overlooked by gargoyles, a religious ornament? or charm to ward off evil? During the medieval period it is true, some were intended for just that reason, but for the most part, they were simply an adornment to keep rain from running down the already cold, damp walls and corroding the masonry. To the illiterate masses the grotesque forms, saints and dragons became the superstitious amulet from which regional myths and false notions were formed. Of all the decorations used inside churches since the fifteenth century, holly and ivy have been the most favoured of flora, they derived from a pagan cleansing ritual. Still they are gathered in abundance at Christmas time to deck our homes and halls. Holly has its own meaning when gathered during the Yule tide for the home, if rough holly is gathered then the husband shall rule the house in the coming year, if smooth holly adorns, then the wife will rule.

The popular myth that breaking a mirror can bring you seven years of bad luck came about when our ancestors believed that the image reflected in a mirror was ones actual soul. The soul becoming disconnected from the body was represented by the broken glass. To break the spell of misfortune, one must wait seven hours before picking up the broken pieces, and burying them outside in the moonlight. The seven hours wait being synonymous of the seven years bad luck. Every time someone throws salt over their shoulder for good luck, hangs a horseshoe above a door, hangs holly and ivy on the mantle shelf at Christmas time or picks up the pieces of a broken mirror while someone says "That's seven years bad luck" they are carrying out an ancient act, going back as far as medieval times.


A pocket guide to superstitions of the British Isles, Steve Roud 2005.

100 Questions Answered. Praill, Alex. UK: Dorling Print Ltd, 1998.

Dating jack o'lantern, an article C Plumb 2008.

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