Superstition in Medieval Times

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Lately, I’ve been reading a fascinating book called The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century and the book touches on the subject of science and magic in 14th century England:

The lack of distinction between fact and fiction with regard to distant countries is understandable, but it should alert you to a wider failure to distinguish between real and the fabulous. At times it seems that medieval people pride themselves on the quantity of their knowledge, not its quality or correctness. Well-educated and intelligent individuals are fully aware of the shortcomings of this attitude….and yet most people are not remotely bothered by such issues. Huge distances mean they do not have to deal with the problem of John the Baptist having three heads, and, by implication the problem of the Church circulating untruths. For almost everyone, the principal of divine providence explains everything. Things are as they are because God has determined that that is the way they shall be–even to the point of John the Baptist having three heads….People do not understand the laws of physics, the nature of matter, or even how the human body functions. Hence they do not see limitations on how the world operates. Their sense of normality is thus somewhat precarious. Anything can happen. In their minds, sorcery really does work, and all sorts of supernatural forces are suspected to have dreadful power. Astrology is used for everything from determining when to take medicine to when to take in the washing. Alchemy might well result in lead and iron being turned into gold. And as for the possibility of witchcraft and magic, these are limited only by the onlooker’s imagination; they have nothing to do with the witch’s or magician’s actual abilities.

Page 74-75

This fascinating passage highlights the medieval mindset, and shows how much things changed after the popularization of the Scientific Method. Having a process to objectively measure how things work in the physical world makes this all seem antiquated, comical, etc. But at the same time, this mindset where “anything is possible” and the runaway thought process it entails was not limited to 14th century England. Greek philosophy as rife with strange theories of how things worked (many of which were absorbed by medieval thinking, such as the medical “wisdom” of Galen).

You can also see this mindset in medieval Japan as well, such as described in a 14th century text called the Essays in Idleness, where the author Kenkō writes this anecdote:

50) Along about the Ōchō era there was a rumor that a man from Ise had brought to the capital a woman who had become a demon, and for twenty days or more people of the downtown and Shirakawa areas wandered here and there day after day, hoping for a look at the demon. They passed he word to one another: “Yesterday she visited the Saionji.1 Today she’s sure to go to the cloistered emperor’s palace. At the moment she’s at such and such place.” Nobody actually claimed dto have seen the demon, but no one, for that matter, said the report was untrue. People of all classes gossiped continuously about one subject, the demon — that, and nothing else.

One day, as I was on my way from Higashiyama [a very famous district of Kyoto] to the area around Agui, I saw a crowd of people running from Shijō and above, all headed north. They were shouting that the demon had been seen at the corner of Ichijō and Muromachi. I looked off in that direction from where I was, near Imadegawa. There was such a crowd packed around the cloistered emperor’s reviewing stand that it seemed quite impossible to get through. I thought it unlikely the rumor could be completely groundless, and sent a man to investigate, but he could find nobody who had actually met the demon. The crowd continued to clamor in this manner until it grew dark. Finally, quarrels broke out and a number of unpleasant incidents occurred. For some time afterward, whenever anyone took sick for a few days, people tended to say that the false rumors of the demon had been a portent of the illness.

Translation by Professor Donald Keene

Of course, the 21st century and our modern lifestyle not a perfect cure for spurious beliefs either. 😅

1 Confusingly, Saionji (西園寺) was both the of a Buddhist temple in Kyoto, and of a branch of the Fujiwara family who lived there.

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

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