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Medieval people would look at you askance if you said the reason they were ill was that creatures too tiny to see had invaded their bodies.

Detail from 1910 illustration by Arthur Rackham (public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Detail from 1910 illustration by Arthur Rackham (public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

They knew to stay away from poisonous plants, rotten meat, and polluted water. Christian doctors attributed illness to an imbalance in the humors – blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm. Beyond that, medieval folk turned to the supernatural for explanation.

And here is where Christian Franks and Continental Saxon pagans would argue.

To Christians, the cause for illness could be sorcery or punishment from God. A Saxon pagan might blame an evil, capricious dwarf. At least, I think the pagan would blame a dwarf, based on an Anglo-Saxon charm. So little is known about the Continental Saxons’ beliefs, I had to look for clues in other Germanic religions.

The tension over why people get sick comes into play in The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar. My heroine, Leova, a Saxon peasant sold into slavery, accepts baptism, but she still holds on to many of her pagan beliefs, as you will see in the excerpt.

Sharing a pallet with Sunwynn, Leova caressed her sleeping daughter’s hair. Three weeks ago, the dwarves had sent fits of coughing throughout the house, and Leova had sung a charm to protect Deorlaf and Sunwynn. The dwarves’ magic had cracked the charm the way a spear cracked a shield. Leova and her children had coughing and a slight fever but were well after a few days.

But the charm had not worked for Ragenard. What did I do wrong? She had chanted the spell first in the left ear, then the right, then above the head. In the light of the night candle and glowing embers of the hearth, Leova stared at the bed, where Ragenard rested. Helewidis was kneeling on the floor, repeatedly murmuring, “Ave Maria, gratia plena.”

But Ragenard, a Christian Frank, has a different explanation for why he was sick for months and what he must do when he has recovered.

“I almost died this spring. The Lord punished me for my sins but spared my life so I could atone.” Ragenard leaned forward and pressed his fingers to his forehead. “I cannot live with you as brother and sister. It is torture to see you every day and not touch you.”

Leova gasped and smiled. He desired her! He cared for her! “So marry me. Then our lying together won’t be a sin. You said so.”

“I am supposed to do penance, not ignore my sins and enjoy pleasures of the flesh.”

Leova’s jaw dropped. “Are you saying you cannot marry me because we would be happy? Why would the Church frown on your happiness with your wife?”

“All I know is that God healed me of this illness years ago, but He let me become sick again after I lay with you.”

Today, we would call Ragenard’s illness tuberculosis. Before antibiotics, this bacterial disease could go into remission for years but come back suddenly. Yes, those invasive creatures too small to be seen made him sick, and he didn’t know it.