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.
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.
This phylactery (amulet) is from the 13th century, but they were commonly used in the centuries earlier for protection (public domain image provided to Wikimedia Commons by the Walters Art Museum).
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.
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
This post was originally published Nov. 18, 2014, on Unusual Historicals.