Thursday, February 23, 2012

Superstitious Farmers in the Early Middle Ages

These peasants were a superstitious lot who clung to many an ancient magic rite, in spite of the warnings of their priests and stewards.  They were filled with awe of the earth.  “They considered the field a living creature which had to be tamed, before cultivation was begun, by magic spells…At the first plowing an egg was laid before the plow; if it broke, the earth was willing to accept the sacrifice…Taboos were observed to guard the health of the earth.  Women who had just given birth and people with lung sicknesses were not permitted to approach the field.  When bodies were taken to the grave, the procession must not cross any cultivated field.”
Every peasant village had its magician who saw to it that the spells were properly observed.  These magicians provided portions and spells for healing sick cows, oxen, chickens and children, and were always obliging about concocting philters to help lovelorn peasant girls win the peasant Tristans. Pagan beliefs died hard; as has often been observed, the Church had to confer on innumerable saints the powers of heathen spirits before the simpler folk could be weaned entirely away from their ancient religion.
Among the more expensive of magic rites was the custom of burying deep in the ground a part of the seed for sowing, as a sacrificial offering to Erda, the goddess of earth, who might otherwise be offended when the peasant rudely drove his plow into her body.  Charles [read: Charlemagne] vainly called on his stewards to stamp out this practice for the eminently sensible reason that it was wasteful: less seed was sown and the harvest was diminished.
—Richard Winston in Charlemagne (1960).