Medieval Musings.

Medieval Magic and Superstition


Have you ever refused to walk under a ladder or spilled salt and thrown it over your left shoulder to ward off the devil? Or become upset upon breaking a mirror? Or dread going to work on Friday, 13th?

Superstitions. Where do they come from and what do they really mean?

In medieval times – the Middle Ages – and long before, people believed in magic. Let’s face it, they believed in anything that might help them survive. Monsters, witches, incantations, you name it, they believed in it. In this Medieval Musings, we’ll explore some of the ways magic formed part of peoples’ lives.

Superstitions and Sorcery

The result was a world where everything seemed magical; a place teeming with angels, demons, fairies, and witches. Only through uncanny and sometimes ‘ridiculous’ superstitions did many people  try to make sense of their world.

Just a few superstitions…

The number 13:

there were 13 people at Jesus’ Last Supper so a gathering of 13 people was a bad omen.

Saying ‘God Bless You’ when someone sneezes:

the belief that sneezing gave the Devil the opportunity to enter the body and therefore the person who sneezed needed the help of God and the church to get him out. Saying “God bless you” was believed to be a way to keep the Devil from entering the body and therefore save the person who had sneezed. We still say it today!

Lucky Horseshoe:

Dunstan worked as a blacksmith and one day the Devil came into his shop. Dunstan pretended not to recognize him and went about getting horseshoes for the Devil’s horse.

However, instead of nailing the horseshoes to the horse, Dunstan nailed them to the Devil instead. The horseshoes caused the Devil great pain but Dunstan said that he would only remove them if the Devil promised never to enter a home with a horseshoe on the door.

There are so many more superstitions, such as a pregnant women who stared at the moon caused her baby to go insane, and this winner, women who died as virgins would ‘lead apes in hell’. More on that one later.

Magic and Medicine

There were many who practiced several types of magic in these times, including: monks, priests, physicians, surgeons, midwives, folk healers, and diviners. Notice the first group are educated men. By writing down their ‘remedies’ in Latin, they legitimized their incantations, spells, etc. as ‘natural medicine.

For example:

Sealskin could quite happily be used as a charm to repel lightning; vulture body parts could be used as a protective amulet; and gardeners could get virgins to plant their olive trees without any anxiety.

One doctor instructed physicians to place the herb vervain in their patient’s hand. The herb would cause the patient to speak his or her fate truthfully, offering the physician an accurate prognosis.

Sympathetic magic – using imitation to produce effective results.  Liver of vulture might be prescribed as medicine for a patient suffering from liver complaints.

Narrative charms – a complex version of sympathetic magic, hinged on the belief that telling a particular story could help channel healing power to the patient – according to one medical treatise, wool soaked in olive oil from the Mount of Olives could staunch blood when coupled with a spoken story about Longinus, a man who was famously healed of his blindness by the blood of Christ. Religious elements were blended with the magical.

All of these ‘treatments’ were considered legitimate and mainly done by educated men.

Magic and Witchcraft

Most people couldn’t afford the treatment offered by the physicians of the time and turned to the village/town wise woman or healer. She would be known for her knowledge and practice, often passed down through generations, of folk medicine. Her skills in childbirth and, let’s be honest, abortion were well known. She might also offer incantation and spells to help a neighbour’s sick cow or help someone fall in love.

All done without fear and retribution until

The publication of Heinrich Kramer’s Malleus Maleficarum (or, Hammer of Witches) in 1487 that the specific connection between women and satanic magic became widespread. Kramer warned that “women’s spiritual weakness” and “natural proclivity for evil” made them particularly susceptible to the temptations of the devil. He believed that “all witchcraft comes from carnal lust”, and that women’s “uncontrolled” sexuality made them the likely culprits of any sinister occurrence.

Sounds like Kramer was a misogynist or he had serious sexual difficulties.

From that day forward, witch hunting became a passion. Particularly at risk were middle aged or widowed women (without men to control them). That’s where the story of the women who died as virgins came from. More on witches on my next blog.

Final thoughts…

We are still fascinated with magic. I offer in my defense: Narnia, Harry Potter, Lord of The Rings, Star Wars – as in ‘may the Force be with you‘, and Game of Thrones.

We still make a wish on seeing a shooting star, or when we throw coins in a fountain.

Like the folk from medieval times, we are no different, magic still helps us cope with daily life.

Tangle  of Time

In my debut novel, Tangle of Time, Annie learns to use magic, after a few clumsy starts.

Can you think of any magic that you still practice, maybe unknowingly?

Here’s a link to more on the subject of magic in medieval times.


If you want to know more about medieval life or, in the New Year about life with the Vikings, sign up to receive my monthly-ish newsletter or visit to my website:

If you enjoy my writing, please tell your friends.