The Remnants of Paganism and the Supernatural in Medieval Life

Christianity in western Europe:

  • spread first via the Roman Empire as the official Roman state religion
  • collapsed during the Germanic tribal invasions of the 5th century
  • missionary monks and priests reconverted western Europe from mid-Dark Ages

What did the missionary monks find?

  • pagan faiths based about:
    • the worship of many godsPAN
    • the worship of holy places within the ordinary landscape: rocks, stones, groves, lakes, rivers, trees
    • gods associated with the earth and sky about the people
  • a world full of supernatural creatures: gods, sprites, elves, ghosts, etc.
  • a world peopled with wonder workers who could manipulate this supernatural world: wizards, witches, soothsayers etc.

How did the Church effect a conversion?

  • by compromise
  • by absorption
  • by redefining previously pagan sacred sites as Christian ones
  • associating saints with the sites previously associated with a variety of gods …


The Christian God & faith is remote, abstract and inaccessible. People needed accessible gods, gods associated with their daily world and their ancient sacred sites … the Church gave them a myriad of saints to fill these functions.

The Church:

  • appended major Christian festivals to pagan onespagan-yule-spirit
    • Christmas is based on the pagan fire festival of Yuletide (held at the time of the winter solstice)
    • Easter is based on the pagan spring destival of Eostre

This process seemed sound, but it fatally blurred the lines between pagan and Christian&emdash;who was converted, the people of Europe, or the Christian Church?


Basically, the process resulted in two churches:

  • the church of the first two estates, the elite, the more likely to be educated, which stayed closer to the theological roots of Christianity
  • the church of the third estate, largely uneducated (as were its priests) and largely un-taught in their Christian faith. These people believed themselves Christians, but their daily lives were still highly attuned to ancient ways.

For whatever reasons, the Church reinforced the place of the supernatural in people’s daily lives.



In a world with no scientific explanation, everything was largely defined in supernatural terms.

The world itself was highly enchanted:

  • many sites invested (or infested) with supernatural beings
  • features of the landscape&emdash;misty, low-lying islands, caves, hills, ancient burial grounds or barrowsTumulus_Dissignac2
  • churches themselves were highly enchanted: tombs, altars, crypts etc. could carry magical prowessthe air itself was packed with supernatural beings:
    • ghosts
    • demons travelled the air looking for souls to steal (the Church calculated them at 1,758,064,176)
    • as well sundry angels, saints, etc.




Ordeals called on the supernatural intervention of God to pass judgement when courts, judges and juries were undecided.

Four basic types of ordeal:

1) the hot rod or iron ordeal: a suspect carried a hot rod of iron a set number of paces. His hands were then bound up and if, after a set number of days, they remained unblistered, then he was not guilty.

2) the boiling water ordeal: the suspect plunged his or her hand, had it bandaged, and then inspected after a set number of days.

3) swallowing a holy morsel of bread: the guilty would always choke.

4) cold water ordeal: suspect thrown into a pond. If they sank, then they were not guilty. (But often bound and gagged on being thrown in.)


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