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Are we still ruled by superstition….?

Above are the Venerable Bede and King Cnut, who are concerned in the following extract from Medieval Man by Frederick Harrison:-

“…Only Bede wrote about such subjects as astronomy and geography; and his knowledge of these was conditioned by the teaching of the Church. As time went on, as much reliance was placed on charms as on prayer and the skill of the leech. The need was met by the creation of the order of exorcists, which, in the third century A.D., was added to the other orders conferred by the Church. At certain periods of the year, evil spirits that were regarded as the cause of bodily or mental disorders were exorcised by the appointed ministers of the Church. The ministry was no sinecure, for the demand for it was great. Using his book of exorcisms, the exorcist would bid the evil spirit depart by invoking the Name of the Trinity.

“Side by side with the exorcist there lived and worked in Anglo-Saxon England the wizard, the witch and the “medicine man”, all of whom were ready to sell their skill in even such obscure and troublesome problems as unrequited love, to which end drugged beer and ale could work wonders.”

“…With the belief in witchcraft went a belief in elves, who were supposed to live on high land, in woods or near water. Anyone who suffered from the disease of the water-elf, one symptom of which was manifested by livid finger-nails and watery eyes, could be cured only by the used of certain herbs and incantations. There was a kind of hiccup known as the elf-hiccup. Dwarfs were shunned as workers of evil and as being in league with the devil. Their fabled power to make themselves invisible by wearing the “hell-cap” or “hell-clothing” made them specially fearsome. Storms and tempests and even death were caused by witches and wizards. An attempt was made by King Cnut to put a stop to these superstitious practices; his actual words are worth quoting as revealing his enlightened nature:

“…and we forbid earnestly every heathenship, that a man reverence idols, that is, that a man reverence heathen gods, the sun or the moon, fire or flood, waterwylls or stones, trees of the wood of any sort, or love witchcraft, or perform underhand work in any wise, either by way of sacrifice or divining, or perform any act of such delusions…

“Yet even Bede believed that storms could be raised by witches. He records that the ship in which Germanus, Bishop of Auxerre, and Lupus, Bishop of Troyes, were voyaging home was driven out of its coursed by demons, who, however, dispersed when the two holy men bade them, in the Name of the Trinity, depart. Then the storm ceased.” Extract ends.

Cnut was indeed enlightened by the standards of his day, and although we smile when we hear the story of how he ordered the sea to retreat, he was actually teaching those around him a very wise lesson. Not that many were prepared to learn from it. And Bede not only believed in witches, but accepted that issuing orders in the Name of the Trinity would send demons packing. Why did it never occur to him that if that was all it took, how come the demons kept coming back for more?

For Christians, the Lord’s Prayer protects against evil, and is uttered in the Name of the Trinity, yet through the centuries, right until now, a great many continue to believe in witches, the black arts and Satanism.

In The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England, Ian Mortimer writes:

“…The word which best sums up the medieval attitude to the Devil, miracles and everything in between, is superstition.” How true. There were all sorts of stories, such as so-and-so saw the Devil enter the local church, or in the dairy, souring the milk. Yet, a national disaster, which you might expect to be laid at Beelzebub’s door, would be taken as a sign of the Almighty’s displeasure with, say, wicked Londoners, or even humankind in general. One cannot help but wonder what Cnut might have had to say about the giant hailstones that fell during a terrible storm in 1360, killing many men and horses. How enlightened might he have been then?

Yet for all belief in witches, there were, apparently, no more than a dozen cases of supposed witches being executed for the whole period between the Norman Conquest and the Reformation, and most of these had been involved in plots against the monarch or his friends. (See Hibbert, The English – a Social History – 1066-1945, p.261) Witch-hunts and all that vile hysteria came to England in the Seventeenth Century.

So, what conclusion can be drawn from the above? Perhaps that for all their superstition and general gullibility, the people of Anglo-Saxon and Medieval England were more tolerant than those of Seventeenth Century. Witches appear to have mingled with the general populace, and been treated with a reasonably healthy respect. And yet, in 1487, came the Malleus Maleficarum. Hardly a friendly treatise on witchcraft! Yet we are told there were only twelve executions of witches.

I don’t know what Cnut would have made or it all, because I’m darned if I know what even I think! Was witchcraft dreaded? Is it still dreaded? Does that uncertainty mean that beneath my modern veneer, I’m just as superstitious as my forebears?

Excuse me while I cross my fingers behind my back….




Another Anglo-Saxon find?

This Cambridge article reveals s0003598x16001861_figaba little about the possible early Christian burial site near Sutton Hoo, first discovered nearly eighty years ago and which probably contains Richard’s collateral ancestor Raedwald.

The Packaging of History: Why We Must Keep Writing About History

Recently, I became Librarian to the Non-Fiction Library of the Richard III Society’s American Branch. It is a great privilege to be entrusted with maintaining such a large collection of texts related to Richard III and the 15th century. But I never expected the sheer volume of materials that were to be shipped to me from the previous librarian. It has been like a slow-moving tsunami, delivered in a dozen or so parcels by the postal service every week (I have started to refer to the postal carriers by their first names now). At first, I felt like a giddy girl waking up on Christmas morning, excitedly tearing into each box to discover volumes on medieval hawking, poetry, dance, food, heraldy, gynecology… plus countless biographies on the Richard III, Charles the Bold, Louis XI, etc., essentially every major persona from the Wars of the Roses.

But, now, I admit to being a little weary. I’ve since inventoried over 600 titles, and still the shipments arrive every week, sometimes bringing flotsam in the form of books that date back to the 1800s with their weathered leather-tooled bindings, pages smelling of stale cloth, bearing the fingerprints of the deceased.

The thought has repeatedly crossed my mind, as I tore open a package to find yet more books on the distant conflict between two noble houses: “Why have so many people written about Richard III, his times, the players in them, the activities of long forgotten tradesmen and women? What more could be said by anyone about the past? Who in their right mind would think they have something … useful … to add to this veritable sea of information?”

Turns out that the newspaperman delivered an answer to my doorstep in the form of the Book Review in the New York Times’ June 7, 2015 weekend edition. Tucked way in the back at page 26 was a review of a new book written by Michael Pye called “The Edge of the World: A Cultural History of the North Sea and the Transformation of Europe”. Pye is not an academic historian, but an English novelist, journalist and writer of popular history. Yet, according to the reviewer, Russell Shorto, he brings forth a totally new approach to viewing medieval history that is very different from the one that started with the Venerable Bede. It centers around the North Sea, in particular the Hanseatic League and the impact of its trade connections with medieval England. Shorto reminds us that, in the past, a person who lived in Ipswich could travel to Bergen, Norway in less time than it took for him to travel to York.

Rather than paraphrase Mr. Shorto’s review, I’ll just offer some of the thoughts contained in his review:


— “Michael Pye’s new book is bristling, wide-ranging and big-themed. It’s the sort of historical work whose thesis is virtually impossible to prove, but it’s also a reminder that history isn’t an exact science. At its most meaningful, history involves a good deal of art and storytelling. Pye’s book is full of both.”

— “What Pye — an English novelist, journalist and writer of popular history — is taking issue with is our packaging of the past. Of necessity, we simplify. The Romans gave us paved roads and running water. Monasteries preserved knowledge. Humanism and three-point perspective came out of the Italian Renaissance. Pye notices that there’s a bias in all this toward the Mediterranean Sea, the Roman Catholic Church and the aristocratic regimes that ruled Western Europe. This bias, he says, has much to do with the kind of documentary information that was preserved, and with the people who preserved it. ‘A letter about planting crops or buying shirts may disappear,’ he notes, whereas ‘a charter for land belonging to the church is very likely to survive.’ Official chroniclers of the past recorded what mattered to their bosses, but much of the substance of an era is to be found in what was left unrecorded.”

— “Pye follows in the wake of a number of academic historians, many from the parts of Europe he writes about, but the synthesis and presentation are all his own. They are usefully, and often delightfully, jarring. He’s interested in the Vikings, the Frisians, Iceland, ‘the “farmers’ republic” of Dithmarscha.’ He looks for lost clues to the birth of modernity not in Leonardo’s drawings or the court of Louis XIV but in the fens and marshes of the North Sea.”

— “Coastal England is one of the places the North Sea washes, and Pye starts by providing a corrective to our common understanding of how England came to be. The traditional version comes from the Venerable Bede, the eighth-century monk whose ‘Church History of the English People’ tells of the invasion of the island by Germanic tribes (the Angles, Saxons and Jutes), who displaced the people they found there and set the foundations of English language and culture. ‘But what if there never was an invasion?’ Pye asks. He is looking at archaeological evidence that shows a much more gradual takeover, involving centuries of peaceable trade and commingling. Bede’s compact and serviceable creation myth obscures a history in which those tribes, along with others in present-day Scandinavia, Belgium and the Netherlands, pushed European civilization onward, inventing or reinventing concepts, coining new terms and new ways of seeing.”

— “The North Sea became a community of traders. Their activity required a currency to give relative value to various goods, so the participants resurrected the Roman practice of using coin money. The Frisians minted silver coins and, Pye says, ‘the Anglo-Saxons in England imitated the Frisians.’ These northern peoples also, he suggests, may have had a hand in promoting double-¬entry bookkeeping. Later, the first stock exchanges came into being in this part of Europe.”

— “Pye devotes a good chunk of his book to the boogeymen of medieval Europe, the Vikings. He follows them on their swaggering voyages, stating that they not only plundered Ireland but also settled in and reshaped Dublin, turning it from ‘an accident of a holy place’ into ‘a base for trading.’ It’s a bottom-up argument: that as the Catholic Church and Europe’s monarchies became bloated and slow, these small-scale innovators found openings to exploit. They enriched themselves, and in time their innovations were adopted by others. The cities that participated in the Hanseatic League — which ranged around the North and Baltic Seas and made free-trading alliances with little regard for national boundaries — are prime evidence for this argument.”


I don’t know if this text may be a good fit for the Richard III Society library, but it certainly revealed to me that there will always remain a need for new voices in the telling of history. Sometimes the voices that are the most provocative and innovative don’t come from the ivory towers of academia or other self-selected groups of people, but from even the likes of Mr. Pye, a novelist. Why not? Libraries, like human creativity itself, know no boundaries. Not enough room to accommodate yet another book on Richard III or his times or contemporaries?

Build more shelves.

(For the full text of Russell Shorto’s review of Michael Pye’s book “The Edge of the World”, see

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