I have spoken many times about items, and people featured my book or about medieval life in general. I thought it was about time I spoke about people’s view of the world during this time, their view of good and evil.
Christian philosophy was very prevalent during the middle ages in Europe. This philosophy was most influenced by the works of Augustine of Hippo and Thomas Aquinas. There were other opinions from such great philosophers as Peter Damian and Anselm of Canterbury and many others, Augustine and Aquinas were the most influential, and we will concentrate with them during this writing.
It was Augustine who helped to formulate the concept of original sin. That we have an inherent sin in us, it originated from Adam’s rebellion toward God at the Garden of Eden.
He also contributed to the concept of a just war. That some wars we are obligated to fight because doing so makes us righteous because the cause is so great. (Something’s never change over time)
People have a misconception that during the dark ages, knowledge was lost from the ancient Greeks. This is not true; the works of ancient Greek philosophers were read by men of knowledge. Thomas Aquinas referenced Aristotle and tried to combine the Greek philosopher’s lessons with the teachings of the Catholic Church. This combination also rose to the study of Metaphysics, or the study and explanation of the fundamental nature of being and the world around it.
One of the biggest theological questions is, if there is a God, how can he allow evil in the world. This is not just a medieval or modern question; it has been questioned and postulated since man first thought about good and evil.
Thomas Aquinas had a concept that evil cannot exist except in the good. This means a person does not go about committing evil, unless he sees in the action some good. The evil act is viewed as evil only from the correct perspective.
Augustine had a different view of mankind. To him evil originated when man desired things of the world, instead of seeking knowledge, virtue and the understanding of God. Augustine argued that it is this earthly desire, which causes evil to be present and that God gave man free will and hence has little responsibility for what evil has caused.
Another medieval thought was that the evil was allowed by God. Evil was free to act upon man as a test for man’s faith. There is evil present in the world, and God allowed this evil, and man had to resist this evil to demonstrate his faith to God.
Since the church was important to medieval life, so was the concept of good and evil. It was humankind’s destiny to destroy evil and promote and worship God and goodness. Evil was constantly testing man, and trying to tempt him and lead him away from God.
In my upcoming novel, I view the world that is reflected by the beliefs present during the Middle Ages. Unlike modern versions of monsters, where vampires and werewolves are mixed-up teenagers seeking love, the monsters in my novel are pure evil and treated as such. The knights in my novel are trained to find and destroy creatures such as vampires and werewolves and do it without any mercy.
With evil in the world, medieval people believed there must be people who are helping evil. Witches to them, were people who had made a pact with the devil and were doing his bidding.
A side note about witches and medieval religious teachings. I mentioned Augustine earlier, his philosophy was the devil, and witches tried to lure mankind away from God, and however, the devil or witches had no true power over man. With the philosophy, for centuries the church did not consider witchcraft a threat, or even the fact that witches existed at all.
Later, the church developed the idea that witchcraft and unwanted sexuality were connected. Witches now represented a threat of sin to people. Witches may seduce and beguile people and lead them away from proper Christian living. This was also a good excuse for many who had cheated on their spouses or committed some other transgression, for a witch made them do it.
After a period of time, the witch-hunts soon began popping up over Europe. People suspected of witchcraft were rounded up, tried and punished. Witch trials were more prevalent with Protestant churches then it was with Catholic churches, although Catholics did use the witch-hunts more to attack political or economic enemies.
Witchcraft trials soon developed into a way to make certain groups into scapegoats. Being just a member of a particular group automatically made you a witch; some of these groups included the Cathars and Waldensians, in fact, the Knights Templars were accused of practicing witchcraft.
During the time of the witch-hunts, the Malleus Maleficarum (Latin for “Hammer of the Witch”) was written by Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger. This book outlined how to identify a witch, and how to put them on trial and punishment. This book was referenced by both the Catholic and Protestant witch trials. In my novel, the squires and pages are taught from this book in one of their classes.
Another famous book about witchcraft was the Formicarius by Johannes Nider. Unlike some beliefs that witches were educated males, who performed intricate rituals, this book made an argument that witches were uneducated poor, and mostly women. This also laid the foundation of establishing the victims of the witch-hunts during the time; most of these victims were accused of practicing witchcraft due to nothing more than neighborhood squabbles.
Today we think that a sorcerer is just a male version of a witch, this was not the case during medieval times. To a medieval scholar, a sorcerer is someone who uses tools or can summon demons to accomplish their magical tasks; a witch does not need these tools and can cast spells to accomplish this. Over the centuries, these two views of sorcerers and witches have merged together.
With different types of words describing witches, there has been confusion about others who may not have actually dealt in magic. Cunning folk, as they are sometimes called, uses herbs and other natural products to create medicine. These cunning folk were a valuable part of medieval society and were better if not equal to the medical help provided by doctors. Unfortunately, like so many others, some of these cunning folk fell to the hysteria of the witch trials.
Another misunderstanding we have about medieval witches is their ability to fly. The Malleus Malficarum indicated that witches could fly, but only at night. The Formicarius cast doubt about whether a witch had the capability to fly.
Today we have classic Halloween decorations showing witches sitting on their brooms. In fact, during the middle ages, the witches were portrayed as sitting on their brooms backwards (to our perception of a witch on a broom), with the brush part in front; as they flew, the witch’s broom swept the sky.
One of the most tragic examples of witch hysteria was the destruction of cats in the middle ages. Cats were believed to be associated with witches; this is because it was believed that cats were witch’s familiars. A familiar is an animal guide; a supernatural entity believed to assist the witch in their practice of magic. Even today we often display a black cat as a symbol of Halloween.
When the plague first arrived in Europe, it began killing thousands. People believed the deaths were caused by the curse of a witch. The response was to kill as cats in mass numbers. We know now that the plague was carried by flees on rodents. If the cats were not killed, they may have kept down the rodent population and lessened the impact of the plague.
Today we consider ourselves enlightened; we would not even consider putting someone on trial for witchcraft. However, for a second put yourself into the shoes of a person living in the middle ages. Disease could come and wipe out entire villages, crops growing one day could wither on the vine the next. Without answers to explain these tragedies, it was natural for these people to believe they were caused by someone with malicious intent, and to protect your family it was your duty to seek them out and destroy them.
Next time: Something more fun.