Supernatural In Middle Ages


     Supernatural events and miracles are very common in medieval literature. Many of
these miracles were used for common purposes, which were to provide examples of
an ideal Christian way of life and promote conversion to Christianity. They do
this by writing about miracles that punished people who acted improperly,
miracles that took place to reward Christians for doing good deeds, showing
extreme and persistent faith, or for those who were leading moral lives. Some
examples of medieval literature that contain miracles which serve this purpose
are Saint Augustine’s Confessions, MacMullen’s Christianity and Paganism in
the Fourth to Eighth Centuries, HillGarth’s Christianity and Paganism,

350-750, Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Gregory of

Tours’ History of the Franks, and in the works of Saint Boniface. Saint

Augustine’s work includes a miracle that took place because a man begged his
admission to god. This man was blind and had heard of people who were

"...vexed by impure spirits and were healed..." (165). He immediately asked
his guide to being him to the place were this was happening, which was where the
bodies of the martyrs Protasius and Gervasius lay. He rubbed a sacred cloth over
his eyes and immediately regained his lost eyesight. This miracle was included
to show the benefits of showing one’s allegiance to god and by doing so,

Augustine would be able to get others to convert to Christianity. Augustine
describes the roles of miracles himself when he wrote that they "...symbolize
the sacraments of initiation and miraculous wonders necessary to initiate and
convert ‘uninstructed and unbelieving people’ (I Cor. 14:23)" (299).

MacMullen’s book also contains accounts of miracles that were used for
conversion. One such miracle (from Augustine’s catalog) took place when a
youth was said to have been entered by a water demon. He was brought to the same
shrine I mentioned earlier which contained relics of Protasius and Gervasius.

The demon then leaves the child’s body and writhes in pain and the boy is
cured. Other such miracles that were said to have taken place in front of large
crowds were done by Gregory the Great. He was known for "...exorcisms,
restoration of sight to the blind, even restoration of sight to the dead..."
(96). It is his belief that "The converts had cared little for sect or
theology, only for relief of what ailed them" (125). In other words, people
would often convert for selfish reasons, in order to heal themselves of a
physical problem rather than converting due to true belief in Christianity.

MacMullen also wrote of supernaural beliefs whose existence began sometime
around midway through the fourth century. This book touches on these beliefs
more so than the others. The beliefs in the healing power of relics is ironic in
that it almost seems Pagan. For instance, object that saints touched while
living were believed to hold special powers that the saints used during their
lives. There were even arguements in Palestine as to who would own the remnants
of martyrs bodies. This superstition got to the point where even monks were ween
fighting over Saint Martin’s cloak because of the belief that it was full of
healing power. MacMullen writes of how martrys may have been a creation of the
bishops of the time in an effort to put an end to paganism. Another example of a
supernatural superstition takes place when Severinus went on a mission to

Noricum and attempted to "...banish blight from the wheat fields...by marking
boundary posts with the cross, to ward off floods" (97). Yet another case of
superstition existed in the belief that plants that were found only at the foot
of a statue of Jesus contained immense healing powers. While these plants may
have contained healing power, MacMullen takes note of the fact that many of the
plants taken from around saint’s relics were already known for their value as
healing agents. The reason I stated earlier that these beliefs were Pagan-like
is the fact that they are based purely on superstition. MacMullen’s

Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries offers many more
examples of both miraculous events and superstitions that existed in late
antiquity and the early middle ages. Through MacMullen’s work, it becomes
clear that many of these superstitions may have been fabricated in an attempt to
gain conversions to Christianity. In Christianity and Paganism, 350-750,

HilGarth justifies some of these practices by writing "Today we know that
neither an unscientific view of the world nor the exaltation of asceticism were
the creatures of Christianity but were the leading features of the world

Christianity entered" (5). In other words, these supernatural beliefs in
miracles and superstitions were not at all purely Christian. On the other hand,
they existed in Chrisianity because people of that period accepted and believed
in them, which is why they play such a prominant role in the development of

Christianity. Hilgarth believes that Christianity’s advantages over Paganism
lay in its superior organization and its moral teachings, rather than its use of
miracles which was relatively universal to religions during this time period.

From Hilgarth’s work, it can be said that miracles were used mostly as a means
of conversion and proof of God’s will. For example in one of Saint

Boniface’s work, a section was devoted to the description of an event that
occured when a Pagan tree was ordered to be cut down. The Pagans held this tree
as sacred and believed that it contained special powers. When the very first
chop of the axe hit the tree, it magically shattered into many pieces, which was
supposed to prove to the Pagans that their religion is heretic and that they
should convert to Christianity. Miracles of this cleary prove HilGrath’s
belief that they focused on conversion. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the

English People and Gregory of Tours’ History of the Franks also contain many
miracles which served the purpose of promoting conversion. This is supported in
a letter to Augustine from Pope Gregory in which Gregory wrote "Clearly
understand your own character, and how much grace is in this nation for whose
conversion God has given you the power to work miracles" (93). One of these
miracles happened in the Province of the Northumbrians. According to Willibrord,
archbishop of Utrecht, a man returned from the dead and gave an account of all
that he saw. He died in the early hours of one night and woke up alive the next
morning to a group of people standing around him weeping. During his flirttion
with death, had a guide who showed him the souls of men in purgatory who failed
to show allegience to God. Upon his resurection, he became a monk. There is no
doubt that this passage was written to wanr non-Christians of what will come
after death if they fail to convert. While Gregory’s miracles often speak of
conversion, many of them also provide examples of an ideal Christian way of
life. For example, on page 107, Gregory wrote of a young Christain girl who was
being persecuted by Trasamund. Because this girl refused to renounce the Holy

Trinity, she was tortured and untimately killed. Gregory then wrote of how after
her death, the girl was "...consecrated to Christ our lord..." (108). This
passage was about how absolute faith in God is rewarded in the end and that
there are benefits such as the afterlife for having strong faith. Gregory also
wrote of Saint Eugenius and how he often made miracles happen through Christ’s
guidance. Because of this, the Aryan Bishop, Cyrola, became jealous and
attempted to stage a fake miracle in Eugenius’ presence. The Aryan Bishop paid
a man fifty pieces of gold to feign blindness. While Cyrola and Eugenius passed
by the man, he pleaded to Cyrola to cure his blindness. While Cyrola and

Eugenius passed by the man, he pleaded to Cyrola to cure his blindness. Cyrola
put his hand on the man and pretended to cause a miracle to happen. The man was
caused extreme pain in his eyes and lost his vision. He then pleaded for
forgiveness to Eugenius and regained his eyesight. This story taught Christians
that they can be forgiven for their sins, but they must be careful to look out
for false miracles. These miracles in these books were mostly used for
conversion, or to provide examples of an ideal Christian way of life. Many of
the superstitions may have been used for conversion as well. Regardless of their
respective purposes, there is no denying the significance of miracles and
superstitions in late antiquity and the medieval period.