Things that go bump in the night

Among early Christians in what is now England, the fear of sin in the year 1000 was as thick as gruel. The overarching belief from rural village to urban square was that diseases of the body resulted from the sins of the soul, and that disease was spread by bad odors. The body was a "text" to be read by the church as well as medieval doctors.

Escape from purgatory started with acknowledgment that sin was lessened through some kind of self-denial. Thus, to be good, or at least improve in the eyes of God and the church, many men and women fasted, prayed endlessly, did acts of penance and went on long pilgrimages.

Access to the Bible for one's own interpretation, or access to just about any scriptural teaching, was strictly the privilege of monks and clerics, if they were literate. In the shadow of this less-than-benevolent church authority across the land, and out of sheer ignorance, many kinds of superstition, magic, sorcery, and visions grew to be common.

Miracles were often believed to be the work of the Virgin Mary, who at that time was seen as commanding a transcendent power as a protector. Marjorie Rowling, writing in the book, "Life in Medieval Times," relates the miracle story of a monk painting pictures of heaven and hell on an abbey portal. He depicted the devil as grotesquely ugly. But suddenly the devil appeared, and wanted to be painted as young and handsome. The brave monk refused, and the devil yanked away the scaffolding. As the monk fell he was caught and saved in the outstretched arms of a statue of the Virgin Mary in a niche just below the portal.

Although the origins of witchcraft are not clear, in 1000 many witches were considered benevolent healers or only sorcerers with an attitude. It wasn't until around 1500 that witches - men and women - were seen as evil enough to be openly persecuted.

Just after 1000, reports of ghosts in "autobiographical tales" began to appear. According to Jean-Clyde Schmitt, in "Ghosts in the Middle Ages," such tales were actually dreams, sometimes with political overtones. Disclosures about what the "ghost" said or wanted were told to manipulate hearers.

Yet, through all this muddled darkness, and contrary to the historical impression of the early Middle Ages, some scholars contend that laughter and humor were not absent. Not long after the first millennium began, a monk named Notker Labeo wrote, "Man is a rational, moral animal capable of laughter."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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