We know a lot about Christianity in the Middle Ages, but much less about the ‘pagan’ and folk religion that many people had. A list from the eighth century offers some clues into those medieval beliefs and superstitions.
The list we have can be found in the Vatican Library and has been attributed to Saint Boniface, perhaps during a religious council that was held in 742. The document takes aim at various ‘pagan’ practices that were taking place in parts of Germany that had only recently converted to Christianity. While we do not get many details, one can see that some of the practices are associated with Norse deities, others are connected to the Catholic Church, and others have a strong relationship with the natural world.
1. Of sacrilege at the graves of the dead.
2. Of sacrilege over the departed, that is “dadsias”. – this may have been a feast held over a gravesite.
3. Of the swinish feasts in February. – a festival honouring the sun and the days getting longer. It included the sacrifice of a pig.
4. Of the little houses, that is, sanctuaries.– these would have been huts made from trees and branches
5. Of sacrilegious acts in connection with churches. – these could related to new rules that were put in place that prohibited secular persons from singing in churches, or anyone having banquets in churches.
6. Of the sacred rites of the woods which they call “nimidas”. – this word probably means something like ‘sacred grove’.
7. Of those things which they do upon stones.
8. Of the sacred rites of Mercury and of Jupiter. – what they are referring to are Odin and Thor, two of the leading gods in the Norse world.
9. Of the sacrifice which is offered to any of the saints.
10. Of amulets and knots.
11. Of the fountains of sacrifices. – by this they mean making sacrifices at fountains.
12. Of incantations.
13. Of auguries, the dung or sneezing of birds or of horses or of cattle.
14. Of diviners or sorcerers.
15. Of fire made by friction from wood, that is, the “nodfyr”.– The practice of ‘need-fire’ could be found in many parts of Europe into the 19th century.
16. Of the brains of animals.
17. Of the observance of the pagans on the hearth of in the inception of any business.
18. Of undetermined places which they celebrate as holy.
19. Of the bed-straw which good folk call Holy Mary’s. – Galium verum is a plant known as Our Lady’s and can be found in large parts of Europe. During the Middle Ages, the plant was used to stuff mattresses, and it was also connected to the Norse goddess Frigg.
20. Of the days which they make for Jupiter and Mercury. – this is Wednesday and Thursday, again references to Odin and Thor.
21. Of the eclipse of the moon – what they call “Triumph, Moon!”
22. Of storms, and horns, and snail shells.
23. Of furrows around villas.
24. Of the pagan course which they call “yrias”, with torn garments or footwear. – the name may be Freya, a Norse goddess of fertility. It also might reference the Roman festival Lupercalia, which took place on February 15th.
25. Of this, that they feign for themselves that dead persons or whatever sort are saints.
26. Of an idol made of dough.
27. Of idols made of rags.
28. Of an idol which they carry through the fields.
29. Of wooded feet or hands in a pagan rite.
30. Of this: that they believe that women command the moon that they may be able to take away the hearts of men, according to the pagans.
While church authorities condemned these superstitions and religious practices, they would have had much difficulty in stopping them. Some of these practices continued throughout the Middle Ages and into modern times.
Top Image: A comparison of Christian and pagan worship in a medieval manuscript – British Library MS Yates Thompson 44 fol. 1r