Without the benefit of modern science, folks in the Dark Ages had some decidedly peculiar beliefs about the world they lived in. In fact, things went backwards after the collapse of the Roman Empire, and much knowledge was lost for centuries. In the Dark Ages, superstition and misconception ruled the roost in all kinds of bizarre ways.
Preformationism was the entirely mistaken theory that humans were perfectly formed in miniature in sperm. Once the sperm had been deposited into the womb, all that was required was for the tiny human to grow to the right size to be born. In fact, it was believed that all living beings were created in this way and in their tiny forms these were known as homunculi.
19. The error demon
In medieval times, it was believed that an error demon was responsible for all the little mistakes that crept into a scribe’s work. Don’t forget, everything had to be written by hand in those days, so mistakes were a real pain to correct. And this annoying demon even had its own name: Titivillus. In fact, Titivillus served a useful purpose for the careless scribe – namely, somebody to blame for mistakes.
18. Deviant beavers
One decidedly peculiar belief from the Dark Ages concerns that busy rodent, the beaver. In 1188 Gerald of Wales claimed in his Journey Through Wales that when hunted, beavers would pause and bite off their own testicles. This was because it was the testicles the hunter was after, as they were believed to have medicinal qualities. So the hunter would allow the beaver to escape, because he already had the parts he wanted. How the beaver knew to do this is not explained.
17. Criminal animals
It was a widely-held belief in the Dark Ages that animals could be held responsible for criminal behavior. And this belief was taken so far that beasts were quite often put on trial in a court of law for their misdemeanors. For example, in 1266 a pig was tried, accused of murdering a child in the French town of Fontenay-aux-Roses. Found guilty, the pig was sentenced to death and burnt.
16. Medicinal smoking
There can be few people in the modern world who are not familiar with the fact that smoking is a lethal habit leading to poor health and premature death. Yet in medieval times it was believed that puffing on tobacco was a way to avoid the deadly plague. In around 1700, one A .J. Bell wrote: “For personal disinfections nothing enjoyed such favour as tobacco; the belief in it was widespread, and even children were made to light up a reaf in pipes.” Yes, smoking was compulsory, even for children.
15. The chicken cure
During the Dark Ages disease was a constant threat and one of the most feared was the plague. Medical science at that time was in no position to offer effective treatment, and all kinds of bizarre folk remedies filled this gap. One such was the use of chickens to treat the buboes or sores that came with the plague. Those afflicted were advised to rub the chicken on the bubo. It seems highly unlikely that this treatment had any success whatsoever.
14. Hole in the head
Turning to another bizarre medical practice of the Dark Ages, we bring you trepanning. This was the practice of drilling a hole into the skull. One idea was that this hole could relieve pressure that had built up inside the skull. Another claimed rationale for trepanning was to allow evil spirits to escape through the hole.
13. Killing to cure
Syphilis is an extremely unpleasant sexually transmitted disease. So it’s hardly surprising the people in olden times hunted desperately for a cure. But one treatment that was frequently offered was actually potentially fatal in itself. That treatment was the use of mercury as a cure for syphilis. Mercury, of course, is highly toxic.
12. The mysterious mandrake
The mandrake has two qualities that made this plant an object of fear and loathing during medieval times. Firstly, the roots could resemble the shape of a human (if you had a vivid imagination). Secondly, the plant actually had hallucinogenic qualities which meant it was sometimes used in black magic. On the positive side, some medieval folk carried a mandrake root as a lucky charm.
11. The royal touch
Royalty in both medieval England and France claimed that their touch could cure disability and disease – and many credulous people apparently believed them. This healing ability was seen as a gift from God. English monarchs accompanied the touch with the gift of a gold medal, which was to be worn as part of the cure. But some people, presumably not quite so gullible, simply sold the medal.
10. The marvelous manticore
Belief in medieval times in a fabulous creature known as the manticore can largely be blamed on a Roman historian, Pliny the Elder, widely read by the literate few. An Englishman, Randle Holme, described the beast as having a man’s face, a long neck, the body of a lion and a scorpion’s tail, not to mention three rows of teeth. In a time before nature TV shows, it seems that people were prepared to believe in just about any weird beast.
9. Penis pets
Yes, you read that right: 15th-century witches were believed to keep men’s genitals as pets. The unlikely practice was described by one Heinrich Kramer in his book on witches, Malleus Maleficarum. Kramer claimed that some witches stole male members and kept as many as 30 in nests, feeding them on oats. Obviously rubbish, but still enough to make most men shift awkwardly in their seats as they read about this outlandish belief.
8. Evil Brussel sprouts
Lots of children no doubt believe that Brussel sprouts are evil even in modern times. But in the Dark Ages people thought that tiny demons hid inside Brussel sprouts, as well as in cabbages and lettuces. Some believe that the practise of cutting a cross in the base of a sprout is not to do with cooking efficiency but to exorcize the evil hiding in the leaves.
7. Groovy teeth
This rather grotesque set of teeth belonged to a Viking from the Dark Ages. It seems that they believed that by filing their teeth like this, it would make them look more ferocious. Actually, come to think of it they were not wrong. On the other hand, rather than making them look more ferocious, these teeth might have been more likely to elicit pity. Poor dental hygiene is never a good look.
Changelings were children abducted by elves or evil fairies. The child-snatchers would spirit off the toddler to their enchanted world and raise them there as their own. In parts of Scotland and the English borders, people even believed that the elves sometimes swapped the stolen child with an adult elf. Unsurprisingly, these elves would turn out to be difficult babies. A handy excuse, perhaps, for those with cantankerous offspring?
5. Headless wonders
It seems that medieval folk were extremely keen on unlikely monsters. One popular monster was the blemmye. This creature had the torso and limbs of a human, but this normality ended with the head, which was completely absent. To compensate for this, blemmyes had full human faces in the middle of the chest.
4. It’s a dog’s life…
Another widely-believed monster was the cynocephalus, a creature described as a human, but with a dog’s head. In the time of Emperor Charlemagne (742-814) it was claimed that the Norsemen had dogs’ heads. Was this belief used as a way to dehumanize enemies by attributing animal characteristics to them?
3. Convenient untruths?
In the Dark Ages it seems that people had some strange ideas about classifying animals. For instance, today we all know that bees are insects. But medieval folk, or at least some of them, decided that the bee was actually a tiny bird, even although it clearly has six legs. The beaver, on the other hand, was classed as a fish, although this seemed a matter of convenience rather than ignorance. The Catholic Church’s designation of beavers meant the faithful in Quebec could eat them on fish-only Fridays.
2. Grotesque medicine
Gout was treated by killing an owl, plucking it, then cooking it until burnt. The remains of the unfortunate bird were then mixed with boar fat and applied to the affected area. Quinsy, a serious type of throat ailment, required the killing of a cat. It needed to be a portly feline and after skinning, it was stuffed with ingredients including bear fat, fenugreek and hedgehog grease. The cat was then roasted, and the resulting fat was rubbed into the patient. Not quite what Edward Lear had in mind when he wrote The Owl and the Pussycat.
1. Persecuting witches
As mentioned earlier, a book titled Malleus Maleficarum was the go-to text for information about how to identify a witch in the Dark Ages. One popular method was the ducking stool. This contraption consisted of a chair to which the unfortunate accused woman was tied. Then she would be repeatedly lowered into a pond or river. If the woman sank, she was innocent. Unfortunately, she often also drowned. And if she floated, things didn’t end well for her either.