and Unusual Religious Practices of the Medieval World:
Modern readers face two different challenges
in understanding medieval literature. If readers are agnostic,
they may be unaware of the Bible and basic church doctrine.
If the modern readers are already familiar with the precepts
of Christianity, they may mistakenly interpret medieval belief
along the lines of modern practice. Keep in mind that many
medieval beliefs are alien to modern Christianity, and difficult
to understand without taking into account the unique nature
of medieval spirituality. Rather than treating the following
examples as a freak-show, consider them as potential insights
into the psychology of the medieval mind. Consider how intense
the emotional fervor and how unswerving was the belief of
the Middle Ages.
general populace scorned lepers for their appearance and disease.
As an act of humility and caring, many female saints such
as St. Catherine would care for these "untouchables" by licking
away the puss in their wounds then eating the scabs. People
considered these saints especially holy.
as a masochistic form of penance for fleshly sins or as a
symbolic gesture of subduing the flesh, flagellants would
whip themselves until they bled. Often they would form lines
and parade in the hundreds as they whipped themselves and
marched from town to town singing hymns or calling upon other
sinners to join them. The first recorded outbreak of this
social phenomenon took place in 1260. Like flagellation, wearing
a hairshirt was a method
of penance or symbolic chastisement of the body. Beneath outer
clothes, one would wear a shirt with rough, scratchy hair
on the inside in order to rub the skin raw. It served as a
reminder not to become too comfortable with the flesh.
hermits rather than monks) were continental rather than British.
These men would take a ladder, climb up to the top of a ruined
Roman column, sit down, and then kick away the ladder, vowing
to remain there contemplating God until they died. There are
accounts of stylite monks who survived as long as twenty years,
relying upon handouts from strangers who would pass food and
water up to them using a rope and basket.
Sailing Monks were a phenomenon more common
in Ireland than in England. Technically hermits rather than
monks, these men would board a coracle (a small boat) and
put themselves to sea without any provisions, trusting that,
if it were God's will to spare them, the sea would carry them
to an isolated island where they would build a hut and live
out their days in isolation. Numerous monasteries on remote
Irish islands originated from a single hermit undertaking
such a voyage.
and anchoresses would take funeral rites, wash themselves
with holy water, and allow themselves to be sealed away in
a walled enclosure attached to a church. Like stylite monks,
they would rely on God to provide them with food and water
through the kindness of passers-by. The mystic Julian of Norwich
is one of the most famous anchoresses.
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