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Noteworthy 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.

Puss-Drinking and Scab-Eating--The 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.

Flagellants--Either 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.

Stylite Monks--(technically 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.

Similarly, Irish 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.

The Anchorhold--Anchorites 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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