Wednesday, September 14, 2011

"Control of the Magic"

During my last session of "Crusades, Plagues, and Hospitals: Medicine, Religion, and Society in the Medieval Mediterranean" the discussion veered into fascinating territory. Professor Ragab made an intriguing, impassioned speech about how the people who lived in the Levant believed that spirits always walked among them and how this affected their day-to-day existence (I believe this discussion actually refers to the Islamic view of Angels). Clearly, any ideas of a spiritual nature would have been abhorrant to the invading Crusaders from the West. With this backdrop I certainly hope to learn more about the day-to-day magic that pervaded their lives so long ago.

My train ride home was full of ideas from the lecture; specifically, I was comparing how the Anglo-Saxon peoples also believed that magic was infused in their daily lives and how the Church sought to supress the pagan inclination toward "false gods" to that of the medieval Crusades.

Throughout Anglo-Saxon England (which existed from the 5th century until the Norman conquest of England in 1066) the Anglo-Saxons believed that there were spirits and supernatural forces that affected their daily lives. In The Real Middle-Earth by Brian Bates the author discusses the common practice of circumventing "local practices" and establishing the Church as the lone source of religious, supernatural authority:

"As ever, many of the bloody battles between warlords, chieftains and kings were over wealth, power and honour. Some were about rival religions, and involved the power of Rome and Europe-wide politics. Essentially it was a struggle for the control of the magic. The wizards and seeresses practised with the blessing and energies of the enchanted landscape and the spirit world, whereas the Christian missionaries wanted those powers to be mediated exclusively through the Church" (153-154).

Much like with the inhabitants of the Levant, the Church conspired to impose their own rituals over the existing religious practices of the indigenous peoples of Anglo-Saxon Britain. This process is illuminated from a passage found In CHAP. XXX. A copy of the letter which Pope Gregory sent to the Abbot Mellitus, then going into Britain. [601 A.D.] of Bede's Ecclesiastical History of England. This letter detailed how the conversion of the "pagans" in Anglo-Saxon England could be accomplished:

To his most beloved son, the Abbot Mellitus; Gregory, the servant of the servants of God. We have been much concerned, since the departure of our people that are with you, because we have received no account of the success of your journey. Howbeit, when Almighty God has led, you to the most reverend Bishop Augustine, our brother, tell him what I have long been considering in my own mind concerning the matter of the English people; to wit, that the temples of the idols in that nation ought not to be destroyed; but let the idols that are in them be destroyed; let water be consecrated and sprinkled in the said temples, let altars be erected, and relics placed there. For if those temples are well built, it is requisite that they be converted from the worship of devils to the service of the true God; that the nation, seeing that their temples are not destroyed, may remove error from their hearts, and knowing and adoring the true God, may the more freely resort to the places to which they have been accustomed. And because they are used to slaughter many oxen in sacrifice to devils, some solemnity must be given them in exchange for this, as that on the day of the dedication, or the nativities of the holy martyrs, whose relics are there deposited, they should build themselves huts of the boughs of trees about those churches which have been turned to that use from being temples, and celebrate the solemnity with religious feasting, and no more offer animals to the Devil, but kill cattle and glorify God in their feast, and return thanks to the Giver of all things for their abundance; to the end that, whilst some outward gratifications are retained, they may the more easily consent to the inward joys. For there is no doubt that it is impossible to cut off every thing at once from their rude natures; because he who endeavours to ascend to the highest place rises by degrees or steps, and not by leaps. Thus the Lord made Himself known to the people of Israel in Egypt; and yet He allowed them the use, in His own worship, of the sacrifices which they were wont to offer to the Devil, commanding them in His sacrifice to kill animals, to the end that, with changed hearts, they might lay aside one part of the sacrifice, whilst they retained another; and although the animals were the same as those which they were wont to offer, they should offer them to the true God, and not to idols; and thus they would no longer be the same sacrifices. This then, dearly beloved, it behoves you to communicate to our aforesaid brother, that he, being placed where he is at present, may consider how he is to order all things. God preserve you in safety, most beloved son.

The Church engaged in this type of activity for nearly 600 years before the time period (from the 11th-13th century) that our class will cover this semester.

So, while the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons was not as spectacular as that of the Crusades in the medieval world, it was no less pervasive and determined.