Superstition in the Dark Ages

It’s Friday the 13thAlthough we have left a lot of our superstitions behind in this supposedly enlightened age, there are still many people who will not be travelling today (or doing all sorts of other things), simply because of the date.

Which got me to thinking: would the people of 7th Century Britain be superstitious about this day, too? And if not, why not? What might they have been superstitious about that we are not?

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First of all, let’s start with a definition. Google the word and you will find a couple of definitions:

  • excessively credulous belief in and reverence for supernatural beings.
  • a widely held but unjustified belief in supernatural causation leading to certain consequences of an action or event, or a practice based on such a belief.

I have written before about how differently people in 7th century Britain saw the world, compared to us. For them there was no separation between the religious and the secular. Everything related to God (or the gods) and everything you saw, especially in nature, had a deeper meaning beyond itself. It’s very hard for us to enter into this mindset, almost impossible, but not completely. It means turning off your rational, scientific brain, which is hard for us to do. But seeing as there are plenty of superstitions that still survive today, including the one about Friday the 13th, it’s not impossible for us, it seems!

So in one sense, the 7th century people of Britain were superstitious about everything. But it is interesting to dig into the research and find out some specific things that they may or may not have been superstitious about. Here’s just a few for you to ponder on this Friday the 13th:

Friday the 13th – funnily enough, although the people of 7th century had plenty of superstitions, this particular one was not one of them.  People became superstitious about this day as being one in which bad things might happen because it combined two things that people were superstitious about: Fridays in general, and the number thirteen. In Christian history Friday was seen as a day in which bad things happen because Christ was crucified on a Friday (paradoxically called Good Friday, because of the results of that crucifixion was salvation being made available to all, which is a Good Thing). The number thirteen was an unlucky number because there were thirteen people at the Last Supper (Jesus, plus the 12 disciples, and the “13th man” is generally said to be Judas). However, it seems that neither of these superstitions were evident before the 13th century. So, our seventh century friends were not too concerned about Friday the 13th. And realistically speaking, they weren’t too concerned about what the exact date was in general. Calendars were more for monks (or the pagan priests) than for ordinary people. The monks kept track of the feast days and the high holy days of the year, especially Easter. In the pagan world, the Druids and the pagan Saxon priests would certainly pay attention to, and track, the Solstices. But having to know the exact date of other, ordinary days, were not too important to the general population.

Black cats – this one is a little more tricky, but in general, in the 7th century in Britain, black cats would not have been seen as unlucky, or as witches’ companions or consorts of the devil. Those ideas again come from a later time period, specifically from the time the Pilgrims arrived in America in the 17th century. Therefore the idea of the black cat being unlucky is far more prevalent in America than in European folklore. In many parts of Britain, black cats were seen as bringing good luck rather than bad (in other words people still had superstitious beliefs about them, but not in a negative sense). The Celts, including the Scots and the Irish, did have a legend surrounding the Cat Sith or Cat Sidhe, which was a fairy that shape-shifted into a black cat with a white patch on its chest. This cat was feared because they believed it would steal the soul of a recently dead person before the gods (or God, in the Christian era) could claim it, so they would have special distractions during the wake to keep the cat away before burial, such as leaping and wrestling, catnip, and forbidding fires in the room the body was laid (as we all know cats are attracted to warmth).

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Doyle based this famous Holmes story on the legends of the black dogs common in Britain

Black dogs – the black dog is a much more fearsome being in British folklore than the black cat ever was. Stories of large, black dogs, often with blazing red eyes, are common throughout the British Isles, and more common there than anywhere else. They are often seen as being harbingers of death or even directly harmful to those unlucky enough to encounter one. Due to its prevalence in the British culture stretching back just about as       far as we can track, superstitions about black dogs would definitely have been part of 7th century life.

Knocking on wood (or touching wood) – this is another superstition which goes back a long way. Both the Celts and the Saxons saw trees as sacred objects, and the practicing of knocking or touching wood after good fortune could have been a way to rouse the spirit of the tree to protect someone so that their luck wouldn’t turn, or to scare away evil spirits which might come around seeking to reverse your good fortune. Add to this the reverence for the cross of Christ and you can see why this particular phrase and action got so embedded in western culture that it has survived even to this day. However….there are some researchers that scoff at this explanation and trace the practice back to a 19th- century children’s game called “Tiggy Touchwood”, which was a type of tag where a player was “safe” if they touched some piece of wood or tree. So I’ll let you decide on that one!

To wrap up, I thought I’d leave you with something from Bald’s Leechbook, which is a medical text that comes to us from the Early Medieval period. In a previous post I explained that this is a compilation of many remedies for all sorts of injuries and diseases, most of which comes from the medical knowledge handed down from the Greeks and Romans. But there is one section which contains a lot of strange and wonderful “cures”, many of which are very superstitious sounding indeed.

Here’s an example:

Against elf-disease: take marsh mallow, fennel, lupin, the lower part of bittersweet nightshade and the lichen from a holy crucifix and frankincense. Take a handful [of all of the plants]. Bind all the plants in a cloth. Dip [them] into a fountain with holy water three times. Let three masses be sung over them: one Omnibus Sanctis, another Contra Tribulationem, a third Pro Infirmis. Then put hot coals in a chafing dish and lay those plants in [it]. Smoke that person with the plants before 9 a.m. and at night, and sing litanies and credos and Pater Noster, and write the sign of the cross on each of his limbs, and take a little handful of the same plants of that kind, likewise consecrated, and boil in milk. Drip three [drops] of the holy water into [it] and sup [it] before his food. Soon he will be well.

Ok. First of all, what exactly is “elf-disease”? The Anglo-Saxons believed in elves, and that they interfered with humanity with often malevolent results. Sudden pains in the body were seen as being the result of elf-shot; in other words, that an elf has shot you with an arrow. So conditions such as arthritis or even growing pains could have been explained that way. There are remedies for being elf-shot in the Leechbook. So, perhaps elf-disease is something similar? Who knows?

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Some historians believe that finding obsidian arrow heads (like this one, made into a necklace) left behind from the ancient people who populated the British Isles was the origin of the idea of “elf-shot”. Photo from wikicommons

I suppose that is exactly the point. While the medical practitioners of the day knew quite a bit about wounds, infections, broken bones, and things like childbirth, etc, they didn’t know about germs and what might cause something like cholera or even the plague. So some vague sickness that had no obvious external cause would have been a mystery to them. So, elf-disease was as good as an explanation as any, right?

All the rigmarole about the plants and the masses and the prayers and the holy water speaks to the desperation of the patient and the physician alike to “do something” to fix someone when they are ill. According to the Christian faith, we are called to pray for those who are sick, and in some instances anoint with oil. The other practices detailed above were definitely not mentioned in Scripture. So where did they come from?

Somehow simply praying for someone doesn’t seem enough, especially if you contrast that with the magical charms and rituals that the pagan culture around you would have been using when faced with mysterious illnesses. So to avoid the people turning to those more pagan remedies, the monks and other Christian healers would have felt much more comfortable with adding these more Christian practices to their healing repertoires when simply praying for someone didn’t seem as spectacular in comparison.

We all know the power of the placebo…and while that connection would not have been immediately understood by the healers of the time they may have seen times when these types of “cures” actually worked, either through the patient believing they were going to work or just simply the body fighting off whatever was ailing it, and so these practices became worthy of inclusion in the Leechbook.

Superstition? Yes, of course. But you can understand where they come from, when you live in a world where terrifying things happen that have no logical cause that they could see.

I hope you have a great day today, Friday the 13th and all! I’d wish you good luck, but that would be superstitious….

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Year of Important Books: A Study in Scarlet, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

I’m not sure how I first stumbled across Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson and began to eagerly devour the exploits of the famous private detective. Unlike the other books I have covered this year in my Year of Important Books series, this one was not a relic left behind from my older siblings’ childhood.

I must have got my first Sherlock Holmes tale from the library, whose hallowed spaces I visited once a week with my parents (the Edmonton downtown library) as well as numerous visits each week to our school library.

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I bought this just after I graduated University, so that I could have all the stories in one place. Now I have them all on my Kindle as well. No such thing as too much Sherlock here!

Needless to say, I quickly fell in love with these stories, and remain an avid consumer of all things Sherlock. I can’t tell you how many Sherlock books I have read – aside from the originals, I have read very many books based on the characters, some true to the characterizations as given to us by Conan Doyle and some way out in left field. I’ve read books about Sherlock as a child, and others about what happens after he retired. I’ve read books about Sherlock and Jack the Ripper, Sherlock AS Jack the Ripper, Sherlock and vampires, werewolves or other monsters, regular Sherlock stories set in the time and place the originals were set, Sherlock in America, modern-day takes on Sherlock…..etc etc etc.* A small hint as to my obsession with all things Sherlock is evidenced during the planning of the trip my husband and I took to Europe way back when. When  he asked me what was the one place I had to see on the Continent,  I answered, “Reichenbach Falls!”**

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One of the early illustrations by Sidney Paget of Holmes and Watson, found in The Strand Magazine. It was Paget who first introduced the deerstalker hat and Inverness cape to Holmes; these details were never mentioned by Doyle in the stories. Photo from Wikicommons. 

But it has been quite some time since I revisited the original stories, and so I was very happy indeed to open the first story, A Study in Scarlet, and begin to read again how Sherlock and Watson met and their first partnership in crime solving.

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One of the early illustration by Sidney Paget of Holmes and Watson, from The Strand Magazine. It was Paget who first introduced the deerstalker cap and Inverness cape to Holmes, these details were never mentioned by Doyle in the stories. Photo from Wikicommons. 

A Study in Scarlet was not Doyle’s first published work. A doctor by profession, he began writing stories as he waited for patients to arrive at his first independent practice which opened in Portsmouth in 1882. He struggled to find a publisher for his story at first, but eventually  A Study in Scarlet was published by Ward Lock and Co. and appeared in the Beeton’s Christmas Annual in 1886. The sequel, The Sign of the Four, was published in Lippincott’s Magazine in 1890 under an arrangement with Ward Lock and Co, but Doyle grew disenchanted with this publisher and the remaining Sherlock stories were published in The Strand Magazine, in serial form.  A Study in Scarlet was only one of four novels in the original Holmes canon, the other three being The Sign of the Four, The Hound of the Baskervilles, and The Valley of Fear. The rest were short stories or novellas.

Doyle was a prolific author. Besides the Sherlock stories, of which he grew tired (he famously killed off his famous detective, only to have to resurrect him later because of public demand), he wrote many other short stories, other mystery novels,historical novels, and stage plays. He even collaborated with J.M. Barrie, author of Peter Pan, to write the libretto of a comic opera called Jane Annie.

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Arthur Conan Doyle in 1914. Doyle was one of the best paid authors of his time. Aside from his literary fame, he is best known for his work to advance the cause of  spiritualism. Photo from Wikicommons.

But it is Sherlock who endures out of all of Doyle’s works. What is it about this character and these stories which fascinates so many people? I know there are reams of words written about this, and so I won’t go into too much depth here.

But I will tell you, generally, what the appeal is to me. First off, The Study in Scarlet begins with Watson, not Holmes, and I think this is a clue to one of the reason why these stories are so popular. This friendship between the two men is the heart of the stories, and it is ultimately what makes them work. This friendship is begun in this story, and it is a rudimentary one to begin with. Here Watson is more or less a foil to Holmes – a mirror in which to showcase Holmes’ intellect and skill. But Watson still has substance, even so. We learn of his back story, that he was wounded in the war, that he was a medical doctor, and that he enjoys a good mystery himself. After he is introduced to Holmes and they make arrangements to begin living together at 221B Baker Street, Watson and Stamford (the one who introduced the two) are walking back to Watson’s hotel, and are discussing Holmes and his “peculiarities”as Stamford calls them. In response to Watson’s question of how Holmes knew Watson had been in Afghanistan, Stamford replies,

“…A good many people have wanted to know how he finds things out.”

“Oh! A mystery is it?” I cried, rubbing my hands. “This is very piquant. I am much obliged to you for bringing us together. ‘The proper study of mankind is man,’ you know.” 

Throughout the stories we see Watson observing Holmes, trying to figure out what makes him tick. Watson, of course, stands in for all of us, and half of the enjoyment of the stories is getting a chance to do this observing along with Watson.

A Study in Scarlet is, of course, a murder mystery. Which is another reason why I and so many others enjoy these stories. People love puzzles, and these stories are full of bizarre details that make the murders impossible to figure out until Holmes throws the light on what happened. For example, in this story you have a man dead in a deserted building by mysterious means, a look of horror frozen upon his face; the word “RACHE” written in blood upon the wall; and few clues as to how this could have happened. It’s a great deal of fun to puzzle along with Watson as Holmes exposes both the incompetent nature of the Scotland Yard police force and the eventual identity of the murderer.

The story is split into two parts, both seven chapters each. The first part is the initial meeting of Holmes and Watson, the discovery of the dead man, and the eventual unmasking of the murderer. The second contains five chapters of back story, and it is an abrupt break both in time and place, as it mainly takes place in America several decades before. This is  the “why” it happened, and it is inserted into the story without explanation, which makes it a bit odd until you realize what is going on. I remember reading this the first time and being very confused as to why all of a sudden the story jumped to the tale of the exodus of the Mormons to Utah and the man and girl they rescued along the way, but Doyle’s writing is compelling enough that you soon forget all about London and Holmes and get absorbed in the story. Eventually, of course, you realize that this is all a set-up to the murder, and then in the last two chapters the novel catches up to where Holmes and Watson have captured the murderer, and it finishes up from there.

I believe, if I remember correctly, that this is the only story in which Doyle handles this telling of the “why” of the crime this way. In subsequent stories either Holmes or some other character gives the details or they are discovered naturally along the course of the investigation – Doyle relies heavily on Watson’s asking questions of Holmes in order to do this. I think he probably discovered this was an easier way to give the readers these important details, and therefore did not have to use this type of awkward story break again.

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Do I love the new BBC version of Sherlock? YES. There are not enough words to describe how much I love this clever modern  take on the great detective. I especially love how the show takes the original stories and re-tells them, with all sorts of tiny details that fans of the stories would recognize. Acting and writing are superb in this series. 

Sherlock Holmes was not the first detective in literature, that honour goes to Edgar Allen Poe’s C. August Dupin ( whose adventures began in  The Murders in the Rue Morgue), and Doyle himself acknowledged his debt to Poe’s character. But Doyle certainly struck a chord of unique genius when he created Holmes. Arrogant yet approachable, analytical yet passionate, intelligent yet flawed, Holmes himself is, of course, one of the main reasons why these stories are so popular. The great detective was modelled after someone Doyle knew, Joseph Bell, a surgeon at the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh, whom Doyle worked under as a clerk. Bell was noted as a master at the observation of minute details which led to broad conclusions not immediately apparent to anyone else.

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The marvellous Hugh Laurie, the star of the TV series “House” .  The character of House was based on Holmes, and you will see many references to Holmes throughout the series, including his own “Watson” (Dr. James Wilson) and the fact that House lives at 221B Baker Street! I love that this show brought the character of Holmes full circle, back to his medical roots, so to speak. Photo by Chris HE, on flickr

 

Finally, the last great appeal to me of the Holmes stories is the setting. Victorian England, and in particular, London, with its gas-lit streets, pea-soup fog, opium dens, hansom cabs, squalor, and opulence, is a marvellous place to set crimes. Doyle’s details of London (as Watson describes it, “that great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the Empire are irresistibly drained”) bring you right into this fascinating time and place. It is a wonderful marriage of character and setting.

I loved Sherlock as a child, and I love him still! It was so much fun to rub shoulders with him again, and it’s got me itching to read the other stories again.


 

*We discovered that to get to Reichenbach Falls, you had to go to the Swiss town of Interlaken, which is a lovely ski-resort town. There is a funicular that takes you up to the falls, which are spectacular. The best part was the spot marked on the trail leading up to the falls which marks the spot where Holmes and Moriarty fell to their deaths (…or did they…) in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. Ok, it was the spot where Jeremy Brett filmed that scene in the great 1984-1994 BBC Holmes series, but still….

**I can’t give you an exhaustive list of all the Sherlock and related books I have read (I couldn’t even if I tried, there’s been too many), but I have to recommend two which I think are the best of the lot. First up is the series by Laurie King, the first book is called The Bee Keepers Apprentice. This book introduces the intrepid Mary Russell, a teenaged girl who meets Holmes in his retirement years and pairs up with him to solve crimes. Which makes it sound much more YA-ish than it really is. Great writing, great characterizations – King gives us Holmes as we know him in the Doyle stories but with the added wisdom of some years behind him. The best non-Doyle Sherlock books ever, in my opinion. Secondly I highly recommend Arthur & George, by Julian Barnes. This is the fictionalized telling of a real-life murder case in which Arthur Conan Doyle became involved, and it not only gives you a marvellous portrait of Doyle himself, it also portrays Doyle using the same methodology as Sherlock himself to solve a crime. Loved it!