Centuries of Fear: 6 Superstitions from the Middle Ages
Centuries of Fear: 6 Superstitions from the Middle Ages

Centuries of Fear: 6 Superstitions from the Middle Ages

Stephanie Schoppert - April 10, 2017

Centuries of Fear: 6 Superstitions from the Middle Ages
Detail of the Last Supper which shows Judas spilling the salt. Wikimedia

Spilling Salt Was a Bad Omen

In the Middle Ages, salt was a precious resource. It was very expensive and it was believed to have medicinal properties. If salt was ever spilled, it was no longer able to be used for medicine and therefore it was gathered up and thrown over the left shoulder in order to blind the evil spirits that were said to constantly follow people around.

There is even older reasoning behind the spilled salt superstition. In the da Vinci painting of the Last Supper, Judas Iscariot is portrayed as having knocked over the salt. This led many to see the spilling of salt as a bad omen and something that was likely to cause bad luck. Salt was known to make soil barren for a long length of time, and this is the basis for the belief that spilling salt is akin to cursing the land.

The Romans had their own beliefs about salt. They believed that it was a symbol of friendship because of its lasting quality. However, it was very expensive and useful for preserving food, so if someone spilled salt on the table it was considered to be very ominous. In contrast, it was considered propitious to spill wine on the table.

Over the centuries there have been numerous accounts and writings from historians that relate the bad omens associated with spilling salt. In addition, since the Roman Catholic Church used salt to make Holy Water, it also had a religious significance which made spilling it a bad omen.

Centuries of Fear: 6 Superstitions from the Middle Ages
The Devil steals a baby and leaves a changeling. Martino di Bartolomeo (early 15th century). WordPress

Changelings

One prevalent superstition in medieval Britain was the fear that a child could be taken and replaced with a changeling. Today this is believed to have arisen out of a need to explain child illnesses that came on suddenly or children that were born with deformities. One of the stories of the changeling comes from the tale of a blacksmith who noticed one day that his son suddenly became lethargic and was wasting away.

The blacksmith was told that his son was taken and replaced with a changeling. To prove it he was told to put water into empty eggshells and place them around the fire. The child then sat up and spoke in the voice of the changeling stating he had lived for centuries and had never seen something like that. The blacksmith then threw the changeling into the fire. The man journeyed into the land of the fairies with his bible and the fairies, unable to harm him due to the Bible, returned his son.

There were a number of strange tests that people performed to try and see if their child was a changeling. They typically involved doing something so strange that it would draw the changeling out in surprise. One test was to place a shoe in a bowl of soup, if the baby laughed it was a changeling. Also making bread inside of eggshells was said to be so amusing to changelings that it would cause them to expose themselves. Even as late as the 19th century, the belief in changelings prevailed.

Some scholars have suggested that changelings may have been used as a way to explain autistic children, especially since the changes can come on quickly. When a child’s behavior and verbal skills rapidly declined or changed, it was blamed upon the doings of the changeling.

 

Sources For Further Reading:

History – What’s So Unlucky About the Number 13?

Grunge – The Mythology of Balder Explained

Google Arts & Culture – 18 Superstitions from Around the World

University Of South Carolina – How Did the Superstition That Broken Mirrors Cause Bad Luck Start And Why Does It Still Exist?

Snopes – Breaking a Mirror

How Stuff Works – Why Are Horseshoes Considered to Be Lucky?

Daily Sabah – Superstitions Busted: Hanging A Horseshoe for Good Luck

Live Science – Why Are Horseshoes Considered Lucky?

RD – Why Do People Say “Bless You” After Someone Sneezes?

How Stuff Works – ‘The Last Supper’: The Masterpiece Leonardo Didn’t Want to Paint

Tutorial Point – Is Spilling Salt Believed To Be A Bad Omen And Bring Bad Luck?

Times Of India – Superstitions Irk Wine Lovers Too!

Medium – Some Common Superstitions Explained, from Spilling Salt to Bird Poop

Mapping Ignorance – The Changelings: Fairy Tales About Autism?

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