Centuries of Fear: 6 Superstitions from the Middle Ages

Centuries of Fear: 6 Superstitions from the Middle Ages

Stephanie Schoppert - April 10, 2017

Those who lived in the Middle Ages had a lot to fear. They didn’t have answers for all the mysteries of the world and being the enlightened people they were, they wanted answers. In some cases, those answers came from myths, in others, it simply came from a desperate need to explain bad situations. Strangely enough, many of the most well-known superstitions today owe their origins to ones born during the Middle Ages.

Fear of the Number 13

The belief that the number 13 is cursed or bad luck largely had a religious reasoning in the Middle Ages. There were 13 people in attendance at the Last Supper and therefore it was believed that 13 people at a gathering was a bad omen.

Centuries of Fear: 6 Superstitions from the Middle Ages

The superstition became even more pronounced as time went on. Since Judas was the first to get up from the table at the Last Supper and he was the one to kill Jesus, it stood to reason that the first person to get up from a table of 13 people would be met with bad luck. Many believed that if a party was held for 13 people, whoever was the first to get up would be dead within the year.

With this superstition, people of the Middle Ages ensured that there would never be 13 people gathered together. In fact, by the 16th century, it was claimed a person was a witch if they had 13 people together. Some witch hunters would claim they had seen 13 people in a gathering and therefore proved that the witch was working with the Devil.

The Christians were not the only ones with a fear of 13 either. The Romans believed that the number 13 was an omen that foretold bad luck and death. The Vikings also believed 13 to be an evil number because there was a myth about a banquet held for the 12 gods. Then Loki, the trickster showed up uninvited and caused the death of one of the more beloved gods, Balder.

Centuries of Fear: 6 Superstitions from the Middle Ages
15th-century woman holding a mirror. visualiseur.bnf.fr

Seven Years Bad Luck For Breaking a Mirror

The superstition surrounding breaking a mirror did not start in the Middle Ages, but it was strengthened by it. In the 15th century, Venice, Italy manufactured mirrors for the wealthy. These mirrors were made of glass and backed by silver, which made them extraordinarily expensive. It was the common belief that if a servant were to break a mirror that they would never be able to repay the owner and would instead have to spend seven years as an indentured servant.

But the fear of breaking a mirror had already been in the culture prior to the Middle Ages. In ancient Greece, it was believed that a person’s reflection was a representation of their soul. If their reflection appeared distorted (in a bowl of water or in a stream) then it was believed that disaster would strike. Distorting a reflection in any way was believed to harm soul.

The Romans believed that breaking a mirror was bad luck and it was punishable by seven years of bad luck. The Romans believed that life came in seven-year cycles and therefore breaking a mirror would mean that a person would have to wait to be renewed after seven years. Some beliefs held that if a person was ill they could break a mirror and suffer the seven years of bad luck, after which they would be renewed and healthy again.

There were some remedies to breaking a mirror. Some believed that bad luck could be washed away by putting the pieces in water or burying them in the moonlight. Others suggested pounding the pieces into dust or leaving the mirror where it broke for 7 hours before cleaning it up. For a servant in the Middle Ages, these methods would not spare them the wrath of their master, however. In the 16th century, a much cheaper way to produce mirrors was found but by then the bad omens associated with breaking a mirror were too much a part of the culture and they persisted.

Centuries of Fear: 6 Superstitions from the Middle Ages
Representation of Dunstan and the Devil. Wikimedia

Lucky Horseshoe

There are a few reasons why people of the Medieval period believed that horseshoes were lucky. The first was that they were made of iron, a metal that was long believed to ward off evil spirits. The other reason comes from the legend that is told about Saint Dunstan in the 10th century. It was said that Dunstan worked as a blacksmith and one day the Devil came into his shop. Dunstan pretended not to recognize him and went about getting horseshoes for the Devil’s horse.

However, instead of nailing the horseshoes to the horse, Dunstan nailed them to the Devil instead. The horseshoes caused the Devil great pain but Dunstan said that he would only remove them if the Devil promised never to enter a home with a horseshoe on the door. The horseshoe was also believed to ward off witches.

It was believed that the reason why witches rode on brooms was that they were unable to ride horses. So it was said that a witch would be reluctant to enter any home with a horseshoe over the door. There were rules about the horseshoe. The first was that it had to be iron and the second was that it had to have come off the horse on its own and not taken off by man.

The horseshoe would need to be nailed over the door with iron nails. There is some debate about the orientation of the horseshoe. Some believe that the horseshoe should point up so as to prevent the luck from spilling out of the horseshoe. Others believe that it should point down so that luck can be poured upon those who enter the home. Horseshoes were also nailed to the masts of sailing ships in the belief that it would help avoid storms.

Centuries of Fear: 6 Superstitions from the Middle Ages
Representation of the Plague. medievalarchives.com

Sneezing Out the Soul

One of the most well-known superstitions that is believed to come out of the Middle Ages is the need to say “bless you” after someone sneezes. There are actually a few different reasons why sneezing was such a sire situation for those in the Middle Ages. The first and most common being that it was the time of illness and the plague, if a person sneezed it was a possible sign that they might be the next to die.

Additionally, there was the belief that sneezing gave the Devil the opportunity to enter the body and therefore the person who sneezed needed the help of God and the church to get him out. Saying “God bless you” was believed to be a way to keep the Devil from entering the body and therefore save the person who had sneezed. It was a way to explain the death that would sometimes occur after a person sneezed and give people the sense that they could do something to help since not everyone had access to a doctor.

There was also the prevailing belief that a person could sneeze out their soul. This was also counteracted by a person saying “God bless you” or covering the face in order to keep the soul in. This superstition was help with the spread of illness during a time where there was little way to help people overcome some of the more devastating illnesses. Since most people were unable to afford to contact a doctor, anything that could be done to help a person avoid becoming sick or losing their soul was quickly latched onto by the populace.

Another way that peasants were able to try and get help for their ills was the healing hand of the monarch. It was believed that the monarch was giving healing powers as proof their diving right to rule. As the need for the monarch’s healing touch grew, special coins were created and touched by the monarch. It was believed that these coins, called angels, had the same healing powers as the King.

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


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?