Many of us will be familiar with the image of the Danse Macabre: scenes depicting dancing skeletons, and the living dancing with the dead. In the work of Herefordshire chronicler Walter Map he describes a knight who rescues his dead wife from a dance of the dead.
What’s less well known is that for a disquieting length of time – from the 13th to 17th centuries – the Medieval European might be able to see a live enactment of the Danse Macabre as bands of strangers, friends and neighbours dancing themselves to exhaustion, or even death. This was the dancing plague: St. Vitus’ Dance, The Dancers of St. John, Tarantism. Continue reading “The Dancing Plague in Medieval Europe”
The historian Philip Almond describes 1550-1700 as ‘the golden age of the demoniac’. There are a lot of reasons, one of the biggest being the Reformation. Demoniacs had been important in the days of the early church, when church fathers were trying to build a new religion in an environment of borderline (and sometimes outright) hostility. On the other hand, as D P Walker tells us in his book Unclean Spirits, by the middle ages there were no more pervasive threats to subvert. Christianity was the ruling religion of Europe, and those heretics who did exist could be hunted directly by fire and the sword.
In 1321 a strange hysteria gripped Southern France and parts of Spain. By 1320 a series of attacks called ‘The Cowherd’s Crusade’ (emulating a much more widespread series of attacks dubbed ‘The Shepherds Crusade’) had already targetted Leprosaria all over Southern France. The lieutenant of Sauventerre-de-Guyenne had already recorded in public records that he’d had to forbid the torching of a leprosarium at Sauvanterre, while the chronicle of Raymonde-Bernarde de La Motte, the Bishop of Bazas, stated that some of the pasgoureaux who were hanged had claimed to have found barrels of rotting bread while pillaging the leprosarium of a certain town (perhaps Mas d’Agenais.)
The lepers, it was said, had planned to use the bread in the preparation of some poison that would contaminate the wells. This is an uncommon libel this early in the 14th Century. One factor that might have precipitated the violence was that the Bishop of Dax had all lepers in his diocese arrested in December 1320. The Bishop was trying to preserve his jurisdiction over lepers from encroachments by the sire d’Albret. The latter had burned a leper accused of an unstipulated crime, one in which the lepers were implicated.
As the movie The Exorcist will show you, demons are a problem to this day. Modern clerics in both the Church of England and the Catholic Church still treat people who believe they’re possessed by demons (for the purposes of this blog I should state that I don’t care whether they really are possessed or not, I write about history not the paranormal).
However, demons could be a real problem if you were living in Medieval Europe. In fact, the idea that demons can get you killed is absolutely incontrovertible – in London of 1725 a drunk died of exposure in a well because neighbours ignored his cries for help, believing he was a demon. Not only that, but in 1597 Alice Goodridge, accused of sending a demon to possess Thomas Darling, died in prison awaiting trial for witchcraft.
Interestingly, though, those possessed by demons (demoniacs) occupy a more ambiguous status in the bible. Although John 8.44 describes The Devil as “a liar and the father of lies”, demoniacs in the Gospel were among the first witnesses to Christ, and often showed a clearer understanding of divine truth than the apostles. In fact, Christ himself was accused of being a demon, and of “casting out demons by the prince of demons.”
I freely admit that I’ve never read the Malleus Maleficarum all the way through, simply because it’s the one witch hunting book that really bothers me. Heinrich Kramer (I refuse to call him ‘Institoris’) was, in my opinion, just a vile human being. He wasn’t trying to do the best he could in a bad situation, he was a genuinely insane, hateful, awful human being.
But here’s a story worth telling: apparently he was a vampire hunter.
I don’t have to call Kramer a madman, or impugn his abilities, because the Bishop of Innsbruck already did during his own lifetime. In 1484 Kramer was conducting the trial of an Innsbruck woman when he began departing from legal procedure to question the accused about her sexual history. In some times and at some places this wouldn’t have made the blindest bit of difference, but the Bishop of Innsbruck appears to have believed in a crazy thing called ‘the rule of law’.
The defence called for the case to be halted after such a strange and creepy deviation, and the Archduke decided to abandon the prosecution altogether. The Bishop wrote two letters to Kramer’s host in the town, first saying, “tell him that because of quite a few scandals that have arisen on account of his bad procedure, he should not stay in the place lest something worse ensue or happen to him. A few words to the wise: what he did was very inappropriate.” Continue reading “From Witchhunter to Vampire Hunter — Henrich Kramer and the Undead”
If you’re playing a warrior class character (or whatever they call them now, I haven’t played since 2nd Edition) the greatest thing is the awesomeness of a magic sword.
The best kinds are the intelligent ones that come with a Swiss Army Knife’s worth of special powers (yes, when I was a teenager I spent some quality time with the Intelligent Weapon creation table in the DMG), but a good second choice is the Holy Avenger, the sword that can only be wielded at full power by a Paladin, the Lawful Good holy warriors of D&D cannon.
The Real Paladins
In this case ‘real’ is a relative term. I wouldn’t usually make this distinction, but there’s a great deal of mythology coming up that glamourises holy war, particularly war in the Middle East, which is something I want to be clear I don’t endorse.
The above disclaimer aside, there were real people behind the Paladins, or at least some of them. The word Paladin might come from the Latin word Palatinus, via the archaic French word Palatine, which was a word for imperial officials in the Roman Empire.
The Mythological Paladins were the twelve companions of Charlemagne’s steward Roland. Rather than doing all the hero-ing himself, Charlemagne delegates a fair share of it to Roland, acting as a medieval Charlie to his armoured, male angels.
If you follow this blog, you might have realised that I’m a bit of a geek: not just a folklore and mythology geek, but a geek in general. Knowing this, it probably won’t be a surprise that I spent much of my childhood playing Dungeons and Dragons. Even as an adult, I can still be found playing tabletop from time to time (but not D&D anymore, now I play 1930s-style pulp adventure games, where sexy occult historians get dragged into adventures with breathy femme fatales…)
Dungeons and Dragons was the creation of Gary Gygax, and was originally released as a supplement for a wargaming system called Chainmail. Over the years, and certainly by the time I was playing, a number of fantasy words were released with increasingly different world-building to anything you’d ever seen in real medieval history.
However, hidden at the core of D&D, buried, unspoken, in the rules and mechanics of the system (a system widely mocked for being pernickety and bureaucratic) are a set of tropes that represent a loving recreation of Medieval European folklore.