Advice For The New Dark Ages

Great Britain


Imagine a world governed by these rules:

Your first child will always be a girl.

Illness can be cured by urinating on a loaf and feeding it to your dog.

Tying a bell on an ox stops it from beng struck by lightning.

The wearing of a gold earring prevents eye complaints.

Curses can never be cancelled once uttered.

In the Dark Ages it was thought you could cure illnesses by analogy, so if you had heart disease you ate a heart-shaped leaf. In these modern times we tend to associate magic with ancient belief systems that were supplanted first by religion, then by rational knowledge. And yet magical rites were sometimes based on surprisingly sensible concerns stemming from our desires to take positive action in times of uncertainty and misfortune.

The need for magic was always there, a need to influence our fate and produce happier fortunes. In magic there is no chance or coincidence, only direct cause and effect. In a world of inexplicable disasters, where crops failed, precious livestock sickened and mothers died in childbirth, where starvation and death were as likely as survival, simple precautions could be taken to reduce the risks to home and family.

From this working system of prevention came rituals aimed at actively improving one’s life. The provision of food could be aided by rites affecting agriculture and animal husbandry. Good weather, fertile marriage and healthy births could by assured by performing appropriate acts. Omens could be divined through the observation of nature.

Magic was pervasive and all-embracing. It offered practical solutions and quantifiable results, and required no intermediaries, no church or priests, only a trusting clientele. It was not a marginal activity or an esoteric mindset, but was central to the concerns of most people, regardless of their background.


‘Oi, Dennis, there’s some lovely filth down here!’ Monty Python got it right. Stephen Wilson’s book ‘The Magical Universe: Everyday Ritual And Magic in Pre-Modern Europe’, explores the beliefs of pre-modern Europe in this wider context, detailing the rituals Europeans developed relating to food, fertility, disease, healing and death, and he reveals the universal belief in omens and signs.

It’s a huge subject, and hard to discover how specific beliefs evolved. What made the cry of an owl more ominous than that, say, of a curlew? Why did some magical beliefs die and others stay with us into the present day? And why would certain omens appear simultaneously in different parts of the continent when there was little contact between secluded rural areas?

The problem is that low levels of literacy prevented the collation of records. Besides, why would such records be kept? In fact magic was such a widely absorbed belief system that it would have been far odder to question its existence.


Many incantations and rituals stem from the most basic human feelings. In a time when one child in four died before the age of one, everyone knew that birth was a painful, dangerous business, so it made sense for the mother to be kept warm and protected, just as it seemed reasonable for her – and everyone else – to scream loudly during delivery.

It was certainly a crafty move to question unwed mothers about the paternity of their children during labour. Given the high risks of infection, confinement also made some sense – although not for the period it was held – as did the arrival of midwives with their own equipment. Surprisingly, in some areas men were encouraged to share the sensation of birth by imitating the actions of the mother, and breast-feeding was recognised as a bonding experience.


But to these gut reactions were added ideas that were horribly wrong-headed. With the child’s appearance a shared lunacy took over, so a passing cat might be blamed for a troubled birth, and babies were lugged up flights of stairs to ensure that their fortunes would always rise. Sound sense mixed with nonsense, and while a baby’s first bath was seen as a rite of purification and separation, the infant might also be spat on to protect it from the evil eye.

At the other end of the life-scale, things became scarier. The process of death was treated with respect but also drew out a collective madness, so that the sound of a churchyard watcher’s cart might presage death, and Sicilian mazzeri, specified ‘killers’ in a village, would hunt animals in their dreams to determine who would die next.

This kind of hostile magic could be brokered into power, as curses and bewitchments became very real threats. There was a belief that toads and frogs were formed from corrupt matter or menstrual blood, and could invoke disease or even death. Many invocations and protections involved the tying or untying of knots; European clothing had many more laces and ties than modern dress, and inevitably carried their own mythologies.

With magic invading every part of the life-cycle, complex protective gestures kept the forces of darkness at bay. The universe was not indifferent but actively hostile, and magical ritual operated on a general principle of sympathy that eventually invaded and colonised religion.

Magic utilised objects found in everyday life, and was so user-friendly that you were a fool not to trust it. If the past is another country, then magic is the launch-pad for understanding this extraordinary world. Thinking about some of the rituals and what’s happening right now, we might as well adopt some just to be on the safe side!

16 comments on “Advice For The New Dark Ages”

  1. Vivienne says:

    Very interesting. We humans, being weak, need to try and influence the world and sympathetic magic seems a natural reaction. In James Frazier’s The Golden Bough he talks of some people in Africa who would go through a whole rigmarole of stuff, but the end product was a sort of antibiotic – it worked but no-one knew why. Trial and error had presumably worked eventually.

    I read recently of the practice of concealing items of clothing in walls near doorways. Apparently these can be found if medieval houses get demolished. I’m sure there are modern equivalents. I remember, as a child, if we saw an ambulance, you were supposed to hold onto your collar until you saw a dog – to save you being the next patient. Not sure how widespread this one was!

  2. C Falconer says:

    I still cross my thumbs if I have to walk under a ladder – thanks Aunty Pamela!

  3. Brooke says:

    “…we might as well adopt some (magic) just to be on the safe side!” As you live at a juncture (historically and topographically, and professionally), I am surprised that you haven’t thought of this before.

  4. Helen Martin says:

    We have a provincial election in two weeks time and Britain has one in June so what are the recommendations to keep peace in our jurisdictions? We had a “leaders’ debate” last night (how can you have a debate with three people?) and from the clips I’ve heard today no one allowed anyone else to complete a statement. The Americans have a lot to answer for. Can we burn weeds on the top of mountains to eliminate nasty thoughts? Can we pour pure water in front of campaign headquarters to nourish pure ideas? Plant garlic upside down? Hang dead rats from campaign signs? I’m open to suggestions.

  5. Roger says:

    “Your first child will always be a girl.”
    Surely this magical rule would be very quickly disproved.

    The best poetic description of the psychology of magic:

  6. Jan says:

    Consider this
    St Dunstan bishop of the British church was a magician before becoming part of the clergy.
    St Augustine’s letter from the Pope Augustine to his missionaries to Britain instructed them to let the British continue to worship in their preexisting sacred spaces and to convert the sacred groves + wells to Christianity.

    In many ancient church yards Ashbrittle in Somerset being only one the yews in the churchyards are older than the churches. Relics of sacred groves.
    If you look at the altar of a church, if you looks at the sacrament and rituals you are seeing a sanitised reproduction of earlier ‘magical’ ceremonies. Religion took on many ideas from earlier forms of faith. The very idea of Pilgrimage is thought to be from an earlier idea of travelling through the land to keep it fruitful. The need for magic has never gone away Chris it’s just been repackaged and reformulated.

  7. Vivienne says:

    Talking of sacred groves, has anyone else looked up in a cathedral or church and seen the columns as trees with the roof tracery as branches?

  8. Jan says:

    Yes I’ve thought about this quite a lot Vivienne. Wonder if in a conscious or unconscious way the masons were reproducing the enviroment where worship originally took place.

    If you think about it (or maybe if you r as daft as a brush) if pagan worship took place at locations which were powerful where there was a power node in the land would that then contribute along with a whole lot of other social, geographical + economic factors to certain of these sacred spots perhaps places of exceptional power eventually becoming cathedrals? Now if it did would this account for miracles taking place within the ancient cathedrals? Would the real source of the power of these places rest not just in the Christian faith but in the location itself?

  9. Jan says:

    If you have doubts about the Catholic church policy of letting worship continue in pre existing sacred space just look at South America. At a much later phase of history the priests who travelled with the Conquistadors encouraged the worship of their God at locations where the indigenous peoples had worshipped for centuries.

  10. Jan says:

    I could start twittering on about iron objects buried in the northern walls of medieval -and post medieval housing to protect from the malign spirits thought to come from the north. Or living beings of many types being sacrificed when a building is created. Luckily for you the Kindle needs firing up.

  11. Vivienne says:

    It’s clear that in former times landscape was highly important, and it was pretty much all available to choose from, so I’m sure locations were carefully selected – we only need to look at the Stonehenge/Avebury sites for that. Whether there is any power there, I personally doubt, as I doubt there was any power in ley lines (or should we just call them bronze age routes), other than the power of the few to set them out. Obviously early traders had to find their way about and marks on the way (notches in hills, stones, etc) would help.

  12. John Griffin says:

    Some of the landscape/magic is over-rated. My brother-in-law lectures in the pagan/Norse stuff, but we have both concluded quite a bit of the reliquary is big willy/Ozymandias stuff – I am rich and powerful, look at what I can do! – as well as over-interpreted by archaeologists as ‘ritual’ (i.e. I haven’t got a clue’). I played a game once as Martian archaeologist – WW2 bunkers were burial chambers, playgrounds ritual sacrifice areas etc. You then reflect that back on interpretations………currently reading Francis Pryor’s book on Stonehenge.

  13. Helen Martin says:

    I have always been a trifle suspicious of extrapolation in archaeology and anthropology. One example does not make a rule. If someone is proposing a prehistoric custom from limited evidence try imagining events that might have resulted in the evidence discovered. If you can create a reasonable series of events to explain the objects then wait for further information before accepting the experts’ version.

  14. Jan says:

    Thing is about this subject in the end it comes down entirely to your own opinion. Which makes it absolutely perfect for the entire spectrum of people from serious scholars to total charlatans!

    Sometimes it’s gets a bit weird in that the lunatic end of the scale starts to sound reasonably well researched in comparison with mainstream archeology!

    Francis Pryor in one of his books on British archeology threw in the opinion that the modern fad for researching your ancestors through parish records now on the internet stemmed from the same impulse which prompted the ancient occupants of these isles to place their families bones in long barrows! Which struck me as being a bit off the wall but I have had enough of my own Von Daniken moments not judge too harshly!

  15. Jan says:

    Sorry Helen I was cooking breakfast a the same time that should read’ to not judge too harshly’.

    But that’s probably wrong as well.

    Am watching “That’s Entertainment 2” on BBC 2. Saturday morning. You know it’s even better now the commentaries are as antique and lost in their moment in time as the original clips.
    Fantastic stuff.

  16. Kit Ward says:

    The Mazzeri are Corsican not Sicilian. They were still around in the 1940s ( see Dorothy Carrington’s book Granite island) and perhaps still are.

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