Role Of Miracles And The Supernatural In Late Antiquity And The Early Middle Ages
The Role of Miracles and the Supernatural in Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages Supernatural events and miracles are very common in medieval lierature. Many of these miracles were used for common purposes, which were to provide examples of an ideal Christian way of life and promote conversion to Christianity. They do this by writing about miracles that punished people who acted improperly, miracles that took place to reward Christians for doing good deeds, showing extreme and persistent faith, or for those who were leading moral lives. Some examples of medieval
literature that contain miracles which serve this purpose are Saint Augustine’s Confessions, MacMullen’s Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries, HillGarth’s Christianity and Paganism, 350-750, Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Gregory of Tours’ History of the Franks, and in the works of Saint Boniface. Saint Augustine’s work includes a miracle that took place because a man begged his admission to god. This man was blind and had heard of people who were “...vexed by impure spirits and were healed...” (165).
He immediately asked his guide to being him to the place were this was happening, which was where the bodies of the martyrs Protasius and Gervasius lay. He rubbed a sacred cloth over his eyes and immediately regained his lost eyesight. This miracle was included to show the benefits of showing one’s allegiance to god and by doing so, Augustine would be able to get others to convert to Christianity. Augustine describes the roles of miracles himself when he wrote that they “...symbolize the sacraments of initiation and miraculous wonders necessary to initiate and convert ‘uninstructed and unbelieving people’ (I Cor. 14:23)” (299). MacMullen’s book also contains accounts of miracles that were used for conversion. One such miracle (from Augustine’s catalog) took place when a youth was said to have been entered by a water demon. He was brought to the same shrine I mentioned earlier which contained relics of Protasius and Gervasius. The demon then leaves the child’s body and writhes in pain and the boy is cured. Other such miracles that were said to have taken place in front of large crowds were done by Gregory the Great. He was known for “...exorcisms, restoration of sight to the blind, even restoration of sight to the dead...” (96). It is his belief that “The converts had cared little for sect or theology, only for relief of what ailed them” (125). In other words, people would often convert for selfish reasons, in order to heal themselves of a physical problem rather than converting due to true belief in Christianity. MacMullen also wrote of supernaural beliefs whose existence began sometime around midway through the fourth century. This book touches on these beliefs more so than the others. The beliefs in the healing power of relics is ironic in that it almost seems Pagan. For instance, object that saints touched while living were believed to hold special powers that the saints used during their lives. There were even arguements in Palestine as to who would own the remnants of martyrs bodies. This superstition got to the point where even monks were ween fighting over Saint Martin’s cloak because of the belief that it was full of healing power. MacMullen writes of how martrys may have been a creation of the bishops of the time in an effort to put an end to paganism.
Another example of a supernatural superstition takes place when Severinus went on a mission to Noricum and attempted to “...banish blight from the wheat fields...by marking boundary posts with the cross, to ward off floods” (97). Yet another case of superstition existed in the belief that plants that were found only at the foot of a statue of Jesus contained immense healing powers. While these plants may have contained healing power, MacMullen takes note of the fact that many of the plants taken from around saint’s relics were already known for their value as healing agents. The reason I stated earlier that these beliefs were Pagan-like is the fact that they are based purely on superstition. MacMullen’s Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries offers many more examples of both miraculous events and superstitions that existed in late antiquity and the early middle ages. Through MacMullen’s work, it becomes clear that many of these superstitions may have been fabricated in an attempt to gain conversions to Christianity. In Christianity and Paganism, 350-750, HilGarth justifies some of these practices by writing “Today we know that neither an unscientific view of the world nor the exaltation of asceticism were the creatures of Christianity but were the leading features of the world Christianity entered” (5). In other words, these supernatural beliefs in miracles and superstitions were not at all purely Christian. On the other hand, they existed in Chrisianity because people of that period accepted and believed in them, which is why they play such a prominant role in the development of Christianity. Hilgarth believes that Christianity’s advantages over Paganism lay in its superior organization and its moral teachings, rather than its use of miracles which was relatively universal to religions during this time period. From Hilgarth’s work, it can be said that miracles were used mostly as a means of conversion and proof of God’s will. For example in one of Saint Boniface’s work, a section was devoted to the description of an event that occured when a Pagan tree was ordered to be cut down. The Pagans held this tree as sacred and believed that it contained special powers. When the very first chop of the axe hit the tree, it magically shattered into many pieces, which was supposed to prove to the Pagans that their religion is heretic and that they should convert to Christianity. Miracles of this cleary prove HilGrath’s belief that they focused on conversion. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People and Gregory of Tours’ History of the Franks also contain many miracles which served the purpose of promoting conversion. This is supported in a letter to Augustine from Pope Gregory in which Gregory wrote “Clearly understand your own
character, and how much grace is in this nation for whose conversion God has given you the power to work miracles” (93). One of these miracles happened in the Province of the Northumbrians. According to Willibrord, archbishop of Utrecht, a man returned from the dead and gave an account of all that he saw. He died in the early hours of one night and woke up alive the next morning to a group of people standing around him weeping. During his flirttion with death, had a guide who showed him the souls of men in purgatory who failed to show allegience to God. Upon his resurection, he became a monk. There is no doubt that this passage was written to wanr non-Christians of what will come after death if they fail to convert. While Gregory’s miracles often speak of conversion, many of them also provide examples of an ideal Christian way of life. For example, on page 107, Gregory wrote of a young Christain girl who was being persecuted by Trasamund. Because this girl refused to renounce the Holy Trinity, she was tortured and untimately killed. Gregory then wrote of how after her death, the girl was “...consecrated to Christ our lord...” (108). This passage was about how absolute faith in God is rewarded in the end and that there are benefits such as the afterlife for having strong faith. Gregory also wrote of Saint Eugenius and how he often made miracles happen through Christ’s guidance.
Because of this, the Aryan Bishop, Cyrola, became jealous and attempted to stage a fake miracle in Eugenius’ presence. The Aryan Bishop paid a man fifty pieces of gold to feign blindness. While Cyrola and Eugenius passed by the man, he pleaded to Cyrola to cure his blindness. While Cyrola and Eugenius passed by the man, he pleaded to Cyrola to cure his blindness. Cyrola put his hand on the man and pretended to cause a miracle to happen. The man was caused extreme pain in his eyes and lost his vision. He then pleaded for forgiveness to Eugenius and regained his eyesight. This story taught Christians that they can be forgiven for their sins, but they must be careful to look out for false miracles. These miracles in these
books were mostly used for conversion, or to provide examples of an ideal Christian way of life. Many of the superstitions may have been used for conversion as well. Regardless of their respective purposes, there is no denying the significance of miracles and superstitions in late antiquity and the medieval period.
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