Curious Myths of the Middle Ages

Curious Myths of the Middle Ages, written by S. Baring-Gould, M.A., is fascinating. When I first saw the title, I thought, “Oh, this will be fun. It’ll be about werewolves, and vampires, and ‘… ghosties and ghoulies and long-leggity things that go bump in the night!'” But it is not about those myths. This book deals with myths having to do with Christianity. The stories and the origins of the myths make for enthralling reading, at least to me.

One of the legends intrigued me by its title: The Wandering Jew. Now, I am familiar with a plant by that name. It’s a vine, which has dark green leaves with purple lines in them, and it propagates by growing along the ground and putting down roots anywhere one of its joints touches the ground. I thought, “I’m finally going to find out why this plant has that name!” I was wrong: the myth recounted in the book is about a man called The Wandering Jew, who was made to wander the Earth till the return of Christ. The Jew was condemned to wander because he refused to let Jesus rest in the man’s doorstep on His way to Calvary.

Divining RodAnother myth that was interesting to me was the legend of the divining rod. Now, I’ve used divining rods myself, to find water and underground pipes. I know that something weird happens, when I use them. My rods were not made of hazel wood or any other “magical” wood, but of whatever sticks were laying around. So, it was interesting to me to read about the efforts on the parts of scientists to prove or disprove whether divining rods actually work. The author comes to the conclusion that it is most likely that divining rods work because of muscle tremors, but he cannot say for sure. Another way to divine things was to suspend a ring over various metals, and by the rotation of the ring one could determine the type of metal. The author did an experiment himself:

I remember having been much perplexed by reading a series of experiments made with a pendulous ring over metals, by a Mr. Mayo: he ascertained that it oscillated in various directions under peculiar circumstances, when suspended by a thread over the ball of the thumb. I instituted a series of experiments, and was surprised to find the ring vibrate in an unaccountable manner in opposite directions over different metals. On consideration, I closed my eyes whilst the ring was oscillating over gold, and on opening them I found that it had become stationary. I got a friend to change the metals whilst I was blindfolded—the ring no longer vibrated. I was thus enabled to judge of the involuntary action of muscles, quite sufficient to have deceived an eminent medical man like Mr. Mayo, and to have perplexed me till I succeeded in solving the mystery.

Most of us have heard the familiar “William Tell Overture.” It’s the music most famously played at the beginning of “The Lone Ranger.” I knew the story: William Tell must shoot an apple off the head of his son, to prove his prowess as a bowman. But, I did not know that this legend was widespread across the Medieval world, and was not just a Swiss story. The author describes how the myth originated, and retells versions from Scandinavia, England, Scotland and the Faroe Islands, and even a Persian version. He says,

The coincidence of finding so many versions of the same story scattered through countries as remote as Persia and Iceland, Switzerland and Denmark, proves, I think, that it can in no way be regarded as history, but is rather one of the numerous household myths common to the whole stock of Aryan nations. Probably, some one more acquainted with Sanskrit literature than myself, and with better access to its unpublished stores of fable and legend, will some day light on an early Indian tale corresponding to that so prevalent among other branches of the same family. The coincidence of the Tell myth being discovered among the Finns is attributable to Russian or Swedish influence. I do not regard it as a primeval Turanian, but as an Aryan story, which, like an erratic block, is found deposited on foreign soil far from the mountain whence it was torn.

One of the most interesting chapters is the one about numbers and numerology. I wonder if Dan Brown read this treatise on the sigificance of various numbers, before he wrote The Da Vinci Code. I doubt that he did, because I think if he had, that book never would have been written! Baring-Gould does a good job of debunking numerology.

Pope Joan

I think anyone interested in mythology of the Medieval period would find this book a valuable resource. Baring-Gould is careful to explain the far distant origins of many of the myths. While he clearly detests Lutherans and some other Protestants, his work is quite interesting. Many of the myths (such as Prester John, and Pope Joan) are ones I had never heard. Others are old favorites like William Tell—but they have origins that I did not know before I read this book.

One Response to Curious Myths of the Middle Ages

  1. Erica says:

    This looks like a very cool book — thanks for reviewing it! I can’t believe I missed it while in the rounds 🙂

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