Medicine and Magic: what is the world?

We interact with our planet in so many ways, but most importantly, we have to interact with a bit of the physical world in our own corporeal nature. We have bodies, the world acts upon them, we become injured, sick, or old; we are distressed and want a change. What do we do? What is permissible, customary, and effective, and what is outlawed, neglected, and considered unimportant? It’s one of the core belief systems of any culture.

America is a descendant of Europe in important ways, but in some areas we find Europe’s medieval period as foreign as a remote place. Their attitudes to “how the world works” can puzzle us a lot. The medieval period was a time of growth and syncretism, in which an underlayer of pagan, earth-based beliefs were replaced by rituals connected to Heaven, not earth. Replaced by, but not entirely; the blend of the two shifted according to time and place, and we don’t know a lot about what most people in most places actually believed. Still, what little we know helps illumine the evolution of the modern viewpoint. As a writer, I am far from knowing everything that “we” (scholars in our time) know, but for some of this series I’ll draw on my book A Companion to Beowulf, while for other parts, I’ll turn to All Things Medieval.

The key questions in every culture: are we fated to whatever happens? If so, by whom, and why? What are we allowed to do against Fate? Who do we blame for misfortune? Can we change our circumstances? All of these answers shape what we do about medicine and magic, the two main ways people have tried to alter Fate.

The answers were different in pagan times, Christian medieval times, and modern ones. We have to start, of course, with getting a basic grasp of European pagan beliefs. Such a vast topic; and within it, I am only qualified to give a sketch of the beliefs of the Germanic invaders who pushed out the Gauls (the pagans best known by the Romans). Most pagan beliefs have a lot in common with each other, as compared to the ideological religions that came after them.

Tacitus described the new immigrant influx, giving the tribes names that we don’t recognize now, like “Ingvaeones.” He described who they were from a Roman point of view, sometimes exaggerating qualities that he wished the Romans would work on more (the way we might praise Chinese students for studying hard, overlooking most other traits in our wish to shame American kids). He’s still the best and earliest written source for who these people were as they took over Italy, Spain, Germany, Scandinavia, France, and England.

They have become the primary populations by the time the Middle Ages period begins. We define this period by the Roman Empire’s being displaced by Germanic Goths and the Arab tribes’ sudden rising under the Companions of Mohammed. Left without Roman rule and faced with Arab invasions, the forest people had to adapt and unite, giving us Europe.

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