Role Of Miracles And The Supernatural In Late Antiquity And The Early Middle Ages Term Paper

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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 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.

Word Count: 1448

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