Centuries of Fear: 6 Superstitions from the Middle Ages

Medieval Fresco of a dance macabre. Pinterest

Those who lived in the Middle Ages had a lot to fear. They didn’t have answers for all the mysteries of the world and being the enlightened people they were, they wanted answers. In some cases, those answers came from myths, in others it simply came from a desperate need to explain bad situations. Strangely enough, many of the most well-known superstitions today owe their origins to ones born during the Middle Ages.

Fear of the Number 13

The belief that the number 13 is cursed or bad luck largely had a religious reasoning in the Middle Ages. There were 13 people in attendance at the Last Supper and therefore it was believed that 13 people at a gathering was a bad omen.

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The superstition became even more pronounced as time went on. Since Judas was the first to get up from the table at the Last Supper and he was the one to kill Jesus, it stood to reason that the first person to get up from a table of 13 people would be met with bad luck. Many believed that if a party was held for 13 people, whoever was the first to get up would be dead within the year.

With this superstition, people of the Middle Ages ensured that there would never be 13 people gathered together. In fact, by the 16th century it was claimed a person was a witch if a they had 13 people together. Some witch hunters would claim they had seen 13 people in a gathering and therefore proved that the witch was working with the Devil.

The Christians were not the only ones with a fear of 13 either. The Romans believed that the number 13 was an omen that foretold bad luck and death. The Vikings also believed 13 to be an evil number because there was a myth about a banquet held for the 12 gods. Then Loki, the trickster showed up uninvited and caused the death of one of the more beloved gods, Balder.

15th century woman holding a mirror. visualiseur.bnf.fr

Seven Years Bad Luck For Breaking a Mirror

The superstition surrounding breaking a mirror did not start in the Middle Ages, but it was strengthened by it. In the 15th century, Venice, Italy manufactured mirrors for the wealthy. These mirrors were made of glass and backed by silver, which made them extraordinarily expensive. It was the common belief that if a servant were to break a mirror that they would never be able to repay the owner and would instead have to spend seven years as an indentured servant.

But the fear of breaking a mirror had already been in the culture prior to the Middle Ages. In ancient Greece it was believed that a person’s reflection was a representation of their soul. If their reflection appeared distorted (in a bowl of water or in a stream) then it was believed that disaster would strike. Distorting a reflection in any way was believed to harm soul.

The Romans believed that breaking a mirror was bad luck and it was punishable by seven years of bad luck. The Romans believed that life came in seven year cycles and therefore breaking a mirror would mean that a person would have to wait to be renewed after seven years. Some beliefs held that if a person was ill they could break a mirror and suffer the seven years bad luck, after which they would be renewed and healthy again.

There were some remedies to breaking a mirror. Some believed that the bad luck could be washed away by putting the pieces in water or burying them in the moonlight. Others suggested pounding the pieces into dust or leaving the mirror where it broke for 7 hours before cleaning it up. For a servant in the Middle Ages, these methods would not spare them the wrath of their master however. In the 16th century, a much cheaper way to produce mirrors was found but by then the bad omens associated with breaking a mirror were too much a part of culture and they persisted.

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  • MauiUHfan48

    Judas did not kill Jesus, he just ratted him out.

    • merl1

      who said he did?

      • Mary S. Garbutt

        That’s what it says in the text “and he was the one to kill Jesus”