Superstition and the Supernatural
Mon Feb 18 11:30:48 2008
Runciman, in his series on the Crusades, states that for “the men of the Middle Ages the supernatural was not considered impossible nor even very rare.” Many of the examples we see documented involve the Western armies which perhaps suggests that the Westerners were more superstitious than their Byzantine counterparts. But I am afraid I don’t buy that argument. Gibbon believed that for eight centuries the Byzantines all walked “in the same path of servitude and superstition: their views are narrow, their judgment is feeble or corrupt: and we close the volume of copious barrenness, still ignorant of the causes of events…” Not exactly an endorsement of their clear-headed rationality. He may have been biased but not without some reason. This is the land of relics, icons, poking people’s eyes out and the veneration of people who sit on top of poles. They practically invented visions here. The founding myth of the Empire is based on one (Constantine’s). The hagiographic literature is full of them. We are not just talking about the ignorant masses either. Nicephorus, the Patriarch of Constantinople—obviously a member of the educated elite—writes a History that is full of plagues, portents, prodigies and other misfortunes of God’s wrath. It’s more like he is writing the fulfillment of the book of Daniel than a history of the Byzantine Empire. Granted their best writers tend to be less superstitious, but then that’s the criteria we use to evaluate them—so it’s a rather circular argument.