Superstitions from Medieval Times

By Louanne Piccolo

Medieval Times lesson plans traditionally cover a range of topics from the Bubonic plague to the fuedal system. However, due to widespread ignorance, superstitions were rife and many of these beliefs still exist today making for an interesting and practical history lesson linked to the present.

Some Common Superstitions

Teachers divide the class up into pairs and hand out the following information on common superstitions that have been handed down through time and still exist today:

  • Bless You: One of the first symptoms of the plague was sneezing. Although very few people survived the plague it was believed that blessing sneezers might help save them. People began covering their mouths and noses when they sneezed to avoid passing the plague on to others and also to stop their soul from escaping through their open mouths. Blessing sneezers also helped the soul find its way back into the sneezers body in case it had escaped.
  • Throwing salt over the left shoulder: Salt was very expensive during the Middle Ages and not everyone could afford it. It was thought to have medicinal qualities so spilt salt that couldn't been used as medicine was thrown over the left shoulder into the eyes of evil spirits lurking behind the thrower.
  • The number thirteen: Jesus was crucified on a Friday and the number of people at the Last Supper seated around the table came to thirteen. Judas, who betrayed Jesus, was the thirteenth guest making the number thirteen an unlucky number and starting the superstition of unlucky Friday the thirteenth.
  • Walking under a ladder is bad luck: A leaning ladder, wall and ground form a triangle which is a symbol of the Holy Trinity. It was considered a sin and bad luck to break the holy triangle by walking through it.
  • Black cats: Black cats were thought to be demons in their earthly forms and almost always kept by witches. If a black cat crossed the path of someone then it cut that person off from their natural path towards God. So, black cats were avoided if seen.
  • Crossed fingers: Crossed fingers make the sign of the cross protecting the finger-crosser from bad luck and evil spirits.

The teacher picks out a few students to read through the list of common beliefs and then answers any questions on information the children did not understand. Once completed, pupils search through the Children's Book's Site for more superstitions. They must choose two more they find interesting to jot down on the page with the other common beliefs.

Questions to Answer on Superstitions

Once students have completed the first part of the lesson they must work in pairs during 15 minutes to answer the following questions:

  1. What is a superstition?
  2. Why do you think people in the Middle Ages were so superstitious?
  3. Use a dictionary to find out what the word "triskaidekaphobia" means
  4. When was the last time you crossed your fingers and why?
  5. Do you step on cracks on the pavement? If not, why not?

Class Discussion on Superstitions

Students must make up a superstition beginning with "It is bad luck to..." and hand it to the teacher to put in a box. Once all the sentences have been collected the teacher picks one out of the box and writes it up on the board for the whole class to see. The sentence could be something like "It is bad luck to drink water on a Sunday".

The class must discuss why it could be bad luck to drink water on a Sunday, using what they have learnt about superstitions and the knowledge they have on the Middle Ages from previous history lessons. All suggestions given by pupils are written on the board in a star formation around the central sentence.

Once the first sentence has been discussed the teacher must pull out a second sentence and write it on the board for the class to discuss until all the sentences have been discussed. The class can then vote for the best "new superstition" and explanation.

This lesson plan is an excellent way to link the Middle Ages to the present so that children realise that history is not just a fictional story but about real people. Medieval Times lesson plans often focus on topics that belong to a part of history unexperienced today but superstitions have been handed down through the times and are often believed unquestionably by most people.