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Book reveals how medieval church allowed agricultural fortune-telling

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: December 31, 2012

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The festive period is a time when religious and pagan beliefs are often intertwined.

But one thing the faithful, the spiritual and even the shamelessly hedonistic often share is a hope and belief in what the coming 12 months will bring, be it love, happiness or financial success.

Luck-bringing traditions and the harmless practice of annual resolutions are regularly observed by partygoers and churchgoers.

Now a Westcountry academic has traced the custom of New Year predictions back to the Middle Ages, when it was given the blessing of the Church.

But though the early clergy were prepared to sanction the predicting of the seasons and the harvests, they condemned any foretelling of personal fortunes as the dark and sinister workings of the world of magic.

A University of Exeter historian has shed light on how the future was predicted centuries ago, where the day of the week on which feast days fell foretold the story of the year.

According to one set of predictions, if Christmas Day fell on a Sunday, then Lent would be windy, summer would be dry - vines would flourish and honey would be abundant.

But if December 25 fell on a Monday, the summer would be windy and the vines would wither.

And at a time when farming was widespread, the way people responded to such predictions could mean the difference between a prosperous year and a hungry one.

Dr Catherine Rider's book, Magic and Religion in Medieval England, found that the medieval clergy did not generally disapprove of agricultural fortune telling.

They accepted that it really was possible to predict the weather and the harvest in advance, an ancient version of modern weather forecasting.

Dr Rider said such superstitions appeared in documents written to educate the clergy alongside notes on how to hear confessions, the seven deadly sins and short moral stories.

She added: "Medieval priests were not so willing to accept all New Year traditions.

"Magic offered many other possibilities for predicting the future, but the clergy believed this was against God.

"They accepted those rooted in agriculture, others were considered blasphemous. "

Research showed that the 13th century theologian Richard of Wetheringsett complained about people who exchanged gifts called hounsels with their neighbours.

He objected because these gifts were more than just tokens of friendship and werethought to bring good fortune to both the giver and the receiver over the coming year.

People also put beans near the fire in order to predict how their plans for the year would turn out.

Others threw shoes over indoor roof beams to determine whether anyone in the house would die that year, according to the 14th Century monk and scholar Ranulph Higden who described various New Year rituals with caution.

Religious leaders even thought it risky to give details of such practices in sermons in case it gave listeners ideas.

Unlike the predictions of the weather or the harvest, these rituals caused concern because they tried to identify the fortunes of individual people, which were thought to be known to God alone.

But despite the best efforts of medieval preachers, New Year magic was very difficult to stamp out and many such traditions endured.

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