Goblins, Elves and Medieval Religion

by Rev. Peter McIntyre - Clogher Valley Free Presbyterian Church
The Just shall Live by Faith
The Imp of Lincoln Cathedral
"There he is. Do you see him?" The guide pressed a button, activating a light which shone into a crevice high up on the walls of the Angel Choir in Lincoln Cathedral. The visitors looked up with interest, gazing at the little stone figure with his beady eyes and horned head, smiling devilishly from his place. For hundreds of years, this little man has surveyed this corner of Lincoln Cathedral and since Victorian times has drawn visitors. He has even given Lincoln City Football Club their nickname, "The Lincoln Imps."

The famous Imp, according to local legend, was once a mischief maker in Medieval Lincoln but received his just deserts when an angel converted him to stone, and there he has remained on his perch ever since. He is not the only devilish figure to inhabit the stone walls of Lincoln Cathedral. He is positioned on the left hand side of the historic building as one walks in from the majestic east entrance. The guide informs the tourists that this is the "bad side" of the Cathedral. The twelve pillars, which support the impressive Nave are representative of the twelve disciples. The six on the "bad side", the Devil's side, include one which is designed differently than the others. This is the Judas pillar. Moving through the Cathedral remaining on this side of the building, the guide shines his torch to reveal the intricate carving of one of the "green men" so named because he originates with local folklore based on rural pantheism (the spirit of nature); like the fairies and leprechauns of Ireland. No, the Imp is not alone.

Neither is Lincoln Cathedral the only Medieval place of worship with grotesque carvings and figures. The Gargoyle, which features as a spouting with his dragon-like head, appears as a weird monstrosity on the roofs of many an ancient church. Old Churches, also, featured a north door, on the Devil's side, which was the Devil's Door. This was opened during the baptismal ceremony to allow the Devil to escape from the child.

All of this is deeply interesting because it gives us an insight into the religious world into which Martin Luther was born. These old buildings are museum pieces which highlight the darkness which chained the Medieval soul, a darkness that was dispelled by the rising sun of the Reformation.

Ronald Bainton in his biography of Luther, "Here I Stand", records the following of Luther's superstitious upbringing:

"Certain elements of old German paganism were blended with Christian mythology in the beliefs of these untutored folk. For them the woods and winds and water were peopled by elves, gnomes, fairies, mermen and mermaids, spires and witches. Sinister spirits would release storms, floods and pestilence, and would seduce mankind to sin and melancholia. Luther's mother believed that they played such minor pranks as stealing eggs, milk and butter..."
(Page 51, published by Hodder and Staughton 1951)

The Medieval soul was frightened into seeking the right side of God. The dividing of the Church into a Devil's side and God's side reinforced the perils of falling into the hands of the Satan and his imps. To be on God's side, however, one had to be faithful to the Church. The only way to know God was through the Church. But who was the God whom the Church presented? He was angry, full of wrath and ready to plunge even the most devout soul into the flames of purgatory. Yet, to escape the clutches of Satan, one had to make peace with this terrifying deity. On the one side, there were the eternal dangers of Lucifer and on the other the fear of an awful Creator. The Priests, the representatives of God, were treated with a servile respect. The Pope, the Father of the Priests, the Vicar of Christ, was the one who could unlock the gates of heaven or shut up the gates of heaven. He had power over the souls of men, acting as God himself. On occasions, the Papacy placed whole nations under an Interdict, as Innocent 3rd did with England during the reign of King John, which deprived a population of grace and exposed them to the wickedness of Satan and the terrible wrath of God. To the Medieval mind, this was catastrophic. Is it any wonder King John caved into the Papal demands and agreed to pay what amounted to a Papal lease, for the privilege of ruling over his own people? The superstitions of Medieval religion kept individuals, Kings and entire nations in darkness and bondage.

Medieval religion was a religion without love because it was a religion without Christ. The only sight the worshipper had of Christ was the gore and blood of the crucifix. Even He, after His resurrection, was angry and full of wrath listening only to the tenderness of his mother. There was no light of assurance, there was no peace with God, there was no hope of eternal life. Withholding the Bible from the people , in their common language, meant that the simplicity of the Gospel could not be understood or appreciated.

For a sensitive soul like Martin Luther, the darkness and hopelessness of this Medieval system only served to plunge him into fear and conviction. Yet, it was this fear, this dark spiritual depression that drove him to the Scriptures, to Christ and the truth, which shone as a flashing light across a sky laden with black clouds:

"The just shall live by faith"

How we need to appreciate the beauty of the sheer simplicity of the Gospel and of the Biblical revelation that God is love, that He is merciful, longsuffering and gracious. Peace has been made for us through the blood of Christ's cross and He has come into the world to save sinners, aye, even the chief of sinners.
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