The medieval era is full of fascinating but little known facts. Take the mysterious disease known as the “sweating sickness”. We don’t know exactly just what it was, but it terrorized and devastated people for decades, then vanished, never to be recorded again. Or the scary sickness known as “Saint Anthony’s Fire”, that killed untold thousands in excruciatingly painful ways. Or the time convents erupted in frenzies of biting nuns, that drove authorities to distraction. Following are thirty things about those and other fascinating medieval facts.
30. The Medieval World Was Pretty Rough
The medieval era was not a great time to be alive. Especially if you were a commoner in feudal Europe. There, society was divided into de facto castes or layers, with the toiling peasants, serfs, and other manual workers – the overwhelming majority of the population – at the bottom. They were ruthlessly exploited by those in higher layers up the medieval structure, who benefited from the commoners’ labor, in exchange for “protection”. There was a twist, though: the protection offered was often from fellow members of the upper castes.
Although those in the upper social layers were not as screwed as the commoners at the bottom, life was no bed roses for them. Violence was rife across all classes. Even discounting deaths in wars or bullying knights rampaging against peasants, the homicide rate was 50 times greater in medieval Europe than in the modern EU. Put another way, Europeans were 50 times more murderous back then than they are today. However, as seen below, it was not violence, but diseases, that did the most to keep life expectancy low. High mortality rates, especially in childhood, kept the average life expectancy around 35, give or take a few years.
Contagious diseases were everywhere in the medieval world, but cities were especially vulnerable. Between poor sanitation, lack of adequate hygiene, and overcrowding, urban dwellers were most at risk from contagions than swept through with the speed of prairie grass fires. Such health risk factors made the Middle Ages one of history’s most dangerous period, especially for city people. Add mediocre standards of medical care and knowledge, and it is unsurprising that life expectancy back then was abysmally low. Among the worst diseases was leprosy, which devastated sufferers’ health as well as their social standing. A little misunderstood disease even today, leprosy carried a huge stigma in the medieval world.
Lepers were shunned and cast not just out of cities, but from even the smallest hamlets. The stigma did not end with death, but carried through into the afterlife, as lepers were denied burial alongside non-lepers. Mostly thanks to Leviticus 13:44-46, which states: “He is leprous, he is unclean. The priest shall pronounce him unclean; the disease is on his head. The person who has the leprous disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head be disheveled; and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, “Unclean, unclean.” He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean. He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.”
28. The Mysterious Sweating Sickness That Disproportionately Struck the Upper Classes
The late Middle Ages witnessed the sudden emergence of a new disease known as the “sweating sickness”, which first appeared in England, then spread to continental Europe. A mysterious illness, the sweating sickness struck in epidemic waves over a seven-decade period, then vanished just as suddenly as it had emerged. Little if anything is known about the incubation period, but when the symptoms cropped up, they and their consequences were sudden, and usually devastating: death frequently occurred within just a few hours.
Initial symptoms included a sense of dread, followed by shivering, headaches, giddiness, exhaustion, nausea, and severe pains in the neck, back, shoulders, and limbs. Then came the symptom that gave the disease its name: excessive sweating. That was often accompanied by abdominal pains, and delirium. Severe symptoms typically lasted for 15 to 21 hours, and often culminated in a coma or death. Unusual among medieval illnesses – or illnesses of any age, for that matter – the sweating sickness disproportionately struck the upper classes. Today, various theories ascribe the mysterious disease to hantavirus, influenza, typhus, or botulism. However, there is no definitive answer yet as to just what the sweating sickness might have been.
One of the more colorfully named medieval diseases was Saint Anthony’s Fire, also known as “Holy Fire”. The affliction was named after the monks of the Order of Saint Anthony, who were particularly successful at treating those struck by the disease. Modern medicine, not given to colorful names, knows it as ergotism. Quaint name notwithstanding, it was a horrible illness that produced great suffering. Caused by fungus that grows on moldy grains, especially rye, Saint Anthony’s Fire produced swelling, redness, and gangrene in the unfortunates afflicted with it.
A ninth century text described it as: “a great plague of swollen blisters consumed the people by a loathsome rot, so that their limbs were loosened and fell off before death“. Sufferers often hallucinated, sometimes imagining that they were fighting Satan. As the disease progressed, convulsions occurred, extremities began to rot, and ears, fingers, toes, and even arms and legs, began to fall off. In 944, about 40,000 died from an outbreak in France. As a contemporary put it: “The afflicted thronged to the churches and invoked the saints. The cries of those in pain and the shedding of burned-up limbs alike excited pity; the stench of rotten flesh was unbearable“.
The medieval general Tariq ibn Ziyad (died circa 720) was a Berber who led the Muslim conquest of Visigothic Hispania, today’s Iberian Peninsula. He was a trusted slave of North Africa’s Muslim governor, Musa bin Nusayr, who appointed Tariq governor of Tangier in 710. There, he was approached by a Visigoth nobleman from nearby Ceuta, incensed and out for revenge because the Visigoth King Roderic had raped his daughter. He allied with Tariq, and arranged to ship him and a small army of about 7000 men to Hispania.
In charge of that small army, Tariq crossed from North Africa into Spain in 711. There, he secured a beachhead in today’s Gibraltar – a Spanish derivation of “Jabal Tariq“, or “Mountain of Tariq” – which is named after him. After he secured Gibraltar, Tariq reportedly burned his fleet to drive home to his men that there was no possibility of retreat, and that the choices before them were either victory or death. Then, using Gibraltar as a base of operations, Traiq proceeded to subjugate the territory of today’s Spain and Portugal, which he sought to conquer on behalf of the Umayyad Caliphate.
25. This Medieval Conqueror Got a Raw Deal for His Services
Tariq ibn Ziyad eventually met and fought a Visigoth army about three times bigger than his own, at the Battle of Guadalete in 712. He won a complete victory, in which the Visigoth king and much of the Visigoth nobility were slain. Tariq then proceeded to capture the Visigoth capital city of Toledo. Splitting his small army into smaller divisions, he then conducted a lightning campaign against the reeling Visigoths, and captured many of their major cities, such as Granada, Cordoba, and Guadalajara. Tariq then governed Hispania until the arrival of his master, Musa, a year later. However, Musa was reportedly envious of his slave’s stunning accomplishments, and rather than reward Tariq, put him in chains and had him tortured.
In 714, the Umayyad Caliph summoned Musa and Tariq to his capital, Damascus, to report on the conquest and address accusations of corruption. Upon arrival at the Caliph’s court, Musa sought to claim the lion’s share of the credit for the conquest. Tariq, however, successfully refuted his master’s claims with evidence that Musa was in North Africa while Tariq was defeating and conquering the Visigoths. Discredited, Musa was eventually convicted of corruption and imprisoned. Tariq avoided prison, but was stripped of all titles and ranks. Notwithstanding the immense riches his conquest of the Iberian Peninsula had gained for the Umayyad Caliphate, Tariq died in dire poverty – reportedly reduced to begging for alms outside mosques.
24. A Great Medieval General, Who Was Not Treated So Great by His Country
Medieval Chinese General Yue Fei (1103 – 1142) was one of his country’s greatest and most formidable military leaders. In Chinese culture, he is considered to be the epitome of patriotism and loyal service to the nation, and is viewed today as one of the greatest national folk heroes of China’s history. During his lifetime, however, Yue Fei was treated quite shabbily by his government. For his heroism, self-sacrifice, and devotion to duty, he received shocking ingratitude from his political masters.
Yue Fei was born into a poor peasant family, and joined the ruling Song Dynasty’s military in 1122. From an early age, he possessed great power and near supernatural strength, which made him a formidable warrior. He rose to prominence during a war against the nomadic Jurchen tribes, who invaded and overran northern China in 1126. The Jurchens captured the Song Dynasty’s capital of Kaifeng, along with the emperor and his father. The emperor’s brother fled to southern China, where he reestablished the dynasty, known thereafter as the Southern Song, and was declared the Gaozong Emperor.
After the Jurchen tribes overran northern China, Yue Fei accompanied the Gaozong Emperor during the flight to the south, and assumed military command of the remnants of the Song forces. He managed to defeat the pursuing Jurchens, and kept them from advancing further into China. However, his efforts to recover the northern territories were foiled by a powerful peace faction, which balked at the expense of continuing the war. He was poised with his armies to recapture the lost Song capital of Kaifeng, when courtiers advised the Gaozong Emperor to recall him and open peace negotiations with the Jurchens.
The Gaozong Emperor worried that a final victory over the Jurchen would end with the release of his captive brother, the previous Song emperor, who had been taken prisoner in the fall of Kaifeng. As that would threaten his own claim to the throne, the Gaozong Emperor accepted his courtiers’ advice, and recalled Yue Fei to the capital in 1141. There, the brilliant general was imprisoned, and eventually executed on trumped up charges in 1142. Ironically, Yue Fei had tattooed on his back the phrase “serve the country with the utmost loyalty“.
In the medieval era, many outbreaks of collective hysteria occurred in religious institutions. Nunneries, or convents, were especially prime grounds, ripe for eruptions of contagious mass delusion. That was because convents contained large numbers of nuns who had been forced into them by their families. Once behind the establishment’s walls, they were forced to lead lives that quite a few found disagreeable. Many of the unfortunate girls or women compelled to become nuns were confined in prison-like conditions, and led a stressful lifestyle that was not of their own choosing.
Among other things, the nuns were expected to be celibate and submit to a regimen of poverty and hard work. They were also expected to unquestioningly obey authority figures. Those set above them had the right to compel compliance with coercive measures ranging from the imposition of extra labor, to confinement in cells, to withholding food and water. Physical chastisements as punishment were also available, ranging from whipping and caning in-house, to turning over the most defiant nuns to ecclesiastic courts. There, if things went particularly bad, hardheaded nuns could end up executed for heresy, witchcraft, or demonic possession.
The conditions of communal stress and fear prevalent in medieval convents over extended periods are textbook causes for the outbreak of mass hysteria. So it is not surprising that nunneries frequently experienced eruptions of mass delusions. One of the more bizarre such incidents occurred in a French convent in the medieval era, when a nun started meowing like a cat. Cats in Europe back then were not viewed as positively as they are today. Instead of cute and cuddly pets, cats were often associated with Satan.
Soon, other nuns in the convent joined in and started meowing, and before long, the whole convent had gotten into the act. It eventually became chorus-like, with all the nuns joining in collective caterwauling for several hours each day. Understandably, the cacophony alarmed and upset the neighbors, particularly in light of cats’ association with the devil and demonic possession. Pleas to stop were not heeded, so soldiers were eventually called in and ordered to whip the meowing sisters into silence. That finally brought the mass hysteria outbreak to an end.
Unfortunately, meowing nuns were far from the only example of medieval nuns driven into mass hysteria by the stresses of dismal lives behind convents walls. Meowing nuns and their caterwauling choruses hurt nobody – at least not physically. Not so the medieval biting nuns. Another of the bizarre outbreaks sweeping nunneries back then occurred in a fifteenth century German convent, when a nun started biting other sisters. Before long, the behavior spread and the convent was full of crazed nuns running around and gnawing at each other.
As described by a contemporary doctor: “A nun in a German nunnery fell to biting all her companions. In the course of a short time all the nuns of this convent began biting each other. The news of this infatuation among the nuns soon spread and it now passed convent to convent throughout a great part of Germany principally Saxony and It afterwards visited the nunneries of Holland and at last the nuns had biting mania even as far as Rome“.
19. A Medieval Mass Hysteria That Went International
As seen above, the German biting nuns’ outbreak did the French meowing ones one better by not being restricted to a single convent. As news of the biting nuns spread, so did the bad habit, and in seemingly no time at all, many other convents throughout Germany were similarly afflicted. Before long, the mania went international, and convents in the Netherlands as far north as Holland reported outbreaks of nuns trying to chew each other up. The hysteria also travelled south and crossed the Alps into Italy.
The authorities were baffled and alarmed, and attempted various countermeasures as “the Nuns, at length, worried one another from Rome to Amsterdam“. When prayers and masses failed, the Church resorted to exorcisms and the casting out of devils and demons, but that did not stop the madness. So they resorted to a more basic approach, and threatened to flog or dunk into water any nun who bit another. That worked, and after a few salutary examples were made, the nuns quickly came to their senses and the biting fever broke.
18. The Lesser Known Mongol Khan Who Made Medieval Europe Tremble
Ogedei Khan (1185 – 1241) was Genghis Khan’s third son and unexpected successor. His two older brothers, Jochi and Chagatai, were ahead of him in the line of succession, but developed a bitter enmity that threatened chaos if either succeeded their father. Jochi claimed the right to inherit as the eldest son, but Chagatai countered that Jochi’s parentage was questionable. Their mother had been kidnapped by an enemy of Genghis in the year before Jochi’s birth, so he might have been a bastard, which made Chagatai Genghis Khan’s eldest true-born son. When it became clear that the empire would descend into civil war if either inherited, Ogedei was selected as a compromise heir.
Ogedei realized that he was not his father’s military equal, so he was open to wise counsel, and relied on capable subordinates. From his capital in Mongolia, he directed simultaneous campaigns on multiple fronts separated by thousands of miles. He made use of field generals authorized to act independently within their theaters, but subject to Ogedei’s orders, relayed via a swift horse relay courier network. As a result, he expanded the frontiers of the Mongol Empire to their greatest southward and westward extents. His forces might have expanded even further into the west, but-for a seemingly miraculous reprieve that saved medieval Europe from getting overrun by Ogedei’s armies.
17. A Seemingly Miraculous Reprieve That Saved Medieval Europe
In the east, Ogedei’s Mongols campaigned against northern China’s Jin Dynasty, in alliance with southern China’s Song Dynasty. Ogedei commanded in person until 1232, when he returned to Mongolia. He entrusted final mopping up operations to subordinates, who eventually extinguished the Jins for good in 1234. The Mongols then fell out with their Song allies, and began a new campaign against southern China. At the same time, Ogedei’s forces invaded the Korean Peninsula and asserted Mongol suzerainty. While that was going on, other Mongol armies invaded India, marched into the Indus Valley and on to the Delhi Sultanate, and occupied parts of today’s Pakistan and the Punjab. Simultaneously, another Mongol army marched into and subdued Kashmir.
In the west, Ogedei’s men subdued Central Asia. They overran Khorasan, Afghanistan, Persia, and reached Mesopotamia. From there, they turned northward and conquered Armenia, Georgia, and the Caucasus region, then continued to reduce Russia to centuries of vassalage. Afterwards, they penetrated into Eastern Europe, where they captured Poland, Bulgaria, Hungary, and reaching the Adriatic Sea. Mongol forces in the west, led by the brilliant general Subutai, were finalizing plans to plunge into Italy and Central Europe, when news arrived from Mongolia that resulted in a seemingly miraculous reprieve for medieval Europe.
Genghis Khan’s grandson, Batu Khan (1207 – 1255), accompanied Subutai on the campaign that conquered Russia and penetrated Europe to the Adriatic Sea and the walls of Vienna. As a member of the Mongol royal family, Batu was in nominal command, although everybody knew that Subutai was the hands-on executive general in charge. Batu went on to found the Golden Horde – an independent Mongol state on the western Steppe that dominated Russia and the Caucasus for two and a half centuries. At its peak, the Golden Horde included most of Eastern Europe, with a territory extending from the Danube to Siberia.
Batu’s father, Jochi, had been entrusted by Genghis Khan to administer the Mongolian Empire’s west, comprised at the time of Central Asia and Siberia. After Jochi’s death in 1227, the task fell to Batu. In 1237, with Subutai as his military commander, Batu initiated the Mongol conquest of medieval Russia, which was completed by 1241. He then launched a multipronged invasion of Eastern Europe. One Mongol army in Poland defeated a coalition of Germans and Poles, while another Mongol army defeated a larger Hungarian force hundreds of miles to the south.
15. Batu Khan’s Ambition and Lust for Power Saved Europe
After their twin victories in Eastern Europe, Batu Khan and Subutai crossed the Carpathian Mountains. They concentrated in the Hungarian Plain for a campaign against Central and Western Europe, when news arrived of the Great Khan Ogedei’s death. Subutai wanted to continue the invasion of Europe, but Batu had ambitions of becoming the next Great Khan. As a member of the royal family, Batu outranked Subutai, and he insisted that all return to Mongolia to participate in the selection of the new Mongol ruler.
Thus in 1242, with all of Europe within their reach and at their mercy, the Mongols decamped from Hungary and rode back to Mongolia. Batu failed in his bid to get selected the next Great Khan, and returned to administer his own domain from his new capital, Sarai, on the Volga River. In 1251, the Great Khan in Mongolia recognized the independence and complete autonomy of Batu’s domain, which was known thereafter as the Golden Horde. It lasted into the sixteenth century before breaking up, and its last fragment survived until 1847.
Medieval Japanese heroine Tomoe Gozen (circa 1157 – 1247) is perhaps that country’s most famous female samurai, or onna-bogueisha. A formidable warrior, she won renown for her courage, physical strength, and skill with a variety of weapons. It was not just for show: Tomoe put those assets to good use on the battlefield. She fought in the Japanese civil war that led to the creation of that country’s first shogun (military dictator) government – the political system that would govern Japan from the 1180s until 1868.
Back then, it was not unusual for Japanese women to receive military training. For centuries, women of the samurai class were taught swordsmanship, archery, and the use of polearms. It was defensive training, for the women to protect themselves and their households in the absence of their menfolk. Tomoe, however, wanted to test her mettle and training in battle. So she sought an active career as a warrior, and was accepted into the service of a general named Minamoto Yoshinaka.
As contemporaries described her: “Tomoe was especially beautiful, with white skin, long hair, and charming features. She was also a remarkably strong archer, and as a swordswoman she was a warrior worth a thousand, ready to confront a demon or a god, mounted or on foot. She handled unbroken horses with superb skill; she rode unscathed down perilous descents. Whenever a battle was imminent, Yoshinaka sent her out as his first captain, equipped with strong armor, an oversized sword, and a mighty bow; and she performed more deeds of valor than any of his other warriors.”
By 1184, Tomoe had become famous because of her fighting skill and feats of arms. Her greatest exploit came that year, at the battle of Awazu, when she was part of a small force of 300 samurai that was set upon by a far bigger army of around 6000. She fought with extreme courage and skill against overwhelming odds, but eventually, Tomoe’s force was whittled down from 300 to only Tomoe, her commanding general, Minamoto Yoshinaka, and five other warriors. With the end drawing near, Yoshinaka ordered her to leave the battlefield, as it would be shameful for him to die alongside a woman. Reluctantly, she obeyed, beheading one more enemy warrior on her way out, then faded from history.
William Marshal, 1st Earl of Pembroke (1147 – 1219), was born to a minor noble the court of King Stephen. He eclipsed his father and rose to become one of the most prominent knights of medieval England. During a long and illustrious career, William Marshal served four English monarchs – Henry II, Richard I, John I, and Henry III – as a soldier, statesman, advisor, marshal, and regent. Due to his tireless efforts, he saved the turbulent Plantagenet Dynasty from destruction, allowing its continuation for centuries to come.
King Stephen faced a rival claimant, the Empress Matilda, in a convoluted civil war known as The Anarchy. William’s father switched his allegiance to Matilda, but was besieged by the king and forced to surrender. To ensure his father’s future good behavior, William was handed over as a hostage – a common medieval method for ensuring loyalty. It did not work on William’s father, who reneged despite the fact that his son was being held hostage. When the king threatened to kill the child, William’s father responded that he still had the “hammer and anvil” with which to forge more and better sons. Fortunately, Stephen could not bring himself to execute a child, so William was kept as a prisoner until The Anarchy ended.
11. The Knight Who Saved Richard the Lionheart’s Crown
When King Stephen died, he was succeeded by his rival Matilda’s son, Henry II, during whose reign William Marshal came of age. After demonstrating his prowess, William made guardian to Prince Henry, the king’s eldest son. The prince died young, however, so William returned to the king’s side and fought with him in France until Henry II died in 1189. After the new monarch, Richard I the Lionheart, ascended the throne, William married a wealthy heiress and became Earl of Pembroke, with vast estates. When King Richard went Crusading in 1190, he appointed William to the Council of Regents. It was a good decision, as Richard realized when he was captured on the way back from the Crusades
When Richard’s younger brother John tried to usurp the throne, William joined other barons in fighting him. He eventually reconciled with John, and helped him ascend the throne peacefully after Richard’s death in 1199. By 1213, William was King John’s closest advisor, and remained loyal to him during the baronial rebellion that forced the king into signing the Magna Carta in 1215. John died during a civil with his barons, who had invited Louis of France to be their king. Designated regent of John’s minor son, Henry III, William Marshal defeated the barons and Louis of France, and in his last significant act, compelled them to sign a peace in 1217 that restored calm to the realm.
Jack Cade was an Irishman of unknown occupation and little known background, who lived in Kent, England, in 1450. That year, he organized a rebellion among peasants and small proprietors. He and they were upset with oppressively high taxes and a recent steep rise in prices, coupled with widespread corruption and abuse of power by the royal advisors and officials of the weak and hapless king Henry VI. The rebellion gathered steam, and soon became a major popular revolt and peasant uprising that shook medieval England, captured London, and terrorized its government and aristocracy.
Cade had lived in Sussex until 1449, when he fled to France to escape a murder charge. He returned to England under an assumed name in 1450, and settled in Kent. That June, he emerged as the leader of a rebellion against the royal government, and calling himself John Mortimer, identified with the king’s rivals, the York branch of the royal family. Cade issued a manifesto that demanded the removal of several royal ministers, and the recall of Richard, Duke of York, from Ireland, where he resided in virtual exile.
9. A Rebellion That Set the Stage For the Wars of the Roses
A royal army was sent to the suppress Jack Cade and his followers, but it was defeated in Kent. Emboldened by their victory, the insurrectionists’ rapidly increasing host marched on London. They captured the city on July 3rd, 1450, along with the hated royal treasurer, James Fiennes, Lord Saye and Sele, who was blamed for many policies that had rubbed the rebels the wrong way. They subjected their aristocratic captive to an impromptu trial, found him guilty, and executed him.
Despite Cade’s attempt to maintain discipline, many rebels took to looting once they entered London. Such lawlessness led Londoners to turn on the rebels, who were expelled from the city on July 6th, after a battle at London Bridge. To end the revolt, the government persuaded most rebels to disperse by issuing royal pardons. Cade fled, but was tracked down a week later, wounded in a skirmish with royal forces, and captured. He was taken to London, but died of his wounds en route, his death marked the end of the rebellion. The revolt failed, but it contributed to a breakdown of royal authority and prestige that set the stage for the Wars of the Roses, which erupted soon thereafter.
8. This Formidable King Differed Greatly From His Weak Father
Medieval England’s King Edmund II, commonly known as Edmund Ironside (circa 993 – 1016), had a brief reign from April 23rd to November 30th, 1016, but a memorable life. A formidable man, Edmund was a case of the apple falling far from the tree, as his father, the weak and vacillating King Ethelred the Unready, was one of England’s worst monarchs. Edmund was a vast improvement over his father, and proved himself made of sterner stuff than his predecessor. He earned the surname “Ironside” for his staunch resistance to a massive invasion led by the Danish King Canute.
Starting in 991, Edmund’s father Ethelred the Unready unwisely sought to buy off the Danes then occupying northern England. He figured that paying them tribute known as Danegeld, or “Danish Gold”, would get them to stop their incessant raids into his kingdom. Unsurprisingly, that simply emboldened the Danes. They upped their demands for more and more gold, and fearing little from Ethelred, kept on raiding his domain. Finally, after bankrupting his kingdom and beggaring its people with the high taxes necessary to pay the Danegeld, Ethelred ordered a massacre of Danish settlers in 1002. Things were already bad, but that made them worse.
Ethelred the Unready’s massacre of the Danes in his kingdom triggered an invasion by Danish King Sweyn Forkbeard. He conquered England in 1013 and forced Ethelred to flee to Normandy. However, Sweyn died the following year, at which point Ethelred returned. With his son Edmund playing a leading role, Ethelred chased Sweyn’s son, Canute, out of England in 1014. Canute returned the following year at the head of a large Danish army, which pillaged much of England, but Crown Prince Edmund mounted a fierce resistance that stymied the Danes.
When Ethelred died in 1016, Edmund, by now known as “Ironside”, succeeded him on the English throne. His reign ended on November 30, 1016, a mere seven months after he was crowned. That night, Edmund went to the privy to answer a call of nature, and met one of the unkindest fates ever dealt a medieval monarch. Unbeknownst to Edmund, an assassin was waiting in the cesspit for the royal posterior to show up. When he sat down to do his business, the assassin stabbed upwards with a sharp dagger, and left the weapon embedded in the king’s bowels as he made his escape. Unfortunately for Edmund, even if his sides had been made of iron, his bottom was not.
6. The Peasant Uprising That Shook the Medieval Power Structure
The Flanders Peasant Revolt of 1323 – 1328 was a massive uprising of peasants and burghers in Flanders, in today’s Belgium. It was one of the most violent insurrections of the medieval era. The revolt was sparked by a recent imposition of new and heavy taxes by Flanders’ new ruler, Count Louis I. The count’s subjects were also unhappy by his unpopular pro-French policies. They were viewed as detrimental to the financial interests of most in Flanders, whose economy revolved around trade with France’s rival, England.
At its core, the revolt was a class protest by peasants who had hitherto enjoyed self-government, a privileged form of land tenancy, and legal protections against aristocratic abuses. Count Louis’ new policies risked weakening or doing away with all of the preceding, so it is unsurprising that he became hugely unpopular. The peasants found willing allies in the cities’ burghers. The urban dwellers’ struggle to keep and expand their hard-won liberties was also threatened by Flanders’ count, and his ally, the king of France.
5. An Unpopular Ruler Who Kept Driving His Subjects Into Rebellions
Scattered rural riots erupted in Flanders in late 1323 after a poor harvest, and peasants refused to pay taxes to Count Louis I. Soon, the rioters coalesced into larger bands, led by prosperous farmers, local gentry, and the mayor of Bruges. The count, lacking military force, negotiated a peace with the rebels in 1324, and recognized the legitimacy of their complaints. It proved a short-lived peace: the rebels returned to the warpath after a knight murdered a commoner, and Count Louis arrested six burghers from Bruges. The hated count was captured and brought to Bruges, where several of his leading adherents were executed in 1325.
After negotiations, combined with pressure from the king of France, Count Louis was released in 1326, and a peace treaty was ratified soon thereafter. When insurrection broke anew in 1328, following the French king’s death, the count of Flanders called upon the new king, Phillip VI, for military aid. A French military expedition was organized, which defeated the rebels at the Battle of Cassel later that year. Taking hostages for the Flemish burghers’ good behavior, Philip VI returned to France, where he executed the mayor of Bruges. Back in Flanders, Count Louis set about punishing the defeated rebels and stamping down the last embers of resistance.
4. The Teenage Emperor Who Got the Ball Rolling on Ruining His Dynasty
Medieval China got a raw deal in 1505, when a teenaged monarch, The Zhengde Emperor (1491 – 1521), ascended the Chinese Ming Dynasty throne when he was just fourteen-years-old. His reign, which lasted until 1521, set the stage for many calamities that ended up afflicting China. Unsurprisingly, making a teenager emperor had some downsides. The Zhengde Emperor was uninterested in governing his empire, and disregarded state affairs. Instead, he did what most teenagers would if given absolute power and unlimited wealth.
He abandoned himself to an extravagant and profligate lifestyle, marked by lavish spending, bizarre behavior, and poor choices that set the stage for the Ming Dynasty’s downfall. As soon as he ascended the throne, the teen emperor entrusted the conduct of government to palace eunuchs and devoted himself to pleasure seeking. With governance left entirely in their hands, the imperial household’s became China’s most powerful class. Without checks or oversight, corruption became endemic and public offices were openly bought and sold. Simultaneously, taxation soared to pay for the emperor’s pleasures and to feather the nests of courtiers and officials.
As his realm went to ruin, the teenaged Zhengde Emperor took to learning foreign languages and travelling incognito – although most of the time it was obvious just who he was. He was into make-believe in a big way, and created an alter ego for himself, a generalissimo Zhu Zhu, upon whom he lavished praise and rewards. He also built a city block within the imperial palace so he could pretend to be a shopkeeper. Less innocent and more harmful was his habit of taking his companions on thrill raids.
During those excursions, the emperor and his cronies often burst into the homes of wealthy citizens, violently seized and kidnapped their daughters, and held them for ransom. Officials who criticized the emperor’s erratic and irresponsible behavior were arrested, tortured, and executed by the hundreds. The Zhengde Emperor eventually drowned in 1521 when his pleasure barge capsized, an accident that finally brought his reign to a merciful end. Although he exited the scene, the damage he left behind proved permanent. During the years of his reign, without oversight from the throne, palace eunuchs achieved such power within the government’s structure that subsequent emperors were unable to dislodge them.
2. The City That Suffered One of the Medieval Era’s Worst Calamities
The city of Aleppo in northwestern Syria is located right on a precarious geologic fault line that separates the tectonic Arabian Plate from the African Plate. That accident of geology is, to put it mildly, unfortunate for the city and its people. The friction between the two plates makes Aleppo and the region surrounding it particularly susceptible to devastating seismic events. One of the worst occurred during the Crusades on October 11, 1138, when one of history’s deadliest earthquakes shook northern Syria.
Aleppo was a bustling and vibrant city during the medieval era. In the mid-twelfth century, however, the region was ravaged by war as the recently formed Crusader states, such as the nearby Principality of Antioch, vied with the neighboring Muslim states. Aleppo, then part of the Zengid Sultanate, was at the forefront of the anti-Crusader resistance, protected by strong walls and a powerful citadel. Then came the 1138 earthquake, which killed hundreds of thousands in Aleppo, its environs, and the surrounding region.
1. Nearly a Quarter Million People Perished in This Earthquake
On October 10, 1138, a small earthquake shook Aleppo. Warned by the foreshocks, most of the population fled the city for the countryside. Many died there when the main earthquake struck the following day, but far more would have perished if they had they remained in the city. There, the powerful citadel suffered extensive damage from the tremors that caused its walls to fall down, while in the city below, most of Aleppo’s houses collapsed. The devastation extended beyond Aleppo and was widespread throughout northwestern Syria.
The town of Harem, conquered by Crusaders who fortified it with a strong citadel, was particularly hard-hit by tremors that shook apart and demolished its castle, and caused the local church to fall upon itself. The nearby Muslim fort of Atharib also had its citadel destroyed by the earthquake, which caused it to collapse upon and kill 600 of its garrison. The border town of Zaradna, sacked and pillaged multiple times as it changed hands between the combatants, was wholly obliterated. All in all, an estimated 230,000 perished in Aleppo’s 1138 earthquake, making it one the medieval era’s worst natural disasters
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading