Facts from the Middle Ages that Are Full of Surprises
Facts from the Middle Ages that Are Full of Surprises

Facts from the Middle Ages that Are Full of Surprises

Khalid Elhassan - March 15, 2021

Facts from the Middle Ages that Are Full of Surprises
The College of Cardinals in conclave to elect a pope. Fine Art America

14. Elections Were Held in the Medieval Period

Back in the middle ages, elections were not as widespread and regular as they are today. Nor did the medieval period have anything like universal suffrage. However, people back then did have elections. They routinely elected aldermen, members of parliament, bishops, abbots, popes, and sometimes even kings. There were, of course, important differences between medieval elections and modern ones. A major one was that the slice of the population that got to do any electing was pretty narrow. However, there were also striking parallels, chief among them the belief that elections conferred legitimacy.

Views on elections were ambivalent in those days. On the one hand, the medieval belief in elections was based on examples from the Bible, such as the Old Testament accounts of the Israelites electing Judges and Kings. Also, kings sometimes died without issue, the papacy was not hereditary, and town burghers needed to select people to fill local government positions. On the other hand, elections were also seen as occasions for strife, and potential starting points for riots, rebellions, or civil wars.

Facts from the Middle Ages that Are Full of Surprises
The reign of Charles VI started off well. All That Is Interesting

13. The Medieval Monarch Known as “Charles the Mad”

The reign of French King Charles VI (1368 – 1422) started off well, and he was known as “Charles the Well-Loved”. However, a lot of that probably had less to do with Charles himself, and more to do with the fact that he was crowned at age eleven, and his kingdom was governed by regents. That all changed after he came of age and took personal charge of France at age 21. By the time he died over four decades later, he had earned the nickname by which he is best-known to history: “Charles the Mad”. His first bout of insanity struck in 1392, when the 24-year-old old king set out on a military expedition to punish a vassal who had attempted to assassinate a royal friend.

Facts from the Middle Ages that Are Full of Surprises
Charles VI eventually went from Charles the Well Loved to Charles the Mad. Wikimedia

Charles acted weird from the campaign’s start. He was in such a fever to get at the offender that his speech often became incoherent while urging preparations sped up. Once on the road, the army’s slow progress drove him into a frenzy. En route, a crazy leper by the roadside started yelling at the king to halt and turn back because he had been betrayed. After getting shooed away, the leper kept following the king, shouting his warnings. While that was going on, a drowsy page dropped a lance, which clanged off somebody’s helmet. As seen below, Charles’ reaction stunned everybody.

Facts from the Middle Ages that Are Full of Surprises
Charles the Mad attacking his men in a fit of madness. Bibliotheque Nationale de France

12. This King Slaughtered His Men in a Fit of Madness, and Thought He Was Made of Glass

Something about the clanging noise of a lance on a helmet made Charles VI snap. Drawing his sword, he charged at his retinue and started hacking and stabbing them. By the time he was restrained, he had killed at least four knights and men at arms. The following year, he got amnesia, forgot his own name and that he was king, and failed to recognize his wife. Between 1395 – 1396, he imagined that he was Saint George. He recognized his companions and officials, but for some reason could not recognize his wife and children. Then again, at least as far as his wife, he might have simply tired of her, and was crazy like a fox in pretending not to recognize her.

Another manifestation of King Charles’ insanity took the form of imagining that he was made of glass. He grew extremely frightened of shattering if he fell or was jostled, and tried to avert the danger by inserting iron rods in his clothes. At other times, the king ran wildly at top speed, on the streets or in the halls of his palace. It got so bad, that in order to keep him inside his Parisian residence, its entrances were bricked up. The unfortunate king kept slipping in and out of insanity until his death in 1422.

Facts from the Middle Ages that Are Full of Surprises
John Hawkwood. Weapons and Warfare

11. The Medieval English Mercenary Who Roiled Italy

Sir John Hawkwood (1320 – 1394), Italian byname Giovani Acuto, meaning “John the Astute”, was an English soldier of fortune who plied his trade in Italy as a condottiero. As captain of a powerful mercenary band, Hawkwood played a significant role in fourteenth century Italy’s wars and politics, and switched sides on numerous occasions between the peninsula’s competing factions and states. He began his military career during the Hundred Years War in the armies of England’s King Edward III, who knighted Hawkwood for exceptional service.

When the Hundred Years War was temporarily interrupted by a peace treaty in 1360, Hawkwood found himself temporarily unemployed. That situation did not last for long, however: he gathered a group of mercenaries, and headed to Italy, where the demand for men willing to fight for money. Arriving in the Italian Peninsula, Hawkwood joined and English outfit known as the White Company, and in 1364, he was its captain-general. He elevated the White Company’s reputation, and transformed it into an elite and highly sought after mercenary unit by adopting the English longbow and tactics successfully used in France.

Facts from the Middle Ages that Are Full of Surprises
Condottieri on the march. Flickr

10. From Freebooter to Captain-General of Italy’s Most Flourishing City

John Hawkwood further improved the White Company by lightening the men’s armor and equipment, which made them famous for the rapidity of their movements, and instilled strict discipline. During the 1370s, he served the Pope, but then the Holy Father stiffed Hawkwood on payment. The medieval mercenary bided his time, and when the pope sent him to put down a rebellion in Citta di Castello, Hawkwood captured and kept the city in order to compel payment. Strapped for cash, the Holy Father was forced to invest Hawkwood with the city, granting it to him in return for uncompensated services.

Facts from the Middle Ages that Are Full of Surprises
Sir John Hawkwood’s funerary monument. Wikimedia

Between 1372 and 1378, Hawkwood repeatedly switched sides between serving the Pope and his rival, the duke of Milan, whose illegitimate daughter he married in 1377. In 1378, after quarreling with his new father in law, Hawkwood switched sides and signed a contract with Milan’s rival, the city of Florence. The Florentines appointed him their Captain-General, and he remained in Florence until he finally decided to sell his Italian properties and retire to England to spend his final years. However, he died in 1394 before he could do so.

Facts from the Middle Ages that Are Full of Surprises
‘Imperial Coronation of Charlemagne’, by Friedrich Kaulbach, 1861. Wikimedia

9. This Medieval Monarch Slept With His Live Sister and Dead Wife

Medieval Europe’s greatest monarch was probably Charlemagne, who unified much of western and central Europe into what became known as the Carolingian Empire. In 800, he was crowned by Pope Leo III as “Emperor of the Romans” – the first in a long line of Holy Roman Emperors that lasted for over a thousand years, until Napoleon Bonaparte abolished the Holy Roman Empire in 1806. Charlemagne was also a weirdo, who was into incest and necrophilia. He had an incestuous relationship with his sister Gillen, and fathered upon her a son/ nephew, named Roland.

Sleeping with his sister was not the worst of it: Charlemagne also reportedly had a thing for sleeping with corpses. A variety of texts from the ninth century refer to Charlemagne repeatedly engaging in, but refusing for a long time to confess to, some “unspeakable sin”. He eventually got it off his chest, and sought absolution for what some modern scholars think was a predilection for necrophilia. That gave rise to legends in which Charlemagne’s partiality to corpses extended from sexually satisfying his lusts with random corpses, to sleeping with his wife’s corpse after her death.

Facts from the Middle Ages that Are Full of Surprises
Martin I of Aragon. Wikimedia

8. In Hindsight, King Martin I of Aragon Should Have Slept Off an Upset Stomach Instead of Summon His Jester

King Martin I of Aragon, also known as Martin the Humane (1356 – 1410), ruled Aragon, Valencia, Sicily, Sardinia, and Corsica, from 1396 until his death. He ascended the throne after his older brother, King John I, died without male issue – although the deceased had daughters. Martin’s reign was turbulent from the outset, rife with unrest from scheming nobles. He also had to overcome challenges to his claimed right to ascend the throne, particularly from the family and partisans of his nieces, his late brother’s daughters. He beat back invasions by his nieces’ supporters, but they kept up their claims, and so did their sons.

Martin reportedly died in 1410 after consuming an entire goose. Something about the fowl was foul and did not agree with him, and gave the king indigestion. So he retired to his chamber, and summoned the court jester. The jester took his time in arriving. When he finally showed up, Martin asked him where he had been. The jester replied: “in the next vineyard, your majesty, where I saw a young deer hanging by his tail from a tree, as if somebody had punished him for stealing figs“. As seen below, that joke was a killer – literally.

Facts from the Middle Ages that Are Full of Surprises
A medieval jester. Pintrest

7. A Deadly Medieval Joke

To most people today, the joke about the deer hanging by its tale probably sounds lame. However, something about it and the image it evoked struck King Martin I as over the top funny. Apparently, while some jokes are timeless and universal, many more are time and culture sensitive. It seems that in fifteenth century Aragon, deer hanging by their tails as punishment for stealing figs were considered to be super funny. So funny, in King Martin’s case, that he laughed uncontrollably for three hours.

The king’s fit of uncontrollable laughter finally ended when he fell out of the bed and hit the floor, stone dead. It was a funny death, but the consequences were serious. Martin had only one son, but he was illegitimate, and he failed to secure him the succession. So Martin ended up being the last king of the Aragonite House of Barcelona (878 – 1410), and was succeeded by a nephew, Ferdinand I of Aragon. Martin however had gone out laughing, which was not a bad ending for a royal life or dynasty. Especially when we consider the many nasty possibilities the often surrounded the end of royal dynasties and noble lineages.

Facts from the Middle Ages that Are Full of Surprises
St. Scholastica’s Day Riot. Art Fund

6. Town vs Gown Was Taken to Extremes in the Middle Ages

Tensions between universities, with their populations of academics and students, and the surrounding community of ordinary folk going about their everyday lives, have been around since seemingly forever. Long before universities had even been invented, places known as centers of scholarship, such as ancient Athens or Ptolemaic Alexandria, had often experienced bad blood between the academics who flocked there in scholarly pursuits, and the wider population amongst whom they dwelt. However, relatively few such “town vs gown” tensions have ever boiled over and erupted in as dramatic a fashion as happened in Oxford in 1355.

On February 10th of that year, St. Scholastica Day, two Oxford University students, Roger de Chesterfield and Walter Spryngheuse, were having drinks at the Swindlestock Tavern in Oxford. At some point, they complained to the taverner, John Croidon, about the quality of the drinks. He did not take kindly to their complaints. One thing led to another, heated words were exchanged, and the students ended up throwing the drinks in the tavern keeper’s face, then proceeded to beat him to a bloody pulp. That incident, as seen below, led to medieval England’s biggest town vs gown rumble.

Facts from the Middle Ages that Are Full of Surprises
Oxford University’s chancellor announcing the king’s verdict after the St. Scholastica’s Day Riot. University Church

5. Medieval Oxford Students Bit More Than They Could Chew When They Took on the Townies

After a pair of Oxford University students violently assaulted a local tavern keeper, the town’s mayor asked the university to arrest the academic hooligans. However, the university’s authorities ignored his request. Instead, 200 students sided with their thuggish classmates, Walter Spryngheuse and Roger de Chesterfield, and went on a rampage during which they assaulted the mayor and other Townies. That was too much for the locals, who mounted a counter-riot of their own, with hundreds pouring in from the countryside to help hunt down the students

Crying: “Havoc! Havoc! Smyte [smite] fast! Give gode knocks!” the Townies fell upon the students and routed them. By the time it was over, 63 Oxford students had been killed, along with 30 locals. In the aftermath, the authorities sided with the university. Every year thereafter, on February 10th, Oxford’s mayor and city councilors were made to atone by marching bareheaded through the streets. They then had to attend mass, and pay a penny for each student killed. That tradition lasted for 425 years, until 1825, when an Oxford mayor finally put his foot down and refused to participate.

Facts from the Middle Ages that Are Full of Surprises
Dried eel sticks. The Winged Fork

4. Eels Were Used as Money in the Middle Ages

Eels are notoriously slippery, and that difficulty in getting a hold of them might explain why they were sometimes used as currency during the medieval period. Eels may not be a popular dish in the West these, but they were once such a common staple in medieval England that they were used as currency. For example, the Domesday Book lists hundreds of English watermills whose rent was paid in eels, bundled in “sticks” of 25. One proprietor who received his rent in eels was “Giles brother of Ansculf”, who got 1000 sticks from his watermill in Bottisham, Cambridgshire, and 2000 sticks from his watermill in Datchet, Buckinghamshire.

Facts from the Middle Ages that Are Full of Surprises
A medieval rental document, specifying the rent in eels. History Hit

How much were eels worth, though? In 1273, King Edward I issued price controls for the sale of certain foods in London, and a stick of 25 eels was listed as 2 pence, or the equivalent of about $9 in 2021 US dollars. Edward’s price controls were issued almost two centuries after the Domesday Book, but inflation was nowhere near as great in those days as it is day. Thus, if we assume that 2 pence had roughly the same purchasing value in both Domesday Book and Edward I days, Giles brother of Ansculf got about $9000 in rent for his Bottisham watermill, and $18,000 for the one in Datchet.

Facts from the Middle Ages that Are Full of Surprises
Timur. Pintrest

3. The Medieval World’s Deadliest Man

If the question of who the middle ages’ deadliest man comes up, many would assume it must be Genghis Khan. However, while Genghis is one of history’s scariest people, he was not as lethal as an even deadlier medieval warrior: Timur (1336 – 1405). Byname Timur Link, which means “Timur the Lame” in Turkish, Timur was the last of the great Eurasian Steppe conquerors to terrify the civilized world with widespread devastation and butchery. He is chiefly remembered for his savagery, and his wide-ranging rampage, from India to Russia and the Mediterranean and points in between. Timur is estimated to have killed about 17 million people, amounting to 5 percent of the world’s population at the time. That would be equivalent to 390 million people today.

Facts from the Middle Ages that Are Full of Surprises
Timur. Classical Literature Library

A Muslim Turko-Mongol who claimed descent from Genghis Khan, Timur was born in the Chagatai Khanate in today’s Uzbekistan, which was ruled by Genghis’ descendants at the time. His rise began in 1360, when he led Turkic tribesmen on behalf of the Chagatai Khan. However, the Khan was murdered by rivals, which triggered a struggle for power. When the dust settled, Timur had emerged as the power behind a throne occupied by a figurehead Chagatai puppet, through whom Timur ruled.

Facts from the Middle Ages that Are Full of Surprises
Timur invading Persia in 1393. Dissolve

2. Timur Brought Devastation Wherever He Went

Timur’s claimed descent from Genghis Khan might have been dubious. That did not stop him, however, from using it to justify his conquests as a restoration of the by then defunct Mongol Empire, and as a re-imposition of legitimate Mongol rule over lands that had been wrongfully seized by usurpers. With those justifications, Timur spent 35 years roiling the medieval world, and earning a reputation for savagery while bringing fire and sword to the lands between the Indus and the Volga, the Himalayas and the Mediterranean.

Facts from the Middle Ages that Are Full of Surprises
Timur feasting in Samarkand. Wikimedia

Among the cities he left depopulated and in ruins were Damascus and Aleppo in Syria; Baghdad in Iraq; Sarai, capital of the Golden Horde, and Ryazan, both in Russia; India’s Delhi, outside whose walls he massacred over 100,000 captives; and Isfahan in Iran, where he massacred 200,000. Timur was also in the habit of piling up pyramids of severed heads, cementing live prisoners into the walls of captured cities, and erecting towers of his victims’ skulls as object lessons and to terrorize would-be opponents.

Facts from the Middle Ages that Are Full of Surprises
Facial reconstruction of Timur, based on his skull. Owlcation

1. A Great Medieval Conqueror’s Great Curse

Timur’s most dramatic victory came at the expense of the Ottoman Turks. A rising power in their own right, the Ottomans were as exuberantly confident in their prowess as was Timur. For years, insulting letters were exchanged between Timur and the Ottoman Sultan, Bayezid, until Timur finally showed up in 1402, Timur crushed Bayezid, and took him captive. In one of the medieval era’s greatest acts of ownage, Timur humiliated his prisoner by keeping him in a cage at court, while Bayezid’s favorite wife was made to serve the victor and his courtiers, naked.

Facts from the Middle Ages that Are Full of Surprises
Timur gloating over the captured Ottoman Sultan Bayezid I. Wikimedia

Timur’s decades-long rampage finally came to an end in 1405, while he was preparing to invade China. He took ill while encamped, and died before launching the campaign. His grave was reportedly cursed. His body was exhumed by Soviet anthropologists on June 19th, 1941. Carved inside his tomb were the words “When I rise from the dead, the word shall tremble“. Two days later, the Nazis launched the largest military operation of all time against the USSR, which the Soviets survived only by the skin of their teeth. Just to be on the safe side, in November, 1942, shortly before Operation Uranus which led to the first major Soviet victory at Stalingrad, Timur was reburied with full Islamic rituals.

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Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

BBC – Trial by Ordeal: When Fire and Water Determined Guilt

Buzzfeed – 16 Strange and Surprising Facts About Medieval England

Doran, John – The History of Court Jester Fools (2012)

Encyclopedia Britannica – Charles VI, King of France

Encyclopedia Britannica – Timur

Health and Fitness History – Medieval Mob Football

Hibbert, Christopher – Great Battle: Agincourt (1986)

Hildinger, Erik – Warriors of the Steppe: Military History of Central Asia, 500 BC to 1700 AD (1997)

Historia Cartarum – What Does a Stick of Eels Get You?

History Extra – 8 Things You (Probably) Didn’t Know About Medieval Elections

History Extra – 10 Things You (Probably) Didn’t Know About the Middle Ages

JSTOR – Charlemagne’s Unspeakable Sin

Keegan, John – The Face of Battle: A Study of Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme (1983)

Medievalists – Did People Drink Water in the Middle Ages?

Oakeshott, Ewart – The Sword in the Age of Chivalry (1994)

Ranker – Were Medieval People Really Drunk on Beer and Wine All the Time?

Slate – What Was the Drink of Choice in Medieval Europe?

Tradition in Action – A World of Brilliant Colors

Wikipedia – Agnes Sorel

Wikipedia – John Hawkwood

Wikipedia – St Scholastica Day Riot

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