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
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.

_________________

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

Advertisement