Today’s concepts of fair trials – especially the belief in rational adjudication as a means of determining justice – were not widely shared in the medieval period. Back then, trial by ordeal was a common alternative to trying a dispute before a neutral arbiter learned the law, to decide the facts of a case and the rights and wrongs of it. The idea was to subject an accused or both parties to a dispute to a dangerous and painful experience, whose outcome was unknown going in, and then “let God decide” who was innocent or guilty or in the right or wrong.
Variations included ordeal by water, in which an accused was tied and thrown into a body of water. The accused was deemed innocent if he or she floated, and guilty if not. There was also the ordeal by fire, in which an accused held a red hot bar of iron and walked three paces. If the accused’s hand healed after three days, it was taken as proof of innocence. If not, it was a judgment of guilt. For the aristocrats, there was the option of ordeal by combat, with accusers fighting the accused, and victory presumably going to the one in the right.
22. Medieval People Were Not as Fanatically Religious as is Often Assumed
Extremely religious people were quite common in the medieval period, ranging from those engaged in mass pilgrimages, to flagellants, to mystics and saints. However, that does not mean that everybody back in the middle ages was obsessed with religion. Nor does it mean that people back then did not engage in skeptical reflection. There were plenty of ordinary people who did not buy into a variety of common beliefs. Their skepticism ranged from doubting whether saints actually performed miracles, to being unsure whether the miracle of the Eucharist was real, to questioning whether there really was a resurrection and life after death.
Others did not even believe that God had anything to do with nature and the growth of crops and plants. Instead, they attributed such things to the simple mechanics of working and taking care of the soil. Many people – sometimes most – expressed their skepticism by simply staying away from church. For example, a Spanish priest wrote his bishop in the early 1300s, complaining that hardly anybody bothered to show up for church on Sunday. Instead, people preferred to spend their day of rest sleeping or larking about.
21. The Middle Ages Were Not Obsessed With Witch Hunts
A common stereotype about the medieval period revolves around the assumption that it was an era of widespread superstition, during which church authorities were burning witches left, right, and center. While it is true that people in the middle ages were extremely superstitious, especially when compared to the modern era, their superstitions did not find expression in witch hunts. To be sure, there were some witch trials in those days, but they were relatively rare. When they happened, they were usually done by the secular authorities, and were not directed by the church.
Indeed, throughout most of the medieval era, the standard message disseminated by churchmen regarding magic was that it was silly nonsense that did not work. The European witch craze was more of a sixteenth and seventeenth-century phenomenon. It kicked off after Heinrich Kramer wrote the infamous Malleus Maleficarum in the late fifteenth century, in an attempt to convince a then-disbelieving public that witches were real. When it first came out, the church actually condemned the book and warned inquisitors not to believe what it said.
The sword most often used by medieval knights, aptly named the knightly sword, was double-edged and straight, with a blade that usually measured between 28 to 32 inches. Some had blades of up to 39 inches. Whatever its length, it featured a single-handed cruciform hilt that gave it a distinct cross shape. It was prevalent as the main European sword from the eleventh to the fourteenth centuries. Then it was edged out by the longsword, and was relegated to the role of a secondary weapon or sidearm.
The relegation to sidearm earned the knightly sword another name, the “arming sword”. It traced its roots to an earlier Viking sword, which in turn traced back to an even earlier sword, the Roman spatha. Those earlier swords lacked a key distinguishing feature of the knightly sword: the cross guard that made the latter resemble a cross. The transition from the Viking sword to the knightly sword went through an intermediate phase of the Norman sword in the ninth and tenth centuries.
19. Incremental Improvements Over Centuries Produced the Middle Ages’ Most Recognizable Sword
The period of transition in the ninth and tenth centuries from the Viking sword to the knightly sword witnessed a simplification of the sword’s pommel to a disk or hazelnut. It also saw the growth of the Viking sword’s spatha handguard into a full crossguard that became the knightly sword’s – and later the longsword’s – most distinguishing feature. By the eleventh century, the transformation was completed. From then on, the knightly or arming sword featured a more slender and tapered blade than that of the earlier Viking sword.
The knightly sword also featured a sharper tip than the more rounded one of the Viking sword. The weapon’s center of mass was also moved closer to the hilt. As a result, the knightly sword’s handling was improved significantly when compared to its predecessors. Those improvements transformed the knightly sword into the dominant state-of-the-art European sword. Typically used with a shield or buckler, the arming sword was an excellently balanced light and versatile weapon, useful for both thrusting and cutting.
18. The Evolution of the Knightly Sword Into the Longsword
The medieval knightly or arming sword was the main weapon used by European knights during the Crusades. It remained the most popular sword on European battlefields throughout the late middle ages and continued to be widely used well into the opening stages of the Hundred Years’ War. Its heyday finally came to a close in the fourteenth century, which witnessed changing tactics and battlefield conditions. Chief among them was the increasing use of plate armor, against which the arming sword was of little use.
Starting in the late twelfth century, knightly sword designs began to change in reaction to the increasingly tougher armor encountered on the battlefield. Swords became either longer and heavier for concussive impact and the infliction of blunt trauma through the armor, or squatter and sharply pointed to pierce the armor with a thrust. By the mid-fourteenth century, an entirely different sword, the longsword, had emerged in response to the new armor. It proved more effective at dealing with it than the knightly sword could. Thus the longsword supplanted the knightly sword, which was relegated to a secondary weapon or sidearm.
17. Did Medieval People Drink Booze Instead of Water?
One of the more common myths about the middle ages has it that people back then only drank beer and wine instead of water. Supposedly, that was because water in those days was usually too dangerous to drink safely, as it was often contaminated with deadly pathogens. That is not true. In the medieval era, for example, water was the most popular drink – as it was throughout all of humanity’s existence, for that matter – for the simple reason that it was free.
It is true that people in the middle ages did not have the kinds of water purification treatments that the water coming out of our faucets nowadays usually goes through. Contamination was a concern, to be sure, but medieval people – like all humans since our species first walked upright – knew enough to spot and avoid obviously contaminated water. In short, people in the past had enough common sense and common knowledge to know that swampy, muddy, and cloudy water was not good for drinking.
16. Not Only Was Water Not Avoided in the Middle Ages, it Was Praised as Being Healthy
Far from water being out of favor as a drink in the middle ages, health manuals and medical texts from the medieval era praised water as being good for people’s health. So long as it came from good sources, of course. Indeed, medieval authorities went to great lengths to supply people with drinking water. For example, London constructed ‘The Conduit’ in the 1200s, using lead pipes to bring fresh water from a spring outside the city walls to the city’s center, where people had free access to it.
Although people in the middle ages did not avoid water per se, they still preferred beer and wine. Assuming, of course, that they could get and afford such alcoholic beverages. People did drink a whole lot of beer and ale and wine in those days. However, it was not because their water was bad. Instead, they consumed those alcoholic beverages simply because they liked both their taste and effect. The authorities knew and catered to those preferences, such as during public celebrations in London.
15. Medieval Authorities Delivered Wine Through Water Pipes During Public Celebrations
Medieval authorities made use of drinking-water pipes in planning celebrations. In England, for example, the return of King Edward I from the Crusades and the coronation of King Richard II saw London stop the flow of water in its pipes, in order to replace it with wine for a day. Wine was the drink of choice of the upper classes and those who could afford it. However, like the ancient Greeks and Romans before them, medieval Europeans did not drink their wine neat, but usually mixed it with water to dilute its power.
For those who could not afford wine on a regular basis, beer and ale were plentiful and cheap. It should be noted, however, that beer and ale back then had a significantly lower alcoholic content than those drinks have today. Also, considering the long days and hard labor that medieval workers put in, whether in the fields or shops or other employment, beer and ale did more than just quench thirst. They also provided a significant intake of calories throughout the day to keep them going.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 an English outfit is 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 that often surrounded the end of royal dynasties and noble lineages.
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 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.
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.
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, 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, Cambridgeshire, and 2000 sticks from his watermill in Datchet, Buckinghamshire.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 terrorizing would-be opponents.
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.
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