Castles dominated settled landscapes throughout much of medieval Eurasia until gunpowder made them obsolete. Although they are best known as defensive structures that sheltered those within from more powerful foes without, castles also served offensive purposes: they provided a base from which raids could be launched. They were not completely impervious, however. If attackers were numerous enough, determined, and willing to pay the butcher’s bill, they might storm castle walls, batter their gates, or breach their fortifications. More often, if a castle was particularly formidable, enemies preferred to besiege them.
It took time, but if the besiegers had time, a castle cut off from resupply would eventually get starved into surrender. Sieges were often coupled with attempts to tunnel beneath and undermine a castle’s walls from below. At its core, a castle’s strength depended on location – often on high ground – high walls, strong gates, and a surrounding moat filled with water when possible. To further maximize their defensive capacity, castle builders often incorporated ingenious innovations into their designs, to make storming them as dangerous and unpleasant as possible. One of the nastier design features was murder holes.
Murder holes, as their name indicates, were intended to, literally, murder people. Passageways through castle walls – often behind the main gate – would have holes up above. Through those openings, defenders could stab attackers below with spears, riddle them with arrows or crossbow bolts, or pour unpleasant things on them, such as boiling water, heated sand, or quicklime. Contrary to common perception, hot oil was almost never poured over attackers. Oil was expensive, and besieged defenders cut off from resupply were more likely to hoard, rather than throw away, such a precious commodity.
Castles were also defended by machicolations: openings in the corbels, or the parts that stuck out from the top of walls. As with murder holes, stones, hot water, heated sand, quicklime, and other unpleasant things could be dropped from machicolations on enemies at the base of the wall. Machicolations originated in the Middle East, and their designs were brought back to Europe by Crusaders. By the thirteenth century, their use was widespread in the West, especially in France. While larger castles featured traditional machicolations all around the walls and towers, a variant known as the box machicolation became widespread in smaller fortresses, especially atop the castle’s gates.
18. Treachery Was the Quickest Way to Capture a Medieval Castle
Treachery was the quickest and most efficient way to seize a castle: attackers often induced somebody within the walls to help them sneak in and capture the place. Second quickest way was to storm a castle’s walls with attackers who used ladders and siege towers. However, that was often hazardous, and cost dearly – often prohibitively dearly – in attackers’ lives. One alternative was to try and batter down the walls, either from a distance with catapults and trebuchets, or up close with battering rams. Catapults had been deployed since ancient times against castles and city walls. They used tension or torsion to slowly build up and store energy in a device, before they rapidly released the stored energy via an arm that flung a rock at a targeted wall.
In the later medieval era, catapult technology took a leap forward with the development of trebuchets – the most effective weapon against castle and city walls until the arrival of gunpowder. Traditional catapults relied on torsion or tension to store energy prior to release. By contrast, trebuchets relied on gravity: a heavy weight on one side of a pivot, with a long arm from which a stone was flung on the other side. Trebuchets were faster and easier to construct, and did not use relatively expensive materials like the pricey elastic ropes needed for torsion catapults.
17. Medieval Attackers Took to Tunnels to Bring Down Castle Walls
A downside of trebuchets is that their ranges were shorter than those of torsion catapults. However, trebuchets made up for that with consistency. Torsion catapults were not consistent, because factors such as rope dampness or loss of elasticity caused the impact ranges to vary. Trebuchets by contrast relied on the constants of gravity and a fixed weight for energy. Once ranged in, they would continue to hit the same spot if given the same weight projectile. Besiegers also dug tunnels to defeat castles and other fortifications. Tunneling was particularly effective against walls that were not built atop solid rock.
Besiegers would dig beneath the walls either to bypass them and allow attackers to emerge on the other side inside the castle, or to undermine and collapse its walls. When they wanted to undermine the walls, besiegers tunneled until they got beneath the foundations of a wall section. As they excavated a space beneath the foundation, they would use temporary wooden props to keep the walls up. Once a sufficiently large space was dug beneath the walls, the besiegers would burn the props, causing them to collapse, along with the section of wall above them. The defenders, always on the lookout for such attempts, often dug counter tunnels in an attempt to intercept and destroy the underground attackers.
16. The Medieval Killers Who Terrorized the Middle East
Long before modern Islamic radicals, there was the medieval Order of Assassins, a politico-religious cult led by a shadowy figure known as “The Old Man of the Mountain”. The first European account of the group was written in 1167 by a Spanish rabbi, Benjamin of Tudela, who described a shadowy sect, hidden in mountain fortresses, and terrifyingly ruthless. For decades afterward, travelers and Crusaders brought back to Europe sensational tales that titillated and terrified, of expert murderers, thoroughly trained since childhood in the arts of deceit and stealth.
So dedicated were those killers to their leader, the accounts went on, that they were more than eager to sacrifice their lives in order to carry out his slightest whims. Despised as heretics by most fellow Muslims, relatively few, and geographically dispersed, the Assassins nonetheless punched far above their weight. The order and its highly indoctrinated, even fanatical, killers wielded considerable power and influence throughout the Middle East, and managed to terrorize the region for generations in the Middle Ages.
The origins of the Order of Assassins can be traced back to the Sunni-Shiite split in Islam. For much of the medieval era, there had been a rough balance of power between Islam’s two main branches. The less numerous Shiites were championed by the smaller but rising Fatimid Caliphate based in Egypt, while the more numerous Sunnis were led by the waning Abbasid Caliphate in Iraq. That balance was upset when the Seljuk Turks, who had recently adopted Sunni Islam, fell upon the Fatimids with all the zeal of the recently converted and broke their power between 1056 – 1060.
The Fatimids, defeated militarily in the field of battle, responded with clandestine warfare and turned to assassination as a political tool against the Sunni leadership. The architect of that campaign was Sheikh Hassan al Sabah (1034 – 1124), a shadowy and exotic Islamic scholar who led a radical Shiite faction, the Nizari Ismailis, and founded the Assassins cult. He grew up in Rayy, Persia, a city noted at the time for a tradition and history of radical Islamic thought. There, he swore allegiance to the Fatimid Caliph in Cairo, and dedicated his life to the Nizari Ismaiíli cause.
14. Medieval Killers Who Broke From Their Masters and Went Into the Murder Business on Their Own Hook
In 1090, with financial support from the Fatimids, Sheikh Hassan al Sabbah seized Alamout Castle in the mountains south of the Caspian Sea in Persia. From that base, he expanded his sway and established a series of remote mountain fortresses in the highlands of Persia and Syria. That earned him the moniker of Old Man of the Mountain, a title that was passed on to his successors. From those holdfasts, he sent suicide squads of killers known as fida’is (“self sacrificers”) against prominent leaders throughout the Middle East.
Initially, the deadly campaign hewed to the goals of the Assassins’ Fatimid sponsors, and the targets were prominent Sunni opponents of the Fatimids. However, the Assassins soon asserted their independence. Although they retained a degree of Fatimid financial support, they began to kill on their own hook in order to further their own agenda and goals. The result was nearly two centuries of terror, during which the fear of Assassins was an ever-present concern for medieval Middle Eastern leaders and prominent figures of all faiths and denominations thereof.
The Assassins were fanatically loyal to their leader, the Sheikh known as The Old Man of the Mountain. On one occasion, to impress a visitor with his followers’ dedication, he ordered some of them to jump to their deaths from a castle wall, and others to fatally stab themselves. They instantly obeyed. Such dedication was the end of the result of one of history’s most innovative recruitment and indoctrination strategies, whose end result was Assassins convinced that their Sheikh held the keys to paradise. Potential recruits would be summoned to an Assassin fortress, where they would be housed in bare cells, and attend daily religious lectures and education. Gradually, it would be hinted that Sheikh Hassan al Sabah or his successors held the keys to paradise.
Then, one day the more promising of the young men would be drugged and plied with hashish, which earned the group the Arabic name “Hashashin” – which was rendered into “Assassins” by Europeans. When the recruit came to, high on hashish, he awoke to find himself amidst carefully landscaped orchard gardens, through which clear streams meandered between rows of vines heavy with grapes, and trees ripe with fruit. Cute animals such as lambs and tame deer frolicked about. Peacocks wandered around, and ruffled and spread their gorgeous tails. Brightly colored birds flitted through the branches above, and trilled and filled the air with their songs.
Amid the breathtaking surroundings of Assassin pleasure gardens were breathtakingly beautiful women, there to seduce the recruit, cater to his physical desires, and satisfy his… lusty whims. They plied the youth with wine, kept him high on hash, and fed him delicacies that most recruits never knew existed let alone tasted. The temptresses would convince the besotted young man that he was in paradise, and that his seductresses were the houris promised those who made it into heaven. Then, after days in which he wallowed in delights and indulged in heavenly pleasures, the young man would be drugged senseless once more, and removed from the gardens.
He would awake to find himself back in his bare cell and austere surroundings, and informed that he had been in paradise, sent there by the grace of the Old Man of the Mountain, who held the keys to heaven. The recruit would then be told that he could return to paradise, provided that he died while killing the Sheikh’s enemies. It proved highly effective: suicide squads of horny young fanatics, high on hash and desperate to die while killing the cult’s enemies, descended from the Assassins’ mountain holdfasts to terrorize the Middle East.
11. The Order of Assassins’ Killers Were Highly Trained
The Order of Assassins’ first victim of note was Nizam al Mulk, a Grand Vizier who had held absolute power in the Seljuk Empire for two decades years before the Assassins got him in 1092. During their centuries of operations, the cult’s suicide squads killed many prominent Middle Eastern figures. Their numbers included numerous sultans, viziers, generals, Crusader higher-ups such as a King of Jerusalem, and at least two Caliphs. In his youth, King Edward I of England was grievously wounded and barely survived an attack from an Assassin who snuck into the royal tent when Edward was on Crusade.
Modern suicide bombers are crude human instruments of terror who typically need little more by way of tactical skill other than the ability to press a detonator. By contrast, the medieval Order of Assassins’ suicide hitmen were carefully selected and well trained in combat and disguises. Aside from the requisite physical fitness, they had to be swift on the uptake, well-read, intelligent, patient, calculating, and cold. They also needed to possess no small degree of charisma in order to infiltrate their opponents’ defenses and to gain access to and come within striking distance of their target.
10. When it Came to Violent Propaganda, the Medieval Assassins Were Quote Modern
The Assassins can be described as early believers in and practitioners of “propaganda of the deed”, a modern concept of direct action meant to serve as an example and serve as a catalyst for possible revolution. Whenever possible, they were not content to simply murder their victims. Instead, the Assassins sought to kill them in a dramatic and public manner as possible. Especially when it came to targets who had enveloped themselves in the heaviest layers of protective security. By public killings in front of as many horrified witnesses as possible, they aimed to advertise their cult’s reach. To strike fear into the hearts of important men, the Assassins fostered the perception that those whom they targeted were dead men walking, no matter the precautions taken.
Assassin killer squads usually studied the routines of a targeted leader, then lay in wait for him at a heavily attended public event, such as a festival or Friday prayers at the mosque. At a signal given at an opportune moment, they would leap into action to stab and slash their victim, while shouting the name of their cult’s leader and whatever offense the victim had given. Stories also abound of Assassin sleepers who diligently worked their way for years up the ranks and into the inner circle of a given court, where they would patiently await instructions that might take decades to arrive, if ever. In some instances, a victim would discover in the final moments of his life that one or more of his bodyguards were Assassin cultists.
9. A Cult That Turned Intimidation Into an Art Form
Murder was not the Assassins’ only go-to tactic. It was always an option, but they often resorted to intimidation instead. One example is that of the Seljuk Sultan Sanjar, who had rebuffed ambassadors from the cult. He changed his mind after he woke up one morning to find a note pinned to the ground near his bed by a dagger. It informed him that if the Assassins wished him ill, the dagger stuck into the hard ground could have easily been stuck into his soft breast instead. As a result, peace reigned between Seljuks and Assassins for decades. The Old Man of the Mountain was paid protection money, face-savingly described as a “pension”, and was permitted to collect tolls from travelers who passed near his fortresses.
Another whom the Assassins intimidated was Sultan Saladin, leader of the revived Islamic resistance against the Crusades. After he recaptured Jerusalem from the Crusaders in 1187, Saladin went after the Assassins, who had murdered his predecessor, and sought to end the cult once and for all. However, while encamped near their holdfasts in the mountains of northern Syria, he awoke in his tent one morning to discover that the Assassins had bypassed all his bodyguards and layers of protection. They left a menacing letter pinned to his pillow by a poisoned dagger, that advised the sultan that they could kill him whenever and wherever they wanted. Saladin turned his army around, abandoned the campaign, and sent officials to negotiate an understanding with the current Old Man of the Mountain. Via such means, grudging live-and-let-live relationships were developed between the Assassins and the region’s powers.
The Order of Assassins was finally broken by the Mongols under Hulagu, when they overran the region in the 1250s. Unlike the local powers whom the cult had intimidated for generations, the Mongols were largely immune from the murderous sect’s methods. The Steppe warriors were an alien people from far away, with no connections to the region. Mongol leaders were not surrounded by Middle Eastern courtiers, but by their own kind, and dwelled not at court in fixed palaces, but in armed and highly mobile camps in which strangers conspicuously stood out.
That negated the cult’s tactics of patient infiltration and blending in, which had worked so well in a region they knew and whose peoples they understood. Such methods were useless against the Mongols, whom the Assassins neither knew nor understood, and whose ranks they had neither the means nor time to infiltrate. The Mongols appeared too suddenly, acted too swiftly, and were too alien for the Assassins to get a handle on them or work out viable strategies and tactics to get to their leadership. The Mongols’ bloodthirstiness, savagery, speed of action and reaction, and lack of interest in negotiations, simply went beyond anything that the Assassins had ever experienced.
In the runup to their invasion of the Middle East, the Mongols began to attack and seize Assassin fortresses in 1253. As a preliminary to his conquest of the region, Hulagu took a detour in 1256 to storm the cult’s strongholds in Persia. He captured the last Old Man of the Mountain and forced him to order the other Assassin fortresses in Persia to surrender. Forty of them, including the cult’s main fortress of Alamout Castle, did so, and the Mongols razed them to the ground. Hulagu then sent the Old Man of the Mountain in chains to the Grand Khan in Mongolia, who had him executed. The Mongols then slaughtered all whom they could lay their hands on of the Nizari cult to which the Assassins belonged, along with their families.
It was a thorough genocide that broke the Assassins’ power once and for all, and reduced them, according to a contemporary historian, to “but a tale on men’s lips and a tradition in the world”. Remnants of the Assassins survived in Syria, which lay outside the Mongols’ control, until the Egyptian Mamelukes first reduced them to vassalage in the 1260s, and finally forced them to surrender their last fortresses in 1273. They were suffered to live and kept on retainer as contract killers, but their independence was forever gone. In that final iteration of contract killers, the steadily dwindling cult existed for a few decades more and survived into the following century before it vanished forever into the mists of history.
6. The Medieval World Was Not as Drab as It Is Depicted in Movies and TV
If we go by Hollywood’s and TV’s depiction of the medieval world, then we would have to conclude that life back then must have been pretty drab. Just about everybody is shown clad in dull brown clothes, occasionally broken by a bit of black thrown into the mix. Buildings are either plain brown wood for the lower classes’ dwellings or unadorned stone grey for the castles of the aristocratic elites or the churches and cathedrals of the usually brown-clad clergy.
However, the reality is that people back in the Middle Ages did not restrict themselves to shades of brown and black. Instead, they tried to get as colorful as they could whenever possible. People in the medieval era liked to take a paint brush to anything that couldn’t move and liked to pack as many colors into their wardrobe as possible. Those with means would decorate their walls with vibrant tapestries and frescoes, and their clothes would often have splashes of color by way of trim, or they might be brightly dyed.
5. Churches in the Middle Ages Were Riots of Color
In movies, medieval castles and churches are typically depicted as structures made of unadorned plain stone. In reality, however, people in the Middle Ages went for vibrant – even garish – colors when it came to buildings. New cathedrals, for example, were riots of color when they were inaugurated. Walls, saints, and even gargoyles were coated in the brightest paints available. Over the years, however, the paint faded. Then, as tastes evolved – and budgets diminished – repainting in the original vibrant colors was done with less and less frequency.
Eventually, such repainting was abandoned all together. Because of that, what we see of medieval churches and cathedrals that have survived into the modern era is that they are usually plain and unadorned. We are mistaken, however, when we assume that how those buildings look today is how they looked back in the Middle Ages. For example, the left side of the above photo is of the entrance of the Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of Amiens in France as it looks today. The right is a laser projection of how it would have looked in the medieval era, based on paint residue in its pores.
4. Vacation Time and Vibrant Colors Did Not Make the Medieval Era a Great Time to Be Alive
The fact that medieval peasants worked fewer hours than us and had more holidays, or that the medieval world was a vibrantly colorful one, does not mean that the Middle Ages were a great time to be alive. They were not, especially for commoners in feudal Europe. There, society was divided into de facto castes or layers, with the 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 benefitted from the commoners’ labor, in exchange for “protection”. There was a twist, though: the protection offered by members of the upper castes was often from fellow upper caste members.
Although those in the upper social layers were not as screwed as the commoners at the bottom, life was no bed roses for them either. Violence was rife across all classes. Even if we discount deaths in wars or dealt by knights in rampages 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.
The medieval world was rife with contagious diseases, and 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 medieval era one of history’s most dangerous periods, especially for city people. Add mediocre standards of medical care and knowledge, and it is no surprise that life expectancy back then was abysmally low. Among the worst diseases was leprosy, which devastated sufferers’ health as well as their social status. A little misunderstood disease even today, leprosy carried a huge stigma in the Middle Ages.
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 reads: “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.”
Holy Fire, also known as Saint Anthony’s Fire, was one of the more colorfully named medieval diseases. It was named after the monks of the Order of Saint Anthony, who was particularly successful in the treatment of those struck by the disease. Modern medicine, not given to colorful names, knows it as ergotism. Quaint name aside, it was a horrible illness whose victims suffered greatly. 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, and sometimes imagined that they were in a fight with the Devil. 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”.
In the late medieval era, a new disease is known as the “sweating sickness” suddenly emerged, first in England, and from there, it 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: copious sweat. 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.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading