Some of what most of us know – or think we know – about the medieval period is true, and some not so much. In many ways, medieval people were just like us, and in many other ways, they were extremely different, with beliefs and habits and mores that simply do not have equivalents in our modern world. But for all the similarities and differences, life for people in the the Middle Ages had its share of hardships, pleasures, excitements, quirks, and strange, strange, stuff. Following are forty things about fascinating medieval facts and figures.
40. It is a Myth That Medieval People Avoided Water and Drank Alcoholic Beverages Exclusively
You might have heard or read that people in centuries past only drank beer and wine in lieu of water, because water was too often contaminated with deadly pathogens. That is not true. During the Middle Ages, 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 go through. While contamination was a problem, 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. In medieval days, health manuals and medical texts positively praised water as being good for you – so long as it came from good sources. Indeed, authorities in the Middle Ages 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 middle of the city, where people had free access to it.
39. Medieval People Mostly Drank Water – But Still Preferred Beer and Wine
Although people in the Middle Ages did not avoid water per se, they preferred beer and wine. Assuming, of course, they could get and afford such alcoholic beverages. People did drink a whole lot of beer and ale and wine in those days, but 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 that preference, such as during public celebrations in London. For example, the return of Edward I from the Crusades and the coronation of Richard II saw London stop the flow of water in its pipes, and its replacement 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 were far weaker than they are today. Also, considering the long days and hard labor 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.
Elections might not have been as widespread and regular in the Middle Ages as they are today, nor did they have anything like universal suffrage, but medieval people 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, not least among them just how narrow was the slice of the population that got to do any electing. However, there were also striking parallels, chief among them the belief that elections conferred legitimacy.
Views on elections were ambivalent in the Middle Ages. 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 war.
37. The Medieval Church Did Not Conduct Witch Hunts
When picturing the Middle Ages, it is assumed by many that the era was one of widespread superstition, during which church authorities were burning witches left, right, and center. While it is true that medieval people were extremely superstitious, especially when compared to the modern era, their superstitions did not find expression in witch hunts. While there were some witch trials in the Middle Ages, they were relatively rare, and were usually done by the secular authorities, 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, that took off after Heinrich Kramer wrote the infamous Malleus Mallificarum 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 says.
36. People Were Not Blindly Religious in the Middle Ages
Examples of extreme religiosity abound in the Middle Ages, ranging from mass pilgrimages, to flagellants, to mystics and saints. However, that does not mean that medieval people were fixated on religion, nor does it mean that they did not engage in skeptical reflection. Many ordinary people were not that sold on a variety of beliefs, doubting whether saints actually performed miracles, whether the miracle of the Eucharist was real, or 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, but attributed such matters 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, and that people preferred instead to spend their day of rest sleeping or larking about.
35. Oxford University’s Students Went to War With the Townspeople
On February 10th, 1355, 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, and 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 taverner’s face, as a prelude to beating the daylights out of him. Oxford’s mayor asked the university to arrest the thuggish students, but his request was ignored. Instead, 200 students sided with Springheuse and 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 hunt down the students, crying: “Havoc! Havoc! Smyte [smite] fast! Give gode knocks!” The students were routed, with 63 of them killed, while 30 locals also lost their lives. In the aftermath, authorities sided with the university, and every year thereafter, on February 10th, Oxford’s mayor and 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.
34. Mob Football Was Very Violent – and Very Popular
In the medieval era, especially in England, the run up to Lent often saw a rough ball game that came to be known as mob football. There were regional variations on the game throughout Europe, but the format tended to share basic similarities. Teams from different villages and towns, numbering anywhere from a few dozen to hundreds of players, would meet in a fairly central location. Then a ball was thrown, and the competing teams vied with each other to capture a ball and take it back home – usually to their church’s front porch.
There were usually no restrictions as to team sizes, or ball handling. The massive matches usually lasted for an entire day, with many players dropping out due to fatigue or injuries. Bruises, scratches, cuts, and lacerations were common, and sometimes even death. Despite those risks, medieval mob football remained popular throughout Europe for centuries. Because of its destructive nature, however, mob football was eventually banned in England by king Edward II in 1314. In what might or might not be a coincidence, Edward II went down in history as one of England’s most unpopular and despised kings.
33. Not Everybody in Medieval Europe Was Christian, or White
Most people in Europe during the Middle Ages were Christian and white, but not all all. Medieval Europe had Jews and Muslims, and even Pagans, with the numbers of the followers of each religion varying from region to region, depending on its history and culture. Throughout most of the medieval era, Jews could be found in all parts of Europe. Muslims were common – at times even a majority – in the Iberian Peninsula, had a significant presence in Sicily, and could be found in many ports and trading centers. Up north, in Prussia, Scandinavia, and the Baltics, Pagans predominated.
The dividing line in those days was religion, not race. Indeed, race was not as defined back then as it is now, so “white” or “black” mattered less in the Middle Ages than did one’s religion. A swarthy or dark skinned bishop from Egypt, North Africa, or Nubia, for the example, was deemed to be more civilized, and possessed of a higher rank, than a white slave from the Pagan parts of Europe. Discrimination was more likely to be based on religion than skin color, so Jews or Cathars and other European heretics were likely to have a worse time than non-white Christians.
Modern concepts of justice – especially the belief in rational adjudication as a means of determining justice – were not as widespread in the Middle Ages as they are today. A common alternative to trying a dispute before a neutral arbiter learned in the law, to decide the facts of a case and the rights and wrongs of it, was trial by ordeal. The idea was to subject an accused or both parties to a dispute to dangerous and painful experience, whose outcome was unknown going in, and then “let God decide” who was innocent or guilty or in the right.
Variations included ordeal by water, in which an accused was tied and thrown into a body of water, and were deemed innocent if they 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 their hand healed after three days, they were innocent, if not, they were guilty. For the aristocrats, there was ordeal by combat, with accusers fighting the accused, and victory presumably going to the one in the right.
Few things are as slippery as an eel, so maybe that difficulty in getting a hold of them explains why they were sometimes used as currency during the Middle Ages. 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, Cambridgeshire, and 2000 sticks from his watermill in Datchet, Buckinghamshire.
Which raises the question: just how much were eels worth? 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 $8.25 in 2017 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 would have gotten about $8250 in rent for his Bottisham watermill, and $16,500 for the one in Datchet.
Japanese warrior, general, and statesman Ashikaga Takauji (1305 – 1358) had a life and career full of twists and turns, during which he switched sides multiple times. At the end, he rose at age 33 to become shogun, or military dictator, and founded the Ashikaga Shogunate which dominated Japan for nearly two and a half centuries. His career began in in service to the powerful Hojo clan, which ran Japan’s then-Kamakura Shogunate. In 1333, Takauji was tasked by the Hojos with ending a civil war against Japan’s figurehead emperor, but he came to dislike the Hojos and switched sides, joining the emperor, instead. With Takauji’s help, the Hojos were defeated and compelled to commit suicide, ending the Kamakura Shogunate.
The emperor was restored to power, and established the first imperial government that wielded both military and political power since the 10th century. For his troubles, however, Takauji was rewarded with an accusation of having murdered an imperial prince while campaigning. He responded by switching sides once again, and turning on the emperor whom he had only recently restored to the throne. Takauji defeated the emperor, reducing him once again to a figurehead, and assumed the military dictatorship of Japan. The Ashikaga Shogunate founded by him went on to rule the country from 1338 to 1573. Contemporary Japanese intellectuals credited Takauji’s success to three factors. First, calm courage in battle, during which exhibited no fear of death. Second, mercy towards defeated foes and tolerance, which often meant that surrender was a viable option for his opponents. Third, an open handed generosity to subordinates, which earned and cemented their loyalty.
In 1415, England’s king Henry V was marching through Normandy with an army of 5000 longbowmen and 1000 knights, when his path was blocked by a French army that outnumbered his six to one. Henry picked a position near Agincourt, with flanks protected by woods, and a muddy field in front of him. He placed longbowmen on his flanks, and his dismounted knights and more longbowmen in the center. He then had his men hammer pointed stakes in front of their positions, and waited for the French to attack. The French obliged, and their commander ordered his first wave of mounted knights to charge. However, the muddy fields, the weight of their heavy armor, the rows of sharpened stakes in their path, and the rain of arrows spelled trouble. The charge wallowed to a halt, and a throng of disorganized French milled about in front of the English positions.
The English then attacked, and within minutes, the entire French first wave was killed or captured. A second French wave attacked, but was beaten back. While this was going on, king Henry received mistaken reports that he was being attacked in the rear. Judging that he lacked the men to guard thousands of prisoners, Henry ordered the captives executed. By the time he learned the reports were mistaken and ordered a halt to the executions, about 2000 prisoners had been massacred. The French sent in their third and final wave, but it was also repulsed. Henry then ordered his small contingent of knights to mount up and charge the French, who, thoroughly demoralized by now, were routed. Estimated losses were about 600 English killed vs 10,000 French dead on the field of battle, plus another 2000 executed prisoners.
28. The Jacquerie: When Oppressed French Peasants Snapped
French aristocrats used to contemptuously refer to all peasants as “Jacques” or “Jacques Bonhomme”, after a padded overgarment worn by them called a “jacque”. So when those peasants erupted in a revolt in 1358, it came to be known as “The Jacquerie”. The uprising was led by a well off peasant named Guillaume Cale, from Beauvais, about 50 miles from Paris. France at the time was undergoing a rough patch following the outbreak of the Hundred Years War. The peasantry, upon whose toil all rested and through whose fields the armies marched and pillaged, endured the roughest patch of all. Their overlords, the French nobility, were not doing well, either, and their prestige had sunk to a low ebb after a series of humiliating defeats.
Early in the century, France’s aristocrats had turned tail and fled at the Battle of the Spurs, leaving the infantry commoners to be slaughtered. More recently, they had suffered catastrophic defeats at the hands of the English in the Battles of Crecy and Poitiers. The latter battle was particularly humiliating because the nobility allowed the French king’s capture. The defeat’s aftermath was also particularly onerous upon the peasantry, because the English demanded a huge ransom for the king’s release, which ransom was ultimately squeezed from the peasants. Finally, the French nobility failed in their basic function and the raison d’etre that justified their high status, of protecting the populace from enemy depredations. Unchecked by the peasants’ aristocratic overlords and supposed protectors, bands of English and Gascon mercenaries roamed the countryside, pillaging and raping, at will.
27. Oppressed Peasants Were So Mad at Their Oppressors, That They Forced Them to Eat Each Other
Eventually, the downtrodden French peasants had had enough. On May 21st, 1358, matters came to a head when peasants from a village near the Oise river killed a knight. They then roasted their victim on a spit, and forced his children to eat his flesh. The revolt spread quickly, as peasants razed local castles and slaughtered their inhabitants. Before long, the disparate rebel bands in the countryside began coalescing under the leadership of Guillaume Cale, who then joined forces with Parisian rebels under Etienne Marcel.
The revolt burned hot, but it also burned out quick, and the undisciplined and untrained rebels were soon routed once the militarily trained and better armed aristocrats organized and set out to suppress the revolt. The Paris uprising collapsed after its leader was assassinated, while Guillaume Cale, with his peasant army assembled to meet that of the nobles, unwisely accepted an invitation for truce talks with the armed nobles’ leader, Charles the Bad of Navarre. Cale was treacherously seized when he showed up, and was then tortured and beheaded. The now-leaderless peasant army was then ridden down by knights and routed, after which the peasants were subjected to massive collective reprisals and a reign of terror in which roughly 20,000 were killed.
26. Genghis Khan Killed His Brother For Refusing to Share a Rodent
Before he became famous as Genghis Khan, the mighty Mongol conqueror was born Temujin, the son of a minor tribal chieftain. When Temujin was nine, his father was murdered, and tribal rivals then banished his widow and her family of five children to fend for themselves on the harsh Steppe. It was a veritable death sentence, but Temujin’s mother managed to keep her children alive. Or at least managed to keep most of them alive: the family endured such dire want and poverty, and things got so bad, that Temujin killed an older brother for refusing to share a rodent.
The ruthless Temujin grew into a tough but charismatic man, and as a youth, he began amassing a small and devoted following. He had an instinct for tribal politics, and he parlayed his steadily growing band of followers into bringing the disparate Mongol clans under his sway, one after another, until he unified the entire tribe under his leadership. Temujin then implemented sweeping reforms, aimed at erasing intra-tribal distinctions. He accomplished that by the extreme but effective expedient of exterminating the Mongols’ fractious tribal aristocracy. He then combined the commoners into a unified tribe, bound by their personal allegiance to Temujin.
Francesco Sforza (1401 – 1466) was probably Italy’s most successful condottiero, or soldier of fortune. During a lifetime filled with twists and turns, Sforza became a mercenary general, turned on his employers and switched sides multiple times, and finally made himself duke of Milan, founding the Sforza Dynasty which ruled that city and strongly influenced northern Italy and Italian politics for a century. Sforza was the illegitimate son of a mercenary commander, and accompanied his father on campaigns starting at age 17. He quickly developed a reputation for toughness and strength, and became famous for his ability to bend metal bars with his bare hands.
Following his father’s drowning during battle against a rival in 1424, Sforza took command of his father’s men. He then proved himself a brilliant tactician and battlefield commander, and went on to win the battle, killing his father’s rival in the process. Sforza then signed on to fight for multiple Italian rulers, including the Pope, the Neapolitans, and duke Visconti of Milan, whom Sforza fought alternately for and against during the next two decades. During one of the intervals when he got along well with Milan’s duke, Sforza betrothed Visconti’s illegitimate daughter and only child in 1433.
A year after marrying the Duke of Milan’s daughter, Francisco Sforza switched sides and left his father in law’s employ for that of his rival, Cosimo de Medici of Florence. In 1438, Sforza fought for Florence against his prospective father in law, and inflicted crushing defeats on Milan. In 1441, he patched things up with Milan’s duke, and finally married his daughter. Two years later however, in 1443, he again switched sides and fought against his now-father in law.When the duke of Milan died in 1447 without a male heir, the Milanese rebelled and proclaimed a republic, and hired Sforza as their military commander.
A three-sided struggle then ensued between the Milanese republic, the rival city of Venice, and Sforza. When the Milanese signed a peace with Venice in 1449 against Sforza’s wishes, he turned on his employers and switched sides, this time backing himself. He besieged Milan, starved it into submission, and entered the city in 1450 as its new duke. Francesco Sforza’s shrewdness, opportunism, and successful deviousness made him the exemplar and model of Machiavelli’s prince. He had won his state by dint of his exceptional ability and skill rather than through luck or inheriting it by winning the lottery of birth. He then went on to consolidate his gains and secure them sufficiently to found a dynasty.
Robert Guiscard (1015 – 1085), also known known as the Weasel or the Wily, was a Norman knight who settled in southern Italy about 1047. After a series of adventures, he made himself Duke of Apulia in 1059. He then and transformed southern Italy into a Norman domain by extending his rule over Calabria, Naples, and Sicily, laying the foundations for the Kingdom of Sicily. The Weasel was a descendant of Vikings who settled in northwest France, learned French, married the locals, and came to be known as Normans. In 911, the French made a face-saving agreement with their leader, Duke Rollo, whereby they recognized him as feudal lord of Normandy in exchange for the Normans’ conversion to Catholicism and protection of Paris from other Vikings.
In the early 11th century, some Norman knights passed through Italy en route to pilgrimage to Jerusalem. They found Italy agreeable, and stayed, finding employment as mercenaries for Italian lords who were impressed by the Norman lancers’ cavalry charges. Those Norman knights’ sons, of whom Robert Guiscard was one, eventually formed an independent army. In 1047, Guiscard The Weasel used them to make himself Duke of Apulia, and from there, he led an invasion of southern Italy in 1053, warring against the Pope.
Robert Guiscard, The Weasel, defeated and captured the Pope, and forced him to bless him as the king of Calabria – the toe of the Italian boot. That angered the Byzantines, as The Weasel had designs on Bari, their naval base in Italy. A rift opened between Rome and Constantinople, which culminated in 1054 with the Pope excommunicating the entire Eastern Church – a schism between the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches that is ongoing to this day. All thanks to The Weasel. Then in 1060, The Weasel sent his younger brother Roger to wrest Sicily from the Arabs. In the meantime, he seized Bari from the Byzantines, then took the war to Constantinople by invading Greece in 1081. He won a hard fought victory in which the Normans suffered heavy losses, and was forced to return to Italy to raise more men and supplies.
The Weasel found the men, but had no money for supplies, so to raise the funds, he sacked Rome harder than it had been sacked since the barbarian invasions centuries earlier. His machinations finally came to an end when a sudden illness took him in 1085. At some point, while roiling the Mediterranean world, The Weasel fell in love with a six foot Amazon named Sichelgaita, who went into battle, armed and armored at his side. So he divorced his wife, married Sichelgaita, and to please his new woman, disinherited his oldest son by his first wife, Bohemond. That compelled Bohemond to join the First Crusade in search of his own fortune, and set him on the road to adventures as grand and rollicking as those of his father.
In the late medieval era, Swiss pike wielding mercenaries were in high demand. Swiss infantrymen had developed a fierce reputation while defending their liberties against their Hapsburg overlords, with upset victories against heavily armed and armored knights in the battles of Morgarten in 1315, and Laupen in 1339. That earned the Swiss a reputation as elite foot soldiers, and their renown grew with further victories against their neighbors, as they expanded the boundaries of the Swiss Confederation. The Swiss peasants who filled the ranks had no notions of chivalry, and felt no urge to capture enemy knights and aristocrats for ransom. Instead, they earned a terrifying reputation for giving no quarter, and reveled in slaughtering their foes. Infantrymen who could routinely defeat knights – undisputed lords of the battlefield for centuries – and whose mere presence on the battlefield terrified their foes and sapped their morale, were highly sought after.
The French Valois kings, for example, virtually refused to offer battle unless they had Swiss pikemen at the core of their infantry formations. The Swiss were more than happy to hire themselves out as mercenaries, but unlike most mercenaries, they did not hire themselves out as individuals. Instead, prospective employers contracted directly with local Swiss governments to hire their militias. That set the Swiss apart from run of the mill mercenary companies, comprised of a motley collection of adventurers gathered from all over. Swiss mercenaries, hired as entire militia units, were ready-made trained contingents that had practiced together for years, and were knit together by ties of kinship, neighborliness, and personal acquaintance. That gave them strong unit cohesion and esprit de corps, and made them especially formidable on the battlefield.
20. Swiss and German Mercenaries Had a Serious Grudge Against Each Other
The German Landsknechts began as a poor man’s version of the feared Swiss pikemen, but eventually displaced the Swiss as Europe’s supreme mercenary forces. The first Landsknecht units were formed in 1487, when Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I directed a Swabian commander, Georg von Frundsberg, to form mercenary regiments. Frundsberg, who came to be known as the “father of the Landsknechts”, consciously modeled the new units on the Swiss pikemen, and hired Swiss instructors to train them. Landsknecht used pikemen like the Swiss, but flanked them with supporting troops armed with firearms, halberds, and swords. By then, the Swiss formation and tactics, dependent on a tightly packed phalanx of pikemen and close hand to hand combat, were becoming outdated and increasingly vulnerable to firearms and artillery.
The Landsknecht, in pike blocks of about 200 men that were lighter, smaller, and thus more maneuverable than their Swiss counterparts, were intended to fight the Swiss after their ranks had been thinned by arquebuses and cannon. When Landsknecht and Swiss pikemen met, it was like fighting dogs in a pit: no quarter was asked or given, in what was referred to as schlechten krieg, or “bad war”. The Landsknechts’ tactical innovations, fighting while supported by firearms, gave them an edge, and at the Battle of Marignano in 1515, they beat the Swiss. The Landsknechts thus earned a terrifying reputation on the battlefield, but it was eclipsed by an even more terrifying reputation for their conduct off the battlefield. Landsknechts were notoriously undisciplined, and had no compunctions about going on rampages and taking what they were owed by force if they were not paid on time.
Sir Henry Percy, commonly known as Hotspur (1364 – 1403), was an English nobleman and commander who distinguished himself fighting against the Scots. He also led successive rebellions against king Henry IV of England. Hotspur was immortalized by William Shakespeare, who made him a prominent character in his play, Henry IV. He earned the nickname Hotspur from his Scottish enemies because of his diligence in patrolling the border between England and Scotland, and “[a]s a tribute to his speed in advance and readiness to attack“. In recognition of his military service in Scotland, as well as France, king Richard II made Hotspur a Knight of the Garter in 1388, and showered him with royal favors in the form of grants and appointments. Despite that largess, Hotspur and his father helped Henry Bolingbrook, the future king Henry IV, to overthrow Richard II in 1399.
Henry IV rewarded Hotspur and his father with titles, lands, and offices. However, the Percys grew discontented when the new king failed to pay monies owed them for defending the border with Scotland, as well as other slights, real and imagined. So they rebelled in 1403, with Hotspur raising an army in Cheshire while his father raised another in Northumberland. The king intercepted Hotspur before he could join forces with his father, and in the ensuing Battle of Shrewsbury, Hotspur was killed. King Henry wept upon seeing Hotspur’s body, and ordered it buried with honors. However, when rumors circulated that Hotspur was still alive, the king put them to a rest by exhuming his corpse and displaying it at the Shrewsbury marketplace. He then had Hotspur’s head severed and displayed on a pike atop York’s main city gate, while his body was quartered, with the pieces displayed around England.
When asked to picture “Mongol hordes”, the image that comes to most people’s minds usually involves huge swarms of disorganized barbarians, who attacked in a wild charge, and overwhelmed their enemy with numbers and reckless savagery. In reality however, Genghis Khan’s Mongols seldom had numerical superiority over their foes. Instead, they swept across Eurasia and conquered a vast empire despite being severely outnumbered by their enemies. Indeed, Genghis and his warriors won their empire by routinely annihilating opposing forces that outnumbered them by factors of two to one, three to one, and four to one or more. Genghis’ men won despite their numerical inferiority because they were professionals, who were extremely good at warfare.
The Mongols and other Steppe nomads absorbed by Genghis Khan had been riding horses since they were toddlers, and had been taught how to master the bow and arrow since early childhood. That made them prime cavalry material when they joined Genghis’ army, where they underwent extensive training that transformed them into a mounted elite. Genghis saw to it that his men practiced the individual skills of archery and horsemanship almost daily, and had them train constantly to master unit tactics. He drilled them in maneuvers, formation changes, rotations, advances, retreats, and massed archery, until they became second nature. Genghis Khan further revolutionized Steppe warfare by placing his warriors in a well organized hierarchical structure, with an effective chain of command.
William the Aetheling (1103 – 1120) was the heir and only legitimate son of king Henry I of England. William was spoiled rotten, and according to a contemporary chronicler, he was pampered so much that it was clear he was “destined to be food for the fire“. That indulgence had fatal consequences, when the young prince got himself killed in a silly accident. In November of 1120, after a diplomatic visit to France, a fleet was assembled to transport king Henry and his court across the English Channel back to England. The 17 year old prince William made plans to cross in a vessel known as the White Ship, the English navy’s pride and fastest ship. William and his companions turned the affair into a wild party, and delayed the crossing while they got rip roaring drunk on shore with the ship’s crew.
Then, in a state of high intoxication, the prince and his entourage of about 300 people boarded the White Ship to make a nighttime crossing. By then, king Henry had already sailed hours earlier. The drunk prince and his friends challenged the ship’s captain and crew to make a race of it and catch and bypass the king’s ship before it reached England. Captain and crew were confident of the White Ship’s speed, and so accepted. Furiously rowing, fueled by copious amounts of wine while being cheered and urged by the drunk prince and his friends, the equally drunk crew set a good pace. However, in their inebriated state, the sailors failed to keep a good lookout, and mistakenly rowed into a hazardous stretch, where they struck a partially submerged rock. The White Ship was holed and quickly sank, and hundreds drowned, including the prince.
Bela I of Hungary (circa 1020 – 1063) was king from 1060 until his death. During his years as monarch, he solidified Hungary’s Christian identity by putting down a final pagan rebellion. He also fought a successful war against Holy Roman Emperor Henry III to defend Hungary’s independence. Soon after becoming king, an uprising erupted, demanding a return to paganism and an end to Christianity, which had become the official state religion a few decades earlier. Bela responded by mobilizing an army and crushing the pagans. In 1063, he successfully fought off a German invasion under the auspices of the Holy Roman Emperor, and asserted Hungarian independence from foreign domination.
Bela accomplished much during his relatively brief tenure on the throne. Unfortunately for him, it was his very throne that would prove his undoing. His rather undignified end came 1063, after his throne tottered and fell. “Throne tottered and fell” is not meant here as a figure of speech, or an allusion to a weakening of his power and authority, but literally. One September day in 1063, Bela I held court in his summer palace in Domos. Flanked by his senior advisors, and with his noblemen and officials gathered before him, the king regally ascended the steps to his throne and took a seat. Unregaly, the heavy wooden throne collapsed once the royal posterior sat down. Bela I was severely injured in front of his horrified court, and died of his wounds soon thereafter.
Khawlah bint al Azwar (flourished 600s AD) was the daughter of an Arab tribal chief, who allowed her to learn alongside her brother warrior skills such as swordsmanship and horseback riding, as well as poetry. When her brother converted to the then-new religion of Islam, Khawlah also adopted the new faith. She first gained note as a warrior in 634, during the Arab siege of Damascus, when her brother was wounded and taken prisoner by the city’s Byzantine defenders. Khawlah donned armor and arms, and covering her face with a shawl to hide her gender, charged the Byzantine rearguard alone. She fought until reinforcements arrived to rescue her brother from captivity. At the battle of Ajnadayn later that year, her brother was again taken prisoner, and Khawlah again rushed to his rescue, covering her face and charging in alone until reinforcements arrived.
By the time the Byzantines were beaten, Khawlah was drenched in blood. The army’s commander, Khalid ibn al Walid, unaware of her identity or gender, ordered her to remove the shawl from her face. When she finally relented, he ordered her to the rear, but soon changed his mind and put her in command of a mobile column to pursue the fleeing Byzantines. On another occasion, Khawlah was herself captured along with other women, and taken to an enemy general’s tent, who divided the captives among his officers as slaves and concubines. Khawlah roused the captives, and seizing tent poles, they fell upon their captors, and she made her escape in the ensuing confusion. Nowadays, she is remembered as one of the greatest female warriors in the history of Islam, with hardly any sizeable city in the Muslim world that does not have at least one school named after her.
Between 1323 – 1328, the peasants and burghers of Flanders rose up in revolt. Their new ruler Count Louis I had hit them with heavy new taxes, and adopted unpopular pro-French policies, detrimental to Flemish, whose economy revolved around trade with England. It was a violent class protest by peasants who had hitherto enjoyed self government, a privileged form of land tenancy, and legal protections against aristocratic abuses, all of which they sensed were now under threat. The peasants allied with the cities’ burghers, whose struggle to keep and expand their hard-won liberties was threatened by Flanders’ count and his ally, the king of France. It began with scattered rural riots in 1323, with peasants refusing to pay taxes after a poor harvest. Soon, the rioters coalesced into larger bands, led by prosperous farmers, local gentry, and the mayor of Bruges. The Count was forced to negotiate a peace in 1324.
The rebels returned to the warpath, however, following the murder of a commoner by a knight, and Count Louis’ arrest of six Bruges burghers. The 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, the count 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.
French king Charles VI (1368 – 1422) started his reign so auspiciously that he was known early on to his subjects as as “Charles the Well-Loved”. However, that had more to do with the fact that he ascended the throne at age 11, too young to wield power and actually do any harm, while his kingdom was governed by regents. That all changed after Charles 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 then-24 year 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, and was so fired up 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. He was shooed away, but kept following the king, shouting his warnings. While that was going on, a drowsy page dropped a lance, which clanged off somebody’s helmet. Something about the noise made Charles snap, and 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.
A year after flipping out during a campaign and killing a bunch of his soldiers, Charles VI got amnesia. He forgot his own name and that he was king, and failed to recognize his wife. Between 1395-1396, he even imagined that he was Saint George. The king 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 his insanity took the form of imagining that he was made of glass, and growing extremely frightened of shattering if he fell or was jostled. So he attempted to avert the danger by inserting iron rods in his clothes. At other times, Charles would run wildly at top speed, on the streets or in the halls of his palace. It got so bad, that 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.
Like other nomads of the Eurasian Steppe, Genghis Khan’s Mongols had some advantages that gave them an edge against their settled neighbors. Chief among those was their mobility: nomads grew up with, and often on, horses. Accustomed to a life on the move, the nomads were seldom tied to a specific location whose defense obligated them to stand up and fight. After raiding into the settled lands, the nomads were often able to depart with their booty before the civilized authorities had mobilized a response. If their victims pursued them into the Steppe, the nomads often had the luxury of choosing when, where, and whether to fight.
In addition to strategic mobility, the Mongols had some tactical advantages that gave them an edge over the armies of their civilized neighbors. First and foremost among those was that the nomad forces were entirely cavalry. Mounted on horseback, the nomads’ steeds gave them a battlefield mobility that made it difficult to force them to fight to the death. If a battle started going against them, the nomads could often ride away and retreat, to lick their wounds, and live to fight another day.
10. Genghis Khan’s Grandson Terrorized the Middle East
Genghis Khan’s grandson Hulagu (1217 – 1265) was definitely a grand-chip off the bloody old conqueror’s block. A younger brother of the Grand Khans Mongke and Kublai, Hulagu expanded the Mongol domain into Western Asia with a savagery that remains in the region’s memory to this day. In 1251, Hulagu was recognized by his brother Mongke as ruler of Persia, and tasked with extending Mongol power into the Islamic world. During his ensuing rampage in the region, he destroyed Baghdad and extinguished the Abbasid Caliphate, conquered Syria, and menaced Egypt and the surviving Crusader states. He also destroyed medieval Persian culture, and founded the Ilkhanate in Persia – a precursor of modern Iran.
Hulagu attacked and seized the mountain fortress of the Assassins cult, a militant Islamic sect led by a mystic known as the “Old Man of the Mountain”, who recruited and brainwashed young men by getting them high on hashish. He then set them loose in a beautiful garden full of gorgeous women. When they came down from the high and woke up, they were back in regular and austere surroundings. He convinced the youth that they had had been in paradise, and that the only way to return was to die while killing for him. It proved highly effective. The Old Man of the Mountain, with no shortage of horny young men high on hash and desperate to die while killing his enemies so they could return to paradise, terrorized the Middle East for generations, until Hulagu extinguished the cult.
After settling the Assassins’ hash, Hulagu turned his attention to the Abbasid Caliphate. When the Caliph refused to submit, Hulagu invaded, besieged him in Baghdad, and captured the city in 1258. Hulagu then destroyed the city along with all its treasures, such as the Grand Library of Baghdad, and massacred between 200,000 to a million inhabitants. To avoid a Mongol taboo against spilling royal blood, the captured Caliph was executed by being rolled into a carpet, which was then trampled by Mongol horses riding over it. That ended the Abbasids, and the Islamic institution of the Caliphate. Hulagu then conquered Syria, bringing to an end the Ayubbid dynasty founded by Saladin.
He then set his eyes on Egypt, but on the eve of invasion he received word that his brother Mongke had died. As a potential successor, Hulagu returned to Mongolia, and in his absence, the Mongols he left behind under a trusted subordinate were wiped out by the Egyptian Mameluks at the Battle of Ain Jalut in 1260. It was the first major defeat of a Mongol army, and it broke the spell of Mongol invincibility. Hulagu was not selected to succeed his brother as Great Khan, so he returned west to avenge the defeat at Ain Jalut. Instead, he ended up warring with a cousin, Berke, who had succeeded to leadership of the Golden Horde, converted to Islam, and was enraged by Hulagu’s rampage in the Muslim world. The war with Berke was Hulagu’s main focus for the remainder of his life, until his death in 1265.
8. The White Company: The English Freebooters Who Terrified Italy
Sir John Hawkwood (1320 – 1394) was an English mercenary who worked in Italy as a condotierre. Frequently switching sides, he played a significant role in 14th century Italy’s wars and politics. He began his career during the Hundred Years War in the armies of England’s king Edward III, who knighted Hawkwood for exceptional service. When that war was temporarily interrupted by a peace treaty in 1360, Hawkwood left for Italy at the head of a company of mercenaries, and joined an English unit known as the White Company. In 1364, he was elected captain-general of the White Company, and he elevated its reputation. Hawkwood transformed the White Company into an elite and highly sought after unit by adopting the English longbow and tactics successfully used in France. He also lightened his men’s armor and equipment, which made them famous for the rapidity of their movements, and instilled strict discipline.
During the 1370s, Hawkwood served the Pope, but the Holy Father stiffed him on payment. So 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 Pope 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, and was appointed its captain-general. He remained in Florence until he finally decided to sell his Italian properties and retire to England to spend his last years, but died in 1394 before he could do so.
7. The Mongols Invented the Army Corps Centuries Before Napoleon
Genghis Khan’s military innovations included the equivalent of modern army corps operations. His Tumans of 10,000 warriors, which were powerful enough to take on significantly larger enemy formations, usually operated independently, marching separately to sweep across and devastate wide swathes of enemy territory. They were kept in contact with each other and with army commanders in charge of two or more Tumans by a steady stream of message bearing couriers. If a Tuman made contact with an enemy force too big to handle on its own, the other Tumans could quickly be called in and concentrated into an army.
Centuries later, Napoleon Bonaparte adopted a similar methodology of advancing on a broad front, with separate army corps, each of them strong enough to operate independently and handle any opposition short of a sizeable army. Making their own way, Napoleon’s corps advanced like the outstretched fingers of a hand. If and when one of them made contact with the main enemy force, it would engage in order to fix it in place, or otherwise maintain contact. In the meantime, the remaining corps would rush in and concentrate upon their sister corps in contact with the enemy, and what had been a widespread advance resembling outstretched fingers would transform into a clenched fist.
Edmund Ironside (circa 993 – 1016) earned the “Ironside” for his staunch resistance to a Danish invasion by king Canute. Edmund’s father, Ethelred the Unready, had unwisely sought to buy off the Danes then occupying northern England, and stop their incessant raids into his kingdom, by paying them a tribute known as the Danegeld, or “Danish gold”. Unsurprisingly, that only emboldened the Danes, who upped their demands for more and more gold. Fearing little from Ethelred, the pocketed the tribute, and kept 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. The massacre led to an invasion by the Danish king Sweyn Forkbeard, who conquered England in 1013 and forced Ethelred to flee to Normandy.
However, Sweyn died the following year, at which point Ethelred returned, and with his son Edmund playing a leading role, 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 which stymied the Danes. When Ethelred died in 1016, Edmund succeeded him on the English throne. On November 30th, Edmund went to the privy to answer a call of nature, but unbeknownst to him, an assassin was waiting in the cesspit for the royal posterior to show up. When Edmund sat down to do his business, the assassin stabbed upwards with a sharp dagger, and leaving the weapon embedded in the king’s bowels, made his escape. Unfortunately for Edmund, even if his sides had been made of iron, his bottom was not.
Jeanne de Clisson (1300 – 1359), also known as the “Lioness of Brittany”, terrorized the French early in the Hundred Years War. After the French accused her husband of treason and executed him, de Clisson went on the warpath. She hired herself out to the English and turned pirate, preying upon French shipping in the English Channel, torturing and executing every French nobleman she came across. De Clisson was a Breton noblewoman from a prominent family. After two marriages, one which ended with her husband’s death and the other with an annulment, she married a wealthy Breton named Olivier Clisson in 1330. In 1342, Clisson was military commander of a town that was captured by the English, and he was taken prisoner. He was released soon thereafter in a prisoner exchange – the only Frenchman to be freed.
Between that and an unusually low ransom requested by the English, Clisson was accused of treason. He was tried and convicted by a court of French nobles, and beheaded in 1343. Jeanne de Clisson took her young sons to see their father’s head mounted on a spike, and vowed revenge. She sold her estates, and used the proceeds to raise a private force with which she began attacking the French. They did not take her seriously at first. Then she attacked and captured a French castle, and massacred its entire garrison, except for one man whom she let live to tell the tale. She was taken seriously from then on.
A determined French counterattack forced Jeanne de Clisson to flee to England, where she accepted English backing to continue her war as a mercenary. She bought and outfitted three warships, and as a signal of her intent, painted them black and dyed their sails red. Then she led her black fleet into the English Channel, to fall upon French shipping. De Clisson soon gained a reputation for savagery, massacring nearly all who fell into her hands. French aristocrats in particular were in for a rough time if they were found aboard any ship captured by the mercenary pirate.
There was good money to be made ransoming her captives, as was custom of the day, but de Clisson wanted their lives, not their money. So she tortured her aristocratic captives, then personally beheaded them with an ax, before tossing their corpses overboard. De Clisson continued her murderous rampage against the French wherever she could find them, for thirteen years, before her blood lust was finally sated. Eventually, in 1356, she gave up the life of a mercenary pirate, and retired to her estates in Brittany. She remarried for a fourth time, and settled into a castle on Brittany’s southern coast, where she died peacefully in 1359.
Tamerlane was born in Uzbekistan. His rise began in 1360, when he led tribesmen on behalf of the region’s ruling Khan. However, the Khan was murdered, triggering a power struggle. It ended with Tamerlane as the power behind a throne occupied by a figurehead puppet, through whom Tamerlane ruled. He claimed descent from Genghis Khan, which was dubious, but he justified his conquests as a restoration of the Mongol Empire and re-imposition of legitimate Mongol rule over lands seized by usurpers. Tamerlane then spent 35 years earning a reputation for savagery, while bringing fire and sword to the lands between the Indus and the Volga, the Himalayas and the Mediterranean. He wrecked 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.
Tamerlane 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 and edify. Tamerlane is estimated to have killed about 17 million people, amounting to 5 percent of the world’s population at the time. Extrapolated to current global population of 7.7 billion, Tamerlane’s rampage would be the equivalent of killing 385 million people today. His decades-long warpath finally came to an end in 1405 as he was preparing to invade China, but he took ill while encamped, and died before launching the campaign. He would prove to be history’s last major Steppe conqueror, and the bloodiest of the lot.
2. Charlemagne Liked Sexing His Live Sister and His Dead Wife
Charlemagne was one of medieval Europe’s greatest figures, 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 line of Holy Roman Emperors that would last until 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.
Ninth century Arabia saw the emergence of the Qarmatians, who started off as bandits preying upon caravans. Then they got religion, after they came upon and fell under the sway of a mystic who preached that the End Times were nigh. The Qarmatians morphed into a heretical millenarian cult, and captured eastern Arabia and Bahrain, where they founded a utopian religious republic in 899. Believing that pilgrimage to Mecca, a pillar of Islam, was a superstition, the Qarmatians attacked pilgrim caravans, and in 906, massacred over 20,000 Muslim pilgrims. In 930, as part of their millenarian quest to speed up the End Days, they seized Mecca and Medina, Islam’s holiest cities, and sacked both.
The Qarmatians killed over 30,000 pilgrims in Mecca, desecrated religious sites, and polluted the holy Well of Zamzam by filling it with corpses. They also seized the Black Stone, a meteorite rock affixed to the Kaaba and deemed holy by Muslims, took it back to their republic, and smashed it to pieces. They held the shards for a huge ransom, that was paid by the Abbasid Caliph, who then reassembled the bits and restored them to the Kaaba. Pilgrimage ceased for nearly a decade, and only resumed after the Qarmatians were paid protection money by the region’s states to stay away from the holy cities. The payments continued until the Abbasid defeated the Qarmatians in 976.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading