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