Myths About the Middle Ages Debunked
Myths About the Middle Ages Debunked

Myths About the Middle Ages Debunked

Khalid Elhassan - September 26, 2019

Myths About the Middle Ages Debunked
Mongol Siege of Baghdad. Wikimedia

9. Hulagu Ends the Abbasid Caliphate

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.

Myths About the Middle Ages Debunked
John Hawkwood, as depicted on his funerary monument. Wikimedia

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.

Myths About the Middle Ages Debunked
A Mongol army on the march. Pintrest

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.

Myths About the Middle Ages Debunked
Edmund Ironside. Encyclopedia Britannica

6. Edmund Ironside Lacked an Iron Bottom

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.

Myths About the Middle Ages Debunked
The beheading of Jeanne de Clisson’s husband. Flickr

5. The Lioness of Brittany Preyed Upon the French

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.

Myths About the Middle Ages Debunked
Jeanne de Clisson. Head Stuff

4. Jeanne de Clisson’s Reign of Terror

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.

Myths About the Middle Ages Debunked
Tamerlane. Pintrest

3. History’s Deadliest Conqueror

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.

Myths About the Middle Ages Debunked
Charlemagne. Flickr

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.

Myths About the Middle Ages Debunked
Qarmatians. Daily Motion

1. The Medieval Cult That Sacked the Kaaba

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

Annotated Prince – Francesco Sforza: Warlord Prince of Milan

Badass of the Week – Khawlah bint Al-Azwar

BBC – Trial by Ordeal: When Fire and Water Determined Guilt

British Battles – Battle of Agincourt

Buzzfeed – 16 Strange and Surprising Facts About Medieval England

Encyclopedia Britannica – Bela I

Encyclopedia Britannica – Timur

English Monarchs – Edmund II Ironside

Geni – Wreck of the White Ship

Health and Fitness History – Medieval Mob Football

Hildinger, Erik – Warriors of the Steppe: Military History of Central Asia, 500 BC to 1700 AD (1997)

Historia Cartarum – What Does a Stick of Eels Get You?

History Extra – 8 Things You (Probably) Didn’t Know About Medieval Elections

JSTOR – Charlemagne’s Unspeakable

Latin Library – Robert Guiscard

Medievalists – Did People Drink Water in the Middle Ages?

Military History Now – Meet the Landsknechts: 10 Wild Facts About the Most Murderous Mercenaries of the Renaissance

Military Wikia – Swiss Mercenaries

New World Encyclopedia – Hulagu Khan

Ranker – Were Medieval People Really Drunk on Beer and Wine All the Time?

Samurai Archives – Ashikaga Takauji

Slate – What Was the Drink of Choice in Medieval Europe?

Svedrup, Carl Frederik – The Mongol Conquests: The Military Operations of Genghis Khan and Sube’eti (2017)

Tebrake, William H. – A Plague of Insurrection: Popular Politics and Peasant Revolt in Flanders, 1323-1328 (1993)

Weatherford, Jack – Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World (2005)

Wikipedia – John Hawkwood

Wikipedia – Jacquerie

Wikipedia – St Scholastica Day Riot

World Bulletin – The Qarmatians: The World’s First Enduring Communistic Society