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
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