Odd Medieval Practices That Seem Too Strange to Be True

Odd Medieval Practices That Seem Too Strange to Be True

Khalid Elhassan - September 28, 2023

Medieval history is full of many fascinating – and sometimes strange – traditions and facts. Take animal trials. In Middle Ages Europe, animals could be charged for a variety of crimes, and be tried in a court of law just like humans. If tried in ecclesiastical courts, the animals even had lawyers appointed to act as their public defenders. They were afforded no legal representation if tried in secular courts, but then again, neither were human defendants. And just like humans, if convicted, the authorities could go medieval on the animals with cruel punishments. Below are twenty five things about those and other fascinating but lesser known medieval facts.

Odd Medieval Practices That Seem Too Strange to Be True
Trial of a sow and her piglets for murder. Fine Art America

When Animals Faced Criminal Charges

In medieval Europe, animals that misbehaved could be criminally tried in court. For example, in 1457, a sow in Savigny, France, with six piglets in tow, attacked and killed a five-year-old. Nowadays, the sow’s owner might face criminal charges for negligence, but medieval Europeans had different notions of law and justice. The authorities in Savigny charged the sow with murder, and brought charges against the piglets as accomplices. A lawyer was appointed to defend the accused, and after testimony was heard, a judge found the porcine guilty. In accordance with local custom, he sentenced her to be hanged to death by her hind legs. If it was any relief to the sow, her execution was not as painful as that of another pig convicted of homicide in Falaise, Normandy, in 1386. It was sentenced not only to hang, but to also be maimed in the head and forelegs before hanging.

Odd Medieval Practices That Seem Too Strange to Be True
Execution of a pig. Wikimedia

The piglets did not share their mother’s fate. Although they had been found covered in blood, their participation in the murder was not proven, so they were acquitted. To criminally try an animal might strike us today as ludicrous, because we know that animals lack the moral agency necessary to make them culpable for crimes. People thought differently in medieval Europe, however. All involved, judges, lawyers, bailiffs, and hangmen in case the animal was found guilty, took the proceedings quite seriously. The Savigny sow had been imprisoned pending the trial, and the jailer charged the same daily rate for the pig’s board as that of human prisoners. The court hired a professional hangman to carry out the sentence, and he charged the same fees as those charged for the execution of a human.

Odd Medieval Practices That Seem Too Strange to Be True
Medieval pilgrims. Medieval Britain

Not All Medieval Folk Were Homebodies Who Never Left Their Villages

Conventional wisdom has it that most medieval people seldom traveled far from where they were born. That is true, especially in the case of peasants and those who lived in the countryside. However, that was not unique to the Middle Ages. The same could be said for the majority of people throughout most of history, both before and after the medieval era, until relatively recently in the modern era. That should not be taken to mean that people back then never traveled: many of them did.

Odd Medieval Practices That Seem Too Strange to Be True
Medieval merchant caravan. K-Pics

Pilgrimages to holy sites were quite popular in the Middle Ages. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, for example, revolves around pilgrims traveling from London to Saint Becket’s shrine at Canterbury Cathedral. That was a relatively short holy quest. Other pilgrimages took the pious to holy sites hundreds or even thousands of miles away from home. Traders also traveled far and wide to buy, sell, and transport high value goods. The medieval long distance trade economy featured among other things amber and furs from the Baltic, spices from India transported through the Middle East, and silks from China.

Odd Medieval Practices That Seem Too Strange to Be True
Medieval Parliament of England. Wikimedia

They Had Elections in the Medieval Era

Elections were not as widespread and regular in the medieval world as they are today. Nor was there anything at the time like universal suffrage. However, 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 the differences was just how narrow was the slice of the population that got to vote in any elections. However, there were also striking similarities, chief among them the belief that elections conferred legitimacy.

People in the Middle Ages had ambivalent views when it came to elections. On the one hand, the medieval belief in elections was based on precedents from the Bible. For example, the Old Testament contains 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. Elections were handy in such situations. On the other hand, elections were also seen as cause for strife, and potential starting points for riots, rebellions, or civil wars.

Odd Medieval Practices That Seem Too Strange to Be True
Jack Cade’s Rebellion. Pinterest

The Medieval Era Saw Many Peasant Rebellions

The oppression and exploitation of peasants by the aristocracy was a hallmark of the Middle Ages. However, medieval peasants didn’t always simply put it up with. From time to time, when they’d finally had enough, peasants rose up in bloody rebellions that terrified and shook society to its foundations. One such was the Cade Rebellion, in 1450. Jack Cade, an Irishman of unknown occupation and little known background who resided in Kent, organized a rebellion among peasants and small proprietors. Cade had been living in Sussex until 1449, when he fled to France to escape a murder charge. He returned to England under an assumed name in 1450, and settled in Kent.

Odd Medieval Practices That Seem Too Strange to Be True
Medieval peasant revolt. Flickr

At the time, many were angered by oppressively high taxes and a recent steep rise in prices. That, coupled with widespread corruption and abuse of power by the royal advisors and officials of the weak and hapless King Henry VI, transformed England into a powder keg. Small outbreaks of violence grew into a rebellion that gathered steam. It soon became a major popular revolt and peasant uprising that rocked England and terrorized its government and aristocracy. In June, 1450, Cade emerged as the leader of what had become a major rebellion against the royal government. He called himself John Mortimer, and identified with the king’s rivals, the York branch of the royal family.

Odd Medieval Practices That Seem Too Strange to Be True
Jack Cade and the royal treasurer, James Fiennes, Lord Saye and Sele. Pinterest

The Rebels Who Tried and Executed a Royal Minister

Jack Cade issued a manifesto, in which he demanded the removal of several royal ministers and the recall of Richard, Duke of York, from Ireland, where he was a virtual exile. A royal army sent to the suppress the rebels was defeated in Kent. That supercharged the rebellion, and the insurrectionists’ rapidly-increasing host marched on London. They captured the city on July 3rd, 1450, along with the hated royal treasurer, James Fiennes, Lord Saye and Sele, whom the rebels executed. Despite Cade’s attempt to maintain discipline, once they entered London, many rebels began to loot the city.

Odd Medieval Practices That Seem Too Strange to Be True
Londoners take on Cade’s rebels in the Battle of London Bridge. Once Upon a Time

The lawlessness led Londoners to turn on the rebels. They expelled Cade’s men from the city on July 6th, after a battle at London Bridge. To end the revolt, the government issued royal pardons and persuaded most rebels to disperse. Cade fled, but was tracked down a week later, wounded in a skirmish with royal forces, and captured. He was taken to London, but died of his wounds en route. His death marked the end of the rebellion. While the revolt failed, it contributed to a breakdown of royal authority and prestige that set the stage for the Wars of the Roses, that broke out a few years later.

Odd Medieval Practices That Seem Too Strange to Be True
Fears of witchcraft and sorcery were rife in the 1600s, but not in the medieval era. Cultura Obscura

Medieval Europe Didn’t Have Witch Hunts

When many picture the Middle Ages, a common assumption is that the era was one of widespread superstition, in which church authorities burned witches left, right, and center. It is true that medieval people were extremely superstitious, especially when compared to the modern era. However, 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 when it came to magic was that it was silly nonsense that did not work. The European witch craze was more of a sixteenth and seventeenth century phenomenon. It took off after Heinrich Kramer wrote the infamous Malleus Mallificarum in the late fifteenth century, in an attempt to convince a then-skeptical public that witches were real. When the book first came out, the church actually condemned it, and warned inquisitors not to believe what it says.

Odd Medieval Practices That Seem Too Strange to Be True
Insurgent peasants of the Jacquerie. Magnolia Box

The Fed Up French Peasants of the Jacquerie

As seen in a earlier entry, Jack Cade’s Rebellion was vicious and violent. However, bad as things got, Cade’s rebels never went so far as to actually eat their oppressors. Not so the rebels of the Jacquerie, a medieval peasant revolt in northern France in 1358. It got its name from the nobility’s habit of contemptuously referring to all peasants as Jacques or Jacques Bonhomme, after a padded over-garment worn by them called a “jacque”. The revolt was led by a well off peasant named Guillaume Cale, from Beauvais, about 50 miles from Paris.

France had gone through a rough patch after 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 decades of humiliating defeats. Early in the century, France’s aristocrats had turned tail and fled at the Battle of the Spurs. They left 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.

Odd Medieval Practices That Seem Too Strange to Be True
French peasants burst into an aristocrat’s house during the Jacquerie. Liberal Dictionary

The Medieval Peasants Who Ate Their Oppressors

The French defeat at Poitiers was particularly humiliating because the nobility allowed the king’s capture. Its aftermath was particularly onerous upon the peasantry, because the English demanded a huge ransom for the king’s release. Naturally, it was squeezed from the peasants. Finally, the French nobility failed in their basic raison d’etre that justified their high status: protection of the populace from enemy depredations. Unchecked by the peasants’ aristocratic overlords and supposed protectors, English and Gascon mercenaries roamed the countryside, to pillage and assault at will. Matters came to a head on May 21st, 1358, when peasants from a village near the Oise River killed a knight, then roasted him on a spit and forced his children to eat his flesh. The revolt spread quickly, as peasants razed local castles and slaughtered their inhabitants.

Odd Medieval Practices That Seem Too Strange to Be True
Defeat and suppression of the Jacquerie. Wikimedia

Eventually, disparate rebel bands combined 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. The undisciplined and untrained rebels were soon routed once the militarily trained and better armed nobles organized and fell upon them. The Paris uprising collapsed after its leader was assassinated. Guillaume Cale, with his peasant army assembled for battle, 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, tortured, and beheaded. The now-leaderless peasant army was then ridden down by knights and routed. Afterwards, the peasants were subjected to massive collective reprisals and a reign of terror in which around 20,000 were killed.

Odd Medieval Practices That Seem Too Strange to Be True
An accused getting dunked and held underwater in a water ordeal. Wikimedia

Medieval Trial by Ordeal

Medieval concepts of justice – especially the belief in rational adjudication to reach a just decision – differed greatly from those of the modern world. A common alternative to the resolution of a dispute before a neutral arbiter learned in the law in order 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. They would 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, in which accusers fought the accused, and victory presumably went to the one in the right.

Odd Medieval Practices That Seem Too Strange to Be True
The Hungarian Peasant Uprising. University of Pittsburgh Library

The Aristocrat Who Sided With Serfs Against His Own Class

Medieval authorities were brutal when they finally put a lid on peasant uprisings. One of the most vivid examples of such brutality took place in the aftermath of the suppression of the Hungarian Peasant Rebellion, led by Georghe Doja (1470 – 1514). A Transylvanian nobleman and soldier of fortune. After he made a name for himself in wars against the Ottoman Turks, Doja was appointed by Pope Leo X to lead a Crusade. Things went awry, however, and the result was not a crusade, but a revolt by downtrodden Hungarian peasants against their rapacious overlords. The uprising was fierce, but ultimately unsuccessful. After the peasants were put down, Doja went down in history as both a notorious criminal and as a Christian martyr.

Odd Medieval Practices That Seem Too Strange to Be True
Georghe Doja. Pinterest

After the pope directed Doja to lead a crusade, About 40,000 volunteers gathered beneath his banner. They were comprised in the main of peasants, friars, and parish priests – medieval society’s lowest rungs. The Hungarian nobility however neither supplied the crusaders nor offered military leadership. The later was seen as particularly unseemly, because military leadership was the main justification for the aristocracy’s elevated status. Before long, the gathered throng began to voice its collective grievances against the nobles. At harvest time, the peasants refused to return and reap their lords’ fields. The nobles tried to seize the peasants by force and compel them to toil. That did not sit well with Doja, who sided with the serfs against his own class. So he led Hungary’s peasants in a violent rebellion that morphed into a war of extermination against the landlords.

Odd Medieval Practices That Seem Too Strange to Be True
Execution of Georghe Doja. Wikimedia

Authorities Went Medieval On This Freedom Fighter

Hungarian peasant put hundreds of castles and aristocratic manors to the torch. They also killed thousands of the gentry, many of whom were tortured to death or executed in a variety of gruesome ways, such as crucifixion or impalement. The rebellion was finally crushed, and the peasantry was crushed with it. Hungary’s peasants were subjected to a reign of terror and a wave of retaliatory vengeance by the nobles. Over 70,000 were tortured to death, and the peasants as a class were condemned to perpetual servitude. They were permanently bound to the soil, fined heavily, had their taxes sharply hiked, and the number of days they had to work for their landlords was increased. As to their leader, Doja was captured and condemned to a fiendishly cruel death.

Odd Medieval Practices That Seem Too Strange to Be True
Doja on the Wall, by Gyula Derkovitz, 1928. 50 Watts

Accused among other things of having sought to become king, Doja was sentenced to sit on a hot iron throne, while a heated iron crown was affixed to his head. Next, bloody hunks were torn out of his body. Nine of his chief lieutenants, starved beforehand, were forced to eat his flesh. The aristocratic backlash backfired, however. Twelve years later the Ottoman Turks invaded Hungary, and found it relatively easy to conquer what was still a bitterly divided country. Doja’s legacy lived on. The revolutionary aspects of his life were drawn upon heavily during the communist era in Romania, his land of birth. Likewise in Hungary, where Doja is the most popular street name in villages, and a main avenue and metro station in Budapest bear his name.

Odd Medieval Practices That Seem Too Strange to Be True
Medieval peasants, circa 1330. British Library

The One Thing Medieval Peasants Had Better Than Us

Life was no bed of roses for medieval peasants. They lived in cramped quarters, lacked many amenities we take for granted, performed backbreaking work, sanitation was abysmal, and they were exploited by the nobility. They often had to worry about famine, plague, and war. However, we might envy them one thing: they worked fewer hours than us and had way more vacation time. The modern perception of medieval peasants is often one that views them as exploited, downtrodden, brutalized, oppressed, and overworked minions. To a large extent, peasants back then were, indeed, exploited, downtrodden, brutalized, and oppressed.

Peasants were placed at the bottom of the social pyramid as a lower caste that had fewer legal rights and protections than the nobles and clergy above them. Moreover, a significant chunk of the fruits of their labor went to support their social betters. A European medieval peasant might have been reduced to the status of an outright serf, bound to the land and unable to leave without the proprietor’s permission. A peasant might be required to put more time and effort to tend an aristocrat’s fields than his own. However, when it comes to whether peasants were overworked, then, well – as it turns out, not so much. As seen below, modern Americans put in longer hours, with fewer holidays and vacation time, than medieval peasants.

Odd Medieval Practices That Seem Too Strange to Be True
Medieval peasants worked fewer hours than us. Pinterest

Who Worked More Hours, Modern Americans or Medieval Peasants?

On long workdays, we might comfort ourselves with the thought that least we don’t have it as bad as medieval workers. No, sir, at least we are not like old timey peasants who toiled steadily from dawn to dusk, or medieval artisans who began work at sunup, and kept at it past sunset and well into the night with candlelight. We could console ourselves thus, but we would be wrong. Long hours and the frantic rat race are a feature of the modern era and its innovative linkage of work to a regular schedule and the clock. Before that, people did not work very long hours, life’s tempo was slow, and the pace of work was relaxed.

Medieval folk were not rich, and they lacked many of the creature comforts we take for granted. However, one thing they had more than we do is free time. For example, an average American in 1987 worked 1949 hours annually. By 2015, that figure had dipped to 1811 hours a year. An improvement, but still nearly 200 hours more than a thirteenth-century adult male English peasant, who worked an average of 1620 hours annually. A typical medieval workday stretched from dawn to dusk, and the labor could be backbreaking. However, there were many breaks for breakfast, lunch, an afternoon nap, and dinner. There might also be mid-morning and mid-afternoon refreshment breaks. After a harvest, peasants might enjoy up to eight weeks off of slack time. And that is without counting all the holidays and religious feast days.

Odd Medieval Practices That Seem Too Strange to Be True
Medieval peasants taking a break. K-Pics

Medieval Peasants Might Have Worked as Few as 150 Days Per Year

James Pilkington, a Bishop of Durham, complained thus about all the breaks taken by peasants: “The laboring man will take his rest long in the morning; a good piece of the day is spent afore he come at his work; then he must have his breakfast, though he have not earned it at his accustomed hour, or else there is grudging and murmuring; when the clock smiteth, he will cast down his burden in the midway, and whatsoever he is in hand with, he will leave it as it is, though many times it is marred afore he come again; he may not lose his meat, what danger soever the work is in. At noon he must have his sleeping time, then his bever in the afternoon, which spendeth a great part of the day;

and when his hour cometh at night, at the first stroke of the clock he casteth down his tools, leaveth his work, in what need or case soever the work standeth.” Between slack time and holidays, a medieval peasant might get away with 150 days of work in a good harvest year. By contrast, an American worker would be lucky to get eight vacation days in a year, as the US “continues to be the only advanced economy that does not guarantee its workers paid vacations. Although we work more hours than medieval peasants, at least we don’t have it as bad as nineteenth-century American workers: they put in around 3650 hours annually. That was almost double the 2023 American worker’s average of 1892 hours a year.

Odd Medieval Practices That Seem Too Strange to Be True
Eel sticks. Winged Fork

When Eels Were Used as Money

It is hard to get a hold of an eel, because eels are notoriously slippery. That difficulty in getting a hold of them might explain why they were sometimes used as currency in the medieval period. Nowadays, eels may not be a popular dish in the West. However, 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 was paid rent in eels was “Giles brother of Ansculf”, who got 1000 sticks from his watermill in Bottisham, Cambridgshire, and 2000 sticks from his watermill in Datchet, Buckinghamshire.

Odd Medieval Practices That Seem Too Strange to Be True
A rental document, with the price listed in eels. History Hit

How much were eels worth, though? 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 about $10 in 2023 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 nowadays. 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 got about $10,000 in rent for his Bottisham watermill, and $20,000 for the one in Bottisham.

Odd Medieval Practices That Seem Too Strange to Be True
Medieval university students. History Today

Town vs Gown in the Middle Ages

There have long been tensions between universities, with their populations of academics and students, and the surrounding community of ordinary folk going about their everyday lives. Before universities had even been invented, there were places known as centers of scholarship, such as ancient Athens or Ptolemaic Alexandria. Same as with universities, those older institutions often experienced bad blood between the academics who flocked there in scholarly pursuits, and the wider population amongst whom they dwelt. However, few such “town vs gown” tensions have ever boiled over and erupted in as dramatic a fashion as happened in Oxford in 1355.

On February 10th of that year, St. Scholastica Day, two Oxford University students, Roger de Chesterfield and Walter Spryngheuse, were drinking at the Swindlestock Tavern in Oxford. At some point, they complained to the taverner, John Croidon, about the quality of the drinks. He did not take kindly to their complaints. One thing led to another, heated words were exchanged, and were followed by heated actions. The students threw the drinks in the tavern keeper’s face, then beat him to a bloody pulp. That incident, as seen below, led to medieval England’s biggest town vs gown rumble.

Odd Medieval Practices That Seem Too Strange to Be True
The St Scholastica Day Riot. Art Fund

When Students Picked a Fight With the Wrong Townies

After a pair of Oxford University students violently assaulted a local tavern keeper, the town’s mayor asked the university to arrest the academic hooligans. The university’s authorities ignored his request. Instead, 200 students sided with their thuggish classmates, Walter Spryngheuse and Roger de Chesterfield, and went on a rampage in which they assaulted the mayor and other Townies. That was too much for the locals. They staged a counter-riot of their own, and hundreds poured in from the countryside to help hunt down the students.

Odd Medieval Practices That Seem Too Strange to Be True
The ending of the St Scholastica Day Riot, as depicted in a 1907 postcard. Wikimedia

Crying: “Havoc! Havoc! Smyte [smite] fast! Give gode knocks!” the Townies fell upon the students and routed them. By the time it was over, 63 Oxford students had been killed, along with 30 locals. In the aftermath, the authorities sided with the university. Every year thereafter, on February 10th, Oxford’s mayor and city 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.

Odd Medieval Practices That Seem Too Strange to Be True
A medieval church. The J Paul Getty Museum

Not Everybody Was Religious in the Medieval Era

Examples of extreme religiousness abound in the Middle Ages, and range 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. They doubted 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. Instead, they attributed such matters to the simple mechanics of toil on and upkeep 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, to complain that hardly anybody bothered to show up for church on Sunday. Instead, most of his flock preferred to sleep or lark about on their day of rest.

Odd Medieval Practices That Seem Too Strange to Be True
A medieval physician. K-Pics

People in the Middle Ages Did Not Drink Beer Instead of Water

You might have heard or read that people in centuries past only drank beer and wine instead of water, because water was too often contaminated with deadly pathogens. That is untrue. In the medieval era, for example, water was the most popular drink. Just like it was throughout all of humanity’s existence, for that matter, for a simple reason: it was free. It is true that people of centuries past did not have the kinds of water purification treatments that the water coming out of our faucets nowadays usually goes through. While contamination was a problem, medieval people – like all humans since our species first walked upright – knew how to spot and avoid obviously contaminated water.

In short, people back then had enough common sense and common knowledge to not drink swampy, muddy, and cloudy water. In medieval days, health manuals and medical texts positively praised the health benefits of water – so long as it came from good sources. Indeed, the authorities went to great lengths to supply people with drinking water. For example, London constructed ‘The Conduit’ in the 1200s, which used lead pipes to bring fresh water from a spring outside the city walls to the London’s center, where people had free access to it.

Odd Medieval Practices That Seem Too Strange to Be True
A medieval tavern. Imgur

Medieval People Would Have Drunk More Beer and Wine if They Could Afford It

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, when King Edward I returned from the Crusades and when King Richard was crowned, London stopped the flow of water in its pipes, and replaced it 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. Instead, they 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.

Odd Medieval Practices That Seem Too Strange to Be True
Medieval combat manual illustration of divorce duel techniques. K-Pics

Divorces Could Be Settled With Duels in the Middle Ages

It was extremely hard to get a divorce in medieval Europe, so couples who had enough of each other sometimes opted to end the marriage with a divorce duel. German combat instructor and court adviser Hans Talhofer wrote Fechtbuch (“Fencing Book”) in 1467, an illustrated tome that included techniques for couples engaged in such duels. Since men have obvious physical advantages, things had to get evened out. Hubbies, armed with three clubs, had to fight from inside a waist-high hole about three feet wide, with one hand tied to their body. Wives were armed with three rocks that weighed up to eight pounds, tied in a cloth like a battery in a sock, and could move around the hole freely.

Both sides’ weapons had to be of equal length. A husband who touched the hole’s edge forfeited a club. If he did so three times, he had to continue unarmed. If that happened, he would presumably have to try and wrestle his wife into the hole before she bashed his head in. Talhofer’s manual offered advice about appropriate clothes, best techniques for each gender, and step-by-step instructions to exploit the opponent’s vulnerabilities. The duels were surprisingly fair, and numerous women emerged victorious. Although divorce duels were not to the death, death was the ultimate result. If the wife won, her husband was executed, and if the husband won, the wife was buried alive.

Odd Medieval Practices That Seem Too Strange to Be True
Movies and TV often incorrectly depict the medieval era as drab and devoid of vibrant colors. Quora

The Middle Ages Were Not as Drab As Movies and TV Led Us to Believe

If we go by modern depictions of the Middle Ages in movies and on TV, we would have to conclude that the period must have been a pretty drab one. Just about everybody is shown clad in dull brown clothes, occasionally broken by a bit of black thrown into the mix. Buildings are either plain brown wood for the lower classes’ dwellings, or unadorned stone gray for the castles of the aristocratic elites or the churches and cathedrals of the usually brown-clad clergy.

Odd Medieval Practices That Seem Too Strange to Be True
Unlike Hollywood’s depiction, actual medieval people liked vibrant colors. Quora

The reality however is that medieval people did not restrict themselves to shades of brown and black. Instead, they tried to get as colorful as they could whenever possible. People back then liked to take a paint brush to anything that couldn’t move, and liked to pack as many colors into their wardrobe as possible. Those with means decorated their walls with vibrant tapestries and frescoes. Clothes often had a splash of color by way of trim, or the whole thing might be dyed.

Odd Medieval Practices That Seem Too Strange to Be True
The facade of Notre Dame Cathedral of Reims today. Big Seven Travel

Medieval Cathedrals Were Garishly Painted

Movies and TV often depict medieval castles and churches as consisting mainly of unadorned plain stone. However, people back then went for vibrant – even garish – colors when it came to buildings. New cathedrals, for example, were riots of color when they were inaugurated. Walls, saints, and even gargoyles were coated in the brightest paints available. Over the years, however, the paint faded. Then, as tastes evolved – and budgets diminished – repainting in the original vibrant colors was done with less and less frequency.

Odd Medieval Practices That Seem Too Strange to Be True
How Notre Dame de Reims Cathedral would have looked in the medieval era. Biamp

Eventually, such repainting was abandoned all together. Because of that, what we see of medieval churches and cathedrals that have survived into the present is that they are usually plain and unadorned. However, we should not assume that how those buildings look today is how they looked back in the Middle Ages. For example, the first photo, above, is of the façade of Notre Dame Cathedral of Reims today. The second photo is a laser projection on that façade, that depicts how it actually looked in the 1400s, based on bits of paint in the stone’s pores.

Odd Medieval Practices That Seem Too Strange to Be True
Medieval mob football. Services Archaeology and Heritage Association

Violent Mob Football

In the days leading up to Lent in the medieval era, especially in England, people played an exceptionally rough ball game that came to be known as mob football. There were regional variations throughout Europe, but the game tended to share basic similarities across regions. Teams from different villages and towns, whose numbers could range anywhere from a few dozen to hundreds of players, met in a central location. Then a ball was thrown, and the rival teams vied with each other to capture the ball and take it back home – usually to their church’s front porch.

Odd Medieval Practices That Seem Too Strange to Be True
Medieval mob football. Buzzfeed

Restrictions as to team sizes or ball handling were few or nonexistent. The massive matches usually lasted for an entire day, and many players dropped out due to fatigue or injuries. Bruises, scratches, cuts, and lacerations were common, and deaths during the game were not unheard of. Despite those risks, medieval mob football remained popular throughout Europe for centuries. However, the game’s destructive nature eventually got it 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.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading
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