Oddities, Misconceptions, and Facts About the Middle Ages that Made it So Delightfully Strange
Oddities, Misconceptions, and Facts About the Middle Ages that Made it So Delightfully Strange

Oddities, Misconceptions, and Facts About the Middle Ages that Made it So Delightfully Strange

Khalid Elhassan - April 6, 2022

Oddities, Misconceptions, and Facts About the Middle Ages that Made it So Delightfully Strange
Mob football. Buzzfeed

4. When Mob Football Was Big

In the Middle Ages, people, especially in England, liked to play an exceptionally rough ball game in the days before Lent, that came to be known as mob football. There were variations throughout Europe, but the game shared basic similarities across regions. Teams from different villages and towns, that numbered anywhere from a few dozen players to hundreds, met in a fairly 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.

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 in a game were not unheard of. Despite those risks, medieval mob football remained popular throughout Europe for centuries. However, the game’s destructive nature eventually led King Edward II to ban it in England 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.

Oddities, Misconceptions, and Facts About the Middle Ages that Made it So Delightfully Strange
Vlad the Impaler. Wikimedia

3. A Scary Middle Ages Ruler

In the Middle Ages, Vlad III came to rule of Wallachia, a region of modern southern Romania. Better known to history as Vlad Dracula or Vlad the Impaler, his methods of governance and warfare terrified his contemporaries, and still send shivers down spines to the present day. His nickname Dracula, which means “son of Dracul”, is from the Latin draco, or dragon, after his father was inducted into the Order of the Dragon, created by Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund to rally Christians against the Ottoman Turks. He was the real-life inspiration for Bram Stoker’s fictional vampire. His other sobriquet, The Impaler, he got from his preferred method of punishment. The real life Dracula did not suck people’s blood. Instead, he shoved sharpened stakes up their behinds.

A son of Vlad II, an exiled aristocrat, Vlad III was born circa 1430 in Transylvania. The father took over the throne of Wallachia in 1436, but was kicked out a few years later by rivals. So he switched sides, and allied with the Ottoman Sultan, who restored him to power. As proof of loyalty, he sent two sons, Vlad III and his brother Radu, to the Sultan’s court as hostages – a common practice in the Middle Ages. Radu eventually converted to Islam, but Vlad disliked the Ottomans and resented his father for his betrayal of the Order of the Dragon, into which Vlad had been inducted when he was five-years-old.

Oddities, Misconceptions, and Facts About the Middle Ages that Made it So Delightfully Strange
A fifteenth-century German woodcut of Vlad III dining while victims are getting impaled around him. Wikimedia

2. A Man Who Loved to Impale People So Much, He Became Known as “The Impaler”

The father of Vlad the Impaler was overthrown once more in 1447, and this time his enemies killed him while they were at it. The Ottomans marched in and installed Vlad on Wallachia’s throne, but his rule lasted only a few months before he, too, was overthrown. He regained the throne in 1456, this time with help from the Ottomans’ enemies, the Hungarians. To celebrate, he invited two hundred aristocrats and their families to an Easter Sunday feast in 1457. At some point, he asked his guests how old they were. He wanted to know who had been old enough to have participated in his father’s overthrow back in 1447.

He then dragged those who fit the bill outside, and had them promptly impaled – a horrific way to die. Victims had large, sharpened, wooden stakes driven through their bodies, often through their rear end. The stake was then planted vertically into the ground, so that the victim was left to dangle in the air. Vlad impaled people in a manner that avoided damage to vital organs, and thus averted immediate death. Instead, the victims suffered hours or even days of agony before they expired. To add an artistic touch to the horror, Vlad impaled aristocrats arranged in rows that came to be known as “The Forrest of the Impaled”.

Oddities, Misconceptions, and Facts About the Middle Ages that Made it So Delightfully Strange
Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror, who invaded Wallachia during Vlad the Impaler’s reign. Wikimedia

1. A Display So Scary it Terrified Invaders and Made Them Turn Around and Head Back Home

The mass impalements did not halt Vlad the Impaler’s Easter Sunday feast, and the party went on. Afterward, the wives and children of the impaled aristocrats were taken to the mountains to rebuild a fortress, still dressed in their Easter finery. He worked them hard, until most died of exhaustion. Months later, when the job was finally done, Vlad’s reward for the few survivors, now skeletal figures clad in tattered rags, was to impale them. That was just the start of The Impaler’s passion for impalement. To solidify his rule, Vlad systematically exterminated the aristocratic class that had given his family so much trouble. Impalement was his preferred method to deal with them and anybody else who angered him.

He also warred against the Ottomans. Sultan Mehmed II the Conqueror, who had seized Constantinople and extinguished the Middle Ages Byzantine Empire a few years earlier, sent a force of 10,000 cavalrymen to deal with him. Vlad ambushed and defeated them, then impaled the survivors, with their leader mounted on the highest stake. In 1462, the Sultan led an army of 90,000 against The Impaler. As they approached Vlad’s capital, the Ottomans met no resistance. Instead, the road was lined with 20,000 impaled Turks and Muslim Bulgarians. The horrific sight was enough to spook the Sultan, who promptly turned around and went back home.

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

Antisemitism Studies Vol. 4, No. 1 (Spring 2020) – The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages

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

Big Think – Vikings Unwittingly Made Their Blades Stronger by Trying to Imbue Them With Spirits

Cantor, Norman F. – In the Wake of the Plague: The Black Death and the World it Made (2001)

Cracked – Medieval Divorce Duels Were a Wild (but fair) Brawl

Crawford, Dorothy – Deadly Companions: How Microbes Shaped Our History (2018)

Encyclopedia Britannica – Carbon Sink

Encyclopedia Britannica – Tariq ibn Ziyad

Health and Fitness History – Medieval Mob Football

Historic England – The Time of Leprosy: 11th Century to 14th Century

History Collection – What Life Was Like as a Medieval Soldier

Holocene, The, July, 2011, 21(5) – Coupled Climate-Carbon Simulations Indicate Minor Global Effects of Wars and Epidemics on Atmospheric CO2 Between AD 800 and 1850

Live Science – Mongol Invasion in 1200 Altered Carbon Dioxide Levels

Live Science – What Was the Black Death?

Lorge, Peter – War, Politics, and Society in Early Modern China, 900-1795 (2005)

McNeil, William H. – Plagues and People (1976)

Medievalists – Did Everyone Believe in Religion in Medieval Europe?

Medievalists – Erectile Dysfunction in the Middle Ages – Cases From 14th Century York

Monga Bay – How Genghis Khan Cooled the Planet

Mote, Frederick W. – Imperial China: 900-1800 (1999)

New York Times, October 23rd, 1994 – Historical Study of Homicide and Cities Surprises the Experts

Pinker, Steven – The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (2011)

Ranker – All the Afflictions You Might Have if You Lived in a Medieval City

Rosen, William – Justinian’s Flea: Plague, Empire, and the Birth of Europe (2007)

Russell, Jeffery Burton – A History of Medieval Christianity: Prophecy and Order (2007)

Sertima, Ivan Van – The Golden Age of the Moor (1992)

Talhofer, Hans – Medieval Combat in Color: A Fifteenth-Century Manual of Swordfighting and Close-Quarter Combat (2018)

Weatherford, Jack – Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World (2004)

Wikipedia – Sweating Sickness

Wiktenauer – Talhoer Fechtbuch

World History Encyclopedia – St. Anthony’s Fire

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