The strain of bacterium responsible for Justinian’s Plague, Yersinia pestis, is believed to have originated near the Tian Shan Mountains in Central Asia, along the border between China and Kyrgyzstan. Like the Black Death, Justinian’s Plague was mainly bubonic, and felled its victims with all the bubonic plague’s horrors. The pandemic is believed to have first struck China and northern India, made its way via trade routes to the Great Lakes region of Africa, then down the Nile to Egypt.
Like the Black Death, Justinian’s Plague was transmitted by infected fleas carried by black rats. Egypt was the Byzantine Empire’s granary, and from its seaports, ships laden with grain – and also rats that hosted infected fleas – sailed across the Mediterranean. From Egypt, the plague rapidly spread to the rest of the Middle East, the Eastern Mediterranean, and Constantinople, which served as both capitol and commercial center for the Byzantine Empire. From Constantinople, the pandemic rapidly spread through the rest of Europe.
Europe was struck especially hard by the Justinian Plague, and the continent lost an estimated forty to fifty percent of its population. The pandemic followed the established trade routes. The outbreak in Constantinople, for example, is believed to have been caused by the arrival of grain ships from Egypt, with black rats and their plague-carrying fleas aboard. Ports and cities were hit particularly hard. The countryside and the parts of Europe off the established trade routes got off relatively light.
That lopsided death toll, heavy in the cities and light in the countryside, marked a transitional point for Europe. It ended what was left of the Classical Age, and ushered in the Feudal Era and the Middle Ages. The Classical Age had been marked by a significant urban culture. Justinian’s Plague – on top of Justinian’s many wars – ended that, devastating the cities and an economy built around the sustainment of urban life. Power centers shifted from cities to the countryside, and rural strongmen emerged as the founders of feudalism. One era and way of life ended, and another began.
21. Not Everybody Was Religious in the Middle Ages
Extremely religious people were common in the Middle Ages, and ranged from those engaged in mass pilgrimages, to flagellants, to mystics and saints. However, that does not mean that everybody back then was obsessed with religion. Nor does it mean that people back then did not engage in skeptical reflection. There were plenty of ordinary people who did not buy into a variety of common beliefs. They doubted whether saints actually performed miracles, were unsure if the miracle of the Eucharist was real, and questioned 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 things to simply working and taking care 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, people preferred to sleep or lark about on their day of rest.
20. Witch Hunts Were Not a Feature of the Middle Ages
A common stereotype about the Middle Ages revolves around the assumption that it was an era of widespread superstition, in which church authorities burned witches left, right, and center. While it is true that people in the middle ages were quite superstitious, especially when compared to the modern era, their superstitions were not expressed in witch hunts. To be sure, there were some witch trials, but they were relatively rare. When they happened, they were usually done by the secular authorities, and were not directed by the church.
Indeed, throughout most of the era, the standard message disseminated by churchmen about 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 kicked off after Heinrich Kramer wrote the infamous Malleus Maleficarum in the late fifteenth century, in an attempt to convince a skeptical public that witches were real. When it first came out, the church actually condemned the book, and warned inquisitors not to believe what it said.
19. A Chinese Hero Who Got Anything but His Just Rewards
Middle Ages Chinese General Yue Fei (1103 – 1142) was one of his country’s greatest and most formidable military leaders. In China, he is considered to be the epitome of patriotism and loyal service to the nation, and is viewed today as one of the greatest national folk heroes of Chinese history. During his lifetime, however, Yue Fei was treated quite shabbily by his government. For his heroism, self-sacrifice, and devotion to duty, he received shocking ingratitude from his political masters.
Yue Fei was born into a poor peasant family, and joined the Song Dynasty’s military in 1122. From an early age, he possessed great power and near-supernatural strength, which made him a formidable warrior. He rose to prominence amidst a war against the nomadic Jurchen tribes, who invaded and overran northern China in 1126. The Jurchens captured the Song capital of Kaifeng, along with the emperor and his father. The emperor’s brother fled to southern China, where he reestablished the dynasty, known thereafter as the Southern Song, and was declared the Gaozong Emperor.
After the Jurchen overran northern China, Yue Fei accompanied the Gaozong Emperor in his flight to the south, and assumed military command of the remnants of the Song forces. He defeated the pursuing Jurchens, and kept them from further advances into China. However, his efforts to recover the northern territories were foiled by a powerful peace faction that balked at the expense of continuing the war. He was poised with his armies to recapture the lost Song capital of Kaifeng, when courtiers advised the Gaozong Emperor to recall him and open peace negotiations with the Jurchens.
The Gaozong Emperor worried that a final victory over the Jurchen would end with the release of his captive brother, the previous Song emperor, who had been taken prisoner. As that would threaten his own claim to the throne, the emperor accepted his courtiers’ advice, and recalled Yue Fei to the capital in 1141. There, one of China’s most brilliant generals was imprisoned and eventually executed on trumped-up charges in 1142. Ironically, Yue Fei had tattooed on his back the phrase “serve the country with the utmost loyalty“.
The Middle Ages were rife with contagious diseases, but cities were especially vulnerable. Between poor sanitation, lack of adequate hygiene, and overcrowding, urban dwellers were most at risk from contagions than swept through with great speed. Such health risk factors made the era quite dangerous, especially for city people. Add mediocre standards of medical care and knowledge, and it is unsurprising that life expectancy back then was abysmally low. Among the worst diseases was leprosy, which devastated sufferers’ health as well as their social status. A little misunderstood disease even today, leprosy carried a huge stigma in the Middle Ages.
Lepers were shunned and cast not just out of cities, but from even the smallest hamlets. The stigma did not end with death, but carried through into the afterlife, as lepers were denied burial alongside non-lepers. Mostly thanks to Leviticus 13:44-46, which states: “He is leprous, he is unclean. The priest shall pronounce him unclean; the disease is on his head. The person who has the leprous disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head be disheveled; and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, “Unclean, unclean.” He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean. He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.”
16. The Man Who Conquered Spain for the Islamic World
Middle Ages general Tariq ibn Ziyad (died circa 720) was a Berber who led the Muslim conquest of Visigothic Hispania, today’s Iberian Peninsula. He was a trusted slave of North Africa’s Muslim governor, Musa bin Nusayr, who appointed Tariq governor of Tangier in 710. There, he was approached by a Visigoth nobleman from nearby Ceuta, incensed and out for revenge because the Visigoth King Roderic had raped his daughter. He allied with Tariq, and arranged to ship him and a small army of about 7000 men to Hispania.
Tariq crossed from North Africa into Spain in 711. There, he established a beachhead in today’s Gibraltar – a Spanish derivation of “Jabal Tariq“, or “Mountain of Tariq” – which is named after him. After he secured Gibraltar, Tariq reportedly burned his fleet to drive home to his men that there was no possibility of retreat, and that the choices before them were either victory or death. Then, from Gibraltar as a base of operations, Tariq proceeded to subjugate the territory of today’s Spain and Portugal, which he sought to conquer on behalf of the Umayyad Caliphate.
15. Instead of Getting Rewarded for His Great Deeds, This General Was Punished and Ended His Life as a Beggar
Tariq ibn Ziyad eventually met and fought a Visigoth army about three times bigger than his own, at the Battle of Guadalete in 712. He won a complete victory, in which the Visigoth king and much of the Visigoth nobility were slain. Tariq then proceeded to capture the Visigoth capital city of Toledo. He next split his small army into smaller divisions, conducted a lightning campaign against the demoralized Visigoths, and captured many of their major cities, such as Granada, Cordoba, and Guadalajara. Tariq then governed Hispania until the arrival of his master, Musa, a year later. However, Musa was reportedly envious of his slave’s stunning accomplishments. In one of the Middle Ages’ greatest acts of ingratitude, rather than reward Tariq, Musa put him in chains and had him tortured.
In 714, the Umayyad Caliph summoned Musa and Tariq to his capital, Damascus, to report on the conquest and address accusations of corruption. Upon arrival at the Caliph’s court, Musa sought to claim the lion’s share of the credit for the conquest. Tariq, however, successfully refuted his master’s claims with evidence that Musa was in North Africa while Tariq was defeating and conquering the Visigoths. Discredited, Musa was eventually convicted of corruption and imprisoned. Tariq avoided prison, but was stripped of all titles and ranks. Despite the immense riches his conquest of the Iberian Peninsula had gained for the Umayyad Caliphate, Tariq died in dire poverty – reportedly reduced to begging for alms outside mosques.
14. A Strange Sickness That Mysteriously Appeared, Then Vanished
A new disease is known as the “sweating sickness” suddenly appeared in the late Middle Ages, with the first appearance in England, after which it spread to continental Europe. A mysterious illness, the sweating sickness struck in epidemic waves over a seven-decade period, then vanished just as suddenly as it had emerged. Little is known about the incubation period, but when the symptoms cropped up, they and their consequences were sudden, and usually devastating: death frequently occurred within just a few hours.
Initial symptoms included a sense of dread, followed by shivering, headaches, giddiness, exhaustion, nausea, and severe pains in the neck, back, shoulders, and limbs. Then came the symptom that gave the disease its name: copious sweat. That was often accompanied by abdominal pains and delirium. Severe symptoms typically lasted for 15 to 21 hours, and often culminated in a coma or death. Unusual among illnesses, the sweating sickness disproportionately struck the upper classes. Today, various theories ascribe the mysterious disease to hantavirus, influenza, typhus, or botulism. However, there is no definitive answer yet as to just what the sweating sickness might have been.
13. The Middle Ages’ Greatest Conqueror Was Bad for People, But Good for the Environment
In 1206, after a series of bloody wars on the Eastern Steppe, a nomad leader named Temujin united the tribes of Mongolia under his rule. He then got himself declared Chinggis Khan, or Universal Ruler, and set out on what his shamans declared was a divinely-mandated mission of global conquest. He didn’t conquer the globe, but he and his successors created the world’s biggest empire until then. It still remains history’s largest contiguous land empire and is second in landmass only to the British Empire.
In addition to the creation of a massive Middle Ages empire, the Mongol invasions kicked off by Chinggis Khan had another global impact that was only recently examined. Per research by the Carnegie Institution’s Department of Global Ecology, the great Mongol warlord actually cooled the planet. Not that such was his goal, or that he or anybody else back then had any notion about global warming or cooling or carbon emissions. Nonetheless, as seen below, that is just what he did.
12. Genghis Khan Lowered Carbon Emissions in the Bloodiest Way Possible
In a nutshell, Genghis Khan’s Mongol conquests cooled Earth because so many people were killed that it resulted in reforestation. As the author of the study that examined, that put it: “It’s a common misconception that the human impact on climate began with the large-scale burning of coal and oil in the industrial era … Actually, humans started to influence the environment thousands of years ago by changing the vegetation cover of the Earth‘s landscapes when we cleared forests for agriculture“.
The Mongol invasions that swept across Asia, the Middle East, Russia, and into Central Europe, killed an estimated 40 million people. That was in a world whose population was about 400 million, or roughly a twentieth of the one we live in today. If extrapolated to modern population figures, it would be the equivalent of almost 800 million deaths today, or more than eight times the deaths of World Wars I and II combined. That massive body count meant there were significantly fewer people to engage in activities that emitted carbon. Many regions were depopulated, and vast swathes of what had once been cleared and cultivated fields reverted to forests, whose trees and vegetation absorbed carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
11. Mother Nature Barely Noticed the Black Death, but it Noticed Genghis Khan’s Massacres
Scholars, who published their study in The Holocene in 2011, began their research with a global model of land cover in 800 AD. Then they examined four major historical events that could have impacted the climate because of reforestation after significant population declines. Those were the Mongol invasions of the thirteenth century, the Black Death in the fourteenth century, the conquest of the Americas in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and the fall of Ming China in the seventeenth century. All of these events caused massive fatalities. The Black Death, for example, killed over 25 million people. However, the only one of those calamities noticed by Mother Nature was the Mongol invasions.
Genghis Khan’s depredations reduced global CO2 by about 0.1 part per million. It was a minor, but nonetheless noticeable and measurable effect. As one researcher explained, that was because the Mongol invasions had the greatest impact on the amount of land covered by vegetation: “We found that during the short events such as the Black Death and the Ming Dynasty collapse, the forest re-growth wasn’t enough to overcome the emissions from decaying material in the soil … But during the longer-lasting ones like the Mongol invasion and the conquest of the Americas, there was enough time for the forests to re-grow and absorb significant amounts of carbon“.
10. The Mongol Depredations Reduced the Amount of Cultivated Land Enough to Register on the Planet’s Carbon Balance
The Holocene study demonstrated that the depopulation and disruptions caused by the Mongol invasions were so massive that they led to a significant drop in the amount of cleared land under cultivation. Then as now, people chopped down forests to clear land for agriculture. That automatically increased the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, because vegetation stores carbon. Trees and shrubs are what scientists call “carbon sinks”, defined as things that absorb more carbon from the atmosphere than they release.
The mass of vegetation produced by agriculture in cleared land that had once been forested is significantly less than the mass of the trees that had once occupied that land. So acre for acre, the cultivated lands store less carbon than had been stored in the forests they replaced. Not only that, but human activity on those cleared lands transforms them from the carbon sinks they had once been when forested, and into carbon sources that increase rather than decrease atmospheric CO2.
The Mongols killed a whole lot of people and depopulated vast regions. Without people to keep cultivated areas clear, nature took over and those lands reverted to forests. Enough forest cover to absorb 700 million tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. That is the equivalent of what people today – twenty times more numerous than in the days of Chinggis Khan – pump into the atmosphere from gasoline in a year. It is relevant as a case study of what significant reforestation (hopefully, without the Mongols’ massive slaughter) could do to reduce atmospheric carbon. As a study author put it:
“Today about a quarter of the net primary production on the Earth’s land surface is used by humans in some way, mostly through agriculture. […]. In the past, we have had a substantial impact on global climate and the carbon cycle, but it was all unintentional. Based on the knowledge we have gained from the past, we are now in a position to make land-use decisions that will diminish our impact on climate and the carbon cycle. We cannot ignore the knowledge we have gained“. Of course, before we start on global reforestation, we have to first stop the current massive global deforestation that is stripping the Amazon Rain Forest and other natural carbon sinks around the world.
8. These Old-Timey Blacksmiths Accidentally Stumbled Into Steel Swords
Scandinavians used to have access only to bog iron – an impure and soft metal. That placed them at a disadvantage against neighbors armed and armored with better iron. However, Scandinavian religious beliefs unwittingly led them to forge an early version of steel swords. That gave them a literal edge over their opponents – something noted when the Vikings suddenly erupted to terrorize the Middle Ages. Scandinavians believed that to mix the bones of animals with the iron used in forging swords was to imbue the resultant weapon with the spirit – and strength – of that animal. That was mumbo jumbo, but the resultant swords were pretty strong, nonetheless. It was not because of spirituality, however, but science.
When Scandinavians mixed sacrificial bones with iron, the swords made from that did not possess any spiritual powers. However, what they did not know was that bones, like any organic matter, contain carbon, and if you mix carbon with iron you get a rudimentary form of steel. When they burned bones alongside their low-quality bog iron, Scandinavian smiths unwittingly produced bone coal – similar to how burning wood produces charcoal. When modern researchers mixed bone coal with bog iron to forge swords, they discovered that the process significantly improved the sword. Carbon from the bones penetrated up to three millimeters deep into the bog iron, which resulted in a significantly stronger weapon.
7. The Life of a Middle Ages Peasant Was Rough, but it Had Some Upside
The modern perception of Middle Ages peasants is often one that views them as exploited, downtrodden, brutalized, oppressed, and overworked minions. To a large extent, peasants back in the Middle Ages were, indeed, exploited, downtrodden, brutalized, and oppressed. They 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. Depending on location and era, 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 peasants did back in the Middle Ages.
6. Americans Work Hundreds of Hours More Per Year Than Middle Ages Peasants
On long workdays, we might comfort ourselves with the thought that at least we don’t have it as bad as workers in the Middle Ages. No, sir, at least we are not like our peasant ancestors who toiled 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.
Our ancestors might not have been rich, and they lacked many of the creature comforts we take for granted, but one thing they had more than we do is free time. For example, an average American in 1987 worked 1,949 hours annually. By 2015, that figure had dipped to 1,811 hours a year. An improvement, but still nearly 200 hours more than a thirteenth century adult male English peasant, who worked an average of 1,620 hours annually. A typical Middle Ages workday stretched from dawn to dusk. The labor could be backbreaking, but there were many breaks for breakfast, lunch, an afternoon nap, and dinner. There might also be midmorning and midafternoon refreshment breaks. After a harvest, peasants might enjoy up to eight weeks off of slack times. And that is without counting all the holidays and religious feast days.
5. Middle Ages Peasants Might Work as Few as 150 Days a Year
James Pilkington, a Bishop of Durham, complained thus about all the breaks taken by peasants: “The labouring 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 Middle Ages peasant might get away with only 150 workdays in a good harvest year. By contrast, an American worker would be lucky to get 8 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, who put in around 3,650 hours annually. That is more than double the 2021 American worker’s average of 1,757 hours a year.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading