These Vicious Crimes Will Make You See the Medieval Period in a New Light
These Vicious Crimes Will Make You See the Medieval Period in a New Light

These Vicious Crimes Will Make You See the Medieval Period in a New Light

Khalid Elhassan - November 25, 2022

Criminal deeds, especially the more brazen ones, can simultaneously fascinate, titillate, and horrify. That was no less so in the medieval era than it today. Take the mysterious death of England’s greatest poet before Shakespeare. Was it the result of a criminal act ordered by a Machiavellian archbishop? Or take the criminal slaughter of an archbishop in his own cathedral, an act that horrified medieval Europe. Or take the medieval bandit who slaughtered hundreds, and whose fell criminal deeds included dark magic that entailed cannibalism – of babies. Below are twenty five things about those and other medieval criminal acts.

These Vicious Crimes Will Make You See the Medieval Period in a New Light
Geoffrey Chaucer. Aeon

Was Chaucer Murdered?

Geoffrey Chaucer (1343 – 1400), author of The Canterbury Tales, was the greatest English poet and writer before Shakespeare. He legitimized the literary use of English vernacular at a time when French and Latin were the dominant literary languages in England. Chaucer is thus widely regarded as The Father of the English Language. His works were highly eclectic, and his topics and subject matter ran the gamut from fart jokes to spiritual union with God. However, his writings consistently reflected a pervasive humor, even when they explored serious philosophical questions. The humor in his writings – especially the times when he made fun of church figures – might have been what led to his demise.

Born into a rich family, Chaucer’s father secured him a position as a royal page – a stepping stone to future advancement. In his teens, he participated in the Hundred Years’ War, was captured, and ransomed by the king for a considerable sum. As an adult, he pursued a career as a courtier, civil servant, and diplomat. Chaucer became the towering literary figure of his day, and after his death in 1400, he was the first to be buried at what would eventually become known as “Poets’ Corner” in Westminster Abbey. There, he was eventually joined by English literary luminaries such as Robert Browning, Charles Dickens, Rudyard Kipling, and Thomas Hardy. Chaucer’s death in 1400 has long been shrouded in mystery. As seen below, it is possible that his demise was the result of a criminal act. Was England’s greatest man of letters before Shakespeare murdered?

These Vicious Crimes Will Make You See the Medieval Period in a New Light
Chaucer’s pilgrims, en route to Canterbury. Chaucerian Myth

Chaucer’s Mockery of the Clergy Backfired on Him

Chaucer is best known today for his literary output. In his day, however, he was also a prominent and capable government official, and a member of the courts of both King Edward III and his successor, King Richard II. Despite that prominence, he simply disappears from the historic record after June 5th, 1400, after he signed a receipt for the payment of five pounds. So what happened? To figure that out, we have to go back to the reign of Chaucer’s benefactor, King Richard II. Richard has a bad rap as a tyrannical monarch. However, his reign was a relatively good one for the arts, letters, and even saw some glimmers of religious freedom, or at least tolerance. His reign was certainly good for Chaucer.

Richard was deposed in 1399 by his cousin Henry Bolingbroke, who took the crown, became King Henry IV, and had his predecessor quietly disposed of. The new regime saw the rise of new powerful figures, whose numbers included Thomas Arundel, Archbishop of Canterbury – England’s most powerful church official. Arundel had not been a fan of Richard II’s religious tolerance, and sought to roll back the religious freedoms of that reign. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales had mocked and depicted the clergy in unflattering terms, and that put him in the archbishop’s crosshairs. As seen below, Arundel might have turned to criminal means to do away with a writer he loathed.

These Vicious Crimes Will Make You See the Medieval Period in a New Light
A Lollard being burned as a heretic. Wikimedia

A Criminal Act that Claimed England’s Second-Most Prominent Poet

When Henry IV became king, Thomas Arundel, Archbishop of Canterbury, became a power behind the throne. A Machiavellian figure, he used theology to go after symbols and supporters of the old regime, and to ensure total submission to the new one. Persecution of those who stepped out of line as heretics, such as the Lollards – proto-Protestants Arundel ordered burned at the stake – was used to terrify opponents or would-be opponents, and consolidate the new king’s power. Worse for Chaucer, the archbishop had grown rich, powerful, and fat on church corruption. It is understandable that he was not a fan of the author of the Canterbury Tales, which made fun of rich and powerful clerics who had grown fat on church corruption.

These Vicious Crimes Will Make You See the Medieval Period in a New Light
Chaucer. Northeast Regional Library

Chaucer had apparently seen the writing on the wall. Shortly after his benefactor Richard II was deposed, he moved to a house within the sanctuary of Westminster Abbey. That did not save him. Chaucer simply vanishes from the record in June, 1400, and presumably died a few months later. There are clues to indicate a violent end. For one, there is a retraction inserted at the end of the Canterbury Tales. Was that an attempt to appease Arundel? For another, nobody recorded his death at the time – even though significantly more is known about the deaths of other less prominent poets. There are also medieval references to the “tragedie” of Chaucer’s death, and that he was “slaughtered”. Put that all together, and it points to the likelihood that Chaucer’s demise had probably been a criminal act – an assassination ordered by Arundel or his master, Henry IV.

These Vicious Crimes Will Make You See the Medieval Period in a New Light
Medieval illustration of the slaughter of Thomas Becket. Guildhall Library

A Brazenly Criminal Act in a Church, that Rocked the Medieval World

King Henry II (1133 – 1189) was probably England’s most transformative monarch. His reign, from 1153 to 1189, laid some basic foundations that shaped England ever since. He saw the delivery of justice as a king’s key duty, and revolutionized England by reorganizing its legal system, helped by his chancellor and Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket. Henry laid the foundations for the English common law that shaped England, and through it the US and the rest of the Anglophone world. He imposed judicial uniformity throughout the realm, expanded the role of juries, and codified the law. Then he fell out with Becket, his chancellor and once a close friend. Becket defied the king time after time, and on one of those occasions, an enraged Henry reportedly shouted “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?

These Vicious Crimes Will Make You See the Medieval Period in a New Light
The scourging of King Henry II at Thomas Becket’s tomb. Wellcome Collection

Odds are that Henry said something less catchy: “What miserable drones and traitors have I nourished and brought up in my household, who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born cleric?” Whatever words Henry used, they were interpreted by some of his knights as a wish that Becket be ended. Four of them immediately went to Canterbury Cathedral to confront the archbishop. When Becket refused their demands to submit to the king’s will, they slaughtered him inside on the spot. Such a criminal act shocked Europe. Becket was swiftly canonized as a saint, and Henry II took a huge political hit. The king was forced to humble himself, and do public penance at Becket’s tomb for the criminal act carried out in his name. He reportedly agreed to let himself get whipped and scourged by priests as part of his atonement.

These Vicious Crimes Will Make You See the Medieval Period in a New Light
Peter Niers was so depraved, he was a likened to a werewolf. All That is Interesting

A Medieval Macabre Criminal

Medieval German bandit Peter Niers (died 1581) was a dark arts practitioner, and one of history’s scariest people. Over a fifteen-year-period, he took the lives of over 600 people, and cut the fetuses out of the wombs of 24 pregnant women. The fetuses were used as ingredients in his black magic, and consumed in cannibalistic acts. Niers began his criminal career as a highwayman in Alsace, present day France, and eventually led a gang that numbered about 24 bandits. He also became a key figure in a loose network of bandit and highwayman gangs, that joined forces on occasion to conduct major operations that required large numbers of men.

Niers’ criminal activities spanned a large territory that included western France, the Rhineland, and Bavaria in southern Germany. What set him apart from other bandits was his bloodthirstiness and gratuitous cruelty. He was not content to simply rob or kill his victims. Niers also liked to torture those who fell into his hands, and often slew them in a variety of fiendishly inventive ways. He was captured in 1577, and under torture, confessed to 75 murders in the previous 11 years. However, before he could be executed, he managed to escape.

These Vicious Crimes Will Make You See the Medieval Period in a New Light
The execution of Peter Niers. Ranker

The Authorities Went Hard in the Punishment of This Criminal

Niers returned to his criminal activities after his escape, with even greater cruelty and bloodthirstiness. Indeed the majority of his murders and depravities occurred in the four years after his escape. Before, he had murdered 75 people in 11 years. That figured jumped to an additional 569 people in the 4 years from 1577 to 1581, before he was arrested for a second, and final time. He was taken to the Bavarian city of Neumarkt in der Oberpfalz for a public execution, in which the authorities went medieval on Niers, literally and figuratively.

Even for an era in which torture and gruesome executions were routine, Peter Niers’ execution, which commenced on September 16th, 1581, stood out. It was a three-day ordeal, and in the first, his skin was flayed, then hot oil was poured on his exposed muscles to slough off layers of his flesh. On the second day, his feet were coated in grease, and his lower body was slowly grilled over a low fire. On the third day, his body was broken on the wheel, with dozens of blows that smashed his major bones to pieces. Finally, the executioners quartered the notorious criminal while still alive, and sawed his body into pieces.

These Vicious Crimes Will Make You See the Medieval Period in a New Light
The execution of Jeanne de Clisson’s husband. Flickr

An Angry Noblewoman Out for Revenge

Jeanne de Clisson (1300 – 1359), also known as the Lioness of Brittany, was one of France’s most prominent female pirates. She was an unlikely criminal: a Breton noblewoman born in the town of Belleville-sur-Vie into a prominent family, which had ruled the area for centuries. She was married at age twelve and bore her husband two children, before he died in 1326. She remarried in 1328, but that marriage was annulled two years later, so she remarried once more, this time to a wealthy Breton named Olivier Clisson. In 1342, during the Hundred Years War, Jeanne’s husband was military commander of a town that was captured by the English, and he was taken prisoner.

The English released Olivier Clisson soon thereafter in a prisoner exchange – the only Frenchman to be released. Between that and an unusually low ransom requested by the English, his French compatriots suspected him of treason. He was tried and convicted by a court of French aristocrats, and beheaded in 1343. Jeanne viewed her husband’s execution as a cowardly and criminal act, took her young sons to see their father’s head mounted on a spike, and vowed revenge. As seen below, the widow turned pirate, preyed on French ships in the English Channel, and tortured and executed every French nobleman she came across.

These Vicious Crimes Will Make You See the Medieval Period in a New Light
Jeanne de Clisson. Head Stuff

A Medieval Criminal Rampage

Jeanne de Clisson sold her estates, and used the proceeds to raise a force of armed followers. She switched her loyalties to the English, and began to attack the French. She was not taken seriously at first. Then she attacked and captured a French castle, and massacred its entire garrison, except for one man she let live to tell the tale. She was taken seriously from then on. Jeanne realized her forces were too small to withstand a determined French counterattack. So she retreated across the Channel to England. There, she bought and outfitted three warships. To signal her intent, she painted them black and dyed their sails red. Then she led her black fleet into the English Channel, to fall upon French ships. She and her pirate fleet soon gained a reputation for savagery, as they massacred nearly all who fell into their hands.

Clisson exempted a few survivors, spared so they could spread the tale. French nobles in particular were in serious trouble if they were discovered aboard any ship captured by her. There was serious money to be made ransoming them, as the was custom of the day. Clisson wanted none of that. Instead, she tormented the nobles, then personally chopped off their heads with an ax, before she tossed their corpses overboard. Her criminal rampage against the French lasted for thirteen years, before her blood lust was finally sated. Eventually, in 1356, Clisson gave up the life of piracy, and retired to her estates in Brittany. She remarried for a fourth time, settled into a castle, and died peacefully in 1359.

These Vicious Crimes Will Make You See the Medieval Period in a New Light
HBO’s The Young Pope. IMDb

A Real Life Young Pope

Jude Law played a scandalous pope in the television series The Young Pope. Centuries earlier, history’s actual youngest Pope ever, John XII (937 – 964), led a papacy that was even more scandalous in real life. He was elevated to the Holy See in 955 at age eighteen, and unsurprisingly, a callow teenager as pope did not turn out well. His years as Holy Father were as farcical and venal as one could expect from a person thrust into a position of power and influence for which he was clearly unprepared and unqualified.

Scandal attended John XII while he was still in the womb. Born Octavianus, he was the product of an incestuous union between Rome’s most powerful figure, Alberic II, Duke of Spoleto, a self-styled “Prince of Rome”, and his stepsister. In 954, shortly before his death, Alberic extracted an oath from Rome’s aristocracy to appoint his son Octavianus pope the next time the position became vacant. When Pope Agapetus II died in 955, Octavianus was duly elected to succeed him, and chose for himself the regnal name John XII.

These Vicious Crimes Will Make You See the Medieval Period in a New Light
Pope John XII. Time Magazine

An Outright Criminal Holy Father

The real life Young Pope was uninterested in his spiritual duties and papal obligations. His father, Duke Alberic, the only person who might have checked him, had died. The teenaged John XII thus found himself in a position of great power, and with access to great wealth, riches, and resources, without any adult guidance or supervision. He reacted like many teenagers would in similar circumstances, and dove headfirst into a life of depravity and the pursuit of pleasure. He liked to hunt, gamble, drink, and womanize. He also toasted the devil and invoked pagan gods during dice games.

As one historian put it, John XII’s pontificate: “became infamous for the alleged depravity and worldliness with which he conducted it“. Among other things, he sold church offices and titles to help defray the costs of his lavish lifestyle, and on one occasion, he ordained a ten-year-old as a bishop. He had such little respect for the dignity of church offices, that he once ordained a deacon in a stable. He was also a violent and criminal psychopath, who castrated a deacon before he ended him. When his own confessor angered him, he blinded him before he murdered him.

These Vicious Crimes Will Make You See the Medieval Period in a New Light
The death of Pope John XII. History Stack

An Apt End to a Depraved Pope

Contemporaries wrote that John XII turned the Lateran Palace into a brothel. It was not just the calumny of political opponents, but a charge for which there is historical support. There is a near unanimous consensus by historians of the period that John XII was a dissolute pope. He had many women in his palace, which became notorious for its orgies and drunken parties. He especially liked to defile holy sites by having explicit relations in them. He had relations in the papal palace, and if visitors refused his advances, he went ahead and forced himself upon them.

John XII carried on with one of his deceased father’s mistresses, with his own niece, and reportedly with his two younger sisters as well. After a tumultuous and riotous nine years as pope, he finally died as he lived, doing what he liked most: he met his Maker in the middle of getting it on. There are two accounts of John XII’s death. In one, he died from a massive stroke while fornicating. Another account has him perish in the middle of an adulterous encounter: the cuckolded husband burst in on the couple and put an end to the pope.

These Vicious Crimes Will Make You See the Medieval Period in a New Light
Sayyida al Hurra. Muslim Heritage

The Last Independent Queen in Islamic History

Lalla Aicha bint Ali ibn Rashid al Alami, better known as Sayyida al Hurra (1485 – 1561), which means “free and independent noblewoman” in Arabic, was the ruler of Tetouan in today’s Morocco. She was also a pirate queen who terrorized the waters of Iberia and North Africa. Islamic records are oddly silent about her, but she was a powerful figure of the era, and an equal ally of the famous corsair Hayreddin Barbarossa, who dominated the Mediterranean in the sixteenth century. She was born into a prominent Muslim family in Granada, but when that kingdom fell to the Spanish Reconquista in 1492, fled to Morocco. The Moroccan sultan granted Sayyida and her husband, and their refugee followers, the ruins of Tetouan, a city destroyed by Spaniards.

The couple and their followers rebuilt and restored Tetouan. After her husband died in 1515, Sayyida became its queen – the last queen in Islamic history to rule independently. After years of widowhood, she remarried, and wed the sultan of Morocco. But to emphasize her independence, and to demonstrate that she did not plan to give up her power and position, she refused to leave Tetouan for the wedding. The sultan had to come to her – the only time in Moroccan history that a sultan married outside his capital.

These Vicious Crimes Will Make You See the Medieval Period in a New Light
Sayyida al Hurra. Women of History

A Criminal Rampage on the High Seas

In the meantime, from her base in Tetouan, spurred on by bitter memories of her exile from Granada, Sayyida al Hurra conducted a ruthless campaign of piracy against the Spaniards. She allied with Heyreddin Barbarossa, the era’s most prominent corsair, who rose to become the Ottoman Empire’s most successful admiral. With Barbarossa in control of the Eastern Mediterranean and Sayyida in control of the Western Mediterranean and the Atlantic coast of Morocco and Iberia, the duo went to work. Sayyida led her own fleet, prowled Spanish and Portuguese waters, and became the region’s undisputed pirate leader.

She amassed a fortune from booty, and raised fabulous sums from ransoms to free her captives. Indeed, she became the go-to contact in negotiations to release Christian captives. It is to those negotiations, and the records thereof, that history is most indebted for our knowledge of her. Her reign eventually ended as she neared her 60s. For three decades, Sayyida struck terror into the hearts of captains and crews in the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. Her downfall came at the hands of her son in law, who ousted her in a palace coup. She was stripped of power, and her fate thereafter is lost to history.

These Vicious Crimes Will Make You See the Medieval Period in a New Light
Errol Flynn as Robin Hood. Letter Boxd

The Medieval Era’s Most Famous Criminal

Robin Hood stole from the rich and gave to the poor, fought the Sheriff of Nottingham and the evil King John, and helped the rightful monarch Richard the Lionheart regain his throne. His is one of England’s greatest folkloric legends. Surprisingly, for a fictional figure whose story revolved around armed robbery of the rich, Robin Hood first gained widespread popularity as a result of plays originally staged for Elizabethan England’s upper classes. First, however, the playwrights had to gentrify him.

So he was transformed from a commoner bandit, and remade into a nobleman to whom the well-heeled could better relate. Such gentrification can be traced to the playwright Anthony Mundy, who reinvented the fictional criminal as an aristocrat, Earl Robert of Huntington. He had gone away to the fight in the Crusades, and returned to discover that he had been wrongfully disinherited by his uncle. He flees to Sherwood Forrest where he becomes a bandit, meets and falls in love with Lady Marion, and kicks off the legend.

These Vicious Crimes Will Make You See the Medieval Period in a New Light
Robin Hood and Maid Marion, as depicted in a seventeenth century woodcut. Wikimedia

Who Was the Real Life Criminal Behind This Legendary Outlaw?

In real life, nobody had performed all the noble deeds of derring-do ascribed to the fictional Robin Hood. However, plenty of outlaws, nearly all commoners, had gained a measure of popularity with the lower classes because they had thumbed their noses at the upper class oppressors. “Robinhood” or “Rabunhod” or “Robehod” were common nicknames for criminals, and appear in numerous twelfth century court records. Those Robin Hoods were not the kinds of criminals who acted based on any highbrow motives.

Instead, they became criminals for the mundane reasons that led most people into crime back then, and that still put people on the paths of criminality today. Even if we set aside that Robin Hood was probably just a generic period nickname for criminals, to identify the original Robin Hood is no easy task. In England, Robin was and remains a diminutive of the name Robert, and Robert was a very common first name back then. Likewise, Hood was a common surname in medieval England.

These Vicious Crimes Will Make You See the Medieval Period in a New Light
Russel Crow, as Robin Hood. Amazon

The Real Robin Hood

Because his first and last name were so common, it is difficult for historians to identify just which real life medieval criminal named Robin Hood, or some variation thereof, might have inspired the legend of the fictional outlaw. That explains why so many candidates have been proposed over the years. The earliest mentioned one is a Robert Hod of York. He became an outlaw after his goods, worth 32 shillings, were confiscated by the authorities to settle a debt owed to a local church. Other candidates include the brothers Robert and John Deyville, who fought in the Second Barons’ War (1264 – 1267). Their side lost, so the Deyvilles holed up in the woods as outlaws.

The records show that John Deyville, at least, was eventually pardoned. However, the likeliest candidate seems to be Roger Godberd, another figure from the losing side of the Second Barons’ War who became an outlaw. He operated from Sherwood Forest, defied the Sheriff of Nottingham for years, was captured and taken to Nottingham Castle, but escaped. He was eventually recaptured and held in the Tower of London, until he was pardoned by King Edward I when he returned from the Crusades. That record led many historians to label Godberd as “the prototype” of the fictional Robin Hood.

These Vicious Crimes Will Make You See the Medieval Period in a New Light
The Nun of Monza, by Mose Bianchi. Pinterest

A Criminal Nun

Marianna de Leyva y Marino (1575 – 1650) was born into a family of rich Milanese bankers. Her mother died while Marianna was an infant, so her father dumped her on an aunt to raise her, and forget about her as he pursued his business affairs across Europe. At age thirteen, her father remembered her long enough to force her into a convent in Monza. Marianna took well to the nunnery, took the name Sister Virginia, and became a role model for younger novices. Things changed in her twenties, when she fell head over heels in love, or lust, with a young aristocratic womanizer named Gian Paolo Osio. A years-long torrid affair ensued.

Osio had a blacksmith make him copies of the convent’s keys, and routinely snuck into Marianne’s room, with the complicity of other nuns and a friendly priest. She birthed two children, one a stillborn, the other a daughter who was adopted by Osio. Marianna alternated between lust gratification, and guilt trips over her sins. At some point, she turned to a desperate expedient that she hoped would turn her irresistible lust for Osio into disgust: she began to eat his feces. As seen below, it did not work.

These Vicious Crimes Will Make You See the Medieval Period in a New Light
The arrest of the Nun of Monza, by Giovannia Migliara. Antico

Scary Sister Virginia

In 1606, a nun threatened to expose the affair between Sister Virginia and her lover. So Osio murdered her, with the complicity of his nun mistress. She threatened the other nuns that they’d get the same if they blabbed. To cover their tracks, the lovers spread a story that the murdered nun had ran off. However, rumors began to spread about iffy goings on at the Monza convent. So Osio began to murder more people to quell the rumors. His victims included the blacksmith who had made him copies of the convent’s keys, and an apothecary who had supplied Marianne with herbs to end a pregnancy.

It didn’t work, and eventually word reached the governor of Milan, who ordered an investigation. Osio, Marianne, and their complicit enablers were arrested in 1607, and tortured to reveal what they knew. Osio escaped, and was sentenced to death in absentia. He met his end soon thereafter by an acquaintance. Marianne was sentenced to life in solitary confinement, bricked up in a small cell, four feet by nine. She stayed there for fourteen years, until she was deemed reformed and released, to spend the rest of her life in a convent.

These Vicious Crimes Will Make You See the Medieval Period in a New Light
The Zhengde Emperor, as depicted in film. Inf News

A Teenager in Charge of an Empire

The authorities are supposed to protect us from crime, but what happens when the authorities turn criminal? Many medieval Chinese had to deal with that in the reign of the Zhengde Emperor (1491 – 1521), who ascended the Ming Dynasty throne at age fourteen in 1505, and reigned until 1521. The teenager was uninterested in his empire’s governance, and disregarded state affairs. Instead, he abandoned himself to an extravagant and profligate lifestyle, marked by lavish spending, bizarre behavior, and poor – sometimes outright criminal – choices.

The teenager’s irresponsible behavior set the stage for the Ming Dynasty’s downfall. As soon as he ascended the throne, the fourteen-year-old old emperor handed governance to trusted eunuchs and devoted himself to the pursuit of pleasure – both innocent, and outright criminal. With governance left entirely in their hands, palace eunuchs became China’s most powerful class. Without checks or oversight, corruption spread, and public offices were openly bought and sold. At the same time, taxes soared to pay for the emperor’s pleasures and to line the pockets of courtiers and officials.

These Vicious Crimes Will Make You See the Medieval Period in a New Light
The Zhengde Emperor. Wikimedia

A Criminal Medieval Emperor

The young Zhengde Emperor liked to travel incognito – although most of the time it was obvious just who he was. He was into make believe in a big way. He created an alter ego for himself, a general Zhu Zhu, upon whom he lavished praise and rewards. He also built a city block within the imperial palace so he could pretend to be a shopkeeper. Less innocent and harmful was his habit of taking his companions on thrill raids. They burst into the homes of rich citizens, violently kidnapped their daughters, and held them for ransom.

Officials who criticized the emperor’s erratic and irresponsible criminal behavior were arrested, tortured, and executed by the hundreds. The young emperor eventually drowned in 1521 when his pleasure barge capsized, an accident that finally brought his reign to a merciful end. Although he left the scene, the damage he left behind proved permanent. In the Zhengde Emperor’s reign, without oversight from the throne, palace eunuchs secured so much power within the government’s structure that subsequent emperors were unable to dislodge them.

These Vicious Crimes Will Make You See the Medieval Period in a New Light
Gilles de Rais. Wikimedia

A Medieval Hero Turned Monstrous Criminal

Gilles de Montmorency-Laval, Baron de Rais, better known to history as Gilles de Rais (1404 – 1440), was a French aristocrat from Brittany. He was a respected knight, and a national hero who rose to prominence as Joan of Arc’s chief captain and right hand man. Then his true nature was revealed, and his celebrated career was cut short, along with his head. Away from the limelight, he was a criminal monster. His family, the House of Montmorency, was one of France’s oldest, most respected, and most distinguished aristocratic families. Early on, he seemed to live up to the high expectations of a scion of such an illustrious clan. By age fifteen, he had distinguished himself militarily in a series of wars of succession that wracked the Duchy of Brittany.

De Rais distinguished himself even more in Anjou, on whose duchess’ behalf he fought against the English in 1427. By the time Joan of Arc emerged to challenge the English in 1429, de Rais was already one of France’s most celebrated military men, despite his youth. He was assigned to Joan of Arc as one of her guards, and fought in several battles at her side. He particularly distinguished himself in her greatest victory, which lifted the English siege of Orleans. He then accompanied her to Reims for the coronation of King Charles VII, who made de Rais Marshall of France – a distinction awarded to generals for exceptional achievements.

These Vicious Crimes Will Make You See the Medieval Period in a New Light
Gilles de Rais and his victims. Imgur

A Turn to Alchemy and Satanism

Gilles de Rais had inherited significant landholdings and estates from both his father and maternal grandfather. He married a rich heiress, which match brought him even more extensive holdings, and made him one of France’s greatest magnates. He retired from the military in 1434, but he was not as good at money management as he was at the management of men in battle. He soon dissipated his fabulous wealth with a lavish lifestyle that rivaled the king’s. Within a year of retirement, de Rais lost most of his lands, and his family secured a royal decree that forbade him to mortgage what was left.

To raise more cash, de Rais turned to alchemy: he hoped to figure out a way to turn base metals into gold. He also turned to Satanism, and hoped to gain knowledge, power, and riches, through the devil. Another thing he turned to was the serial murder of children. In 1440, an increasingly erratic Gilles got into a dispute with local church figures, and things escalated until he eventually kidnapped a priest. That triggered an ecclesiastical investigation, which unearthed some horrific stuff. It turned out that the once celebrated national hero had been murdering children – mostly boys, but also the occasional girl – by the hundreds.

These Vicious Crimes Will Make You See the Medieval Period in a New Light
A nineteenth century illustration depicts Gilles de Rais, his victims, and accomplices. Missed in History

A Depraved Medieval Criminal

The modus operandi of Giles de Rais was to lure children from peasant or lower class families to his castle with gifts, such as candies, toys, or clothes. He put them at their ease, fed and pampered them, before he eventually led them to a bedroom where he and accomplices seized their victims. As he confessed in his subsequent trial, de Rais enjoyed the terror in the children’s eyes, when he explained what was in store for them. What was in store was none too good.

These Vicious Crimes Will Make You See the Medieval Period in a New Light
The execution of Gilles de Rais. French National Library

Suffice it to say that it that it involved torture and sodomy, and ended with the child’s demise, usually via decapitation. The victims and their clothes would then be burned in the fireplace, and their ashes dumped in a moat. After de Rais confessed to his crimes, he and he and his accomplices were sentenced to death. He was executed on October 26th, 1440, by burning and hanging, simultaneously. His infamy inspired the fairy tale of Bluebeard, about a wealthy serial wife killer.

These Vicious Crimes Will Make You See the Medieval Period in a New Light
Elizabeth Bathory, in a contemporary painting and as depicted in film. Rainhas na Historia

A Criminal Countess

Countess Elizabeth Bathory de Ecsend (1560 – 1614) owned vast estates in today’s Hungary, Slovakia, and Romania. She also owns the Guinness Book of World Records’ record for most prolific female murderess. In a criminal spree from 1585 to 1609, she tortured and took the lives of hundreds of young women. She was probably history’s most vicious female serial killer. She was born into the Bathory family, a distinguished aristocratic lineage that ruled Transylvania as a de facto independent principality within the Kingdom of Hungary. The future countess was raised amidst wealth and privilege, received an excellent education from top notch tutors, and at age twelve, was betrothed to a prominent Hungarian aristocrat.

These Vicious Crimes Will Make You See the Medieval Period in a New Light
Countess Elizabeth Bathory was quite depraved. Wahoo Art

A year later, however, she got pregnant by a commoner. He fiancé had her lover castrated, torn to pieces, and fed to the dogs. Elizabeth gave birth to a daughter, who was quietly hidden. She wed her betrothed in 1575, but repeatedly cuckolded him throughout their married life – a task made easier by his frequent absences on military campaigns. Elizabeth developed a criminal taste for sadism, and sometime around 1585, began to torture and murder young girls. She started off with servants at her castle, then serf girls from nearby peasant villages. Eventually, her victims included the daughters of local gentry, sent to her castle by their families to receive an aristocratic education and learn courtly manners.

These Vicious Crimes Will Make You See the Medieval Period in a New Light
Elizabeth Bathory was one sick countess. Pinterest

The Depraved Countess Bathory

Elizabeth Bathory was a vicious piece of work. Witnesses reported that she stabbed her victims; pierced their lips with needles; burned them with red hot irons; bit their breasts and faces; and cut them with scissors. Some of her victims were beaten to death, while others were starved. In winter, she liked to send serving girls out in the snow, where she had water poured over them and watched them turn into human icicles. In summer, she would often coat her victims in honey, and watch them get tormented by ants, bees, and other insects. She drank her victims’ blood in the belief that it would preserve her youth, and bathed in their blood for the same reason. The exact number of Countess Bathory’s victims is unknown, but some estimates range as high 650.

These Vicious Crimes Will Make You See the Medieval Period in a New Light
Cachtice Castle in Slovakia, where Elizabeth Bathory was imprisoned. CNN

Rumors of the goings on at Bathory’s castle eventually got out, and the Hungarian authorities conducted an investigation. In December, 1610, she and four others were arrested. Her accomplices were tried, and three were convicted of murder and sundry crimes, and executed. However, justice back then was even more elusive than it is today, and punishment for crimes depended on the culprit’s status. Elizabeth Bathory was a countess, and her family was one of the most powerful and influential in the realm. Despite mountains of evidence, she never faced trial. Instead, she was quietly sent to a castle in today’s Slovakia, where she was confined to a windowless room until her death, five years later.

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

Amazing Women in History – Sayyida al Hurra, Islamic Pirate Queen

Ancient Origins – The Revenge of Pirate Jeanne de Clisson, the Lioness of Brittany

Atlas Obscura – The Modern Movement to Exonerate a Notorious Medieval Serial Killer

AV Club – The Young Pope John XII Died as He Lived: Fornicating

Baldwin, David – Robin Hood: The English Outlaw Unmasked (2010)

Casual Criminalist – The Nun’s Tale: Sister Virginia Maria

Christianity Dot Com – Roman Synod Deposed Pope John XII

CNN Travel – Blood Countess in Slovakia: Tourists on the Trail of Elizabeth Bathory

Daily Beast – Five Little-Known but History-Changing Medieval Crime Stories

Encyclopedia Britannica – Elizabeth Bathory

Encyclopedia Britannica – Giles de Rais

Encyclopedia Britannica – Zhengde, Emperor of Ming China

Guardian, the, November 15th, 2003 – The Dead Poet’s Tale

Head Stuff – Jeanne de Clisson, the Bloody Lioness of Brittany

History Collection – Henry VIII Made Insanity a Punishable Offense So He Could Execute This In-Law

History Things – History’s Nutcases: The Zhengde Emperor

Jones, Dan – The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England (2014)

Jones, Terry – Who Murdered Chaucer? A Medieval Mystery (2003)

Mazzucchelli, Mario – The Nun of Monza (1963)

National Geographic History Magazine, February 5th, 2019 – Who Was the Real Robin Hood?

New Advent – Pope John XII

Pollard, Anthony James – Imagining Robin Hood: The Late Medieval Stories in Historical Context (2004)

Ranker – The Untold Story of Peter Niers, the Cannibal Magician Who Killed 500 People

Rejected Princesses – Elisabeth Bathory: The Blood Countess

Spartacus Educational – King Richard II

Way of the Pirates – Sayyida al Hurra, Pirate Queen of Islamic West

Wiltenburg, Joy – Crime and Punishment in Early Modern Germany (2012)

Wolf, Leonard – Bluebeard: The Life and Times of Gilles de Rais (1980)

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