We often think of the Middle Ages as being an age of knights in shining armour, outlaws running through the greenwood and damsels stuck up in high towers. The truth is much less romantic and normally quite mundane. Even so, this age remains fascinating as it saw many of the building blocks of the world we live in today being put in place.
1. The Hundred Years War did not last 100 years
The 100 Years War is generally accepted to have lasted from 1337 to the Battle of Castillon in 1453, which as some basic mathematics will work out is a little more than 100 years. However even after Castillion, England remained formally at War with France for 20 more years.
2. The Battle of Hastings was started by a juggler
As the two sides lined up there was a moment when it seemed the Normans were suffering a bout of performance anxiety. Seeing the axons lined up on the high ground they were reluctant to charge. It took the camp’s jester who broke from the lines performing an outrageous juggling routine. The Saxons were unsure what to make of it until he concluded the show by hurling a spear at the front rank. All hell proceeded to break loose and the battle was well and truly on.
3. The Battle of Hastings didn’t happen at Hastings
Despite the name, the Battle of Hastings happened about five miles away at a place called Seniac Hill. It’s now known as the town of Battle.
4. England was invaded a lot
We think of 1066 as being the last time England was invaded, but it’s actually happened quite a bit. Louis of France invaded in 1216 and reigned for the best part of a year, while Henry Bolingbroke landed with an invasion force in 1399 to oust Richard II.
5. Spiral staircases went clockwise
Most medieval castles had spiral staircases which ran clockwise. This was because most defenders would be right handed, making it easier to defend.
6. Castles came from France
England only got Castles in 1066 with the arrival of the Normans. Until then they had contented themselves with wooden fortified towns.
7. Gargoyles were drains
We often think of the purpose of church Gargoyles as warding off evil spirits. In fact they were there to drain off the water from the roofs. The water was ejected through the gargoyle’s mouth.
8. Normans were Vikings
The Normans trace their origins to Viking invaders who terrorised Northern France. Locals called them North Men which eventually migrated to simply ‘Norman’.
9. We owe a lot to the Moors
The Moorish occupation of Spain might not have been fun for the Spanish but it contributed a great deal to our modern culture. They used Arabic numerals which we still use today and also introduced us to the game of chess.
10. Gunpowder killed the castle
From 1300 the invention of gunpowder made life difficult for castle engineers. Canon balls were able to smash through walls. Designs changed to cope with the threat, but soon they stopped being built for defence and were instead a way to show off your wealth and importance.
11. Fight an Arab and you could be forgiven
In 1095 the Pope wanted help ridding the Holy Land of muslims. And so he promised eternal forgiveness for all sins for anyone who signed up.
12. Children tried to reclaim the Holyland
In 1212 the Children’s crusade used kids to try and peacefully convert the Arabs to Christianity. It didn’t work and most of them were sold as slaves.
13. Churches were everywhere
In medieval times there was a church for every 200 people, which meant in towns and cities they were pretty much everywhere.
14. The Church held nearly all the power
The Church was incredibly influential. They collected tax from the people, held vast sums of wealth and often had a hand in making the laws. They even owed their allegiance to the Pope over their own King.
15. Art was bad unless it involved God
Early medieval Kings only believed in art if it had a religious context. Any art that did not involve religion was considered blasphemous.
16. You could buy forgiveness
The church had many money-making schemes. One of these involved paying monks to pray for you after you died – ensuring you made it into heaven.
17. Peasants had to work for the Church
If you were a peasant then the church had its hands in your pockets at every turn. You’d have to donate days of labour free of charge and pay taxes in grain which were kept in huge tithe barns.
18. Cleanliness was next to godliness
Thanks to the church, medieval people were much cleaner than we think. They church taught that cleanliness was next to Godliness.
19. Kings had to hick a religion
For some medieval monarchs picking a religion was a tricky business. For King Vlad of Kiev the choice was between Islam or Christianity. He eventually chose Christianity when he heard that Muslims could not eat pork or drink alcohol.
20. Muslims taxed non-muslims
Muslim Kingdoms were in general very tolerant of other faiths. However, they did tax them which meant many people quickly converted to Islam.
Life as a Peasant
21. Peasant food was foul
Peasants generally ate something called pottage which was anything they could dig up in the fields that day, boiled for a couple of hours and then served. It was not pleasant.
22. Peasants had a lot of free time
Today we have about 8 public holidays a year. The medieval church, however, insisted on around 80.
23. English was for poor people
Every since the Norman invasion, English was a language reserved for poor people. French was spoken by the aristocracy and most of the early medieval Kings could barely speak English. It was only Henry IV who broke with tradition and took his coronation in English.
24. Jesters had freedom of speech
The only person who could get away with criticising the King was a jester. This is because any words that came from a jester’s mouth were said to be meant only in jest. Today satirists do the same thing.
25. Life was tough for peasants
Most peasants spent their time labouring on their Lord’s land for which they received a small plot of land to call their own. Here they were allowed to grow enough food and rear animals to feed their family.
26. The plague actually helped peasants
The Great Plague, which wiped out up to half of the population in the 14th century, went a long way towards evening the playing field for peasants. Those that remained were in a much better bargaining position so the laws of supply and demand helped them get a much better price for their work.
27. It was illegal to wear a mask
The idea of banning hoodies goes back some time – or at least the medieval equivalent, which was masks. It was illegal to wear a mask in public, or carry a weapon.
28. If a serf kept running long enough they’d let him go
Serfs were bound to their local town and village and if you ran away you could be fetched back and punished. However, if you managed to stay free for a year and make it to a town you could become a freeman of that town.
29. Peasants had excellent teeth
Peasants had a rough diet without much sugar. This meant that they didn’t have much in the way of tooth decay.
30. Being an idiot could be a community service
Every year the poor of the towns would elect someone to be a lord of misrule. They could then don a paper crown and cavort around the place getting up to all sorts of mischief.
31. England’s worst king passed England’s best law
Bad King John was hated during his life and reviled after his death, but he did inadvertently sign that Magna Carta, which would be a defining moment in our journey to democracy. True, he might have been forced to sign it by rebelling barons and he might have gone back on his word – but his name is there all the same.
32. Peasants had quite a bit of control
Power over minor local issues were devolved to a council of peasants who would decide small details such as land disputes. This gave peasants a grounding in law which occasionally backfired against land owners.
33. Peasants could twist the law to their own ends
Their legal knowledge went a long way. For instance in 1200 King John decided to visit Nottingham. However, his route took him through the small village of Gotham. The locals realised that if he did their main road would become a Kings Road, which would make it subject to new taxes. They therefore decided to pretend to be insane. The King fell for it and found a detour.
34. Richard III was not a tyrant
The last King of the Middle Ages has also been seen as one of the worst. Richard III is remembered as the man who killed his nephews and stole the Crown. However, he was thought of as being a generally good King who brought in many reforms which extended access to the legal system for even the poorest people.
35. Poll taxes were as unpopular then as now
To pay for wars in France the Barons introduced a poll tax which was wildly unpopular as it meant everyone had to pay the same. Just as Maggie Thatcher found out hundreds of years later the peasants didn’t like it. They rose up, marched on London and tore the city to shreds.
36. Classes had uniforms
After the Great Plague peasants had more power and began pushing their rights. They started being paid in cash and some even got hold of their own land. What angered the aristocracy most, though, was that some of them began spending money on fashion. They introduced a law saying that certain clothes could only be worn by certain classes.
37. Trial by ordeal was possible
When accused of a crime you could choose to be tried by ordeal. This would involve an extremely painful task. If you survived or the wounds healed swiftly enough people would say that God had intervened.
38. Bad breath could cause divorce
There are stories of peasant women in some parts of the country being allowed to divorce their husbands because of bad breath.
39. Henry II gave us law
Henry II was one of the most influential Kings of our time. He put in place many of the fundamental principles of English law which would survive for centuries.
40. William I gave us feudalism
To govern his new country William the Conqueror divided the land into regions controlled by barons. These barons would be required to raised taxes from their peasants when necessary and supply fighting men when needed.
Science, Superstition and Myth
41. The Church didn’t believe in witches
We all think of medieval witch burnings, but the Catholic Church took a dim view of this teaching and taught that witches were the product of superstition.
42. Peasants gave us the term ‘piggy bank’
Peasants would save what money they could in pots made from a type of clay called pygg. This is where we get the term ‘piggy bank’.
43. London Bridge did indeed fall down
The nursery rhyme may have its origins in an incident in which the Saxons pulled down the bridge, helping them to win back London from the Danes.
44. Robin Hood existed
Records show many Robin Hoods, many of whom were outlaws. What we don’t know is whether one of them inspired the legend or if the stories meant Robin Hood became a generic term for all outlaws.
45. Vikings were not ‘Vikings’
The word Viking actually meant ‘raider’. Because that’s all the English experienced of Vikings, so that’s how we referred to them. Most, in fact, were keen farmers.
46. The Vikings didn’t die out in 1066
We think of the Battle of Stamford Bridge as marking the end of the Vikings. However, they carried on for centuries, but gave up on raiding. Neighbouring countries were becoming stronger and it simply didn’t pay off any more.
47. A monk predicted the future
Roger Bacon, a Franciscan Friar from the 13th century, had a pretty good handle on what our world would look like. He foretold the coming of the car, airplanes, submarines, steamships and telescopes. However, he appears to have missed the iPad.
48. Astrologers were highly respected
You might mock your horoscope these days but in medieval times doctors were actually obliged to consult a patient’s horoscope. They could also tell you what the harvest was going to be like and let you know in advance about the personality of your child.
49. The Chinese invented gunpowder
European powers would later use gunpowder to conquer China, but it was actually the Chinese who invented it, long before us Europeans ever got wind of the idea.
50. Alchemy actually worked… kind of
Although the search for turning base metals into gold didn’t go well, Alchemy actually gave us some very useful substances such as nitric acid and hydrochloric acid.
51. Eye surgery was conducted with a needle
Cataracts surgery was carried out with a pretty basic needle, which would make more than a few eyes water. This didn’t change until more advanced medical techniques arrived from the Arab world.
52. A surgeon might choose to bore a hole in your head
If you were unwell doctors would occasionally bore a hole in your skull. This was thought to alleviate pressure and was believed to be a cure for many conditions including epilepsy. Needless to say this procedure often proved fatal.
53. Doctors thought too much blood could be bad for you
Doctors believed in things called humours – fluids held within the body such as phlegm, bile and blood. Having too much or too little of these, they believed, could make you ill. This is why they often bled patients to relieve an excess of blood.
54. Sheep dung was a form of birth control
It was a long way from the morning after pill, but sheep dung was popularly used as a form of contraceptive.
55. Ill people were thought to be evil
In the Middle Ages much of what happened to us was thought to be down to the way we lived our lives. So people who contracted diseases were often believed to have been guilty of a sin.
56. Going on pilgrimage could cure disease
If you were ill one option could be to go on a long pilgrimage to a holy site.
57. The King’s hands could heal
English and French monarchs claimed to be able to heal the sick just by laying their hands on them. Edward the Confessor is the first King said to have this power, but Henry I was the first King to try and use it for political purposes.
58. Spiders had medicinal properties
Cobwebs, for example, were said to be a good cure for warts.
59. Rosemary was a form of toothpaste
In order to brush your teeth the best option was to put burned rosemary into a cloth.
60. Binge drinking was a bigger problem than today
As the Black Death raged across Europe, another plague was following in its wake – drunkenness. People mistakenly believed that alcohol would protect against the disease. Some followed this medicine so completely that they drank themselves to death.
61. Shoes were ridiculous
From about the 1330s onwards people began wearing shoes with ridiculously long toes. The longer they could be, the better.
62. Eyebrow shaving was cool
In Florence fashionable women went through a phase of shaving off their eyebrows. This is why the Mona Lisa has no eyebrows.
63. Animals could be tried for crimes
Here’s one of the RSPCA. Animals could be tried and convicted for crimes, and if found guilty sentenced to death.
64. Archery practice was compulsory
England became a breeding ground for the best archers in the world. Edward III introduced a law which required all men to practice archery on a Sunday. It paid off as English archers gave the French a real bashing whenever they met.
65. Football was so violent it was illegal
We’ve been obsessed with football for centuries, but back then it was a very different beast. Games involved unlimited numbers of players fighting over a pigs bladder. Things could get violent pretty quickly and people were often killed. Edward II outlawed the game.
66. There was plenty of space
There are over 50 million people in Britain today with most of them spending their time queueing on the M25. However, the Doomsday Book records only 1 million people living in England. A few hundred years later that had climbed to 4 million, but 1.5 million were wiped out by the Black Death, meaning much of England resembled a scene from 28 Days Later.
67. Becoming a town was quite an achievement
The big deal for a medieval town was to get hold of a charter. This would allow it to become a borough and hold a market, which would in turn help it become a major local economic centre.
68. We loved foreign foods
English food was surprisingly sophisticated. Traders and crusaders brought back spices found on their travels and tried to replicate the dishes they’d seen out there.
69. Hospital operations were painful
Anaesthetics were only available to those who could pay. Everyone else had to grin and bear it.
70. Animals were tiny
Animals were kept on small holdings. Food was sparse which meant they tended to be much smaller than they are today.
Towns and Customs
71. Pigs had the run of the city
In London, pigs owned by the Hospitaliers of London were allowed to roam the streets freely.
72. The barber’s pole used to literally be blood and bandages
Many barbers were also part-time surgeons. They would hang bloodied bandages on poles which would twist in the wind to create the spiral pattern. Think on that next time you go for a hair cut.
73. England used to be bear country
Taking a walk could bring you into contact with a angry brown bear. However, these died out some time in the 11th Century.
74. The lords ate well
If a lord really wanted to impress his guests he’d come up with something like wild boar or even roast swan
75. People had a strange way of telling the time
The day was divided up into seven hours which varied in length according to the season. A summer hour, for example, was much longer than a winter hour.
76. Shops were pretty basic
A shop tended to be a shack which was open to a street. Signs didn’t help much as most people couldn’t read, so instead there were models showing the craftsman’s trade.
77. Getting into the right school was important
If people are worried about getting into the right school now, so too were peasants. Secure a church education for your child and the sky was the limit. Peasants could easily become influential noblemen themselves with the right kind of schooling.
78. Marriage was simple
Getting married used to be very simple. All you needed was to recite a few lines in front of a witness and that was that. It could happen in the street, in a field, tavern or even in a hedge. Things only changed once the Church decided that it should be the gatekeeper of all things to do with love and happiness.
79. The Middle Ages gave us universities
Our finest establishments such as Oxford date back to the Middle Ages. Back then they were violent places and there were rules forbidding students from carrying bows.
80. Old bread could get you high
Most people had to eat what they could grow, and when the wheat ran out they had to make do with old rye. This could go off and sometimes had qualities similar to LSD. However, in extreme cases it could lead to death.
81. Tournaments were not what you think
We have a clear view of medieval tournaments, but they were not what you’re thinking. Instead they were vast recreations of battles and could last for hours and even days.
82. Tournaments were mass entertainment
These tournaments were wildly popular and successful knights became rich and famous. They earned their money by taking another knight hostage for ransom and stealing his horse.
83. William Marshal was the biggest hero in England
His name has slipped almost into obscurity, but William Marshal was the biggest hero of his day. He was the best tournament knight out there, unseated Richard I in battle, and drove the French away when they invaded. These days you normally get to see him as a bit part character in Robin Hood movies.
84. The longbow came from Wales
The longbow is thought to have been used most effectively by the Welsh before 1066. However, when Edward I sought to put down rebellion in Wales he was so impressed by the skill the Welsh archers ranged against him that he gave them jobs fighting in Scotland.
85. It was hard to become a knight
Every boy dreamed of becoming a knight, but it was a long road. First of all you’d have to serve seven years as a page followed by seven years as a squire.
86. The Term ‘coup de grace’ originates in the Middle Ages
The term coup de grace refers to the final blow delivered to an opponent during a joust.
87. The code of chivalry was real
When a man became a knight he took an oath to protect his king, women, the weak and to defend the Church. However, they did not always put this into practice.
88. Women sometimes did the fighting
In true Game of Thrones style some women were pretty handy knights. Countess Petronella of Leicester donned some armour and fought alongside her husband during a rebellion against Henry II. Another damsel, Nicolaa de la Haye, defended Lincoln Castle against the French invaders. With William Marshal, the most famous knight of the time, she fought them off and helped to save England for Edward III.
89. Knights were violent and anything but chivalrous
The idea of chivalry did exist, but it only extended to other knights. In reality there was nothing worse than a bunch of knights with no war to fight. They’d spend their time looting and pillaging and often massacring local villagers just for the pure fun of it.
90. Peasants killed off the knights
When Edward III attacked France in 1337 he brought about a complete change in warfare. While the French had the finest aristocratic knights in the finest armour he scoured the prisons and backstreets for violent soldiers promising pardons if they came to fight. England’s trained longbowmen proved too good for the France’s knights at Crecy, Poitiers and, later, Agincourt.
91. A soldier named Owen founded the Tudors
We know them as the most famous and powerful of our Royal dynasties, but they had somewhat scandalous beginnings. In the 1420s a soldier and courtier Owen Tudor entered the service of the Queen Catherine of Valois after the death of her husband Henry. She was having a hard time finding a replacement husband as the government quashed almost all of her attempts. At some point she decided to elope with Owen. The marriage was later given legitimacy by Henry VI, and so the Tudor bandwagon was on the way.
92. Richard I was possibly homosexual
The symbol of a red blooded English King may actually have been a homosexual. There is evidence which suggests Richard I met his Queen Berrengaria while involved in a relationship with her brother.
93. Plantagenet isn’t a real name
The Plantagenets ruled England for hundreds of years, but it was not their real name. They were in fact the Angevins or counts of Anjou. Plantagenet was a nickname earned by Geoffrey of Anjou for a plant which he often wore.
94. Many English kings lost their throne
While the power of the French King was absolute, English Kings knew that they could all too easily be shifted from power. Edward II and Richard II were all forced from power while Henry II faced rebellions from his own children and King John was struggling to regain his throne when he died of dysentery.
95. Three medieval kings died in battle
They were Harold Godwinson, Richard I and Richard III.
96. Richard the Lionheart was killed by a chef
We think of Richard I as a great rampaging warrior of the middle ages, but he met an ignominious end. While returning to England he laid siege to a small castle hoping for some booty. However, a chef on the battlements spotted the King, grabbed a crossbow and killed him.
97. There were four hopefuls for the Crown in 1066
We generally only think of Harold, William and the Hardrada as being claimants for the throne in 1066. However, there was another one. Edgar Aetheling was the closest relative to Edward the Confessor and actually had a pretty good case. However, he didn’t have much support so few people took much notice of him.
98. Louis I was a King of England
We believe the last time we were invaded was 1066. This is not true – we’ve actually been invaded many, many times. In 1216, Prince Louis of France invaded England and took control of London and reigned as King Louis I for almost a year. He was eventually beaten back and forced to beat a path back to France.
99. Richard the Lionheart Hated England
We all think of him as a great hero King, but not only could he not speak the language, he even said he’d have sold the entire country off if only he could find a buyer.
100. England had a second Interregnum
We all know about Oliver Cromwell and the Interregnum but something similar happened much earlier. In 1264 Simon de Montfort rebelled against Henry III and won a resounding victory at the Battle of Lewes. He began setting up a new government and parliament, but his success was short lived. In 1265 Henry’s son Edward escaped captivity, rallied an army and defeated Simon.