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42 Disturbing Facts About the Dark History of Medieval Europe

Janet Mowat

It won’t surprise anyone to hear that the Middle Ages weren’t a great time to be alive. Violence and disease lurked around every corner, superstition dominated people’s lives, and even minor crimes could warrant punishments worthy of the most gruesome episode of Game of Thrones. These 42 facts will explore all that’s gory, obscure, disgusting, or just plain weird about this dark period in European history. But be warned: Some of these facts aren’t for the faint of heart!


History of Medieval Europe Facts

42. Splitting Pain

Two medieval torture methods used simple devices and the force of gravity to inflict unimaginable pain. The Judas Cradle was a pyramid-shaped spike that a victim would be forced to sit on, so that it penetrated their anus. The Spanish Donkey used a similar principle, but victims would straddle a wedge-shaped board with a pointed top. Torturers could strap weights to the feet of their victims to increase the suffering.

41. Feeling Sluggish

During the Crusades, Muslims would sometimes defend themselves with aconite, a kind of poison. The 14th-century physician Guido da Vigevano noticed slugs munching happily on some aconite leaves, and did what any of us would do: He made slug soup. Just as Vigevano had hoped, the sluggy dish made an effective antidote against aconite poisoning.

40. Pain Before Pleasure

Sexual acts meant for pleasure and not for procreation were considered a sin, punishable by life in prison. So was any form of female domination over a man—meaning women couldn’t go on top. One saint, Francesca Romana, was forced into marriage and she was so scared of experiencing pleasure, she burned her own genitals with hot fat to make sex as miserable as possible.

39. Like a Log

King Henry VI suffered from a ‘sleeping sickness’ that remains mysterious to this day. After a sudden fright, the King fell into a catatonic state for a year and a half. When he woke up, Henry VI was reportedly childlike and agreeable, but sometimes couldn’t recognize people. The king continued to slip into catatonia periodically for the rest of his life.

38. Bad Blood

Bloodletting was a common medical practice in Middle Ages, which was meant to let ‘bad blood’ out of the body. Medieval Europeans were so into it, they had texts advising which saints’ days were best for bloodletting, and charts showing which parts of the body were best to bleed according to the zodiac.

37. Middle-Aged Teens

A useful indicator for the quality of life—or lack thereof—in a certain time or place is the average life expectancy. Since a man born between 1276 and 1300 in Medieval England could only expect to make it to 31 years old, life must have been really tough. Good news for the ladies, though: women born in the same time period on average made it past childbearing age. Phew!

36. Let’s Get Day-Drunk

In Medieval England, people rarely drank water because of the risk of disease. While fresh spring water would do in a pinch, most people turned to the most sensible alternative: alcohol. It was perfectly common to drink large amounts of wine, beer, or cider, meaning it was also perfectly common to be drunk most of the time. 10:30 am? Guess I’ll crack a cold one! But what do you drink when the hangover finally sets in?

35. Laying Hands

Among the many diseases people had to fear in the Middle Ages was the King’s Evil, a form of tuberculosis that caused black lesions all over the neck, which would rupture and leave open sores. The only cure was a touch from a king or queen. King Henry IV alone touched 1,500 people suffering from the disease, though it’s not clear how many he cured…

34. Silent Majority

The Domesday Book of 1086 tells us that about 74% of the population of the English countryside was not free. Serfs, cottars, bordars, and slaves were all bound in servitude to a lord for life, and needed his permission for every major decision—even marriage.

33. A Bad Way to Go

If you were sentenced to death in Medieval Europe, you’d probably hope for something quick like a beheading. Certain execution styles were designed to make death as long and painful as possible. Drawing and quartering, for example, required the victim to be dragged behind a horse, hanged until almost but not quite dead, disemboweled while still alive, and then pulled or cut into four pieces. Sounds excessive, no?

32. Unorthodox Measures

Crusaders famously sacked Jerusalem, but even Christian cities weren’t always safe from their attacks. In 1204, the armies of the Fourth Crusade entered Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire and a major Christian center—which unfortunately didn’t protect the inhabitants from being slaughtered for practicing their religion the ‘wrong way.’

31. 50/50

The Black Death killed roughly half of Europe’s population. If you lived in the 1340s, you would have had only a 50% chance of survival—and that’s not counting all the other stuff that could kill you!

30. Ever the Scapegoat

As the bubonic plague swept through Europe in the 1340s, no one knew what caused it or how to cure it. Some thought it was a punishment sent from God, and thousands of Jews were murdered as heretics in an effort to get back on God’s good side.

29. Bad Crops

The plague wasn’t the only cause of mass death and suffering in medieval Europe. Between 1315 and 1317 (with the aftermath lasting over a decade), excessively wet summers caused bad crops and a devastating famine. 10% to 15% of Europe’s population died in the famine.

28. The Kids Aren’t Alright

Of all the harebrained schemes in the Middle Ages, it’s hard to beat the Children’s Crusade. This crusade, staged in 1212, involved sending children to the Holy Land to convert the Muslim population peacefully. According to accounts, the children only made it as far as Italy before merchants promising to take them to their destination instead sold the kids into slavery.

27. No Joke

The Battle of Hastings, the great encounter between the Saxons and the Norman invaders, got off to a slow start: The Saxons had the high ground, and didn’t want to sacrifice their advantage by charging. The Normans coaxed them into charging by sending a juggler out. The Saxons were confused by his juggling, and when he concluded by hurling a spear into their line, the Saxons lost it and charged.

26. Uncle Scar IRL

When England’s King Edward IV died in 1483, he left two sons, the eldest of whom was only 12 years old. Edward’s brother, Richard, had the boys declared illegitimate, and therefore not entitled to the throne. Richard was crowned King Richard III, and the two boys ‘mysteriously’ disappeared shortly afterward. So the next time you get ‘King Richard III is one’ as a crossword clue, the word you’re looking for is ‘Usurper.’

25. Taking the Blame

Medieval Europe was full of religious fanaticism, and it could be costly if the dominant faith considered you a heretic. Following massacres of English Jews in the 12th century, King Edward I banished the entire Jewish population in 1290—they weren’t officially allowed back for nearly 400 years.

24. Women’s Work

Men weren’t the only ones fighting battles and running castles in the Middle Ages. Nicola de la Haie was a noblewoman at the turn of the 13th century who inherited the titles of Sheriff of Lincolnshire and Constable of Lincoln Castle from her father, and twice defended Lincoln Castle from a siege. Though the aging and widowed Nicola tried to retire in 1216, King John convinced her to continue her duties for another ten years.

23. A Ragtag Group of Misfits

How do you defeat the best knights in the best armor France can find? England’s King Edward III found the solution in his country’s seedy underbelly, recruiting violent ruffians from prisons and sketchy backstreets to join his army. The scrappy English soldiers proved too strong for the French knights at Crécy, Poitiers, and Agincourt.

22. Don’t Like Those Odds

If you were an English king in the Middle Ages, your chances of making it through a peaceful reign were pretty slim. Edward II and Richard II were both deposed, Henry II faced rebellions from his own children, and King John died of dysentery while fighting to regain his throne. Harold Godwinson and Richard III died in battle, and Richard Lionheart was killed by a chef with a crossbow.

21. What’s That Smell?

King Edward III banned the slaughtering of animals in London, because the stink of rotting flesh and guts in the city had become overpowering. Rotting meat was also commonly dumped in the Thames—no wonder they avoided drinking water!

20. Where the People Go

Where do people go for fun in this town? Try the cemetery! In the Middle Ages, cemeteries could be the social hub of the community, hosting theater performances, local elections, trials, and lots more. They were also a place of business: Shops in cemeteries were exempt from taxes, and prostitutes would ply their trade among the tombstones.

19. No Kidding

The Middle Ages were not a good time to be a child under seven. Based just on written records, scholars have found that 20% to 30% of young children died, and the actual number is likely higher. The majority of victims of the plague were children, and little kids also had to contend with whooping cough, influenza, tuberculosis, measles, smallpox, and much more.

18. Medieval Zombies

There are many ghoulish stories of corpses rising from the dead in the Middle Ages. One 12th century writer, William of Newburgh, recorded several ‘reliable’ accounts of revenants (living dead) and even vampires. In Scotland, Melrose Abbey’s monks reported being visited by a dead priest who kept “groaning and murmuring in an alarming fashion.”

17. Dying With Dignity

Though nowadays most of us hope for a quick and easy death, this was considered the worst way to in the Middle Ages. That’s because dying without the chance for confession and Last Rites meant the deceased’s spirit would wander restlessly forever. Quick deaths were therefore associated with sinners and murderers, while slow, drawn-out deaths were for respectable people.

16. Accurate Representation

How would you like to be remembered after your death? If you chose “as a rotting corpse,” you would fit right in with Medieval society. There was a type of tomb called ‘transi tombs’, which would display a sculpture of the deceased in an advanced state of decomposition, sometimes being eaten by snakes or other creatures.

15. Making Sure

Before the advent of modern medicine and technology, it was difficult to tell if someone who appeared to be dead was actually dead. Methods of checking included pulling the deceased’s hair, twisting their fingers, and pricking them with a needle. One Medieval poem recounts Charlemagne biting the toe of Roland in an effort to wake him up.

14. Don’t Choke

Medieval torture methods were just as bad as the stereotypes would have us believe. One gruesome device was the choke pear, a metal contraption that torturers would insert into a victim’s orifices and then expand. I didn’t see that the last time I went to Medieval Times!

13. I Smell a Rat

Some torture methods were so horrific that they could turn your stomach just thinking about them. Rat torture is one of those. A starving rat would be placed on the victim’s belly and covered with a hot metal container. The rat would be forced to escape the only way it could: by burrowing into and then through the victim’s stomach.

12. Take a Seat

Another hideous way to go was on the Iron Chair, a chair covered in sharp iron spikes. Victims would be placed on the chair and their restraints tightened to push the spikes farther into them. The worst part is that the victim would not bleed as long as the spikes were in, and so they would be alive for the whole ordeal—until they were removed.

11. You’re Doing It Wrong

Even Christians could get in trouble for not following their religion properly. The Albigensian Crusade of 1209 to 1229 had nothing to do with the Holy Land, but rather targeted a Christian sect in Southern France. Inquisitions and executions of heretics there continued into the following century.

10. Flair for Crime

Not all medieval punishments were violent; some were just bizarre. Sometimes, criminals would have to wear scary animal masks around in public or in the stocks. Some also had to wear badges proclaiming their crimes for the rest of their lives. I’m sure it was embarrassing and all, but I’ll take that over the Iron Chair.

9. Dance ‘Til You Drop

One of the most mysterious afflictions of the Middle Ages was the Dancing Plague. Those afflicted would dance continuously and in a coordinated manner, until they dropped dead of heart attack, stroke, exhaustion, or dehydration. One outbreak, in 1374, affected entire towns in France, Belgium, and Luxembourg.

8. The Cadaver Synod

Some people hold on to their grudges a bit too long. In 897, Pope Stephen VI had the remains of his predecessor, Pope Formosus, dug up for a posthumous trial. It’s not entirely clear what he wanted to accomplish, since Formosus had already been excommunicated, but Stephen VI found Formosus guilty, chopped off his blessing fingers, and reburied him. Stephen VI then had Formosus’s corpse exhumed a second time, and thrown in the river Tiber.

7. The Magic Touch

There was a belief in the Middle Ages that corpses retained a tiny spark of life and were therefore magical, which justified the practice of ‘cruentation’. For this, they would place an accused murderer in contact with the corpse of their alleged victim. If the corpse started spontaneously bleeding, that proved the murderer’s guilt. Cruentation was a legally valid practice and was used as late as the 17th century.

6. Definitely a Turn-Off

Birth control was quite difficult in medieval times, though it was helped by the belief that the best time to conceive was during menstruation. Contraception methods included wearing the testicles of a weasel, the earwax or uterus of a mule, a bone from a black cat, or donkey dung around your neck. I mean, that’s one way to make a man keep his distance.

5. Here Kitty, Kitty

Superstition surrounding black cats goes way back—all the way to 1232, in fact. That’s when Pope Gregory IX published a work describing the rituals witches used to summon the Devil. According to the Pope, witches would kiss and adore black cats, even kissing their ‘hind parts’. This revelation sparked a cat-killing spree that could have resulted in a higher population of plague-carrying rats in Europe.

4. Throwing a Myth Out the Window

It’s a common myth that people would throw their excrement out the window during the Middle Ages, due to a lack of sewage systems. Thankfully, the truth is people were just as grossed out by sewage back then as they are now. Most houses had either a latrine that emptied into a pit, which had to be cleaned periodically, or a bucket that they would dump into a river. I’d be careful about going for a swim.

3. Out of Your Head

In Medieval Europe, mental disorders were seen as a sign of demonic possession, moral failing, or sin. Treatments included exorcisms, whipping, and trepanning—drilling a hole in the patient’s head to let the demons out. That’s using your head!

Medieval Europe factsSimpson Crazy

2. I Ain’t Lyein’

Who doesn’t love the smell of fresh, clean laundry? Medieval people, apparently. They washed their clothes with lye made from ash and human urine.

1. This’ll Kill Your Appetite

Many medieval saints were reputed to have healing powers, and they often cared for lepers and those afflicted with similarly gruesome diseases—by licking their wounds. St. Mary Magdalene of De’Pazzi licked the sores of the ill, and even sucked maggots out of wounds. St. Angela of Foligno drank water she had used to bathe a leper’s feet, and purposely swallowed one of his scabs.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26


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