Fun Facts: Middle Ages
"Medieval Technology? The Middle Ages invented, among other things,
the crank, the horse collar, eyeglasses, the flying buttress, the stirrup, the
windmill, the wheelbarrow, printing, firearms, paper, the canal lock, the
compass, the rudder, the mechanical clock, the spinning wheel, and the
—Joseph & Frances Gies
During most of the Middle Ages, few people, including kings and
emperors, were able to read or write. The clergy were virtually the
only ones who possessed those skills.
Slavery ended in Western Europe in the 7th century, when
a British girl, Bathilde, was
enslaved and sold to King Clovis II of the Franks (638–655).
Clovis fell in love with and married her. After the king died,
Bathilde, acting as regent for their three young sons, outlawed slavery.
She was later canonized as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church.
The "Athens of the West"—the Moorish capital of Cordoba, in
Andalusia, Spain's southernmost region—had, in the
year 900, a library of 400,000 books, miles of paved
streets, and a population of perhaps half a million. To the north,
Paris was a bastioned island and London was a stockade maintained in defence
of Viking raiders.
Perhaps the worst pope in history was Octavian, Count of Tusculum,
who was consecrated Pope John XII on December 16th, 955.
On November 6th, 963, Holy Roman Emperor Otto I summoned a
council, levelling charges that John had ordained a
deacon in a stable, consecrated a 10-year-old boy as bishop of Todi,
converted the Lateran Palace into a brothel, raped female pilgrims in
St. Peter's, stolen church offerings, drank toasts to the devil, and
invoked the aid of Jove, Venus, and other pagan gods when playing dice.
He was deposed, but returned as pope when Otto left Rome,
maiming and mutilating all who had opposed him.
On May 11th, 964, he was apparently beaten by the husband
of a woman with whom he was committing adultery,
dying three days later without receiving confession or the sacraments.
Various gatherings of bishops in southern France in 990 A.D. tried
to set up a "Truce of God," a subjection of warfare to rules. The
chief rule called for converting all ecclesiastical property and persons
into a kind of neutral territory that was not to be touched. Eventually,
this was extended to a total prohibition of warfare from Wednesday
evening to Monday morning of each week, and on numerous fast and feast
days as well. In the end, as much as three-fourths of the year was put
off limits to fighting - in theory.
Gerbert of Aurillac, who became Pope Sylvester II (999–1003),
tried to introduce Arabic numerals into Christian Europe.
While calculation can be performed much easier with Arabic numerals than
with the Roman numerals in use at the time, Arabic numerals did not catch on
for a few more centuries.
Gerbert of Aurillac, who became Pope Sylvester II in the year 999, was the greatest
Latin scholar around the turn of the first millennium. In his youth he went to Muslim Spain to
study philosophy and mathematics. His education
made him so intellectually superior to the rest of his Christian
contemporaries that for many centuries he was regarded as possessing
mysterious powers of black magic and sorcery.
St. Cuthbert's death shroud, in Durham Cathedral, reads "There is no God
but Allah". In the Middle Ages, much of Europe's silk was imported from
Islamic lands; Arabic inscriptions on the silk were often ignored.
In the eleventh century, Robert the Devil, the father of William
the Conqueror, claimed that the opal gave him magical evil powers.
Robert also maintained that he was the son of the devil, who had
bought his mother's favours with an opal stone.
One of the most unusual military maneuvers ever was performed
in 1191, during the third Crusade, when Richard the Lion-Hearted
captured the city of Acre.
The inhabitants were barricaded inside, so King Richard had
his soldiers throw 100 beehives over the walls. The people
in the fortress surrendered immediately.
Relics of saints were so valued in the Middle Ages
that when Elizabeth of Hungary, a holy woman, died in 1231, her body was
quickly dismembered for holy relics by a crowd.
Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, who died in 1250, was an open atheist.
He set up a cultured court to which learned Jews and Muslims were welcomed
on an equal basis with Christians. He found Muslim mercenaries to be useful
in his struggles against the Pope.
Many European advances during the Middle Ages were made possible by
the Moorish occupation of Spain. The most important was the use of
Arabic numerals. The Moors also brought other discoveries to Europe,
which is reflected by the fact that words such as "algebra", "lute",
and "magazine" are of Arabic origin. The Moors also
introduced the game of chess into Europe.
Margaret, "Maid of Norway", was nominally declared Queen of Scotland
in 1286 but it was not until 1290 that the seven-year-old Queen sailed
from Norway to claim her new kingdom. Unfortunately, on the journey
across the North Sea, she suffered terrible sea-sickness and died in the
Orkneys before ever setting foot on the Scottish mainland.
The Cathedral of Notre Dame in Amiens, built in the Middle Ages,
covers 8,500 square yards and took 137 years to complete.
When it was completed, the entire population of
the city, around 10,000, could attend the same service.
In 1209, in the bloody Crusade against the Albigenses, a French
army took the town of Beziers, near the Mediterranean coast. The
town was put to the sack, but the question arose as to how to tell
which of the town's inhabitants were heretics and which were good
Christians. Simon IV de Montfort (or perhaps a legate of Pope
Innocent III) proposed an easy solution. "Kill them all," he
said, "for the Lord will know his own." And so several tens of
thousands of men, women, and children were killed.
All practising Jews were expelled from England and France in the 1290s.
In England, this law was not revoked for several centuries.
Had Marco Polo not been captured by the Genoese and imprisoned,
the tales of his twenty-two-year adventure in the
Far and Middle East at the end of the thirteenth century may never
have been made known. When he returned to Venice
after his odyssey, he became a "gentleman commander" of a war vessel
striving to hold off Genoese traders. In a battle of Curzold Island,
his galley was captured and Marco was hauled off to Genoa and gaoled.
There he met a writer named Rustichello, who, after hearing Marco's
yarns, insisted that they be written down.
A plague of drunkenness settled over Europe around the same time as
the plague of the Black Death in the mid-1300s, and continued after the
Black Death was gone. At the time, it was believed that strong drink
could prevent the disease. It didn't, but made the drinker less concerned,
which, given the primitive state of medicine at the time, was at least
The worst college campus riot until relatively recently erupted at
mediaeval Oxford—the "town and gown" battle of 1354.
Escalating from a tavern quarrel, the violence lasted for three days, involved
dozens of townsmen and students, and ended with several dead and
In the Middle Ages, the skulls of saints were used as drinking cups
on ceremonial occasions.
A feudal society similar to that of Europe developed in Japan in
the 1100s. A member of the Japanese equestrian class was called a
"samurai". They fought on horseback like European knights.
It was common in Europe and the British Isles during the Middle Ages
and later in the New World to try and condemn animals for injuring or
killing a human. For example, the French parliament, the highest court
in the land, once ordered the execution of a cow. It was hanged, then
burned at the stake.
A terrifying forecast known as the "Toledo letter" circulated in western
Europe in 1185. Johannes, a Spanish astronomer, predicted dire weather
when all the known planets came into conjunction (aligned with each other)
in September the next year. He predicted that ferocious winds would destroy
most buildings, and famine and other disasters would follow. Many people
took precautions against this calamity - some even built shelters underground -
but the cataclysm failed to materialise.
During the high Middle Ages, there was, on the average, a church
for every 200 people. The areas covered by religious buildings took
up a large part of every city. In the English cities of Norwich,
Lincoln, and York, which had populations of between 5,000 and 10,000,
there were fifty, forty-nine, and forty-one churches, respectively.
The ancient feudal system of land ownership, which allowed "feudal
superiors" to continue to have rights over "vassals" who own their
own houses built on the land, was not abolished in Scotland until the
In 582, it rained "blood" on Paris. The terrified population believed
this to be a sign of divine displeasure, and replied by indulging in
an agony of repentance. The true cause of this weird event was the sirocco,
the wind that sometimes blows from the Sahara across the Mediterranean into
Europe. It is laden with a fine red dust from the desert interior, and this
had dyed the rain that fell on Paris.
Many peasants in the Middle Ages believed that pebbles littering
a field actually grew there.
In the small Italian town of San Gimignano during the fourteenth
century, a lofty tower was the ultimate status symbol. The first
turret was probably constructed for protection against street
fighting between the Guelphs and Ghibellines, but soon, for reasons
of prestige, other lords began building towers of their own, each
trying to outdo his rivals. In a matter of a few years, 72 spires
sprang up; fourteen still survive, giving San Gimignano its
nickname, "the Manhattan of Tuscany".
Thirteenth-century etiquette books cautioned people against actions
such as gnawing
bones and putting them back in the dish, "falling upon the dish like a
swine while eating", and spitting on the table.
The military salute, which consists of the hand bring brought to a horizontal position over the eyebrows, has a very old origin, dating, in fact, from the very commencement of the history of the English army. Its origin is founded on the tournaments of the Middle Ages, and was as follows: After the queen of beauty was enthroned, the knights who were to take part in the sports of the day, marched past the dais on which she sat, and as they passed they shielded their eyes from the rays of her beauty.