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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 treadle." —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. (source)

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. (source)

Also found in: Saints | Slavery

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. (source)

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. (source)

Also found in: Popes

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. (source)

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. (source)

Also found in: Saints

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. (source)

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. (source)

Also found in: Crusades | Weapons and Battles

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.

Also found in: Saints

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. (source)

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. (source)

Also found in: Crusades

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. (source)

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 something.

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 many injured. (source)

Also found in: College and University

In the Middle Ages, the skulls of saints were used as drinking cups on ceremonial occasions.

Also found in: Saints

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.

Also found in: Mediaeval England

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. (source)

Also found in: Mediaeval England

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 year 2000.

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". (source)

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. (source)