How bloody was medieval life?

From drunken brawls to rapes and mass killings, violence cast a long shadow over the Middle Ages. Yet, says Hannah Skoda, our medieval ancestors were just as appalled by wanton acts of brutality as we are today...

This article first appeared in the January 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine

A 14th-century French illustration of a brawl shows factors that could have cont

In the 1300s in northern France, a nasty character named Jacquemon bribed a jailer to let his unwanted son-in-law die a painful death in prison. Jacquemon then, with the help of his son, killed his nephew, Colart Cordele. The impoverished Cordele had followed Jacquemon during the harvest, trying to glean the wheat from behind him, but angered his uncle by coming too close. Jacquemon grabbed his nephew by his hood, hurled him brutally to the ground and “spurred his horse to ride again and again” over the crumpled body.

It’s an episode that might have been lifted from Game of Thrones – no wonder the era has become a byword for brutality. Indeed, during a brutal scene in the film Pulp Fiction, one of the characters menaces that: “I’m gonna get medieval on your ass.” There’s no need to explain what this might involve because the stereotype of the violent, sadistic Middle Ages is well known to all of us.

But how accurate is this stereotype? As the Jacquemon episode shows, there is plenty that is shocking and disturbing in the surviving records for the later Middle Ages. But even more striking is that medieval contemporaries were also horrified by such events. Of course, we only know about this case because it provoked a legal reaction: it wasn’t seen as acceptable or even normal.

Measures of violence

Levels of interpersonal violence were certainly higher in the Middle Ages than today, but it’s very hard to quantify this precisely – even more so if we add war and the horrors of genocide into the equation. In part, this is because the changing nature of legal prosecutions means that we are not comparing like with like. Definitions of criminal violence have also changed; for example, rape and domestic violence were defined very narrowly in the Middle Ages.

The historian Laurence Stone calculated that homicide levels in medieval England were at least 10 times what they are today. Certainly, we cannot doubt that it was a dangerous time in which to live. An exceptional case, even by medieval standards, is provided by 14th‑century Oxford. Levels of violence there were considered unacceptably high by contemporaries: in the 1340s, the homicide rate was around 110 per 100,000. (In the UK in 2011, it was 1 per 100,000.)

Why were levels of interpersonal violence so high in the Middle Ages? Historians have offered various explanations. Steven Pinker has put forward a psychological theory, claiming that humankind learned only recently to tame its most savage impulses, but this doesn’t really account for the complexity of reactions to violence in the medieval period, as we shall see.

Others have pointed to the prevalence of alcohol, and the fact that many people were wandering round armed with daggers and other knives on a daily basis. There were no permanent police forces, as there are now, and in many cases the capture of a perpetrator depended on the co-operation of the community. Moreover, in an era of rudimentary medical care, many died from wounds that might today be successfully treated.

There are more complex explanations too. These were cultures in which honour was paramount and violence was recognised as a means of communicating certain messages. If you hacked off a woman’s nose, for example, most people would recognise this as a signifier of adultery. They were also profoundly unequal cultures, characterised – particularly from the 14th century – by high levels of social unrest. Sociologists and historians have been able to demonstrate a correlation between levels of inequality and levels of violence, which is particularly compelling for late medieval Europe.

Homicides varied from premeditated attacks to tavern brawls that ended in disaster. Often these were over-exuberant episodes gone horribly wrong. In 1304, for example, one Gerlach de Wetslaria, provost of a church in the diocese of Salzburg, applied for a pardon for killing a fellow student many years earlier when a playful sword fight had ended in tragedy.

Carrying out acts of violence seems to have been as much about proving oneself in front of one’s peers, and belonging to a group, as it was about the victim – which probably explains why men in gangs were responsible for much of the mayhem. This sense of fraternity characterises a group of men led by Robert Stafford. Stafford was a chaplain; perhaps because of his clerical status, he wittily named himself ‘Frere Tuk’ after the figure from the Robin Hood legends. His gang’s actions mostly took the form of poaching and offences against property, though there were more brutal undertones – apparently “they threatened the gamekeepers with death or mutilation”.

 


A 14th-century illustration for a section of the French poem 'Romance of the Rose' depicts a violent “crime of jealousy”. (AKG Images)

Female victims
It is much rarer to find women perpetrating violent crime; more often they were the victims. It is very difficult to assess levels of rape, because the offence was subject to changing definitions, most of which would appear far too narrow to our modern eyes. Women had to be able to physically demonstrate their lack of consent, and risked their reputations and punishment themselves in doing so. The odds were loaded against them.

Cases that were eventually reported tended to be particularly brutal. In 1438, one Thomas Elam attacked Margaret Perman. He broke into her house, attempted to rape her and “feloniously bit Margaret with his teeth so that he ripped off the nose of the said Margaret with that bite, and broke three of her ribs there”. The case came to court because she died from her wounds. Elam was condemned to be hanged.

Definitions of domestic violence were also radically different in the later Middle Ages. Most acts of aggression that we would deem to be criminal were then thought of simply as acceptable discipline. If a wife disobeyed her husband, it was thought right and proper that she should be punished. Domestic violence does, though, sometimes appear in the records of ecclesiastical courts when a wife sued for divorce, or in criminal records when the violence resulted in permanent maiming, miscarriage, or death.

How to distinguish between levels of ‘acceptable’ domestic discipline and unacceptable domestic violence was an ongoing problem. One famous solution often cited was the ‘rule of thumb’, whereby – it’s claimed – it was acceptable to beat your wife, as long as the stick you used was thinner than your thumb. However, in reality, discussions were more sophisticated and less conclusive than this.

In 1326 in Paris, one Colin le Barbier hit his wife with a billiard stick so hard that she died. He was tried in a criminal court and found guilty of murder. However, he appealed and claimed that his wife deserved her suffering because she had nagged him so relentlessly in public. He said that he had not meant to kill her: “He meant only to scare her, so that she would be quiet; however, the stick accidentally entered into her thigh a little above the knee.” The reason she had died, he added, was “because she failed to tend [the wound] properly” rather than because he had mistreated her. His subsequent acquittal tells us a lot about attitudes in this period.

Homicide, rape and domestic violence could be found across the social spectrum. However, some kinds of violence were more common in certain milieux. Violent theft was most often perpetrated by people on the economic margins of society, who stole out of desperation. It peaked during periods of particular deprivation, such as the horrific famine of the 1310s in which as much as 25 per cent of the population died.

England in the 14th and 15th centuries was also notorious for the prevalence of frightening gangs, often comprising gentry or even noblemen. These marauded around the countryside, plundering and leaving a trail of blood in their wake. In 1332, for example, the Folville gang was accused of kidnapping a royal official; they had already killed a baron of the exchequer. These were young men who quite literally thought themselves to be beyond the law, often involved in feuds and vendettas, and for whom honour was a key concept.

A French miniature from c1470 depicts knights in combat at  a tournament. Knightly chivalry underpinned some of the era’s bloodiest episodes. (AKG Images)

A question of honour

Honour-driven violence was also prevalent at the top of the social tree. During periods of weak kingship, violence by noblemen could reach terrifying levels. In early 15th-century France, with a king (Charles VI, ‘the Mad’) intermittently suffering from paranoid schizophrenia and believing himself to be made of glass, powerful warring nobles were able to seize control. The result was spiralling violence that culminated in the 1407 assassination of the Duke of Orléans and, ultimately, the English entry into France.

Things were not much rosier for the English. In the second half of the 15th century, the weakness of the reigning monarch, Henry VI, and the accumulation of huge retinues by hostile aristocrats were, at least in large part, responsible for the Wars of the Roses. The lines between interpersonal violence, civil war and full-blown war were indistinct.

At the other end of the social spectrum, in the later Middle Ages the growing structural inequalities created by rapid commercialisation and urbanisation, as well as competing forms of government, generated a series of riots and revolts. Plotted on a map, these are concentrated along the main trading belt of Europe, from London to Paris and the Netherlands through the markets of Champagne to the commercial heartlands of northern Italy. The most famous examples – the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 in England, the Ciompi revolt of 1378 in Florence, and the Paris rebellion and Jacquerie revolt in northern France in 1358 – all involved complex alliances of rebels from various social groups demanding greater representation, railing against corruption, and protesting their economic marginalisation.

Revolts along social lines sometimes overlapped with violence driven by religion. Famously, medieval Europe was marked by waves of popular religious persecution, with anti-Semitism rearing its ugly head with depressing frequency.

Yet perhaps the most violent dimension of medieval life was that of the law, which carried out its own gruesome rituals. Punishment was intended to be spectacular. Most serious crimes were punishable by hanging, but plenty more imaginative ways of disposing of criminals were employed.

In many areas of Europe, those found guilty of forging money were boiled alive. This obsession with providing a spectacle of violence – to emphasise the guilt of the accused, and to deter and awe observers – led to some almost farcical episodes. An old man questioned in the 1290s remembered how, when he was young, he saw a man hanged for murder. The body was cut down from the gibbet by a competing jurisdiction and rehanged – only for the original jurisdiction to construct a straw effigy that they hanged.

St Eligius pinches the devil’s nose in a 1337 French illustration from a story of the First Crusade. Religious fervour sparked widespread violence. (Bridgeman Images)

Reactions to violence

We’re left, then, with a picture of an extraordinarily violent society. Though it’s very difficult to arrive at precise numbers, it’s clear that this is not a society one would wish to visit for any length of time.

There is, though, a flip side to all of this. The evidence suggests that, though violence was common, people were not simply inured to it. On the contrary – they really cared about it. This is not to say that violence was simply deemed to be wrong: rather, it was a problem about which people worried and talked.

The ethos of chivalry represents one way in which attempts were made to channel violence. Chivalric custom suggested that one should fight only with certain kinds of weapons; that one should seek only worthy opponents; and that one should exercise mercy and generosity. The reality was that chivalry underpinned some of the most brutal and bloodiest episodes in our history (notably the Hundred Years’ War), but the point remains that this was a set of customs arising out of concern and a sense that violence can be a problem.

The most important clue that people worried about violence is the fact that they wrote about it. Medieval literature is full of descriptions of torture, but close readings of these texts show that torturers were demonised. Such a strategy would work only if people felt torture to be profoundly problematic – and they certainly did think it a problem. In 14th-century France, criminal courts usually subjected the evidence gained from torture to extra scrutiny because it was deemed unreliable.

Chronicle sources, the official histories written in the Middle Ages, tend to provide wildly exaggerated tallies of levels of violence, particularly in revolts. Again, though, the desired literary and political effect only worked because people found such violence disturbing. The majority of our evidence is in the form of legal documents. Burgeoning legal systems in this period only bothered to produce such documentation because high levels of violence were deemed unacceptable.

In literary depictions of violence, such as the entertaining stories of Renard the Fox, popular throughout Europe, violence and cruelty were omnipresent precisely because they were shocking. The horrific story of the fox raping the wife of his friend, the wolf, then urinating on her children, often provoked troubled laughter from its medieval audience.

In the poetry of the time we can also find comments about the disturbing nature of violence. In Dante’s 14th-century vision of Inferno, hell is characterised by endless cycles of violence. And in the French poet François Villon’s Le Ballade des Pendus, the decaying bodies swinging on the gibbet speak directly:

Human brothers who come after us,
Don’t harden your hearts against us...

The rain has washed away our filth,
The sun has dried and blackened us.
Magpie and crows have scratched out our eyes
And torn our beards and eyebrows.
We are never still, but sway to and fro in the wind.
Birds peck at us more than needles on a thimble...

Brothers, there’s nothing funny about this.
May God absolve us all.

It’s an arresting image – a very visual representation of the prevalence of violence in the Middle Ages, but one that also shows it was, even then, profoundly upsetting.

Outbreaks of carnage

Medieval violence was sparked by everything from social unrest and military aggression to family feuds and rowdy students...

Ciompi revolt, 1378
This revolt in Florence stands out because it was momentarily successful, leading to a radical regime change. The revolt unfolded in three stages: reform, followed by violent revolution, then by a vicious backlash. Florence was a highly developed town with a proto-industrial wool industry, but many disenfranchised workers. The revolt was driven by the desire for greater representation, fiscal discontent and ever-shifting alliances of political factions.

Chevauchées of the Black Prince, 1355–56
The Black Prince was the eldest son of Edward III. During the Hundred Years’ War, he achieved military success at Poitiers. He also led a series of chevauchées in France, armed raids involving pillaging, raping and devastation on a horrifying scale. The aim was to destroy enemy resources and morale, and to provoke battle. Tellingly, the Black Prince is still known as a great chivalric hero.

Peasants’ Revolt, 1381
In the aftermath of the Black Death, taxes were levied to fund the Hundred Years’ War – and in 1381 the peasants rose up to protest the latest poll tax. Violence ranged from burning legal documents to liberating prisoners and lynching figures of authority, notably the lord chancellor. The rebels, led by Wat Tyler, were inspired by the sermons of John Ball, who preached a message of freedom from servitude. The peasants presented their demands to Richard II but Tyler was killed and they were defeated.

Wat Tyler and John Ball, leaders of the Peasants’ Revolt, are shown meeting in a 15th-century miniature. (Getty)

St Scholastica’s Day riots, 1355
On 10 February 1355 two students took umbrage at being served watered-down wine in the Swindlestock Tavern in Oxford, throwing the wine in the tavern-keeper’s face and brutally beating him. The violence swiftly spread: some 200 more students joined the original pair, burning and robbing houses. Retribution was not slow to follow, as people from the surrounding countryside joined the townsfolk in attacking the students with bows and arrows. Two days of rioting left 63 students dead.

A servant pours wine in a 15th-century Italian illustration. Alcohol fuelled riots in Oxford. (Bridgeman)

Murder of Nicholas Radford, 1455

Nicholas Radford was a justice of the peace under Henry VI, during the period of factionalism that later escalated into the Wars of the Roses. His godson’s brother, Thomas Courtenay, came to his gates one night and brutally murdered him; Henry Courtenay, the victim’s godson, later subjected the corpse to a grotesque coroner’s inquest. This was the culmination of a private vendetta, but also a deliberate affront to royal justice.

Dr Hannah Skoda is a specialist in medieval history based at the University of Oxford.    

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