A Brief History
On August 24, 1349, the Black Death broke out in the Prussian town of Elbing in Northern Germany. This horrifying illness became synonymous with death in the Middle Ages! Beginning in the fifth century and ending with the death of Richard III in the fifteenth century, the Middle Ages in Europe are sometimes referred to as the Medieval period. People in Medieval Europe had an average life expectancy of somewhere in the 30s-40s, far less than our own today. This article presents 10 ways people died during this time period. Some of the deaths were common; others rather unconventional.
10. Infection from a Dead Man’s Bite!
A Viking earl by the name of Sigurd Eysteinsson (ruled c. 875-892) engaged his enemy, Mael Brigte the Bucktoothed, in a battle in which each side could only bring 40 men. Sigurd the Mighty cheated and brought twice as many men. After claiming the severed head of Brigte as a war trophy, Sigurd strapped Brigte’s head to his horse. As he left the battle site, one of Mael Brigte’s famous buckteeth scratched Sigurd’s leg, causing an infection that eventually claimed his life. This incident proves that karma is indeed a bitch.
When Pope Urban II urged Christians to rise up against the enemies of God who were claiming “their”Holy Land, he knew that this would lead to a loss of Christian life. More important, however, was that in the process they kill any Muslims who were occupying the territory. There were as many as 9 crusades, or Holy Wars and people from all walks of life participated.
While serving as Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Beckett (c. 1118-1170) did not agree with King Henry II’s ideas about the church and justice. After Becket excommunicated some of the king’s favorite bishops, the King is said to have cried out, “Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?” Some of his knights took him at his word, traveled to Canterbury and slew Becket in his own cathedral by inflicting blows to the head. The knights were punished by having to go on Crusade, and Becket became a saint and his place of death a shrine.
Have you ever wondered what a she-wolf would do to you if you crossed her? Isabella of France (c.1295 –1358), sometimes described as the She-wolf of France, was known for her beauty, diplomacy and intellect. She was also the wife of Edward II of England who was notorious for having male favorites. Of these men, Hugh Despenser the Younger rose to prominence as royal chamberlain under Edward (no pun intended). By 1325, Isabella began an affair of her own with Roger Mortimer. In a pact arranged by feminine manipulation no doubt, the two gathered a small army and swept through England, hoping to remove Edward and the Despensers from power. After several years of battle, Isabella and Roger finally had the means to put Hugh Despenser on trial. He was found to be a traitor. Fueled by hatred, humiliation and loss, Isabella had him drawn, disemboweled, castrated and quartered.
6. Burping and Giggling
During a feast in 1410, King Martin of Aragon (c. 1356-1410) died under very unfortunate circumstances. The combination of severe indigestion and uncontrollable laughter caused Martin to collapse at the dinner table. It is speculated that he first gorged himself on either eel or goose, causing heartburn, but it was a joke that did him in. As John Doran reported in his book “The History of Court Fools,” when Martin asked his jester where he had been recently, “the jester replied with: ‘Out of the next vineyard, where I saw a young deer hanging by his tail from a tree, as if someone had so punished him for stealing figs’.” Perhaps the king was a little bit drunk too…
5. Accident or Assassination?
Bela I of Hungary (c. 1020-1063) had taken the throne away from his brother Andrew. Many felt that Andrew’s son Solomon was the rightful king. As Bela was sitting on his throne, the canopy above him gave way, crushing him to death. Evidence of assassination was never found, but he was succeeded by Solomon.
In Medieval times, death during childbirth was common. Hygiene was not yet understood. Many women died of Puerperal Fever which was the result of infection in the reproductive organs. Both rich and poor were affected, and many queens died this way, affecting the course of history.
3. Choking on a Fly
Adrian IV (c. 1100-1159) was the only Englishman to be Pope. During the last few months of his life, he suffered from quinsy, an ailment better known as tonsillitis. Taking a sip of wine, the poor man inhaled a fly which had been swimming in his goblet. Without the existence yet of the Heimlich maneuver, Adrian IV choked on the combination of the fly and pus from his tonsils.
2. Mass Suicide
On February 25, 1336 approximately 4,000 individuals were defending Pilenai Castle in Lithuania. They were greatly outnumbered. Facing defeat by the Teutonic Knights and possibly slavery, their leader Duke Margiris ordered that they set fire to the castle and destroy their possessions before committing mass suicide.
1. Black Death
Weak immune systems, poor medical care, hunger and infectious diseases caused countless deaths in Medieval times, but none were so devastating as the Black Death. As stated in a lecture slide on the Black Death by History and Headlines’s own Dr. Matthew Zarzeczny, “the virulent combination of bubonic, septicemic and pneumonic plagues that destroyed one third or one half of the population of Europe between 1347 and 1352” is notably the most deadly force of all time. The pandemic swept through Europe in a very short time and is responsible for the death of least 75 million people throughout Europe, Northern Africa and the Middle East. Painful tumors, infected lesions, difficulty breathing and finally death overcame its helpless victims as swiftly as it swept from once person to the next.
While it is true that not everyone in the Middle Ages died before they reached their own middle age, however, many people did. Perhaps what makes some historical figures most notable is not how they lived but rather how they died.
Question for students (and subscribers): What do you think was the most bizarre way to die in the Middle Ages? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For another interesting event that happened on August 24, please see the History and Headlines article: “A Bad Day to be Jewish or Why Jews Think They Need a Country of Their Own.”
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For more information, please read…
DuBruck, Edelgard E. and Barbara I. Gusick. Death and Dying in the Middle Ages. Peter Lang Inc., International Academic Publishers, 1999.