A medieval knight plays Death at chess

If you have never seen The Seventh Seal – then watch it. A tortured medieval knight is played by a very young Max von Sydow, who you may have seen in The Minority Report and other movies. In this scene, he plays a game of chess with Death in order to remain alive. It’s a Swedish movie with subtitles but don’t let that put you off.


How to deal with The Walking Dead in the Middle Ages

Temporarily used for contact details: Historic England, Archive Services, The Engine House, Fire Fly Avenue, Swindon, SN2 2EH, United Kingdom, Tel: 01793 414600, Email: archive@HistoricEngland.org.uk, Website: http://www.HistoricEngland.org.uk
The deserted village of Wharram Percy. Credit: Historic England

New evidence unearthed in England has revealed that medieval villagers in the county of Yorkshire were genuinely terrified of the dead coming back to life. So much so that they mutilated their bones, chopped up bodies and burned them. The University of Southampton and Historic England have just released their findings and it makes gruesome reading.


The bones were found in Wharram Percy, north Yorkshire. They were covered in knife marks and very obvious attempts to break up the skeletal remains. Heads were cut off and thigh bones snapped before being thrown into a bonfire. The bodies were of people aged between four years old and fifty.

From the 11th century onwards, there are writings on so-called ‘revenants’ who would come back from the grave – often wicked people who could not rest at ease after death. Possibly brought back to life by the devil himself, they were believed to be capable of attacking the living.

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The archaeologists toyed with the possibility that the bodies may have been cannibalised at a time of famine. But the knife marks didn’t suggest de-fleshing and were concentrated in areas like the head and neck. This horrific practice seems to have endured from the 11th to the 14th century.


Needless to say this covers the period of our very own Knights Templar.

Of course we are still obsessed with the subject of zombies – witness the success of The Walking Dead. I’ve also just discovered a Twitter site called Medieval Death Bot where real stories of curious deaths in the Middle Ages are tweeted every day.


Torture and violence in the Middle Ages

English: Steven Pinker
English: Steven Pinker (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A new book – The Better Angels of our Nature – blows apart the idea that the twentieth century was the most violent on record.  Yes, there were holocausts and global wars, but actually you were far less likely to die a violent death in the last hundred years than in centuries past.  In the Middle Ages, during the Templar era, you were very likely to see criminals being hung, beheaded or mutilated in public.  Disemboweling, being broken on the wheel and burned at the stake were all part of the judicial approach.  When a court was held in the open air, it would be an opportunity to see the guilty suffering in some or other way.  What Steven Pinker argues in this book is that casual violence was a commonplace.

Take for example the summary execution of Colonel Gaddafi in October this year.   A lot of people were pretty horrified by the way in which he was dragged from a sewage pipe then beaten up and killed.  In a medieval setting, he would have counted himself lucky to die that quickly and relatively painlessly.  Indeed, rebels and political leaders who were defeated in battle might very well end up being dismembered and their limbs displayed in various parts of the kingdom.  Going back to Gaddafi, he once hanged student rebels from lampposts and had traffic deliberately re-routed so that drivers would see the bodies dangling in public.  This was back in the 1970s.  But frankly, no different to the kind of public retribution meted out to rebels in the 1170s.

Pinker argues that the relative decline in violence is due to our society being more industrialised, urban, secular and cosmopolitan.  And the rejection of violence even extends to corporal punishment against children.  From an early age we are conditioned to be repelled by physical violence.  This wasn’t the case in the Middle Ages where children were beaten routinely.  At an early age, they had to assume adult responsibilities and therefore were subject to adult punishments.  Through to the eighteenth century, individuals we would class as children were executed for petty crimes such as theft.

In his excellent new history of England – part one of which is called ‘Foundation’ – Peter Ackroyd has a chapter on crime and punishment in the Middle Ages.  He gives a shocking example of a nun who lost her virginity to a young priest in the 1160s at a convent in Watton, Yorkshire.  The nuns interrogated the pregnant sister and when they found out who the culprit was, he was captured and brought to the convent.  He was then imprisoned in a cell and the nun he had impregnated was forced to castrate him with a knife.  The other nuns then stuffed his genitals in to his mouth!  As if that wasn’t traumatic enough for her, she was flogged and bound with chains in a cell.  What happened to the baby after all this – goodness only knows.

Ackroyd also describes ‘ritualised fights’ in churchyards between aggrieved parties.  I have read previously about these grudge matches which were a common feature of medieval village life.   Sometimes the fights were fairly informal, the two parties just got down to beating each other up.  But on other occasions, they involved a degree of planning and training for the big day and were to the death.

Ackroyd mentions a case that I’d read about before of a man called Thomas of Eldenfield who in 1221 was not hanged for theft – as was usual – but blinded and castrated instead.  The detail that burnt this in to my memory was that his testicles were used as “little footballs” by the local kids.  As Ackroyd points out, there was a definite and quite mindless culture of violence in England in the Middle Ages.  One man simply walked in to a tavern, was disliked by the locals and killed on the spot.   A judge arriving at the city of Lincoln in the year 1202 was confronted with 114 cases of murder and 49 cases of rape!

Torture to extract confessions was not used quite as often as is widely believed.  Here is one website that lists some of the torture devices that were employed.   Ordeal was an on the spot way of determining the guilt of a criminal.  Ordeal by fire involved the accused fasting for three days.  An iron bar was placed on the local church altar to be sanctified.  At the beginning of mass, the iron bar was heated on a brazier and then at the end of mass, the accused was required to pick it up and walk with it.  After an agreed number of paces, he or she could drop the bar and their severely burnt hand was then bound up.  If after three days it had healed, then the accused was innocent.  But if it was still badly blistered and burnt, then the accused would most likely be executed.

This video clip below is from the TV series ‘The Tudors’ so falls outside the Middle Ages but it’s a pretty good representation of medieval execution methods: hanging and beheading.  The former faced by the poor and the latter, quicker way to die reserved for the wealthy.  Hanging, drawing and quartering – what happens to the second guy – was a very gruesome form of execution reserved for traitors.

Plague pits of London

Illustration of the Black Death from the Togge...
Illustration of the Black Death from the Toggenburg Bible (1411) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
A scene showing monks, disfigured by the plagu...
A scene showing monks, disfigured by the plague, being blessed by a priest. England, 1360–75 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You could spend a ghoulish holiday in London searching out its plague pits and forgotten cemeteries – if you wanted to.   Good way to start would be to buy the book ‘Necropolis’ which is an excellent primer on where to find London’s dead from centuries past.   Basically, as you shop round the West End or walk round Westminster, they’re under your feet.  Some are even in the walls of churches.  And there are huge plague pits under office blocks and green parks.  London is full of dead people.

If you went to the Tower of London, you could take in the graves of the beheaded in the church by the scaffold within its walls.  But after leaving, go past the Royal Mint and up a road called East Smithfield.  You will already be tramping over the bodies of the dead from the 14th century Black Death.  Most of this huge cemetery is underneath the courtyard of the Royal Mint.  These poor unfortunates succumbed to a massive attack of the bubonic plague, carried by rats, that devastated a third of the population of Europe.  Some dispute the disease in question saying it was Ebola and was transmitted human to human.  Recent research interestingly suggests that healthy people could survive this plague more easily than previously thought while those already a bit frail, were much more likely to die.

Charterhouse Square near Farringdon Station was also another site of a medieval plague pit.   The dead would also have been buried around the City of London’s many churches or even within the walls.  These churchyards were extended even further when many of the medieval churches were consumed by the Great Fire of London in 1666.  However, by the 19th century, the overcrowded cemeteries were a health hazard and the Victorians built huge out of town graveyards.  The previous cemeteries round the churches were gradually claimed by office buildings.  So if you work for a financial institution in the City, you are more than likely sitting above hundreds of medieval dead.

The medieval dead, by the way, were more often than not buried in cloth wrapping or in the case of the plague dead, just chucked in to a pit wearing nothing but the clothes they died in.   Exhumation to make way for new bodies was standard practice right up to the 19th century.  There are horrible stories of bodies being ‘mulched’ to make way for the recently deceased.  Underneath church floors, there was often an extremely tight squeeze – very cosy!

Other plague pits you could visit include one at 37-39 Artillery Lane excavated in 1976.  There is a park in south London called Blackheath where there are undoubtedly plague dead beneath the lovely grass but the park does NOT derive its name from the Black Death – a common misconception among Londoners.  The name was recorded two hundred years before the Black Death and probably refers to the colour of the soil.

One Londoner, Daniel Defoe – author of Robinson Crusoe – wrote about a much later plague in 1665 that had an appalling impact on London.  Defoe was a journalist and a writer and in his diary of the plague year, he described the great pits that consumed the dead:

“I say they had dug several pits in another ground, when the distemper began to spread in our parish, and especially when the dead-carts began to go about, which was not, in our parish, till the beginning of August. Into these pits they had put perhaps fifty or sixty bodies each; then they made larger holes wherein they buried all that the cart brought in a week, which, by the middle to the end of August, came to from 200 to 400 a week; and they could not well dig them larger, because of the order of the magistrates confining them to leave no bodies within six feet of the surface; and the water coming on at about seventeen or eighteen feet, they could not well, I say, put more in one pit. But now, at the beginning of September, the plague raging in a dreadful manner, and the number of burials in our parish increasing to more than was ever buried in any parish about London of no larger extent, they ordered this dreadful gulf to be dug – for such it was, rather than a pit.

“They had supposed this pit would have supplied them for a month or more when they dug it, and some blamed the churchwardens for suffering such a frightful thing, telling them they were making preparations to bury the whole parish, and the like; but time made it appear the churchwardens knew the condition of the parish better than they did: for, the pit being finished the 4th of September, I think, they began to bury in it the 6th, and by the 20th, which was just two weeks, they had thrown into it 1114 bodies when they were obliged to fill it up, the bodies being then come to lie within six feet of the surface. I doubt not but there may be some ancient persons alive in the parish who can justify the fact of this, and are able to show even in what place of the churchyard the pit lay better than I can. The mark of it also was many years to be seen in the churchyard on the surface, lying in length parallel with the passage which goes by the west wall of the churchyard out of Houndsditch, and turns east again into Whitechappel, coming out near the Three Nuns’ Inn.”

Funeral effigies – how the dead appeared at their own burial

English: Funeral effigy of Henry VII
English: Funeral effigy of Henry VII (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Visited Westminster Abbey today – where Wills and Kate just got married of course – and what held my morbid attention the most was the funeral effigies.  These strange objects are located in the 11th century vaulted undercroft of the abbey.

Basically, the abbey you know and love was built in the 13th century but below it are the remains of the earlier 11th century church of St Peter built by Edward the Confessor and completed by William the Conqueror. Most of it was demolished to make way for the much bigger building you see today, constructed in the Gothic style.  However, when you go to the cloister, you can access several rooms built around the 1050s and 1060s.   The Templar era covers the existence of both churches.

The abbey museum is in a room in the undercroft and the main objects to view are these life size effigies of England’s previous monarchs.  Up to around 1300, the real king was dressed up after death and put on display at funerals.  In spite of some sterling efforts at preservation – nothing on a par with Egyptian mummification though – the bodies tended to putrefy and even explode.  This being rather disagreeable, an alternative was devised.  A wooden model of the corpse was made with real hair, finely painted and dressed in the dead monarch’s clothes.  This was then lain on top of the casket during the funeral procession.

The model was then frequently sat next to the gravestone for years – and in some cases, centuries.  They weren’t always treated with respect and the wax and wood effigy of Elizabeth I had to be completely remade in the 18th century – 200 years after her death.  What was left of the original effigy of 1603 is still on display – a headless wooden figure (the original wax head was long gone) in just its undergarments….not very dignified.

The 17th and 18th century models of King William and Queen Mary, Queen Anne and various aristocrats are in amazing condition but obviously fall way out of the historical zone of this blog.  But go see them.  Henry VII – father of Henry VIII – has only got his wooden head and shoulders on display.  Believe it or not, the rest of the body was destroyed by a bomb in World War II.  From the Middle Ages, we have Anne of Bohemia (queen of Richard II) and Katherine de Valois (queen of Henry V).

This practice of displaying models of the dead at their funerals goes back at least to Roman times.  The likeness of many of these models to the dead are said to have been eerily accurate.  And one must assume that pre-Christian ideas of communing with the ancestors through these figures had to be a common belief.  Whether you’re a student of funerary rites through the ages or just like to gawp at historical fashions – the clothes on the dummies are original and very sumptuous – then go down to the undercroft and feast your eyes.