I will be appearing as a guest several times in a special edition of Forbidden History devoted to exposing the secrets of the Knights Templar. Presented by Jamie Theakston and broadcast on UKTV/Yesterday TV, Forbidden History asks the questions you have all been dying to know the answers to.
I will be discussing:
The trial of the Knights Templar in 1307
Pagan rituals that may have become part of the Templar rites
How did the Templars become so rich, so quickly?
Were the Templars influenced by eastern ideas?
Did they reject church authority?
Why was such violence used to put down the Templars?
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.
Ending a siege as quickly as possible was always a good idea with both those inside and outside the castle needing to maintain supplies and fend off disease. The weapons employed to wear down your enemy were as much psychological as physical. What you wanted to do to your enemy was to destroy their morale, their will to fight.
Lobbing the severed heads of captured soldiers over the castle wall – in either direction – was a favoured tactic. This might include the hapless messenger who might have his head send back with the enemy response written on a piece of parchment and nailed to his head. In 1344, the English were fighting to hold on to Gascony and one of their soldiers tried to break through the French lines with a request for more assistance. He was captured and the poor man was catapulted alive back in to the castle he had sneaked out of.
At the siege of Nicaea in the First Crusade, the heads of Saracens were impaled before the city walls by the crusaders and others catapulted over the battlements. It was quite common to execute prisoners in front of the enemy with a mass hanging calculated to dent morale. Louis VI castrated and disemboweled captives and floated them down the river on barges to be met by their former comrades in besieged Rouen.
One Byzantine emperor blinded a captured Bulgar army save for one in every ten men – who kept a single eye, to lead the others back. When this appalling spectacle returned to the Bulgar king, he apparently dropped dead on the spot (according to the Byzantine telling of it of course). A similar tactic was used by De Montfort in the crusade against the Albigensian heresy. He cut off the upper lips and noses of a captured garrison and blinded them – leaving some with an eye to lead them to the next castle as a warning of what happened if you resisted De Montfort.
If the enemy began to ram the walls, then they might be discouraged if captured prisoners were dangled – alive – in front of the attacking army. One medieval king attempted to protect his siege towers from attack by mangonels on the city walls by tying live prisoners to the front of the machines. We talk about ‘human shields’ now in warfare but in the Middle Ages, they were very, very literal. Apparently, this ruse did not work and the siege towers came under renewed attack. One account says that the youths tied to the siege towers died very slowly and “miserably, struck by the stones”.
Those throwing the stones at their captured comrades did so with tears in their eyes. They were horrified at having to attack these young soldiers being used as a human shield. “They crushed their chests, their stomachs and their heads and bone and mushy brain were mixed together”. One can imagine that the defenders might have even tried to hurry the deaths of their comrades by taking special aim at them.
A properly provisioned walled city or castle complex could hold out for up to a year. Day after day they could rain down rocks, boiling oil and arrows on the besiegers. With proper preparation and weapons to hand, it could be the army outside the walls who suffered disease and hunger first and not those holed up behind the battlements.
Life for the besieged might get uncomfortable but with a stiff upper lip (providing you still had one!), you could see off the enemy.
Here is a medieval battle re-enactment in the Czech Republic:
As we know, the Templar leaders were tortured in to confessions after being arrested in Paris and elsewhere when the Order was suppressed in the early fourteenth century. One unfortunate Templar carried the charred remains of his toes in a box after having his feet severely burnt under torture. Burning with hot irons was a fairly common and straight forward form of interrogative torture – just branding the torso repeatedly until the victim confessed all.
It was often enough to be shown the instruments of torture for many to decide they’d rather give in and sign a confession – even if that meant death on the scaffold. And death on the scaffold was not guaranteed to be a slow affair. Hanging was by strangulation and treason was punished by being hung till you were ‘half dead’ (which is why ‘hung till you are dead’ is specified in judicial death sentences as opposed to being cut down while still alive) and then disemboweled and castrated before your body was then cut in to quarters.
If somebody decided not to sign a confession and underwent torture, then an increasingly ghoulish array of devices was developed in the Middle Ages to encourage victims to condemn themselves. If fingernails and teeth being pulled didn’t do the trick, it was time to move on to head vice type contraptions – slowly squeezing the skull. Or the notorious thumbscrews, breaking your digits and rendering them quite useless.
Torture devices were often intended to match the crime. So the ‘pear of anguish’ was a rather bizarre contraption which might be inserted in to the mouth of a blasphemer or the anus of a ‘sodomite’ and by turning a screw, four flaps would extend outwards stretching the orifice to breaking point. Makes me shuffle in my seat I can tell you!
The mutilation of crime suspects was often a public affair. The individual had not been found guilty yet of their crime but to prove their innocence had to undergo a ‘trial by ordeal’. This normally involved fire or water. The fire test had different variants but at its simplest, an accused person would be ordered to pick up a red hot iron bar and walk several paces. This might be down the aisle of a church in front of the person’s neighbours. The bar would be dropped, the hand wrapped in bandages and then examined after, typically, three days. Failure to heal was a good sign of guilt and the accused might be led away to be hung or exiled from the village, which could be a death sentence in of itself.
Grim executions included boiling – not a common form of execution to my knowledge. One used I believe against cooks who tried to poison their patrons – kind of appropriate. With advanced warning for those of you who are sensitive – here is a dramatisation (from The Tudors) of death by boiling.