Sunday, August 30, 2020

10 Biggest Myths About Medieval Torture part 3of3

This week is part 3 of my 3-part blog series about the Middle Ages/Medieval times. This period in history has many documented tales of truly barbaric treatment. But, unlike the message we get from Hollywood's entertainment industry and many novels, Medieval times overall weren't as barbaric as we've been led to believe. And with that thought in mind, here's a list of the ten biggest myths about justice in Medieval times.

10)  Go Directly To Jail?

Most Medieval communities actually had a judge and jury type of system, although it was much quicker than today's long drawn out sessions. Court generally lasted less than half an hour. At the judge's discretion, he could ask a few simple questions and deliver a verdict without consulting the jury.

9)  The Lawless Middle Age Villages?

Earlier Medieval communities had much more social responsibility than today.  If one member claimed to be wronged, every resident had to join in the hunt and persecution of the criminal, otherwise they would all be held responsible.

8)  Those Strict Church Types?

The pious Middle Ages were serious about religious offenses. Each town's church usually ran its own kind of court to investigate everything from bad attendance to heresy. However, the concept of sanctuary was also well known with the church as a place where criminals could avoid sentencing or punishment.

7)  Out Of Sight, Out Of Mind?

Criminals who committed lesser offenses were often subject to a policy of three strikes and you're out—literally. Repeat offenders were often simply banished from a city and not allowed back rather than killing them or having them clutter up the prisons. Humane and cost effective.

6)  Executions: Left, Right, and Center?

According to Hollywood, Medieval evil-doers were killed on whim and often in public squares for even the slightest of offenses. In reality, capital punishment was used only in the most serious cases which included murder, treason, and arson with the guilty usually hanged.

5)  Royal Highnesses High Above the Law?

Medieval nobles did enjoy certain privileges when it came to bending laws or making new ones to serve their purposes. However, most European countries had legislation preventing their kings and queens from running wild, such as England's Magna Carta signed by King John in 1215.

4)  Public Beheadings as Weekly Spectacle?

Beheading was swift and painless—as long as the axe was sharp. It was considered a privileged way to die and reserved primarily for the nobility. Treason was the crime of choice with the beheadings usually taking place inside castle walls rather than in public. Henry VIII had two of his wives beheaded—Catherine Howard and Anne Boleyn.

3)  The Burning Times?

A few witches, as proclaimed by their accusers, were burned at the stake during Medieval times. But it was during the following Reformation period (beginning approximately in 1550) that burning witches at the stake really took off. However, in England witches were rarely burned. They were hanged instead. At the Salem witch trials in the U.S., most of the accused who were actually put to death were hanged.

2)  Off With Your Ear?

Mutilation—severing of an ear or hand—was occasionally used as a punishment for serious crimes, especially in larger jurisdictions such as London. But more often, Medieval law enforcement used it as an empty threat rather than actually doing it.

1)  Rack 'Em Up?

Immortalized in the film Braveheart, the most famous torture device of all time was the rack. It probably wasn't used in England until the very end of the Medieval period. It was used extensively along with other devices beginning in the torturous days of the 1500s when Queen Elizabeth I, and other European monarchs, began purging religious opponents.

So, next time you're watching a high budget film set during Medieval times filled with bloody and torturous actions, remember—there's a good chance it didn't really happen that way.

Sunday, August 23, 2020


This is part 2 of my 3-part blog about the Middle Ages/Medieval times. Last week I presented 11 Bizarre Medieval Trends. This week it's 9 Surprising Facts.

1)  They weren't all knights or serfs or clergy

Although some medieval writers described their society as divided into three parts—those who prayed, those who fought, and those who labored. That became an increasingly inaccurate description after the beginning of the 12th century. The population of Europe increased considerably during the 12th and 13th centuries, with cities and towns becoming much bigger. In the cities, people had all kinds of jobs—merchants, salesmen, carpenters, butchers, weavers, food sellers, architects, painters, jugglers…

In the countryside, everyone was not an impoverished serf (someone not free who was tied to the land). Many peasants were free men and women who owned their own land, while others who were to some degree not free bought and sold land and goods, much like other free men. There certainly were poor, oppressed serfs, but it wasn't a universal condition.

 2)  People had the vote

Well, some people had the vote—not a vote for national, representative government. That was not a medieval thing. But they did have a vote in local politics. In France, in the 12th and 13th centuries and beyond, many towns and villages were run at a local level as a commune, and there were often annual elections where most of the male inhabitants could vote. Women could not usually stand as officials and could not vote, but some of them were noted in the agreed charters of liberties that French towns proudly possessed.

 3)  The church didn't conduct witch hunts

The large-scale witch hunts and collective paranoid response to the stereotype of the evil witch is not a medieval creation. It was an early modern phenomenon found mostly in the 16th and 17th centuries. There were some witch trials in the Middle Ages, and these became more widespread in German-speaking lands in the 15th century. But those doing the prosecuting were almost always civic authorities rather than the church.

 For much of the Middle Ages, the main message that churchmen gave in regard to magic was that it was foolish nonsense that didn't work. The infamous Malleus Maleficarum in the late 15th century was written to persuade people of the reality of witches. In fact, the book was initially condemned by the church, and even in the early 16th century, inquisitors were warned not to believe everything that it said.

4)  They had a Renaissance and invented experimental science

When people talk about the Renaissance, they usually mean literature, art, architecture, and learning found at the end of the Middle Ages. This is usually taken to be one of the ways in which we moved from medieval to early modern thinking. But medieval intellectuals also had a renaissance of classical learning and rhetoric. This was in the 12th century and depended particularly on the works by Aristotle and other classical authors. One of the outcomes was an inquiring approach to the physical world, and it led Roger Bacon and others to think about observing and experimenting with the physical world to learn more about it.

 5)  They traveled and traded over very long distances

The majority of medieval people, particularly those who lived in the countryside, rarely traveled very far from where they were born. That would be the case with lots of people in much later ages as well. It is not the case, however, that medieval people never traveled. Many went on pilgrimage, sometimes journeying thousands of miles to do so. And those involved in trade certainly traveled, linking parts of the world together with merchandise.

 6)  They had some great 'folk' customs

Much of the public culture of the Middle Ages was molded by Christianity. There were also some curious customs, usually tolerated by the church, but which may have had older roots. One was the practice of rolling burning barrels down a hill on Midsummer's Eve. Another was to throw wheat over the heads of a newly married couple. It was also common to raise money for charity by holding a 'help ale'—brewing up a batch of ale, having a big party to drink it, and collecting donations.

 7)  Most great medieval authors didn't write

We tend to think of literacy as one thing, but in fact it combines various different skills with the physical act of writing being only one. For much of the Middle Ages, working as a scribe was seen as a kind of labor and was not something that important people like theologians and intellectuals would bother doing themselves. Instead, a scribe would usually write down what the author dictated.

 8)  Some people weren't very religious

The Middle Ages famously features great examples of extreme religious devotion—mystics, saints, the flagellants, mass pilgrimage, etc.  But it would be wrong to assume that people were always very focused on God and religion and definitely wrong to think that medieval people were incapable of skeptical reflection.

 There is solid evidence of some ordinary people who looked suspiciously at particular beliefs—at the miracles performed by saints, or the nature of the Eucharist, or what was said to happen after death. There is also ample evidence of people just not bothering very much with religion, most of all not going to church on Sunday.

 9)  They didn't believe the world was flat

Columbus was not battling a society who believed the world was flat when trying to finance his voyage across the Atlantic to what he believed would be route to China and Japan. It was a generally accepted belief that the world was round. Most people probably know this already, along with the fact that Viking helmets did not have horns. Both are bits of Victorian myth about the period. What makes studying medieval history fascinating is that you have to grapple with both the puzzle of extracting information from difficult and often fragmented surviving records, and the challenge of constantly checking your own thinking for assumptions that you might be inadvertently inserting into the information as fact.

 Next week is part 3 of my 3-part blog series about the Middle Ages/Medieval times. In part 3, I'll be unraveling some of the wide spread commonly held myths about Medieval torture. 

Sunday, August 16, 2020

11 Bizarre Medieval Trends Part 1of3

This week is part 1 of a 3-part blog about the Middle Ages/Medieval times. It seems that every generation looks back at older generations and judges the customs, beliefs, and traditions of that time in history by comparing them to the present. Some comparisons are valid and some are not. However, I think it's fair to say that there are few periods in history that we regard as strangely as we do the Middle Ages—Medieval times.

The Middle Ages are generally considered an unlucky time to be born and today's popular belief is that people were poor, food was dull, everything was dirty, and for the vast majority of that historical period the people were dropping like flies. What we don't often hear about is that people created some of the most peculiar, bizarre, hilarious, and astounding trends in human history. Let's take a look at some of the peculiarities of the Middle Ages.

1. Animal court

Life in medieval times was just as tough for animals as it was for humans. Just like their human owners, all manner of animals from livestock to insects were put on trial if they were suspected of breaking the law. There are records of at least 85 animal trials that took place during the Middle Ages that range from tragic to absurd.

The most common offenders were pigs accused and convicted of chewing off body parts and even eating children. Most were found guilty and sentenced to death. And it wasn't just pigs that felt the wrath of the law. In 1474, a court found a rooster guilty of the unnatural crime of laying an egg, rats often found themselves on the receiving end of a strongly worded letter asking them to leave the premises, and in 1596 in Marseilles some dolphins were put on trial.

Surprisingly, not all of the trials ended in brutality. One donkey found herself the victim of unwanted sexual advances. She was proclaimed innocent after a strong recommendation from a convent's prior, declaring her to be a virtuous and well-behaved animal.

2. Fabulous men's fashion

Clothes were hugely important to the elite of medieval times. It was a way for them to display their wealth and overall superiority over the poor. Because of this, various unusual fashion trends swept through Europe, such as long, pointed shoes for men. The longer the shoes, the greater the wealth of the man and, therefore, his social rank. Some of the shoes were so long they had to be reinforced with whalebone. In the late 14th century, men desired to show off their bodies by wearing revealing clothing such as very short tunics with tights.

3. Shotgun weddings

Much of what people assume about medieval upper-class marriage is true. It was rarely for love but merely for political and social gain. Women, as with almost all aspects of medieval life, had no say in the matter. Men and women were judged to be ready for marriage as soon as their bodies reached puberty, as young as 12 for girls and 14 for boys.

The marriage ceremony of the time was very different from today. There wasn't a formal ceremony. It took only a few moments to utter consent wherever they happened to be. This meant it became rather hard to prove people were actually married. In the 12th century, it was declared a holy sacrament that must be observed by God. The consummation of the marriage, especially among upper-class newlyweds, was far from private. It was observed by witnesses.

4. Courtly love

Most upper-class medieval marriages were loveless unions designed for financial and social gains. Medieval nobles fulfilled their romantic desires in what was termed courtly love. This allowed lords and ladies to practice the elements of love regardless of their marital status. This involved the risqué actions of dancing, giggling, and even holding hands. Sex, however, was strictly forbidden—reserved for one's spouse only. Courtly love was so popular, a list of rules was written up including: "Marriage is no real excuse for not loving."

5. Divorce by combat

Couples in medieval Germany didn't waste time when it came to solving their disputes. Rather than just arguing like any normal couple, trial by single combat was a popular way to solve disagreements. When man and wife were fighting, there were bizarre restrictions such as the husband standing in a hole with a hand behind his back while his wife ran around with a sack filled with rocks.

6. Hairless faces

While today many women spend money to accentuate their eyelashes and eyebrows, it was completely different in the Middle Ages. Because the forehead was seen as the central point of their faces, women would remove their eyelashes and eyebrows in order to accentuate it. Some were so committed, they would pluck their hairlines to achieve a perfectly oval, bald face.

7. A beautiful death

People in the medieval times were very preoccupied with death, which is understandable if you consider how pious society was at the time, and also the fact that many people were falling victim to the Black Death. As a result, a trend known as ars moriendi or the art of dying, came into fashion. The idea revolved around dying a good Christian death. The death should be planned and peaceful. To add further stress, the dying person should accept their fate without despair, disbelief, impatience, pride, or avarice. Dying well was particularly popular with the priesthood, which led to many of the infamous medieval paintings of monks and holy men accepting their brutal murders with calm serenity.

8. Soccer without rules

If you thought professional sports hooligans were a modern phenomenon, you might want to reconsider that concept. Medieval England had sports-related mob violence before the sports were even named. What we regard today as soccer (or football outside the U.S.) was violent, chaotic, and occasionally deadly. It involved an infinite number of players, could take part across entire villages, and often it was the opposing team being kicked rather than the ball. In 1314, King Edward II decided enough was enough and forbid the game.

9. Unicorns and Jesus

Medieval people loved two things, mythology and religion. These often combined in a very peculiar way. Due to a mistranslation of what was likely intended to be an ox, people commonly believed that the Bible likened Jesus to a unicorn. People at the time went with this idea, and the unicorn repeatedly cropped up in religious medieval art.

10. Jesters

Being a jester in the Middle Ages may seem like a terrible fate. After all, their hats were modelled after the ears of an ass. But jesters were also granted unique privileges. As everything that came out of their mouths was by royal decree, words to be taken in jest, they could get away with slandering the lords and ladies of court. They could voice their political opinions in a time when doing so was strictly forbidden.

11. The Feast of Fools

Many people of medieval Europe joined together at the beginning of January to celebrate the Feast of Fools. Like most Christian festivals, this eclectic event was inspired by a pagan festival of Saturnalia. The highest respected officials swapped with the lowest, serving maids became masters and a king of misrule was crowned. Although originally intended to be confined only to the hallowed halls of churches, the common people took it upon themselves to celebrate. There were parades, comic performances, costumes, cross-dressing, bawdy songs, and drinking to excess.

Not entirely related but equally as difficult to comprehend, the Festival of the Ass presented a young girl carrying a child and riding a donkey into church. Throughout the service, the congregation replaced "amen" with a "hee-haw." Considering the celebration was held in super-strict Christian medieval Europe, it's impressive it survived for so long. However, over time the rules were tightened, certain acts forbidden, and the final nail in the coffin of fun came with the Protestant reformation.

And there you have it—a different look at the Middle Ages/Medieval Times. Check here next week for a look at part 2 of my 3-part series for a look at some surprising facts about that time.

Sunday, August 9, 2020


It doesn't take an in depth knowledge of American history to know that after the Revolutionary War, the colonies became the original 13 states. Then over time, more and more territories become states with 1912 giving us New Mexico and Arizona to make the 48 states. It stayed that way until 1959 when Alaska and Hawaii were added to make today's total of 50 states.

But, along the way, there were 5 more areas proposed as states to be added to the union that lost out. Here, in chronological order, are 5 contenders that did not make the final approval.

1. Franklin

The State of Franklin was created shortly after the Revolutionary War in what is now eastern Tennessee. At the time, the wild and mountainous region was part of western North Carolina and home to over 5,000 settlers. Tensions began in 1784 when the North Carolina state legislature withdrew state militias from the area and attempted to give the land to the federal government. Under constant threat of Native American attacks and feeling abandoned by their government, the frustrated settlers of the area declared their counties to be a new American state. They appointed the audacious John Sevier, a politician and soldier who had gained fame fighting the Cherokee, as their governor. In an attempt to gain Benjamin Franklin’s support for the cause, they claimed to name their state after him. Franklin responded with a polite letter but offered no public support.

After petitioning Congress for admission to the newly formed United States, Franklin fell just short of the two-thirds majority needed for statehood. Even though it failed to gain admission to the United States, the rogue territory continued to exist as an independent republic with its own courts, legislature, taxes and constitution. In 1788, Sevier made a risky bid for aid from the Spanish and was quickly arrested on charges of treason. The proposed state of Franklin soon collapsed and was reclaimed by North Carolina. Its lands formed the Southwest Territory, which became the state of Tennessee. Sevier escaped serious punishment for his actions and, thanks in part to his legendary reputation as the leader of Franklin, went on to become Tennessee’s first governor.

2. Deseret

Probably the best known of the proposed to be a state but never made it category is Deseret. This was a western state proposed by Mormon settlers in 1849. The land area included what is parts of modern-day California, Oregon, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Wyoming and Idaho. As proposed, it would become the largest state in the Union. In addition to the problem of its enormous size being reason to derail its path to statehood, the controversial Mormon practice of polygamy figured strongly in the decision. Opposition was strong, and anti-polygamy activists portrayed Deseret as a move to create a Mormon theocracy within the United States. President Zachary Taylor attempted to combine Deseret and the newly formed state of California, but the plan collapsed when Deseret’s delegate failed to arrive at the state constitutional congress on time due to a misunderstanding. The final blow to Deseret’s statehood chances came in 1850 when a compromise led to the creation of the Utah Territory, with Mormon leader Brigham Young as its first governor.

 Although the attempt to establish a super-state fell by the wayside, for years a group of Mormon elders secretly met after each Utah Territory General Assembly and ratified new laws under the name “Deseret.” It was only with the arrival of the railroad—and with it many non-Mormon settlers—that the dream of the sprawling state was officially abandoned.

 3. Sequoyah

The plan to form the state of Sequoyah began in the early 1900s during a meeting of the Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw and Seminole Native American nations. At the time, the eastern part of what would later become Oklahoma encompassed the Indian Territory, a region populated by some 60,000 indigenous people. In 1905, the nations held a convention in Muskogee, where they drafted a proposal to turn the Oklahoma and Indian Territories into two individual states. Their new state, dubbed Sequoyah after the creator of the Cherokee writing system, had a proposed 48 counties and represented an attempt to maintain some degree of Native American self-governance over the Indian Territory.

The proposed constitution was expansive and included many progressive ideas, including anti-trust laws and restrictions on child labor. Still, it ultimately failed in the U.S. Congress, which balked at adding two new western states. Instead, the Indian Territory was incorporated into the new state of Oklahoma in 1907. Nevertheless, many of Sequoyah’s principles lived on. Several states directly copied its constitution’s novel ethics laws, and the Cherokee Nation continues to call its yearly conference on Native American issues the State of Sequoyah.

UPDATE:  In July, 2020, the Supreme Court ruled that much of eastern Oklahoma is an Indian reservation and that state authorities do not have the authority to prosecute criminal cases involving Native Americans. The 5-to-4 decision, potentially one of the most consequential legal victories for Native Americans in decades, could have far-reaching implications for the people who live in the court affirmed Indian Country. The lands include much of Tulsa, Oklahoma’s second-biggest city.

4. Absaroka

Often called the state that never was, Absaroka arose from the political discontent of the Great Depression and in particular Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal. The movement for statehood began in 1939 in Sheridan, Wyoming. Frustrated with the U.S. government, a group of politicians and businessmen led by A.R. Swickard, a former baseball player, hatched a plan to create a new state they called Absaroka. The would-be state included large areas of Wyoming, Montana and South Dakota, and encompassed famous landmarks such as the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone National Park. Swickard appointed himself governor and began hearing grievances from the “citizens” of his state. To gather support, he distributed Absaroka license plates and photos of the first (and subsequently last) Miss Absaroka.

Despite its initial popularity, the statehood movement’s novelty quickly wore off, and an official proposal for secession was never drafted. The story survives today largely thanks to the Federal Writers’ Project—ironically, one of FDR’s New Deal programs—which chronicled the Absaroka phenomenon while compiling travel guides to the American West.

5. Jefferson

The bold scheme to form the state of Jefferson began in 1941 when a group of copper mining counties in northern California and southern Oregon became fed up with insufficient government funding for their highways. In a slightly tongue-in-cheek gesture, the residents of the area decided to form a new state. A newspaper contest provided the name of Jefferson, and the group went so far as to elect a judge named John Childs as its first governor. They even adopted a state flag emblazoned with a large “XX”—a reference to the double-crossing politics that had led to their secession. In a show of Jefferson pride, a group of men armed with hunting rifles blockaded the highway between Oregon and California and gave bewildered motorists a flyer that read: “You are now entering Jefferson.”

Unfortunately for the aspiring Jeffersonians, other events ultimately overshadowed their act of secession. Just three days after Judge Childs’ inauguration on December 4, 1941—which was accompanied by a parade and widespread media coverage—the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. In the ensuing buildup to World War II, plans for the new state of Jefferson fell by the wayside.

And there you have it…5 states that almost existed.

Sunday, August 2, 2020

13 of the World's Most Common Superstitions and Their Bizarre Origins part 2 of 2

This week is part 2 of my 2-part blog about superstitions and their origins. Last week I covered number one through six (in no particular order). Now, let's take a look at the rest of the list.

7. Crossing your fingers:

This one has two meanings with numerous possibilities about the origin of the "good luck" version. Some theories say that crossed fingers were used by early Christians to identify each other when their religion was still illegal in the Roman empire, that crossed fingers were a way to ward off witches, and that medieval archers crossed their fingers when pulling their bow back for better accuracy. The other version—the idea that crossing your fingers means you don't believe what you say and are lying—may have also originated from a belief in witches. It was believed that the act of crossing your fingers was a way to swear an oath to the devil without actually giving up your soul.

8. Toasting with water:

Raising a glass in celebration should be a show of good faith regardless of what is in the glass. However, if it's water, the opposite is true. When toasting someone with water, it actually means you're wishing death upon them. The ancient Greeks were the first to warn of this practice, as they would only toast with water to honor the dead. This belief stemmed from the myths that drinking the water from the River Lethe served to help the souls of the Underworld pass on.

9. Being third on a match:

Historical origins for this superstition are set in World War I. It was a conventional wisdom among soldiers in the trenches that if you kept a match lit long enough for three people to light their cigarette from it, the enemy would spot the flame and determine your position. Soldiers brought the belief back with them, but there's evidence to suggest that after the war, match companies rather cynically helped popularize the superstition to sell more matches.

10. Stepping on a crack will break your mother's back:

It's been popularly suggested that this superstitious saying has evolved from a more racist 19th-century version of the rhyme, but historians suggest that both versions probably came about at the same time. The rhyme is likely an American formulation of a long-held British superstition in which stepping on pavement cracks represents crossing other unseen lines that will have bad consequences.

11. Tossing spilled salt over your left shoulder:

You've probably seen some people do this, but do you really need to be tossing seasoning at the dinner table? According to superstition, if you don't, the devil standing over your shoulder is sure to stick around. The basis for this superstition is as practical as it is religious, as salt was once considered extremely valuable—in some cultures it was actually a form of money. Only someone under the influence of evil would waste such a priceless resource. Tossing it over your left shoulder and into the devil's face prevents further temptation.

12. Knocking on wood:

Have you ever told a friend you're hoping for some good news? Or that you really hope something terrible doesn't happen? You better find the nearest wooden table or chair and knock twice, or else you're going to be in for a bad time. That's because early pagans believed that trees contained fairies, spirits, and other mystical creatures. By knocking on wood, they believed these creatures would grant them good luck or even keep evil spirits from influencing their lives.

13. The number 13:

And finally, the number thirteen itself. Friday the thirteenth is considered the unluckiest day of the year. Most tall buildings are built without a designated thirteenth floor. Of the infinite combinations of numbers in existence, why is thirteen so universally feared? Norse mythology is the culprit. In one legend, Loki, the god of mischief, was the thirteenth guest at a feast in Valhalla and caused the death of Balder, god of light and purity. The evils of thirteen later became associated with the Last Supper, as Judas was the thirteenth guest.

 I could have eliminated one of the superstitions and restricted the list to only twelve, but presenting a list of thirteen superstitions seemed more appropriate.  :)