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.


Savanna Kougar said...

Fascinating. I've always had an affinity for the Middle Ages. While in college I took a history class on Medieval times. I did research on courtly love, and did a story about it for my final.

Samantha Gentry said...

Savanna: It was definitely an interesting time in history, one filled with lots of myths and misinformation.

Thanks for your comment.