More Medieval Myths Busted

Continuing on my previous discussion of Cracked.com’s 6 Ridiculous Myths About the Middle Ages Everyone Believes:

medieval-bath-4

Getting a bath in Bohemia at one of the public bathhouses. (Jakub in “The Flames of Prague” mentions that he has been to the legendary bathhouses.)

#5 Everyone Smelled Like Complete Shit

I’ve covered this topic before. I’m really big into letting everyone know that medieval people bathed and washed their clothes.

#4 Knights Were Honorable, Chivalrous Warriors

They’re right about this, too. The code of chivalry didn’t extend in actuality to peasants, Jews, Muslims, pagans, or heretics, and sometimes it didn’t even apply to your noble-born enemy. That’s not to say that there weren’t some knights who were fair and just to everyone, but that was the exception, not the rule.

The medieval code of chivalry was rather like the Constitution in 1800. The Constitution guaranteed freedom and equality, but blacks were slaves and women couldn’t vote. It took a while for society to meet its own standards. Likewise with the code of chivalry in the middle ages. It really wasn’t until a revival of interest in the middle ages during the Victorian period that you see a desire to hold to all the rules of chivalry, which is where we get our modern ideas about how knights (and gentlemen) are supposed to behave.

In the real middle ages, you were considered chivalrous, really, by how you acted in battle and at tournament. Acts of bravery (of the “forlorn hope” variety) were popular.

The Black Prince looking at the fallen King John of Bohemia after the Battle of Crecy.

King John the Blind of Bohemia was 50 years old and almost completely blind (what we today would call “legally blind”) when he went to fight with the French at the Battle of Crecy. He asked his company of knights to lead him into battle, and they tied their horses together and rode out to meet the enemy. According to a chronicler at the time, the King did strike down some men before he and his company were overcome. It is said that the Black Prince found his body on the field afterwards and adopted his crest and  motto (“I serve”) in tribute.

Standing your ground and holding a line were also ways to show your chivalry. Also at Crecy, the 16-year-old Black Prince went into battle leading his own detachment of men for the first time. When his section of the line came under attack, advisers to the king told him he needed to send in reinforcements to protect the prince, but the king said, “let him earn his spurs,” and did not send help. The Prince and his men beat back the French and he was knighted after the battle, triumphant.

Random Fact: Believe it or not, I have seen a few people on the internet who have tried to claim that the Black Prince was really black… as in African.

The Black Prince came by his nickname because he wore black armor and clothing (see above painting). Black is actually a very hard color to make from natural dyes, and it usually takes multiple dye baths of various colors to make it. And even once you have it, the sun and rain fade it quickly, so it requires re-dying. Blackened armor also required special steps to create (if you ask really nice, my husband might leave a comment telling how it was made). In short, black was expensive and no one but the occasional monk went around wearing nothing but black. So what better color for a wealthy prince to wear?

The prince’s mother, Philippa of Hainault, was referred to as “black” by some contemporary historians, and this has also been held up as proof that she was of African origin. However, we know her genealogy, and it ran through pretty much every king and prince and duke of importance in Europe; no Africans. Likely she was referred to as “black” because she had black hair and dark eyes. Several of her immediate ancestors were from Eastern Europe, where people tended to be darker than those born in England.

That may sound like a stretch, but actually the same term has been used to describe Irish people. The “black” Irish are not actually black of skin, but rather black-haired. My own name, Keri, is derived from the County Kerry, and the word means “dark.” That portion of Ireland was famous for its dark-haired and dark-eyed people–aka the black Irish.

William the Marshal is reckoned to be the most chivalrous knight of the middle ages (as judged by his contemporaries and later medieval historians). During one melee tournament, which ranged over a large section of the countryside, he and some friends stopped at an alehouse to refresh themselves. A knight on the opposing side came limping into town with a broken leg. William saw him, went outside, picked him up, carried him into the alehouse, and deposited him on the table, telling his companions that the meal and drink was on him (because of the money he would receive as ransom for the injured knight). They ate their fill, made the injured knight pay for it, then left him with the innkeeper and went back out to fight. He won great acclaim for this act. (Everyone likes a man who buys them food and beer.)

Further Information: There’s a nice little Q&A on medieval myths at Soc.History.Medieval.

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3 comments on “More Medieval Myths Busted

  1. Wallace says:

    Strange you should mention the black Irish. I was down in Atlanta a few years ago at a party and a friend of a friend walked up and we started talking. He mention he was black Irish since his parents had both come from Ireland. This seemed remarkable to me since he had darker skin, long black hair pulled back in a ponytail, and a finely trimmed goatee. He was wearing a Steampunk-ish costume at the time that could easily have passed for normal 19th C. clothes.

    The remarkable part was that he looked like he could have stepped right out of a portrait by Goya or El Greco. He seemed not in the least Irish but far more like a 16th C. Spaniard. It might have just been the hair and clothing, but it certainly reminded me of the usual explanation for the black Irish.

    That explanation is that, when the Spanish Armada was swept around England and Scotland by the gale and had to return to Spain by way of circumnavigating the British isles to the West of Ireland, many of the ships were lost off the West coast of Ireland due to the weather and the rocks. While some of the shipwrecked Spaniards were captured by the English, the great majority were rescued and hid by the Irish who were fellow Catholics and had no love for the English. The black Irish are the descendants of those Spaniards who stayed in Ireland since they had no way home and couldn’t simply walk down to the docks and get a ship back to Spain.

    This might also explain why most of the black Irish are from Kerry since it’s on the furthest Western portion of the island and far from the English and Scots-Irish in Northern Ireland.

    • Keri Peardon says:

      I had never heard of where the black Irish were supposed to have come from, although I’m a little leery of the Spanish fleet explanation, because I’ve heard that the Spanish, prior to their expansion into the New World, were not unlike most other Europeans in appearance. Catherine of Aragon, for instance, had blonde or strawberry blonde hair and fair skin. (I can’t remember if her eyes were blue or hazel, but they weren’t brown.) And she was not unusual. Supposedly it was the mixing with the native peoples in Central and South America that lead to Spaniards having darker hair, eyes, and skin. Maybe that was starting to show up by the late 1500’s, when they fought against the English, but eh… maybe not.

  2. Wallace says:

    Humm, an interesting idea about the Spanish mixing with the Indians of the new world, but very unlikely by the late 16th C. for the Spanish population in general. There was very little cross ocean travel of Indians to Spain for most of the 16th C. because the Spanish only established their rule in the new world in roughly the first half of the 16th C. with Cortez only conquering Mexico in the 1520’s and Pizarro not conquering the Incas till the 1530’s.

    The Spanish Armada sailed against England in 1588 and any Indians that might have been transported to Spain in the previous 60 years or so would have been just curiosities and prisoners of the Spanish. They would also have been very few in numbers and certainly not allowed to wander the country and mate with Spanish ladies. Of course, there was quite a bit of Conquistador mating with the Indian women in the new world which did result in mixed parentage children, but few of those women or children ever went to Spain.

    While the Northern Spanish might retain their Northern European looks, the Southern Spaniards would have had centuries of mixing with the swarthy Muslims who came over from North Africa beginning in 711 with the Islamic conquest of most of the Iberian peninsula. Even tho the actual Muslim leadership was driven out of Spain in 1492, that still left almost 800 years of the dark skinned, black haired, dark eyes of the North African Muslims mixing with the indigenous Iberian population.

    By the time of the Armada the darker skinned and black haired Spaniards would be as common in Spain as their lighter complexioned cousins.

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