More Medieval Myths Busted

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


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.

Medieval Titillation

***Warning: This post may not be suitable for viewing at work***

People today tend to think that senior citizens–like their grandparents–never have sex. They also tend to think that their more ancient ancestors–such as those in the middle ages–were prudes.

Those people are wrong on both counts.

I’ll save you a long discussion (oh, man, I might as well give into the puns now) on your grandparents having sex, but in light of my vow to dispel myths regarding the middle ages, I will set about proving to you that medieval people were not prudes.

Most people are much more familiar with the mores of Victorian England and Puritan America than medieval Europe. And it seems that the customs of those more prudish times get overlaid on the middle ages. After all, if the Pilgrims were prudes, wouldn’t their grandparents have been even more prudish?

Our experience in America since the Roaring Twenties has been that each subsequent generation has gotten more rebellious and more likely to cast aside society’s conventions. Therefore, we think this logic should apply backwards: Puritans ought to be less rigid than 14th century people.

Except that’s not true. Social customs, in general, go in cycles from rigid to permissive, back to rigid again. Puritans were extra orthodox in order to combat what they saw as the decadence of both Catholics and other Protestants (and Lutherans were, themselves, a protest against the decadence of Catholicism). There was even a period of time where Protestant groups were trying to outdo each other in terms of austerity–just as there were once monastic rules in the Catholic Church which tried to do the same. (No joke: Oliver Cromwell cancelled Christmas. He also outlawed football matches on Sundays. (Still not sure which is worse.))

But back to the middle ages and sex. In the very earliest part of the middle ages–just after the fall of Rome–there wasn’t much of a universal rule regarding sex because Europe was too fragmented. But in Ireland and among many Germanic tribes, polygamy and concubines were the norm. Along came the Church and they eventually managed to beat everyone into some semblance of universal morality. But, let me tell you, it was difficult.

Bathing is a gateway activity to sex.

For a long time, the Church had problems in its own ranks with priests and monks marrying. Then, even when they stopped that, a lot of illegitimate children were still conceived. In one early 14th century English town, the parish priest had an unofficial wife and a couple of bastard children. And this was not shocking to the locals or to the Church–who generally ignored such low-level priests. Besides, they were too busy trying to take care of real scandals–like Popes with illegitimate children.

Bizarrely enough, marginal pictures like this are almost always found in religious books commissioned by private individuals. Imagine such art work in an Book of Common Prayer today!

The Church also tried to regulate not just who you had sex with, but how you did it. From this we get the concept of “the missionary position” which was the only position acceptable to the Church (you’ll note this isn’t called the “kosher position;” Judaism is pretty no-holds-bar, so long as you’re married first).

Of course, you might think that such hand-wringing over morality proves that medieval people were prudes. Actually, it proves the exact opposite. The Church wouldn’t have been trying to regulate sex and sexual positions if people weren’t playing wild and loose to start with.

This is an actual replica of a Dutch pin–although such pins were very common throughout Europe and throughout the entire medieval period.

BTW, you can buy these pins (and many that are not naughty) at Pewter Replicas. (Click the picture for a link.)

Bawdy jokes, sexual innuendos, and raunchy theater were commonplace in the middle ages. As were naughty pins. I like to think of medieval people buying their running penises and flying vulvas at the medieval equivalent of a Spencer’s Gifts store.

Here is a popular riddle from the middle ages which Carla Nayland found:

“I am a wonderful help to women
The hope of something good to come
I harm only my slayer
I grow very tall, erect in a bed
I am shaggy down below
The lovely girl grabs my body, rubs my red skin
Holds me hard, claims my head.
That girl will feel our meeting!
I bring tears to her eyes!
What am I?”

The answer is an onion.

My other favorite:

There came a young man to where he knew she would be, standing in a corner.
The lusty bachelor approached her, lifted up his clothes, and thrust something stiff under her girdle.
He had his way with her, so they were both shaking.
The thane worked hard; his good servant was useful and strong, though he wearied of the work before she did.
And in the creamy froth, inside her something began to grow.

Makes you rethink the rhyme about picking a peck of pickled peckers. I mean “peppers.”

The item in question is a churn-dash. I’ve heard of “makin’ bacon” as a euphemism for sex, but making butter?

And here’s some poetical innuendo from the 15th century:

I have a gentle cock,
Croweth me day;
He doth me risen early
My matins for to say.

I have a gentle cock,
Comen he is of great;
His comb is of red coral,
His tail is of jet.

I have a gentle cock,
Comen he is of kind;
His comb is of red coral,
His tail is of inde.

His legs be of azure,
So gentle and so small;
His spurres are of silver white
Into the wortewale [up to the root].

His eyen are of crystal,
Locked all in amber;
And every night he percheth him
In my lady’s chamber.

For additional reading, download Martha Easton’s essay: Was It Good For You Too? Medieval Erotic Art and Its Audiences. It’s overly wordy (a common aliment in the academic set) and I think it sees sexual innuendo where there was never any intended, but there are enough clear examples of sex and sexual innuendo to educate everyone.