The Side of Medieval History That They Never Teach You


‘’Polemos Pater Panton’

Heracleitus

‘’Competition is the Father of All Things’’

The writing of History and the aftermath of battles are often told without setting a proper context around the actual wars that were fought. War is one of the true constants of human history and has not diminished with the civilization or freedom. One of the truly great historians of our modern era, Will Durant, speculates that of the last 4,421 years of recorded history, only 268 of the them have been without bloodshed. We have come to realize that war is the ultimate form of competition and natural selection in the human species.

Leading up to the climax of the Hundred Years War was a period of instability within Europe that had not been seen before. True, the Muslim hoards in the Seventh and Eight centuries and then the Viking Invasions of the Ninth and Tenth Centuries did their part to create instability all by themselves. But nothing changed the course of history like the spread of disease and the intermittent war which made life such a bleak and miserable experience for most of those who lived in this time period.

So, the Historian’s job is to give the reader a ‘’real’’ feel for what life was like in the backdrop of one of the most pivotal military battles of all time. There is much more to the story than a one-day battle that saw one side win and the other side lose. There is much more to the story that was such a piece of history that Shakespeare wrote a masterpiece around it, just a hundred and fifty years after it happened.

What drove common men and trained professional soldiers to trudge hundreds of miles on foot, hungry, cold, and often sick? One cannot understand the nature of war without first understanding what the cultural and environmental landscape of Europe was like at this time. Being somewhat of a Historical-Epidemiology specialist, I take a close look at the illnesses and diseases that were pervasive at this time.

This chapter will hopefully give you the reader a look at what everyday life was like in Europe and what factors led forces to face off in a muddy field on St. Crispin’s Day in 1415 in an epic battle that could have changed the entire course of history – and yet, it didn’t quite have that kind of impact. It’s therefore become one of the most curious moments in history, a mystery that can only be answered with a complete 360-degree view of the facts and how they each had an impact of events as they transpired. Once assembled, these curious details will likely show us that we haven’t changed all that much. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing is left for you, the reader, to decide.

Disease During The Middle Ages

Life in France in the early 1400s was very chaotic and difficult. Several epidemics had broken out in Paris and in Lyon, and both were wrought with horrible suffering. The first disease noted was ‘Pertussis,’ otherwise known as Whooping Cough. (Bordatella Pertussis) The disease was transmitted from respiratory droplets usually within people who were in close proximity to one another. Such was the case in the crowded and busy streets of Paris, Lyon and Avignon.

Pertussis has some unusual characteristics that made it difficult to distinguish as one disease. Under a microscope, the pertussis virus is encapsulated and can be covered with a thin slime or uncovered. It grows in the nasal cavities and larynx where it spreads to the lungs. People who suffer from it cough until they cannot stand it any longer. Blood is expelled with phlegm and in the Middle Ages this was often cast on the streets, thus perpetuating the spread.

One interesting fact about Pertussis is that as a virus, it seeks to survive, and cannot survive without a host. When enough people finally die from it, the outbreak is stemmed and thus does not reappear for several decades or more. It nonetheless has been able to bounce pretty rapidly from host-to-host with the great assistance of the people who lived in the Middle Ages. Their reliance on superstition and a general lack of understanding how diseases develop and regenerate only served to make the disease worse.

In 1348-1349, Genovese merchants began getting violently sick. They were showing signs of a pestilence that had been written about and feared, but heretofore unseen. Violent coughs gave way to high-fever, high-fever often rose to levels that caused death, mercifully before the other symptoms would show. There were three distinct kinds of plague that devastated Europe. Bubonic Plague was what came to be known as the ‘’Black Death’’ and it left its mark on the skin in a most sickening manner.

Huge bulbs of pus in the groin and armpits of the sick. Giovanni Boccaccio, the Renaissance humanist gives a disturbing eyewitness account.

’'….In men and women alike it first betrayed itself by the emergence of certain tumours in the groin or armpits, some of which grew as large as a common apple, others as an egg...From the two said parts of the body this deadly gavocciolo soon began to propagate and spread itself in all directions indifferently; after which the form of the malady began to change, black spots or livid making their appearance in many cases on the arm or the thigh or elsewhere, now few and large, now minute and numerous. As the gavocciolo had been and still was an infallible token of approaching death, such also were these spots on whomsoever they showed themselves….”

Two other diseases associated with the Plague also destroyed the social fabric of Europe. Pneumonia and Septis both were offshoots of Bubonic Plague and spread equally as rapidly. In fact, if someone were truly unlucky, they could contract ALL three at once, and the suffering would be almost impossible to comprehend.

It was at this time that the political and cultural veneer that was Medieval Europe began to drastically change. How could it not? After all, one-in-three succumbed to the disease. Pope Clement estimated that close to 25-million people, one-third of all of Europe, from Italy all the way to Russia to the north, and from Portugal and Britain on the west to Hungary and Greece on the east, all died from the two and half year plague. It is, to this day, the single largest shock that humankind has ever suffered in recorded history.

The Hundred Years War and in-particular the Battle of Agincourt happened amidst the backdrop of an impending period of gloom. No one really expected to live to see old-age, and so warrior fighting was at the very least, a healthier alternative and certainly more noble than trudging in and out of the polluted and disease-ridden cities to conduct business. Even Henry V lamented, ‘’T’is much more noble to die in the service of a king than to die in service to no one.’’

Meanwhile, in England, they too were dealing with an outbreak. The hospital in Manchester England reported a high number of stillbirths in the month of January 1414. Over 150 cases were reported, and of those, 109 mothers were also suffering from tuberculosis. Although the records say that there 18 cases of plague, this seems unlikely as those numbers have historically been much higher. The hospital fails to detail many of the symptoms so there is little to go on in order to really find out what common illness these people died from. The weather had been mild and wet in England, which helped to spread outbreaks of influenza and Malaria.

There are a couple of fascinating notes in the Manchester Hospital record books. One of which was the construction of a ‘’sanitary room’’ in the hospital. Remember, this is 1414-1415. The other interesting note is for the first time the hospital records the number of children who were dead due to ‘’neglect or abuse.’’

The hospital also has a space reserved for those who were ‘’ill with bad temper.’’ In Manchester, drunken bar fights were resolved by sending both men to the hospital and locking them away in he sanitarium for a few days in order to dry out. If a man beat his wife too severely, a local barrister could get the violator off with a three-to-five day stay at the hospital where he would be treated for ‘’Ill-Spirited Tempers.’’

In West Smithfield, England, authorities actually prepared for the Black Death as it made its way north in France. An emergency cemetery was built with clays and limestone ready to bury on top of the corpses. As we have learned from archaeology, the bodies often revealed severe malnutrition. Other clues as to what was happening is found in the voices of the victims themselves in beautifully kept wills and legal documents that those who were afflicted would write.

We can see in these wills, the writing is beautiful and concise. The key legal phrase is in ''enrollment'' which was the date on to which the afflicted died. In the early autumn of 1348, only a few wills were enrolled. In December of 1348 began to rise and in May it reached an astounding 60% of all British citizens. The residential population was 60,000 and 36,000 of them died.

''To my wife for my life, Agnes, for my life, I will the tenement in West Smithfield, we have built; and to my first born son, 60% of the land and to the child in my wife's belly, the remaining 40%.''

John de Samweull, 1348

London was being hit on a grand scale. When looking at the skeletons of those who had the Black Death hit so quickly, it had no time to affect the bones. But there were other clues as to why the Plague hit so many, across such a huge scale, so very hard. Bones show signs of stress due to malnutrition. Anemia is a sign that the body is fighting off disease. Many had been made more vulnerable due to the act of fighting off disease. But there was something else that was happening too --- Famine.

The monk, Bernard of Nimes, writes that ''..l n'a jamais été tellement chaud. Le ble est rempli de ravageurs."" (Never has it been so hot. The wheat is filled with bugs) Sudden climate change was the culprit. Two Horseman of the Apocalypse were riding on Europe in tandem. Even before the Black Death arrived, almost 10% were already dying due to famine.

In Genoa, two-hundred people a day were buried in emergency burial pits throughout the city. It challenged Roman Catholicism with regards to the decimation of a corpse and the idea that in the name of survival, the dignity of the human body was now discarded. But in England, the outcome would be much different.

History suggests that King Edward III heard of the unrest in Genoa and knew that proper burials still needed to be adhered to. The idea was to make the plots ahead of time and to maintain the dignity of the human condition. One could only think that the super-pious city of Genoa was acting almost in self-defense with its burial methods.

In England, the disaster planning of Edward III was well ahead of its time. By having a head-start on the plague, effort was made to treat the bodies with respect. This level of care is essential around the areas of human dignity. Edward allowed there to be time for Last-Rites. The urgency around the buried bodies is essential because of the shock it would have on society to see the dead laying on the streets, neglected. The full scale of Edward III'S disaster preparation accomplished the unimaginable --- to maintain a sense of order in a world where six out of every ten people died.

Scientists initially believed that the Plague was a mutation, an organism that is freakishly stronger than it is even today. It was the only thing to explain how fast it spread so fast and with such vile consequences. But in DNA sampling of those with the plague in today's world show that the plague is identical to those who had it in the Middle Ages. Instead it was our reaction to the plague that changed. In 1348-49, people weren't afraid of the rats that passed the diseases, they were afraid of one another.

Pneumonia Plague became a pandemic. Recently we have seen a few resistant strains of plague, showing that even now we could be the crosshairs of another mass plague. Thomas Francis, a wax chandler, made his will just three days before he would die. His wife would make a will too, only to die as well. A large number of orphans were left being behind. And yet we begin to see something beautiful flowering in a cultural sense. It was the wills that left behind loved possessions. Silver cups, leather-works, Silver Crosses and many other things were now being treasured.

The plague hit at the perfect time time. A warm and wet climate in Europe made the continent fertile for disease. The trade routes that opened up to the far east only increased the potential of other diseases being brought in to a world with an already weakened immune system. The Plague has everything it already needs to be very successful. Plague has all that it requires to cause the Black Death to cause a catastrophe, and it had it -Throughout the Middle Ages.

As 1414 moved into 1415, the wars between England and France only made living conditions even worse. Shortages of food were commonplace, even amongst the nobility. Although it is difficult to compare the economic standards of the Middle Ages to that of today, there was a terrible recession in both countries and the dismal era in both places led to a very high suicide rate.

In the years immediately after the outbreak of plague ended, there was a brief period of economic revival. This was a result of so many people dying so quickly. Cultures, especially in Northern Italy, had a huge increase in financial capital per person, since so many had died in the recent years prior. If you lived during this era, Northern Italy was the place to be. All of that money, now in the hands of a few survivors, with little to spend it on except for artistic luxuries. And THAT was a key cause for the Italian Renaissance, with all of its lavish and obstinate classical revival.

In commercial terms, the city of Florence opened up the Medici Bank. It was the largest and most successful bank in its time. This era in Italy marked the rise of the city-states and the primary families of wealth and class. The city-states of Italy were seeing a classical revival of the great eras of Roman antiquity, and newly built structures reflected the love and perfection of Roman architecture. Although it was still very early in this process, the accumulation of gold, land, fine silks, and other consumer desires were rapidly setting Italy apart from its European neighbors.

The French maintained financial relationships with the Medici Bank and opportunistically borrowed the money necessary to make the sturdiest of armor and weaponry. It enabled the French to purchase the most up-to-date armor which would prove to be far too heavy and bulky for the actual battle. The English had no such connection – but as the so often say –‘’necessity is the mother of all invention.’’ The genius of Henry V was setting aside conventional method and using existing tools and turning them into viable weapons.

Everyday Jobs In The Middle-Ages

We tend to have a romantic attitude about the Age of Chivalry but this has much to do with the sentimental nature of the Victorians than in reality. So how does one become a Kinight?

The Arming Squire was the lowest rung on the ladder but a necessary one if you were to become a knight. The armor of the Knight wasn’t shiny and new after a day of practice, or worse still, battle. The knight would be covered in grime and mud, and it wasn’t like the knight could take off his armor for a bathroom break. The armor was often drenched in sweat, excrement, blood and dirt. The Arming Squire would remove the armor quickly, and then scrub it down. There are 24 items in full suit, all covered by a leather harness, and worn over a hot and sweaty jacket - all weighing over a hundred pounds.

In order to clean the armor, you would use a mixture of vinegar and sand. Occasionally you would mix urine in it because of its acidic quality. The knight would train the squire in the ways of chivalry and life. The squires didn’t just wait for the knights to return from battle. In fact, they followed along in battle. At Agincourt, they trudge hundreds of miles to get to the battlefield. A squire would have marched 200 miles in 17 days, all without food or drinking water. Dysentary killed far more soldiers than battle ever did.

The Archers may have won the battle of Agincourt, but this was among the worst of the Medieval jobs. They weren’t treated like Knights were. They were shunned from that class. And in the aftermath of a battle, the archers would walk amongst the dead and to anyone that might have been a live would have been put out of their misery.

A doctor in the Middle Ages, especially during the Black Plague, would have had a most unenviable job. Remedies may have been well intentioned, but they were hopelessly backward. In most towns, there was a notable absence of plumbing. Houses were built on top of one another, and at each level, you would see an awning over the windows and doorways. This wasn’t to keep the hot sun out, nor the rain. It was because of the practice people had of tossing their excrement and urine out the windows. It would splash on the awning instead at your front door and ultimately pass on the street, where gutters would wash the remnants into the local reservoir, which also served as the drinking water for the town.

Needless to say, these practices only made the Black Death even worse. Consider the notion that you might have simply had a stomach bug that wasn’t all that serious in nature. Your immune system was already weakened and as a result, you were unable to fight the more serious diseases that came your direction. And Doctors – as we will see – often multiplied the genetic chaos with the most creative –if not destructive – of solutions.

Leeches were used everywhere in the Middle Ages. You had to collect them first. In Kent, there are marshes that still have them. The weather, as we now know, was considerably warmer. Thatchers would often acquire reeds and sticks that they would tie together for brooms and so forth. By virtue of their position, leeches would often come up with these thatches.

It wasn’t uncommon for women to walk with their dresses lifted up knee deep in the water in hopes of catching a few. There was money to be made after-all. Either way, leeches were a staple amongst Medieval doctors throughout Europe. If you were lucky enough to get a few leeches on you, they would leave a small ‘’Y’’ shaped scar on your skin, sucking up five to six times their size. In addition, leeches have a natural anti-coagulant in their saliva that keeps the patient bleeding for some time.

Got a Headache? Grab a Leech!

And one patient might have two dozen or more leeches on them at a time! Can you imagine the bloody mess there would be? But there IS medical use for leeches, even today. For instance, if you lost a toe in battle, you would bring the toe to a doctor who would sew it back on for you and then attach a leech to the end of your toe. The leech would pull blood through the toe and your circulation – provided you didn’t die from the treatment itself – would come back.

Often the doctors would recommend amputation. If you walked around a Medieval village, it would be one of the first things you would notice. One-in-Four had three limbs or less. Almost half had lost a finger or a toe and often more. The Barber-Surgeon had probably the worst job in all of Medieval Europe.

Being a barber was a gruesome way to make a living. They would first take a urine sample and the color of the urine would be matched against temperature, cloudiness, and yes, even taste.

Being gifted with razors was just one of the many talents a barber-surgeon had. Using a straight edge knife would take an inordinate amount of time to amputate someone’s arm. For this job, you needed a ‘hook’ knife that would wrap around the arm and then with one strong swipe, you would take off about 30-40% of the muscle in the forearm.

Money was tight for the surgery, so the barber used his blades to cut hair. Some were true hair stylists but they tended to be in France more than in England. But because of the often bloody nature of their job, they would take their bloody bandages and dry them out on a stick outside their places of business. The wind would blow these bandages around the pole and you would have a red-and-white bandages twisting around it. And that is how the term – and the symbol of the barber pole – came into being.

A Hook Knife used for amputation of arms and lower legs

If you couldn’t afford a barber-surgeon, you might find yourself visiting the ‘’Wise-Women.’’ The Church turned a blind-eye because there were often elderly women who needed a place in society. They had a collection of homemade remedies that included the use of live eels – cut into pieces and then rubbed onto a wart – something that would kill off the wart.

Remedies for a sore throat included a necklace of live worms put around your neck, and as they died, they took the pain of the sore throat with them. Wise Women were paid with barter. But some of the cures weren’t so crazy after all. Let’s say you have sore joints. The wise women would take sharp nettles, a type of bush, and you whack the joints with the nettles. To counteract them, you would take the nettle-tips and smash them with water in a bowl, And the sing from this, would take away form the arthritic joints. The stinging would be great, but it did work. But let’s say you wanted to leave on a nice note....

Before leaving – you would be getting some worm-soup. It looked like a black liquid with the consistency of molasses. When I was living in England, I had to try this for myself, and I found a place in Kent that entertains tourists with a ‘’taste’’ of the Middle Ages. There weren’t a lot of spices in my worm soup, and it tasted like a cross between snot and dirt. Sometimes, I am far too curious for my own good!

Building a cathedral or even a church could be a lifetime endeavor. The Cathedral in Canterbury took over 150 years to build, meaning that there were degrees of varying skills often met that succeeding generations were slowed down, having to correct the errors of the previous generations. Nonetheless, at the very least, laying down mason work, cutting stones, and being a craftsman was hard work, but certainly well respected.

If you walked upon the site where a cathedral was being built, you would see something quite amazing. It would essentially be a human crane, lifting huge blocks of concrete by creating power from the wheel and axle and human ingenuity. This was the job of the everyday life was that of ‘’Treadmill Worker.’’ The cranes were built like huge gerbil wheels. The people would hoist these cranes high – often with massive blocks of stone. The rope is attached to the axle at the of up to two tons as high as 150 feet.

You simply got into the big wheel and you stood inside and began peddling. You certainly would work barefoot as shoes were for the rich. The treadmill workers were usually blind so that they weren’t aware of the height with which they were peddling large items. And you couldn’t just stop once you got started. The wheel worked on momentum – so you couldn’t make the wheel stop just by turning around.

If your last name is Fuller, there is a good chance that someone in your family was a Fuller – and involved in ‘Fuling’ which was a key job during the wool trade. In order to make wool soft and malleable you have to keep it underfoot in stale urine. When raw wool is first made, it is quite greasy. But over the next eight-to-ten hours, the wool becomes cleaner, and softer, and easy to sew with. If you are worried about the fragrance, it was often treated with rose-petal oil before actually being sold to the public.

Imagine walking down the streets of a Medieval town. You have feces and urine dribbling down the cobblestone street along with horse dung and various other animals such as goats and sheep. The smell would hit you first, but your attention could not help but be diverted to the sight of people walking, or often dancing and singing, while in a huge vat surrounded by insects.

These happy-go-lucky people would be marching back and forth in stale urine. The ammonia in the urine would turn and the smell was nauseating, but it would also be perfect for removing grease. Flies and mosquitos were attracted to it almost a once. You dip the raw wool in a large vat and squish the urine into the sheep-wool. The urine would soon turn into a darker color, the result of the grease being lifted from the raw wool. But the threads of the wool would get closer together and the finest wool of all of Europe was made – all to be worn by everyone who lived in the Middle Ages.

The world of the Middle Ages isn't quite as beautiful and symbolic as we tend to believe. It is such a strange confluence of good and bad that it becomes blurred over time into the things we want it to be. Historians fight to comprehend all of it. In any event, the revolving door of time continues to yield new surprises. In my next chapter, we will explore the diet and cuisine of people in he middle ages and compare it to those elsewhere the world. It helps to explain our place in this time, in this place, and in ourselves!


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