16 Strange And Surprising Facts About Medieval England

What springs to mind when you hear the phrase “Medieval England”? Peasants? Witches? Chivalrous knights? If so, these facts might surprise you. Thanks to The Time Traveller’s Guide To Medieval England for inspiring some of the entries.

1. Men wore figure hugging clothing (and corsets).

Forget suits of armour: by the 1390s male clothing had become extremely vain, saucy and revealing. Fashionable young noblemen paraded around in tights and ‘courtpieces’: very short tunics that showed off the wearer’s - er -front bottom. Basically, England briefly turned into a nation full of Labyrinth-era David Bowies. They also wore tight corsets to give themselves a nipped in waist.

2. Medieval bread could get you high. Or kill you.

Via Maid Marian and Her Merry Men/ CBBC

Summer was a particularly difficult time for villagers as they were running out of grain but the new crop wasn’t ready to be harvested, so they’d often have to use old rye to make bread. Unfortunately, stored rye was frequently infected with ergot, a fungus with LSD like qualities that caused hallucinations, gangrene and - in extreme cases- death. Thank goodness for Warburtons, eh?

3. A monk called Roger Bacon predicted the future.

Roger Bacon was a Franciscan friar who lived from around 1214 to 1292. In his Epistola de Secretis Operibus, he wrote: “Cars can be made so that without animals they will move with unbelievable rapidity,” and “flying machines can be constructed by which artificial wings are made to beat the air like a flying bird.” He also predicted steamships, submarines and diving suits.

4. There were no peasants in Medieval England.

Via YouTube

The people we tend to refer to as medieval peasants wouldn’t have recognised the word “peasant” at all: it was a 15th century French term. Land workers were actually quite hierarchical and split into distinct groups. The 1086 Domesday Book states that the English countryside comprised 12% freemen, 35% serfs or villeins, 30% cotters and bordars, and 9% slaves. Villeins, cottars, bordars and slaves lived in a perpetual state of bondage and effectively belonged to the lord of the manor: they couldn’t leave his service- or even get married- without permission.

5. Farm animals were tiny.

Medieval farm animals were small and often unhealthy. A full-grown bull was only slightly larger than a modern calf, and sheep were about a third of the size they are today. Depending on the breed of sheep, fleece yield was sometimes less than one pound per animal. In contrast, modern sheep yield around 7.3 pounds (3.32 kg) of wool thanks to advances in farming techniques and scientific breeding methods.

6. There was a war between Oxford University students and local townspeople.

On 10 February 1355, there was a dramatic falling out between students at Oxford University and local townsfolk after a student complained about the quality of drinks at a local tavern. As the situation escalated, serfs from the surrounding countryside poured in, crying: “Havac! Havoc! Smyt fast, give gode knocks!” The resulting conflict left 30 locals and 60 students dead.

7. Animals could be tried for - and convicted of- crimes.

Via YouTube

There are records of animals being taken to court for killing people, or occasionally for smaller crimes. Some mice were publicly tried for stealing part of the harvest and in another case a swarm of locusts was convicted of eating crops. They didn’t even bother to show up in court to defend themselves. Stupid locusts.

8. Knights were assholes…

The idea of knights as chivalrous Sir Lancelot types isn’t entirely true: the reality was far closer to Game of Thrones. In 1379, Sir John Arundel rode to a convent and asked the nuns to put him up for a few nights. After they agreed, he and his armed retinue looted the nunnery, stormed a nearby church, stole a newly married bride, raped her, kidnapped the nuns, took them out to sea and then threw them overboard. And you thought Ser Gregor Clegane was bad…

9. …and some of them were female.

Petronilla, Countess of Leicester fought alongside her husband Robert during the 1173 rebellion against King Henry II. She wore a mail hauberk and carried a sword and shield into battle, though things didn’t go according to plan. During the final showdown, she is said to have fled from the battle and was later found in a ditch attempting to drown herself. Brienne of Tarth wouldn’t have approved.

10. Medieval England was virtually empty.

In 1086 there were just one million people living in England, compared with 53 million today. By the 1300s this had climbed to four million but the Black Death wiped out around 1.5 million people between 1348 and 1350, meaning many villages were either completely decimated or abandoned by survivors.

11. Witchcraft wasn’t a problem.

Throughout the vast majority of the medieval period, mainstream Christian teaching denied the existence of witches and witchcraft, condemning it as pagan superstition. Witch-hunts and trials only became common in Europe after 1400, and didn’t become particularly widespread in England until the Elizabethan era.

12. Medieval shoes could be up to two feet long.

From the 1330s onward, men considered long toed shoes to be the height of fashion. By the late 14th century, toes were so long they had to be reinforced with wool, moss or whalebone. Nobles had to tie the ends to their leggings in order to get around and crusaders had to cut off the tips of their shoes in order to be able to run away from the enemy.

13. Bridges weren’t really a thing.

We take bridges for granted these days, but back in medieval times they were relatively scarce. Most of the time, roads would just disappear into a river and reappear on the other side. If you were lucky there might be a couple of stepping stones to help you keep your feet dry. If you were very unlucky, a man who looks like Brian Blessed might have insisted on fighting you for the right to cross.

14. Football was illegal. And violent.

Mob football” was popular in medieval England. It involved an unlimited number of players, a pig’s bladder and very few rules. Due to its destructive nature, it was banned by King Edward II in 1314: “There is great noise in the city caused by hustling over large balls…we forbid… on pain of imprisonment, such game to be used in the city in the future.”

15. Archery practice was compulsory.

King Edward III took his predecessor’s ban on football even further. In his Archery Law of 1363, he commanded all male subjects to practice archery for two hours every Sunday. They were supervised by the local clergy, who almost certainly had better things to do. Also, all other games were banned “on pain of death”. The medieval version of A Question Of Sport must have been very boring.

16. Rich people ate porpoise haggis.

The Forme of Cury(e) is one of the earliest cookbooks written in English. The 14th century instructional pamphlet was written by a chef working in the court of King Richard II. One of the recipes calls for a the blood of a porpoise to be mixed with oatmeal, pepper and spices and boiled in the porpoise’s stomach before serving. As recipes go, it’s similar to haggis… but much more upsetting.

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