Was rape common in Europe during the Middle Ages?

Was rape common in Europe during the Middle Ages?



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I recently read an article (in Norwegian) claiming that rape was much less common in the Middle Ages than what is commonly believed and, more specifically, that it was much less common than what is depicted in G.R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire books.

It seems to mainly reference three sources:

  • Fredrik Charpentier Ljungqvist: "Rape in the Icelandic Sagas: An Insight in the Perceptions about Sexual Assaults on Women in the Old Norse World", Journal of Family History, 2015.
  • Hans Jacob Orning: Kvinner og politikk på Island i senmiddelalderen, Tidsskriftet Fortid, 2012.
  • Hans Jacob Orning: "Feuds and Conflict Resolution in Fact and Fiction in Late Medieval Iceland", in Steinar Imsen (ed.)'s Legislation and State Formation: Norway and Its Neighbours in the Middle Ages, Akademika Forlag, 2013.

Please note that I have not read any of these studies or articles myself, just the originally linked article.

Its main claim seems to be that "the Middle Ages seeming dark is an misconception created in Italy in the 15th century" and that "the Middle Ages are often depicted as being rife with sexual assault".

Some key points it brings up, which it claims make it likely that sexual assault or rape was fairly uncommon during the Middle Ages:

  • If rape was common, historians would have found more references to it in the literature from the time.
  • Many medieval societies put great truck in honor, which would have made rape a grave offense. This is reflected in the punishments for rape. In Scandinavia, you'd have been named an outlaw if convicted for it, one of the strictest sentences at the time. There is also a story in the Bagler sagas in which a man is killed for something which may have been a rape, even though he was from the higher echelons of society.
  • The Catholic church had a very prominent place in society at the time, and it also had a very non-compromising view on extramarital sex.

The article also mentions some reasons why rape could have been more common:

  • It may have been used to dishonor and demoralize opponents during wars or feuds, but there are few accounts of this happening in literature describing such events.
  • Having sex with slaves against their will may not have been considered rape. Slaves were not common in Scandinavia during the mid- to late Middle Ages though.

There is of course quite a lot more in the article itself, but I am afraid I don't feel up to translating the whole thing. :) Furthermore it, and some of its arguments I have paraphrased here, relate mostly to Scandinavia, but in potential answers I'd be very interested to hear of potential differences across Europe.

Anyway, as I ask in the title: Was rape and/or sexual assault common in Europe during the Middle Ages?


The only honest answer to this question is We don't know.

To state that rape, or any crime, or any activity, was more or less prevalent at one period of time than another requires written records to be kept. However, we have few records about crimes committed during the Middle Ages. IIRC, any form of records about common crimes & other activities only begin around 1500, maybe even 1600. These are either written records of criminal courts -- which are limited to crimes were the perpetrator is brought to justice, not crimes where the perpetrator is known but not accused, let alone crimes where the perpetrator is never identified -- or broadsides, which are concerned more lurid details of crime than accuracy. As a result, we often assume that left alone most peasants live a life free of crime because no crimes are reported about them: an unconscious argument from silence. In fact, they were often victims or perpetrators of all imaginable varieties of crime.


Literary Sources are Unreliable, Legal Sources are Unreliable, Legal Records are Unreliable.

Let's start with literary sources. If rape shows up a lot in literary sources, it could mean that it's common in life. Or it could mean that people felt that stories with rape were more interesting or illustrated an important concept.

I'm sure that much is intuitive. The same applies to legal sources. The prevalence of laws regarding rape and the severity of the sentences indicate something about views on rape, but not the frequency of the crime. For example, American drug laws have oscillated wildly over the years in severity and emphasis, but actual drug use seems only loosely correlated to the changes.

Even court records are all-but-useless, as we don't know to what extent the authorities are interested or able to enforce the law. Rape, in particular, is a crime that is rarely consistent in its enforcement.

So, Is There Any Way to Know?

There are a few ways to find clues. Genetic testing can bring some insights. For example, some researchers have claimed to find evidence of frequent rapes in the distribution of genes across different populations. The theory is that a lot of "foreign" DNA in a population suggests more rape. Of course, it could also mean more prostitution. Or, just more lovin' in general.

Literary analysis can provide some insight, but it's more complex than simply counting references. The key is to look for references that are "surprising" - that is, for which there is no particular motivation for including in the story. The more tangential the reference, the better. Of course, this data is always very fragmentary but it's often valuable. I don't know if anyone has applied this sort of analysis to rape in particular, but I personally haven't found such references in my reading, which leaves me with the impression that rape was unusual enough that one didn't talk casually about it.

That's a pretty weak statement, but it'll be hard to support any stronger conclusion than that.


I wanted to comment on your question, and though my reputation is great enough to answer, it is not great enough to comment (allowing me to foolishly answer, but only wisely comment, hmm?).

The article states (thank you Google translate):

Since rape was such an extremely serious crime in the Middle Ages, there is little to suggest that it may have been commonplace.

In A History of Private Life: From Pagan Rome to Byzantium, page 469, Michel Rouche writes:

In the sixth century the Franks punished the rape of a free woman by a fine of only 62 1/2 solidi; Charlemagne increased the fine to 200 solidi; evidence perhaps that the crime had become more common.

Two different historians using essentially the same data (punishment severity) as evidence for opposing conclusions?

Gauche though it may be to pose questions in an answer:

  • What is common (one in six people raped in their lifetime)?
  • What is common (x% of people who commit rape in their lifetime)?
  • What is rape (non-consensual sex)?
  • What is consent?
  • Who may give consent?
  • What conditions allow or prohibit consent?

Unlike most of the posts I write, this one is not tied into something in modern media, I just happened to be researching prostitutes (as one does), and thought I’d share because it’s my blog and why not? Ha!

Researching prostitution during the Middle Ages is not an easy ask, particularly in Medieval England. Prostitution was not necessarily a woman’s sole career choice and there are many examples of women who used prostitution to supplement their everyday income. A lack of centralised law across England provides a consistently different attitude towards prostitutes across the country, an attitude which was already significantly different to that on the continent. As a general rule Europe seemed to be far more lenient and accepting of the occupation as a necessary public utility and, although many countries engaged a policy of restriction, it was aimed against the clientele of the prostitutes and not the prostitutes themselves. In particular married men, clergy and Jews were forbidden to patronise them and faced heavy fines if caught doing so, while the admitting brothel faced no repercussions for allowing them entry.

In early Medieval France prostitutes faced public humiliation in an attempt to repress the trade. However, in later centuries there developed a clear recognition that men, especially those who were unmarried had needs. In recognising these needs the authorities also saw how money could be made from providing them with the necessary services, and so public brothels, managed by town officials came into being. Providing they paid a weekly sum to the authorities these women were allowed to ply their trade without interference or harassment. The rest of Europe was largely tolerant of sex workers. The rationale being that allowing brothels to operate accorded the authorities some level of control over the industry, created specific areas where men could go to indulge discreetly, protected innocent women and limited the disruption caused by prostitutes who advertised themselves in the street. The idea of publicly operated brothels never caught on in England, which maintained a negative attitude towards the occupation and punished anyone involved the women themselves, those who allowed it to operate and the clients. England had more prosecutions for prostitution than any other European country, even more than certain areas of Italy which had outright banned the trade.

The medieval prostitute almost never undertook her occupation to sate her uncontrollable lust, the motivation was almost always financial. While there were a number of full time prostitutes, there were also women who simply used it as a means to bolster their primary source of income during particularly hard times, more disturbingly there were those women who were sold by their family members in order to generate funds for the family. As there was no strict definition of what constituted a prostitute, there was also a lack of consistency in the legal treatment of them. While in London the area of Stewside was unofficially designated the medieval equivalent of the Red Light District, in Coventry any single woman renting a room for herself could be arrested under suspicion of prostitution, which prompted the authorities to outright ban single women from renting rooms. In towns where prostitution was rife but uncontrolled, any woman wandering the streets after dark was presumed to be available for sale and cases of mistaken identity resulting in violence were common. As such numerous towns/cities demanded that prostitutes dressed themselves in specific clothes to distinguish themselves from the general populace, with most requiring the ladies to don a striped hood. Particularly successful whores found themselves prosecuted for breaching sumptuary laws (laws which restricted the clothing – colour, material etc, that certain classes could wear) rather than the act which earned them the money for the finery in the first place.

The punishment of prostitutes across England reveals a lack of concerted effort to deal with the “problem” and more a series of superficial measures meant to act as mild deterrents, rather than to eradicate prostitution completely. In Southampton a number of women pooled their resources and all moved to the same street to rent rooms from where they could sell themselves. They seemed to have operated there for a number of years before the local religious community made a particularly loud complaint forcing the authorities to move the women on, but they faced no actual punishment. The most common sanction found in the town ordinances across England, involve the town bailiff removing the doors and/or windows of the woman’s home rendering it uninhabitable and certainly an unattractive place for a potential rendezvous. Later this would be replaced by more obvious methods of public humiliation where the woman was taken outside of the city walls and expelled. Pimps or brothel owners also faced public humiliation but were also at risk of the more severe punishments of fines and prison sentences.

During the later medieval period the Christian notion of the ‘reformed prostitute’ took hold, fueled by the cults of Saint Mary of Egypt and Mary Magdalene, and public opinion softened towards whores. Instead of being women to be reviled, these women were now the subject of charity, and public funds were set up to assist women trying to escape a life of sex work. Despite this in many areas women known to sell their bodies were not allowed membership of their local church until they had set aside their life of sin, though we should also point out that there are numerous, numerous records of churchmen being caught with prostitutes. The punishment for which was severe (for the churchmen). All in all the attitude towards prostitution was entirely contradictory. On one hand they were a necessary utility required (and approved of) to provide a service for unmarried men while on the other they were peddlers of sin, needing to be expelled from the city lest they sully the reputation of a town by their deeds. Better indeed to have been a prostitute in Europe and enjoy an interference free, entirely legal life, albeit at a price…

Trans. Henry Thomas Riley, Liber Albus: The White Book of the City of London, (John Russel Smith 1862)

Trans. & ed. P.J.P Goldberg, Women in England 1275-1525, (Manchester University Press, 1995)

P.J.P. Goldberg, Women, Work and Life Cycle in a Medieval Economy, (Clarendon Press, 1992)

Henrietta Leyser, Medieval Women: A Social History of Women in England 450-1500, (Pheonix, 2002)

James A. Brundage, Law, Sex and Christian Society in Medieval Europe, (University of Chicago Press, 1987)

Ruth Mazo Karras, Common Women: Prostitution and Sexuality in Medieval England, (Oxford University Press, 1998)

Edith Ennen, The Medieval Woman, (Basil Blackwell Ltd, 1989)

James A. Brundage, ‘Sex and Canon Law’ in Handbook of Medieval Sexuality ed. Vern L. Bullough and James A. Brundage (Garland Publishing, 1996) pp 33-51

Ruth Mazo Karras, ‘Prostitution in Medieval Europe’ in Handbook of Medieval Sexuality ed. Vern L. Bullough and James A. Brundage (Garland Publishing, 1996) pp 243-261

Barbara A. Hanawalt, ‘The Female Felon in Fourteenth Century’ in Women in Medieval Society, ed. Susan Stuard (The University of Pennsylvania Press, 1976) pp 125-141

Ann J. Kettle, ‘Ruined Maids: Prostitutes and Serving Girls in Later Medieval England’ in Matrons and Marginal Women in Medieval Society ed. Robert R. Edwards and Vickie Ziegler (The Boydell Press, 1995) pp 19-33

P.J.P Goldberg, ‘Women’s Work, Women’s Role in the Later Medieval North,’ in Profit, Piety and the Professions in Later Medieval England ed. Michael Hicks (Alan Sutton Publishing, 1990) pp 34-51

Jane Tibbetts Schulenberg, ‘Saints’ Lives as a Source for the History of Women 500-1100’ in Medieval Women and the Sources of Medieval History ed. Joel T. Rosenthal (The University of Georgia Press, 1990) pp 285-321


What Were the Most Common Crimes in the Middle Ages?

The most common crimes in the Middle Ages were theft and murder. These accounted for nearly 90 percent of all crimes. Other common crimes included buying stolen goods, rape, treason and arson.

Theft was punished very severely in the Middle Ages, although the exact punishment changed throughout the time period and depended on the country. A common punishment for theft was to chop the thief’s hands off to prevent him or her from repeating the crime.

Murder was the next most common crime in the Middle Ages, although it was far less common than theft. It was nearly always punishable by death. Women who were convicted of committing a murder, for example, were strangled to death and then burned.

All crime was very harshly punished in the Middle Ages. Prisons were uncommon, and criminals were usually kept temporarily in gaols until their punishment. Examples of punishments included fines, mutilation and being placed in stocks.

It was often difficult to discover who committed a crime, so ordeals were used. Ordeal by combat, for example, was used when a nobleman was accused of a crime. The nobleman was required to fight whoever had accused him, and whoever won was considered right. The loser often died in combat.


Crime and Punishment in the Middle Ages

The Middle ages was a time of severe punishment and harsh torture for crimes that today would seem trivial. People were beheaded and limbs cut off, vagabonds were often whipped and chained in stocks.

People lived in a state of fear thinking they would be the next victim.

Even the Catholic Church used torture and imprisonment to obtain confessions from people regardless of whether they were guilty.

Torture and punishment has existed for thousands of years. Roman and Greek law stated that only slaves were allowed to be tortured, eventually the laws changed and free men were tortured and imprisoned for committing crimes.

People often had their right hand cut of for stealing, people were beaten, burned alive, stretched on a rack and women committing adultery were drowned.

Suffocating people in water was a common practice. People were boiled in oil, eyes were burned out with pinchers and fingers torn off. Mutilation and branding’s were commonplace.

During Tudor times English laws was practically geared toward torture. Vagrancy was considered a crime and people were put in stocks so towns people could beat them.

It was the poorer classes that were discriminated against. Lords and high officials were exempt. Courts and judges did exist, but were bias and often judgements were known before the case was even heard, if a person did not turn up to court they were considered an outlaw and their property was seized and became the kings.

Outlaws banded together roaming the countryside and committing crime the most famous of these is of cause Robin Hood.

The harsher the crime the more horrendous the punishment, If a man committed Rape, Manslaughter or Robbery they would be hung up in a cage so people could see their slow death.

On some occasions they were taken down just before their death and quartered (cut into four pieces) so that the pain would kill them, a most cruel way to die. Public displays of torture were common.

Hangings and Public torture would be announced by the kings men, people would come from far and wide often bring children with them, this was encouraged by rulers thinking it was a deterrent from committing crime, bringing fear to the townspeople.

Medieval townspeople had a very close understanding of how punishment happened, as they were often present during punishment.

Although murderers were often executed, the majority of lesser medieval offences were punished by shaming the criminal publicly.

By today’s standards people may think this was harsh however crime was not as widespread as in today’s society.

People also took pity on those in jail and prisoners were often let out to beg for food. Medieval officials lacked the resources or money to build suitable jails and people often died from illness before there trial.

In today’s society we do not use torture as a means of punishment, as history progressed torture became less prolific, it was only 100 years or so ago that this was considered a barbaric practice.

In many modern countries the killing of murders and rapists is not permitted.

In some cultures the practice of cutting off limbs for stealing is still condoned although not widely practised, people are still executed in some societies.


Decameron Web

During the second half of the Middle Ages, municipal and royal law became much more comprehensive and well-organized. Because of conflicts between municipal lawmakers and the church, civic law sometimes departed substantially from canonical views. As the court system began enforcing sexual conduct laws more strictly, more and more offenders came before them, and although fornication and adultery cases accounted for the vast majority of court business, other more unusual crimes such as incest, sodomy, masturbation and rape were not particularly uncommon (Brundage, 461). In addition, during the Plague years, the total number of sex crimes in Venice remained the same as it had before, despite a loss of more than one-third of the city's population. This indicates that either the authorities were hunting out offenders more enthusiastically, or people were attempting to escape the harsh reality of the Black Death by leading sexually freer lives (Brundage, 491). The latter seems more likely, and may perhaps even be testified to in the Decameron, considering the strong sexual content of many of the stories told by the brigata in trying to forget about the Plague.

Incest was one of the most common sexual offenses, after fornication and adultery. The Fourth Lateran Council had established the "four-degree rule" regarding incest in 1215, which was re-enacted and generally observed by most courts during this time. Marriage between close relatives (within four degrees) of either blood or marriage was forbidden by law, and the only way couples bound by ties of "cosanguinity or affinity" might wed was with the consent of the Pope himself (Brundage, 434). In addition, there was an apparent "spiritual relationship, both between godparent and child and between godmother and godfather," and thus marriages between such people were declared incestuous (Brundage, "Sex and Canon Law," 43). In fact, there are two instances in the Decameron involving sexual intercourse between god-relations: VII.3, in which Friar Rinaldo sleeps with his godchild's mother, and VII.10, in which Tingoccio sleeps with the mother of his godchild, then dies and returns from the dead to inform his brother that this act was not a sin. In the following passage, Tingoccio recounts:

My brother, as soon as I arrived down there, I was met by one who seemed to know all of my sins by heart. and I suddenly remembered how I had carried on with my godchild's mother. And since I was expecting to pay a much heavier penalty for this. I began. to tremble all over with fear. I said: "I made love to the mother of my godchild. " He had a good laugh over this, and said: "Be off with you, you fool! There's nothing special down here about the mother of a godchild." I was so relieved to hear it that I could have wept (547).

In both stories it is clear that the offenders realize they are committing an act which is commonly labeled as a sin, but neither couple is punished in any way for it, just as most of those who fornicate or commit adultery in the Decameron suffer no meaningful penalties whatsoever. It is important to note that incest was more common among the aristocracy than the peasants. For obvious reasons, those who were well off or of noble lineage often wished to marry within their own circles (Brundage, 434).

Sodomy was also a relatively common offense, but there were some disagreements regarding how to define it. While some thought that sodomy included any "unnatural" use of sperm (such as anal intercourse, masturbation and oral sex), there were others who used a definition of sodomy closer to the one we use today. According to James Brundage, sodomy was viewed as particularly common among the clergy (who technically had no legitimate outlet for their sexual desire), and in the cities (472), In general, acts of sodomy involving homosexuality were severely punished by the courts, often by castration or hanging (Brundage, 473). This perception is remarkably more severe than Boccaccio's offhanded remark that Ciappelletto (I.1) was as fond of women "as dogs are fond of a good stout stick in their opposite, he took greater pleasure than the most depraved man on earth" (26). Although adultery was not legitimate grounds for the dissolution of marriage, Pope Innocent IV declared that a woman whose husband tried to convince her to consent to anal intercourse might obtain a separation (Brundage, 455).

Masturbation, sometimes included within the definition of sodomy, was not viewed as a major offense during the earlier Middle Ages, though it began to be later on. Thomas Aquinas considered it one of the most serious sins because it was "against nature" and not for procreation, while in 1388 Archbishop Guy de Roye suggested that it was such a serious sin that it should be dealt with only by bishops (Richards, 31). This change of opinion may have been brought on by the onset of the Plague, which led to general fears about population decline and perhaps caused a general concern about the "wasting of seed" (Richards, 32). In the Decameron, masturbation is only referred to fleetingly, and even then the reference is not direct: "[the abbess] thenceforth arranged for him to visit her at frequent intervals, undeterred by the envy of her fellow nuns, without lovers, who consoled themselves in secret as best they could" (IX.2, 658).

Rape and other sexually violent acts were a subject on which canonists and theologians disagreed with municipal law. While the church was very focused on individual consent in all matters involving sexual contact, rarely did the courts punish rapists or those who committed any kind of sexual assault on women. During the later Middle Ages in Venice, rape was neither uncommon nor considered a serious crime, unless it involved children, the elderly, or a victim who was a member of the aristocracy (Richards, 39). As a result of rape, many women lost their social status and marriageability, while their attackers were written off as victims of "youthful male sexuality" (Richards, 40-41). Occasionally, a man could take action against his wife's attacker for "criminal diversion" of his spouse. Thus, her rape was seen as an act against her husband, as she was technically considered his property (Brundage, 471).

There were of course more minor sexually deviant acts committed during this time, some of which incurred punishment and some of which did not. For example, while cross-dressing carried no known penalties under the law (Brundage, 473), contraception was considered highly sinful, as it interfered with procreation and was thus equated with abortion. Like masturbation, coitus interruptus was promoted from a minor to a major sin during the later Middle Ages, and many courts included it under the heading of "sodomy" by the fifteenth century (Richards, 32-33).

(A.M.S.) Boccaccio, Giovanni. The Decameron. Trans. G. H. McWilliam. New York: Penguin, 1972.

Brundage, James A. Law, Sex, and Christian Society in Medieval Europe. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Brundage, James A. "Sex and Canon Law." Handbook of Medieval Sexuality. Ed. Vern L. Bullough and James A. Brundage. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1996, pp. 33-50.

Richards, Jeffrey. Dissidence and Damnation: Minority Groups in the Middle Ages. New York: Routledge, 1994.


10 Worst Misconceptions About Medieval Life You'd Get From Fantasy Books

Some tropes are so ingrained in Medieval-inspired fantasy stories that it's tempting to think that they represent real aspects of Medieval life. But often these stories are just reinforcing myths and misconceptions about life in the Middle Ages.

Top image from the Dragonlance series, which I love, but is steeped in pseudo-Medievalism.

One thing that it's important to remember when talking about the Medieval period is that it spans a long time — from the 5th century CE to the 15th century CE — and involves a great number of European countries. You'll notice that a great deal of the debunkery here involves 14th century England, thanks to works like The Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer and the works of Joseph Gies and Frances Gies (although another source, Misconceptions About the Middle Ages , covers a bit more ground). But the point here is that the Middle Ages were, in fact, far richer than the Medieval-like settings of many swords and sorcery stories would lead you to believe.

Do fantasy novels need to be historically accurate? Certainly not. Part of the fun of worldbuilding is inventing new ideas, or combining elements of different cultures and time periods, and even integrating historical myths and misconceptions. But If you read a lot of books or watch a lot of movies with pseudo-Medieval settings, you may come away with a mistaken impression that you know what life in the Middle Ages was like. Plus, real history offers new ideas that you might want to incorporate into your own stories in the future.

And this is not to say that all Medieval-esque settings slip into these myths only that many, many do.

This post was inspired by this fascinating thread on reddit's r/AskHistorians , which we highlighted a while back. Here are the misconceptions, with debunkery below:

1. Peasants were a single class of people who were more or less equal to one another.

It's easy to think that people in the Middle Ages were easily divided into very broad classes: royals, nobles, knights, clergy, and toiling peasants at the very bottom. But just because you didn't have "king," "lord," "sir," "father," or "brother" (or their female analogs) in front of your name doesn't mean you weren't concerned with your own social standing. There are vast classes of people whom, today, we might generally refer to as "peasants," but there were actually various classes of people within that broad category.

Mortimer points out that, in 14th-century England, for example, you have your villeins, people bonded to a particular lord's land. Villeins were not considered free folk, and they could be sold with the lord's land. And free folk were of a variety of social and economic classes. A freeholder, for example, might become successful enough to rent a lord's manor, essentially acting as a lord himself. And, in a village, a few families might hold the majority of the political power, supplying most of the local officers. We may tend to think of these people as "peasants," but they had much more complicated ways of thinking of themselves, with all the class anxiety that goes with that.

2. Inns were public houses with big common halls below and rooms above.

There are few images as firmly rooted in pseudo-Medieval fantasy as the tavern inn. You and your party enjoy a few flagons of ale in the main room, hear all the local gossip, then go up to your private rented chamber where youɽ sleep (alone or with a lover) on a lumpy mattress.

That image isn't wholly fiction, but the truth is a bit more complicated — not to mention interesting. In Medieval England, if you combined a city inn with an alehouse, youɽ probably get something resembling that fantasy inn. There were inns where you could rent a bed (or, more likely, a space in a bed), and these inns did have halls for eating and drinking. But these were not public houses innkeepers were generally permitted to serve food and drink only to their guests. And, Mortimer points out, you would likely find a single room with several beds, beds that could fit up to three people. It was only in the most upscale inns that youɽ find chambers with just one or two beds.

There were establishments for drinking in these cities as well: taverns for wine and alehouses for ale. Of the two, alehouses were the rowdier establishments, more likely to function as your Medieval Mos Eisley. But ale and cider were often made at home as well a husband might expect his wife to be skilled in brewing. The Gieses note in Life in a Medieval Village that a tavern in an English village was often someone's home. Once your neighbor opened up a fresh batch of ale, you might go to their house, pay a few pennies, and sit and drink with your fellow villagers.

There are other options for accommodations as well. Travelers could expect the hospitality of people of equal or lesser social class, enjoying their food and beds in exchange for tales from the road and a tip. (Mortimer says that, if you were lucky enough to stay with a 14-century merchant, the digs were much nicer than any inn.) Or you might go to a hospital, which was not just for healing, but also for hospitality.

3. You would never see a woman engaged in a trade such as armorer or merchant.

Certainly, some fantasy stories will cast women in equal (or relatively equal) positions to men, carrying out the same sorts of trades that men might carry out. But in many fictional stories, a woman who makes armor or sells good would seem out of place — although this does not universally reflect Medieval reality. In England, a widow could take up the trade of her dead husband — and Mortimer specifically cites tailor, armorer, and merchant as trades open to widows. Some female merchants were actually quite successful, managing international trading ventures with impressive capital.

Women engaged in criminal activity as well, including banditry. Many criminal gangs in Medieval England consisted of families, including wives with their husbands and sisters with their brothers.

Image from the Holkham Bible Picture Book, via the British Library Board .

4. People had horrible table manners, throwing bones and scraps on the floor.

Sorry, even in the Middle Ages, members of polite society, from kings to villeins, followed certain etiquette, and that etiquette involved good table manners. In fact, depending on when and where and with whom you were eating, you might have to follow very strict procedures for eating and drinking. Here's a tip: If a lord passes you his cup at the dinner table, it's a sign of his favor. Accept it, backwash and all, and pass it back to him after you've had a sip.

5. People distrusted all forms of magic and witches were frequently burned.

In some fantasy stories, magic is readily accepted by everyone as a fact of life. In others, magic is treated with suspicion at best or as blasphemy at worst. You might even hear the Biblical edict, "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live."

But not all claims of magic in the Middle Ages were treated as heresy. In her essay "Witches and the Myth of the Medieval ɻurning Time,'" from Misconceptions About the Middle Ages, Anita Obermeier tells us that during the 10th century, the Catholic Church wasn't interested in trying witches for heresy it was more interested in eradicating heretical superstitions about "night-flying creatures."

And in 14th-century England, you might consult a magician or a witch for some minor "magical" task, such as finding a lost object. In Medieval England, at least, magic without any heretical components was tolerated. Eventually, the late 15th century would give rise to the Spanish Inquisition, and we do see witches hunted down.

Witch burnings weren't unheard of in the Middle Ages, but they weren't common, either. Obermeier explains that, in the 11th century, sorcery was treated as a secular crime, but the church would issue several reprimands before it would resort to burning. She puts the first burning for heresy at 1022 in Orleans and the second at 1028 in Monforte. It's rare in the 11th and 12th centuries, but becomes a more common punishment in the 13th century for relapsed heretics. However, it depends where you are. In the 14th century, you probably won't be burned as a witch in England, but you may very well get the stake in Ireland.

6. Men's clothing was always practical and functional.

Yes, Medieval people of various classes were interested in fashion, and sometimes fashion — particularly men's fashion — got pretty absurd. Early clothing is more functional, but during the 14th century, men's fashions in England were both body-bearing and rather experimental. Corsets and garters were common for men, and increasingly, popular fashions encouraged men to show off the shape of their hips and legs. Some aristocratic men wore gowns with sleeves so long they were in danger of tripping on the cuffs. It became fashionable to wear shoes with extraordinarily long toes — one such shoe, imported from Bohemia, had twenty-inch toes that needed to be tied to a man's garters. There was even a fad of wearing one's mantle so that the head went through the arm hole rather than the head hole, with the sleeves functioning as a voluminous collar.

Image: Selection of Medieval leather shoes from the Museum of London .

It's also important to note that fashions would trickle down from royalty, through the aristocracy, and down to the common folk. In the seasons after a fashion appeared among the nobility, a less expensive version would appear among those of lesser stations. In fact, sumptuary laws were passed in London to prevent people from dressing above their stations. For example, a common woman in 1330s London was not permitted to line her hood with anything but lambskin or rabbit fur, or risk losing her hood.

7. Servants were all low-class people.

Actually, if you were a high-ranking individual, chances are that you had high-ranking servants. A lord might send his son to serve in another lord's manor — perhaps that of his wife's brother. The son would receive no income, but would still be treated as the son of a lord. A lord's steward might actually be a lord himself. Your status in society isn't just based on whether or not you were a servant, but also your familial status, whom you served, and what your particular job was.

Something you might not expect about servants in English households in the late Middle Ages: they were overwhelmingly male. Mortimer points to the earl of Devon's household, which had 135 members, but only three women. With the exception of a washerwoman (who didn't live in the household), the staffers were all men, even in households headed by women.

8. Medicine was based on pure superstition.

Admittedly, if you're looking outside of Game of Thrones, a lot of healing in fantasy novels is just plain magical. You've got your cleric class who gets their healing from the gods, and otherwise you might have someone on hand who can dress a wound or make a poultice.

And yes, a lot of Medieval medicine was based on what we would consider today mystical bunk. A great deal of diagnosis involved astrology and humoral theory. Blood letting was a respected method of treatment, and many of the curatives were not only useless — they were downright dangerous. And while there were medical colleges, extraordinarily few physicians were able to attend.

Still, some aspects of Medieval medicine were logical even by modern standards. Wrapping smallpox in scarlet cloth, treating gout with colchicum, using camomile oil for an earache — these were all effective treatments. And while the notion of a barber-surgeon is a horrifying one to many of us, some of those surgeons were actually quite talented. John of Arderne employed anesthetics in his practice, and many surgeons were skilled in couching cataracts, sewing abscesses, and setting bones.

From John Arderne's De arte phisicali et de cirurgia, via Wikimedia Commons .

9. The most powerful military force consisted of armored knights riding into battle.

James G. Patterson, in his essay "The Myth of the Mounted Knight" from Misconceptions About the Middle Ages, explains that while the image of the mounted knight might have been a popular one during Medieval times, it didn't match the reality of warfare. Armored cavalry, he explains, can be incredibly useful — even devastating — against untrained revolutionaries, but they were far less useful against a trained foreign infantry. Rather, ground forces, including knights on foot who frequently served as officers, were invaluable in battle. Even during the Crusades, when the image of the mounted knight seemed synonymous with glory in battle, most the actual battles involved sieges.

In the 14th century, English warfare focused increasingly on archery. In fact, Edward III prohibited football in 1331 and then again in 1363 in part because people were spending too much time playing football and not enough time practicing their archery. The English archers were able to repel many a French cavalry force.

10. Only men's sexual pleasure was important.

A common belief during the Middle Ages was that women were more lustful than men. A lot more lustful, in fact. Rape was a crime in 14th century Medieval England, but not between spouses. A wife could not legally refuse her husband's advances, but a husband could not refuse his wife's advances either. The popular belief was that women were always longing for sex, and that it was bad for their health not to have intercourse regularly. A woman's orgasm was also important another common belief was that a woman could not conceive without an orgasm. (Unfortunately, this also made rape impossible to prosecute if the victim became pregnant Medieval English scholars believed women's bodies had a way of, in the modern parlance, shutting things down.)

So what was an unmarried woman to do? Well, if she couldn't find a husband, the English physician John of Gaddesden recommended that she find a midwife who could get the job done manually.


Hanged, Drawn, And Quartered: A Multi-Step Medieval Execution

Wikimedia Commons Being hanged, drawn, and quartered often involved being dragged to the site of your death by horse.

In Medieval England, one of the most serious crimes was high treason. Since the punishment had to fit the crime, the Medieval execution method of being hanged, drawn, and quartered combined several forms of torture.

Usually, being “drawn” simply meant that the person was pulled by a horse to his final destination. However, sometimes this word took on a far grislier meaning when it referred to drawing the person’s intestines out of his body later on in the process.

As for being hanged, that step is self-explanatory. But in many cases, the person didn’t die from the hanging itself. Instead, executioners would hang the victim until he was on the edge of death and then release him so he would still be alive for the real horror — the quartering.

Wikimedia Commons An illustration of Sir Thomas Armstrong’s execution for treason in 1684.

This began with castrating the prisoner, throwing his genitals — and sometimes his intestines — into a fire. The prisoner was then decapitated.

Finally, as the word “quartering” implied, the body would be chopped into at least four pieces and chucked into a boiling concoction of spices. This prevented birds from picking at the remains and allowed for the body parts to be publicly displayed across the country as a grisly warning.

Though typically thought of as just a British punishment, this execution method was actually practiced throughout Europe.

The most famous victim of this fate was William Wallace, since his fight to secure Scottish freedom from the English in the 1290s was inherently treasonous. Depicted in the 1995 film Braveheart, Wallace’s execution was even more brutal in real life.

Wikimedia Commons Hugh Despenser the Younger being “drawn” for high treason in 1326.

In Wallace’s case, he was drawn by four different horses that were each tied to one of his limbs. This was usually done to prisoners the king despised most. After the execution, Wallace’s remains were famously scattered around England as a warning to other potential traitors.

Shockingly, this practice was used for about 500 years after Wallace’s infamous execution — until it was finally outlawed in 1803.


37. Middle-Aged Teens

A useful indicator for the quality of life—or lack thereof—in a certain time or place is the average life expectancy. Since a man born between 1276 and 1300 in Medieval England could only expect to make it to 31 years old, life must have been really tough. Good news for the ladies, though: women born in the same time period on average made it past childbearing age. Phew!

Wikimedia.Commons

Decameron Web

The Middle Ages in Europe witnessed a universal paradox of tolerance and condemnation with regards to prostitution. While technically a sin (because it hinged on the act of fornication), prostitution was recognized by the church and others as a necessary, or "lesser evil" (Karras, 246). It was accepted as fact that young men would seek out sexual relations regardless of their options, and thus prostitution served to protect "respectable" townswomen from seduction and even rape. In 1358, the Grand Council of Venice declared that prostitution was "absolutely indispensable to the world" (Richards, 125). In general, declarations proclaiming the necessity of prostitution were not quite so enthusiastic. Indeed, the church did not hesitate to denounce prostitution as morally wrong, but as St. Augustine explained: "If you expel prostitution from society, you will unsettle everything on account of lusts" (Richards, 118). Thus, the general tolerance of prostitution was for the most part reluctant, and many canonists urged prostitutes to reform, either by marrying or by becoming nuns. In fact, there were many religious sanctuaries set up specifically for prostitutes who wished to quit the profession (Bullough, 183).

Prostitution in the Middle Ages was, much as it is today, primarily an urban institution. Especially in Italy, efforts were made early on by municipal governments to expel prostitutes from the cities, but to no avail. The demand was simply far too great, as not only young unmarried men, but men with wives and even members of the clergy considered themselves in need. Many cities tried to solve the problem by banishing prostitutes to certain areas of town. Often, these quarters turned into "criminal underworlds" associated with the poor and the undesirables of the city, the most famous existing in Bologna (Brundage, 464). (We may think here of neighborhoods such as Malpertugio, in which Andreuccio meets Fiordaliso, in II.5.) Vern Bullough provides interesting note: streets with the word "rose" in them, he observes, were most likely designated for prostitution during this period, as the phrase "to pluck a rose" was a common metaphor for the act of hiring a prostitute (Bullough, 182).

Another almost universal restriction placed on prostitutes pertained to the clothing they were allowed to wear. In order to set them apart from "decent" women and avoid confusion, the church required that prostitutes adopt some type of distinctive clothing, which each particular city government was allowed to select. For example, in Milan the garment of choice was a black cloak, while in Florence prostitutes wore gloves and bells on their hats (Richards, 119). According to Bullough, a citizen who found a prostitute clothed in anything other than the official dress had the right to strip them on the spot (Bullough, 182).

Many cities decided to take advantage of the situation and earn a little money, setting up municipal brothels with laws and restrictions prohibiting beatings of the prostitutes by brothel keepers, restricting the number of customers a prostitute might entertain in one day, and of course demanding a certain percentage of all earnings (Karras, 246). In 1403, about forty years after ending a long policy of expulsion, the municipal government in Venice established its own brothel in the Rialto, which has since become the traditional center of prostitution in the city. Later, there were attempts to set up other brothels, but this only led to more expulsions in order to regulate the trade and finally to strict compromises between these businesses and the church (Richards, 125-126).

Those who argued against prostitution suggested all sorts of reasons for its existence. For some it was the product of poverty, for others greed or lustfulness, and according to some people, even the stars had something to do with it (Brundage, 464). There were also those who justified prostitution on the grounds that it was a viable economic activity and was primarily directed towards the earning of money rather the gratification of sexual desires (at least, for the prostitutes themselves). As a matter of fact, when it came to economics, concubinage was often an appealing option formal contracts involving agreements of sexual fidelity, support obligations and the like were frequently drawn up between partners. Concubinage could be an easy way for poorer families to make beneficial social connections and gain monetary support for their unmarried daughters. Once in a while, concubinage even led to marriage (Brundage, 446).

Prostitution in the Decameron

There is really only one obvious instance of prostitution in the Decameron: the "young Sicilian woman. willing to any man's bidding for a modest fee," who swindles Andreuccio in II.5. This young woman is presented as extremely clever and exceedingly cruel. She seems to have created quite a network for herself, but she is by no means a "high class prostitute." Also called "courtesan mistresses," these women, who restricted their business to the nobility, began to appear in the later Middle Ages as a result of urbanization and the growing popularity of the ideal of romantic love (Bullough, 184). In general, prostitution seems to be a topic which Boccaccio avoids, contrary to his treatment of certain other sexual behaviors.

(A.M.S.) Boccaccio, Giovanni. The Decameron. Trans. G. H. McWilliam. New York: Penguin, 1972.
Brundage, James A. Law, Sex, and Christian Society in Medieval Europe. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Bullough, Vern L. "Prostitution in the Later Middle Ages." Sexual Practices and the Medieval Church. Ed. Vern L. Bullough and James Brundage. Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1982, pp.176-86.

Karras, Ruth Mazo. "Prostitution in Medieval Europe." Handbook of Medieval Sexuality. Ed. Vern L. Bullough and James A. Brundage. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1996, pp. 243-60.

Richards, Jeffrey. Sex, Dissidence and Damnation: Minority Groups in the Middle Ages. New York: Routledge, 1994.


Syphilis, sex and fear: How the French disease conquered the world

H istory doesn't recount who gave Cesare Borgia syphilis, but we do know when and where he got it. In the summer of 1497, he was a 22-year-old cardinal, sent as papal legate by his father, Pope Alexander VI, to crown the king of Naples and broker a royal marriage for his sister, Lucrezia. Naples was a city rich in convents and brothels (a fertile juxtaposition in the male Renaissance imagination), but it was also ripe with disease. Two years earlier, a French invasion force including mercenary troops back from the new world, had dallied a while to enjoy their victory, and when they left, carried something unexpected and deadly back home with them.

His work accomplished, Cesare took to the streets. Machiavelli, his contemporary and a man with a wit as unflinching as his politics, has left a chilling account of his coupling with a prostitute who, when he lights a lamp afterwards, is revealed as a bald, toothless hag so hideous that he promptly throws up over her. Given Cesare's elevated status, his chosen women no doubt were more enticing, but the sickness they gave him (and suffered themselves) was to prove vicious. First a chancre appeared on his penis, then crippling pains throughout his body and a rash of itching, weeping pustules covering his face and torso. Fortunately for him and for history, his personal doctor, Gaspar Torella, was a medical scholar with a keen interest in this startling new disease and used his patient (under the pseudonym of "Niccolo the young") to record symptoms and attempted cures. Over the next few years, Torella and others charted the unstoppable rise of a disease that had grown men screaming in agony as their flesh was eaten away, in some cases down to the bone.

I still remember the moment, sitting in the British Library, when I came across details of Torella's treatise in a book of essays on syphilis. There is nothing more thrilling in writing historical fiction than when research opens a window on to a whole new landscape, and the story of how this sexual plague swept through Europe during the 1490s was one of the turning points in Blood and Beauty, the novel I was writing on the rise and fall of the Borgia dynasty.

By the time that Cesare felt that first itch, the French disease, as it was then known, had already spread deep into Europe. That same year, Edinburgh town council issued an edict closing brothels, while at the Italian university of Ferrara scholars convened an emergency debate to try to work out what had hit them. By then the method of the contagion was pretty obvious. "Men get it from doing it with women in their vulvas," wrote the Ferrarese court doctor baldly (there is no mention of homosexual transmission, but then "sodomy", as it was known then, was not the stuff of open debate). The theories surrounding the disease were are as dramatic as the symptoms: an astrological conjunction of the planets, the boils of Job, a punishment of a wrathful God disgusted by fornication or, as some suggested even then, an entirely new plague brought from the new world by the soldiers of Columbus and fermented in the loins of Neapolitan prostitutes.

Whatever the cause, the horror and the agony were indisputable. "So cruel, so distressing, so appalling that until now nothing more terrible or disgusting has ever been known on this earth," says the German humanist Joseph Grunpeck, who, when he fell victim, bemoaned how "the wound on my priapic gland became so swollen, that both hands could scarcely encircle it." Meanwhile, the artist Albrecht Dürer, later to use images of sufferers in propaganda woodcuts against the Catholic church, wrote "God save me from the French disease. I know of nothing of which I am so afraid … Nearly every man has it and it eats up so many that they die."

It got its name in the mid 16th century from a poem by a Renaissance scholar: its eponymous hero Syphilus, a shepherd, enrages the Sun God and is infected as punishment. Outside poetry, prostitution bears the brunt of the blame, though the real culprit was testosterone. Men infected prostitutes who then passed it on to the next client who gave it back to a new woman in a deadly spiral. Erring husbands gave it to wives who sometimes passed it on to children, though they might also get it from suckling infected wet-nurses.

Amid all this horror there were elements of poetic justice. In a manifestly corrupt church, the give-away "purple flowers" (as the repeated attacks were euphemistically known) that decorated the faces of priests, cardinals, even a pope, were indisputable evidence that celibacy was unenforceable. When Luther, a monk, married a nun, forcing the hand of the Catholic church to resist similar reform in itself, syphilis became one of the reasons the Catholic church is still in such trouble today.

Though there has been dispute in recent years over pre-15th-century European bones found with what resemble syphilitic symptoms, medical science is largely agreed that it was indeed a new disease brought back with the men who accompanied Columbus on his 1492 voyage to the Americas. In terms of germ warfare, it was a fitting weapon to match the devastation that measles and smallpox inflicted travelling the other way. It was not until 1905 that the cause of all this suffering was finally identified under the microscope – Treponema pallidum, a spirochete bacterium that enters the bloodstream and, if left untreated, attacks the nervous system, the heart, internal organs and the brain and it was not until the 1940s and the arrival of penicillin that there was an effective cure.

Much of the extraordinary detail we now have about syphilis is a result of the Aids crisis. Just when we thought antibiotics, the pill and more liberal attitudes had taken the danger and shame out of sexual behaviour, the arrival out of nowhere of an incurable, fatal, highly contagious sexual disease challenged medical science, triggered a public-health crisis and re-awoke a moral panic.

Not surprisingly, it also made the history of syphilis extremely relevant again. The timing was powerful in another way too, as by the 1980s history itself was refocusing from the long march of the political and the powerful, to the more intimate cultural stories of everyman/woman. The growth of areas such as history of medicine and madness through the work of historians such as Roy Porter and Michel Foucault was making the body a rich topic for academics. Suddenly, the study of syphilis became, well, there is no other word for it, sexy.

Historians mining the archives of prisons, hospitals and asylums now estimate that a fifth of the population might have been infected at any one time. London hospitals during the 18th century treated barely a fraction of the poor, and on discharge sufferers were publicly whipped to ram home the moral lesson.

Those who could buy care also bought silence – the confidentiality of the modern doctor/patient relationship has it roots in the treatment of syphilis. Not that it always helped. The old adage "a night with Venus a lifetime with Mercury" reveals all manner of horrors, from men suffocating in overheated steam baths to quacks who peddled chocolate drinks laced with mercury so that infected husbands could treat their wives and families without them knowing. Even court fashion is part of the story, with pancake makeup and beauty spots as much a response to recurrent attacks of syphilis as survivors of smallpox.

And then there are the artists poets, painters, philosophers, composers. Some wore their infection almost as a badge of pride: The Earl of Rochester, Casanova, Flaubert in his letters. In Voltaire's Candide, Pangloss can trace his chain of infection right back to a Jesuit novice who caught it from a woman who caught it from a sailor in the new world. Others were more secretive. Shame is a powerful censor in history, and in its later stages syphilis, known as the "great imitator", mimics so many other diseases that it's easy to hide the truth. Detective work by writers such as Deborah Hayden (The Pox: Genius, Madness, and the Mysteries of Syphilis) count Schubert, Schumann, Baudelaire, Maupassant, Flaubert, Van Gogh, Nietzsche, Wilde and Joyce with contentious evidence around Beethoven and Hitler. Her larger question – how might the disease itself have affected their creative process – is a tricky one.

Van Gogh paints skulls and Schubert's sublime last works are clearly suffused with the awareness of death. But in 1888, when Nietzsche, tumbling into insanity, wrote work such as Ecce Homo is his intellectual grandiosity genius or possibly the disease talking? There is a further layer of complexity to this. By the time Nietzsche lost his wits, tertiary syphilis had undergone a transmutation, infecting the brain and causing paralysis alongside mental disintegration. But many of its sufferers didn't know that then. Guy de Maupassant, who started triumphant ("I can screw street whores now and say to them 'I've got the pox.' They are afraid and I just laugh"), died 15 years later in an asylum howling like a dog and planting twigs as baby Maupassants in the garden.

Late 19th-century French culture was a particularly rich stew of sexual desire and fear. Upmarket Paris restaurants had private rooms where the clientele could enjoy more than food, and in opera foyers patrons could view and "reserve" young girls for later. At the same time, the authorities were rounding up, testing and treating prostitutes, often too late for themselves or the wives. As the fear grew, so did the interest in disturbed women. Charcot's clinic exhibited examples of hysteria, prompting the question now as to how far that diagnosis might have been covering up the workings of syphilis. Freud noted the impact of the disease inside the family when analysing his early female patients.

"It's just as I thought. I've got it for life," says the novelist Alphonse Daudet after a meeting with Charcot in 1880s. In his book In the Land of Pain, translated and edited by Julian Barnes in 2002, the writer's eye is unflinching as he faces "the torment of the Cross: violent wrenching of the hands, feet, knees, nerves stretched and pulled to breaking point," dimmed only by the blunt relief of increasing amounts of morphine: "Each injection [helps] for three or four hours. Then come 'the wasps' stinging, stabbing here, there, everywhere followed by Pain, that cruel guest … My anguish is great and I weep as I write."

Of course, we have not seen the end of syphilis – worldwide millions of people still contract it, and there are reports, especially within the sex industry, that it is on the increase in recent years. But the vast majority will be cured by antibiotics before it takes hold. They will never reach the point, as Cesare Borgia did in the early 16th century, of having to wear a mask to cover the ruin of what everyone agreed was once a most handsome face. What he lost in vanity he gained in sinister mystery. How far his behaviour, oscillating between lethargy and manic energy, was also the impact of the disease we will never know. He survived it long enough to be cut to pieces escaping from a Spanish prison. Meanwhile, in the city of Ferrara,his beloved sister Lucrezia, then married to a duke famed for extramarital philandering, suffered repeated miscarriages – a powerful sign of infection in female sufferers. For those of us wedded to turning history into fiction, the story of syphilis proves the cliche: truth is stranger than anyone could make up.

A Cultural History of Syphilis will be broadcast on Radio 3 on 26 May.