The Middle Ages refer to the period in European history that extended from around 500 to 1400–1500 C.E. The term was coined by 15th-century scholars who wanted to differentiate between their own time and the decline of the Western Roman Empire.
Today, historians look back on the Middle Ages as a dynamic period during which the concept of Europe as a “distinct cultural unit” came to being; it was a time when social, political, economic, and cultural structures were entirely reorganized.
Despite the several advancements that took place during the Middle Ages in Europe, not all transformations made it all that great of a time to be alive. Some of the practices in Medieval Europe were disturbing, while others were just peculiar, especially when considered in the context of modern societies.
Brutal Execution Styles
During the Middle Ages, inflicting excessive pain and torture was seen as a perfectly acceptable form of punishment or interrogation. The execution styles and torture methods depended on the seriousness of the crime and the social status of the accused or the perpetrator, and there were no rules, laws, or rights for the prisoners who were faced with these kinds of punishments.
Regardless of the form of execution or torture, it was seen as a completely legitimate means for justice. Many of these punishments were publicized, regardless of how brutal and gory they could get.
Some of the most brutal medieval execution methods included the following methods: the Breaking Wheel, death by hanging, pressing or crushing, execution by fire, being boiled to death, decapitation with an ax or a sword, quartering, and impalement.
Divorce by Combat
Getting divorced in the Middle Ages was a difficult process; the only way that a man could stop his wife from divorcing him was by getting an erection in the middle of a courtroom because that showed the court that he was capable of performing his sacred husbandly duties. However, if he wanted to avoid the humiliation from such an incident, he could challenge his wife to trial by combat.
Unlike regular duels, divorce duels did not allow the defendant to choose their own weapon. Since women were not used to the tools of war, they were provided with a rock wrapped in a piece of cloth to swing at their husband during the duel.
Men, on the other hand, were provided with a wooden club of equal length; additionally, they had to duel with one hand tied behind their back, while positioned chest-deep in a hole that was three feet wide. Furthermore, every time the husband touched the sides of the hole, he would have to forfeit one of his three clubs.
Naturally, the duel often ended up working in the wife’s favor. Even though marital duels were not meant to be fought to the death, one of the spouses would always die. If the husband lost, he would be publicly executed with honor; however, if the woman lost, she would be sent to the same hole her husband had stood in during the duel and would be buried alive.
Bloodletting as a Cure-All
Medieval doctors would often prescribe blood-draining as a treatment for everything ranging from a sore throat to the plague. They believed that most sicknesses resulted from ‘bad blood,’ which needed to be let out of the body to cure the patient. The practice originated among the ancient Sumerians and Egyptians but was practiced commonly in Medieval Europe.
Those who practiced bloodletting would use a special tool with a fixed blade to nick veins or arteries in either the forearm or the neck of their patients. In 1163, monks and priests were banned from practicing the treatment procedure and it was restricted to physicians. However, barbers at the time began to offer additional services that included bloodletting and cupping because they were so in demand at the time.
The Feast of Fools
This was a festival that was held on or around the first of January, particularly in France, during the Middle Ages. A mock pope or bishop was elected, church rituals were parodied, and low- and high-ranking officials swapped places; these proceedings were meant to celebrate the biblical principle that stated,
“God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise.”
The rituals that were a part of the festival were most likely Christian adaptations of pagan Saturnalia celebrations; they had devolved into a mockery of Christian morals and festivities by the 13th century, and survived well into the 16th century, despite repeated bans and penalties issued by the Council of Basel in 1431.
During the festival, performers would wear masks and ladies’ attire, sing obscene hymnal songs, get drunk, toss manure at bystanders, leap through the church, roll dice at the altar, replace prayer responses with ‘hee-haw’s instead of ‘Amen’s during the fake ceremonies, and engage in other heinous acts that mocked church liturgy.
A deeper analysis of the Feast and its aims reveals that it was a temporary social revolution in which individuals with power, riches, and dignity were usurped by the ordinary people via staging and foolish spectacles. A liminal area was thus created through which the ideas that were prevalent and popular at the time could solidify, oscillate, or extend.
According to some scholars, the festival was a ritual that provided the public with a regulated, safe space to release pent-up tensions that had arisen from being part of a hierarchical society. It was a day of purging.
Cemeteries: A Social Hub
Rather than being places that were hidden and kept enclosed within walls, cemeteries were public places where citizens typically came to socialize with one another. In some medieval parts of Europe, they were even settings for markets.
People would often gather there to drink, gamble, and celebrate various events. Most commonly, prostitutes would set up their trade there. Today, there is more discomfort surrounding death and the dead; in the Middle Ages, however, death was a lot more public.
People were perpetually being told that their lives after death would be infinitely better, which was why they did not fear it. They had embraced the concept of a ‘perfect death,’ which could be attained through prayer and confession. Their perspective on death allowed them to feel more comfortable around their dead, which was why they did not believe in hiding their dead away in spaces separated from the living.