The Middle Ages was a pretty foul and disgusting period in history. The streets of medieval London were famously swarming with rats and people just hurled the contents of their chamber pots right out on to the street below them! Famine and disease was widespread and any sense of hygiene or cleanliness went (quite literally) out of the window. All things considered, medieval Europe wouldn’t be too high on your travel wish list if you had a time machine!
But scarier still than their incredibly gross way of life in the middle ages was the overwhelming abundance of death that seemed to occur – and very gruesome deaths at that. To give you an idea of just how messed up some of these historical meetings with the Grim Reaper were, one entry in particular happened to be George R.R. Martin’s inspiration for the ‘Red Wedding’ episode of Game of Thrones. (Yep, a real life ‘red wedding’. That’s what we’re dealing with, folks.)
From accidental impaling and a deadly dance craze to smelling your own flesh burn as you roasted alive, no-one did creepy or grisly quite like the middle ages. Ever wondered why the medieval years were also referred to as the ‘Dark Ages’? They say it’s because historians have so little record of this deranged time period. But we can hazard another guess – it’s because dying doesn’t get much darker than this! Check out our pick of 15 truly disturbing deaths from the medieval period (and don’t blame us if you can’t sleep later).
15. Sodomized With A Red Hot Poker
They say hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. So how about a monarch cheated on by her possibly gay husband? Well, the title says it all — you can’t get more hellish than this form of punishment! This very unfortunate end happened to King Edward II who already had a bad reputation among his contemporaries, but took things further when he favoured his rumoured male lover over his own wife.
Edward’s wife Isabella eventually managed to oust him from the throne in 1327, which soon saw him imprisoned in Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire. Chronicles from the 14th century have alleged that Edward was punished mockingly for his rumoured homosexuality by being sodomized to death with a red hot plumber’s iron. The King was apparently suffocated whilst he received his poker punishment – we just hope the suffocation killed him first…
14. The Real Life ‘Red Wedding’
(Warning: Game of Thrones spoilers ahead!). If you’re still traumatized by the infamous Red Wedding episode of GOT, you may be a tad unsettled to hear about ‘The Black Dinner’ – the real life event in history that inspired the horrible massacre that killed pretty much half the cast. In the mid 15th century, King James II of Scotland wasn’t too happy about the Douglas clan – a powerful family in the kingdom who may have been inadvertently stealing his thunder.
Naturally, the jealous, power-hungry King threw a party for William, the Earl of Douglas and his whole family to wipe them out. Halfway through a happy, chatty feast, a black bull’s head was dropped on to the table, signalling party time was over and heads were about to roll. Two of the youngest Douglas boys were dragged outside and beheaded. Apparently, the eldest pleaded for his little brother to be killed first so he wouldn’t have to witness a beheading. Messed up!
13. The Man Killed In His Sleep (By His Wife)
The people of the middle ages were a very superstitious lot. A week-long headache, for instance, could be interpreted by others as your brain being possessed by the devil or some other nonsense. So it’s not at all surprising that talking in your sleep could bring on the same irrational action in a medieval citizen.
This happened to poor John Clarice in 1276 who was probably just talking in his sleep or having a nightmare, only to have a real one happen to him. Upon seeing her husband act this way in the midnight hour, John’s wife, Joan decided that “madness had taken possession of him” and went batshit crazy. Assuming he had been “seized by death”, Clarice’s wife slit his throat with a small scythe and struck him on the side of the head with a billhook, causing his brains to fly across the room. Couldn’t she have just used earplugs?
12. Lethal Street Theatre
Street theatre today might consist of a dance group or a mime artist, but performers in the medieval period took things a bit further with their form of outdoor art. Also, street theatre of the middle ages was usually performed by ordinary citizens rather than professional actors – which could explain why things usually took a dangerous turn.
One lethal street performance in particular happened during a play of Corpus Christi in Newcastle. As part of one scene, the actor was supposed to discharge three (real) guns. Unfortunately for two members of the audience, the performer had forgotten to unload the guns earlier that day and it caused one of the chambers to explode. This instantly killed one boy watching the play and hit a man who later died of his injuries. I think that deserves a Razzie award.
11. Accidentally Burned To Death
Charles II of the 14th century (also known as Charles “The Bad” of Navarre), was struck down with leprosy in 1387. It could be said that this was karma for his greed and sense of entitlement throughout his reign. He claimed he was entitled to the throne held by his cousin, the title of ‘Duchy of Burgundy’ and all the champagne he could get his hands on. Despite all this greed however, no-one deserved to die in the way he did.
In a bid to cure his leprosy, Charles called upon a doctor who prescribed a very strange remedy – wrap him in a blanket drenched in Brandy and sew it shut. Once trapped in his alcohol-soaked robes, the doctor accidentally placed a candle flame near Charles, setting him alight like a Christmas pudding. Nice.
10. A Game That Crushed A Man’s TESTICLES
We’ve already established that the medieval way of life was very strange indeed. Even their Christmas traditions were a million miles from ours. Sure, they likely had carol singing and the family feast, but their choice of entertainment doesn’t sound very Christmassy at all. These guys desperately needed Trivial Pursuit or something…
Not a lot is known about this particular game that ended so bizarrely, but a doctor’s account from 1563 described it thus: “John Hypper was playing ‘Christmas’ games on Boxing Day with other parishioners of Hampshire in the house of Thomas Purdew. While playing he involuntarily crushed himself and injured his testicles.” We’re not sure what he was playing exactly, but Hypper later became ill and died of his injuries on 28th December. Tidings of comfort and joy, eh?
9. Death By Karma
There’s something a bit Walking Dead about this incident which just makes it even more freaky. In what sounds like something fresh out of a horror movie scene, the teeth belonging to a recently decapitated head sank into a man’s leg (the bite of which eventually killed him).
You might say the man had it coming though, when you realize what he was up to earlier that day. Sigurd Eysteinsson, The Earl of Orkney, had killed Mael Brigte of Moray in battle and rode back home with Mael’s severed head strapped to his saddle. On his journey home, Brigte’s teeth cut into his leg which became infected and ultimately killed Eysteinsson. Talk about your actions coming back to bite you in the butt… or in this case, the leg!
8. Tonsil Trouble
This is in here for the sheer nastiness and gross-out factor. Tonsillitis is far from pleasant at the best of times, but the English Pope Adrian IV contracted such a nasty case of it that the inflammation in his throat caused an unruly build up of puss in his mouth. Yak.
As you can imagine, the simple act of eating and drinking was a blistering, if not impossible task for the poor Pope – until one day, he was put out of his misery. According to one account, he took a sip of wine which had a fly swimming in it. The burning cocktail of alcohol, a buzzing fly and the puss in his throat caused Pope Adrian to choke to death. I suddenly never want to drink again…
7. The Dancing Plague
No, this isn’t the latest craze sweeping social media like planking or the Harlem shake – although it does sound closer to a fun fad than a disturbing and deadly disease. We all get the dancing ‘bug’ from time to time when our favourite song comes on and we can’t help but move, but there’s nothing joyful about this bizarre medieval condition.
It all started in 1518 when a woman in Strasbourg stepped into the street and began twisting, shaking and twirling uncontrollably. The creepy thing is, there was no music playing and the woman continued her solo dance for almost a week. By this time, others had joined in and within a month, this uncontrollable dancing urge had killed 400 people through exhaustion and heart attacks. Historians put it down to stress-induced hysteria as a result of famine and the threat of a city-wide curse. Creepy stuff.
6. Falling Drunk Into A Pit of POOP
It’s pretty obvious why this is such a hideous way to go, but for the sake of delving into history, let’s explore! Just to paint a picture at this point, it may be interesting to know that the medieval term for someone who cleaned out the cesspit was a ‘gong farmer’ or as they were known collectively, the ‘night men’, since they had the glamorous job of cleaning out human waste (something the medieval people referred to as ‘night soil’).
On a June day in 1523, a drunk man wandered into a cesspit that hadn’t yet been visited by a gong farmer. In his drunken state, the poor guy fell off his seat and stumbled backwards into the pit of human feces. He drowned in the repugnant contents and died…in the most horrible way imaginable.
5. Arrow Through The Face
There aren’t many rules about archery, but a major one is surely to never place yourself directly in front of an arrow head. Stupidly, this is exactly what an unlucky man called Henry Purt did while trying to inspect an arrow that became lodged in the bow.
Purt was trying to take a shot when he pulled his arrow back too far and it got stuck in the bow. Somehow, he thought the best way to free the arrow was to set it on the ground and make the arrow fly straight up to dislodge itself. Purt was stupidly standing over the bow the whole time and the arrow dislodged itself alright – quickly lodging itself in a new home…his head. His wound killed him slowly and Purt died later that evening. Nasty.
4. The King Who (Literally) Died Laughing
Dying from uncontrollable laughter sounds like a great way to go, but there’s still something disturbing about it nonetheless. The King of Aragon and Sicily – also known as ‘Martin the Humane’ – succumbed to this strange death in 1410 when his jester (unintentionally) offered him a piece of observational comedy.
King Martin had apparently eaten an entire goose that evening and was suffering from a bad case of indigestion when his jester walked into his chambers. Upon asking where his jester had been for the night, he can’t have expected the response would be the death of him. His jester replied that he spotted a young deer “hanging by his tail from a tree, as if someone had so punished him for stealing figs.” We don’t get it, but you probably had to be there.
3. The Dark Side Of Maypole Dancing
If you’ve ever seen pictures of maypole dancing, you wouldn’t believe for a second that someone could die horribly while taking part in it. Maypole dancing involves a bunch of cheerful people holding on to colourful ribbons while dancing to gentle folk music, often in a pretty countryside village – hardly the most obvious setting for a horrific death.
Unfortunately, tragedy struck a medieval man in 1558 when one of the maypoles fell over. The maypole missed him but it struck the city wall above and caused a stone to come loose. (You can probably guess the rest). The falling stone penetrated his brain and killed him instantly. It’s fair to say, we won’t ever look at the gentle art of maypole dancing in quite the same way!
2. Impaled By Own Sword
They say a noble knight is one that dies by his sword, but this is just meant to be a figure of speech! To die by one’s sword used to mean laying your life on the line for the sake of many others – but we’re guessing this wasn’t what this poor guy had in mind when he met his end the same way. The French nobleman, Enguerrand III de Coucy, didn’t die by his sword out of bravery or selflessness, just clumsiness.
The 60 year old Enguerrand was out riding his horse in 1242 when he fell off and accidentally impaled himself on his own sword. To make matters worse, Sieur de Coucy also happened to be the father-in-law to King Alexander II of Scotland. Ouch. Not the best model knight for the young King to look up to.
1. Buried Alive
When it comes to truly disturbing and creepy ways to go, this is way up there. This nightmarish end happened to Emperor Zeno of the Byzantine empire in 491 AD, after a particularly heavy drinking session. Legend has it that Emperor Zeno became so drunk that he had people thinking he was dead rather than just unconscious. (You can see where this is headed…).
Zeno’s wife, Empress Ariadne, soon placed him in a sarcophagus, when he later awoke to find his fate had – quite literally – been sealed. What’s even darker about this is the fact that his wife heard his cries for help but refused to let anyone help him out. It’s possible the Empress could have purposefully plied him with wine, or else, spotted the perfect opportunity to get a quick and tidy divorce.
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