'Pigs and Pokers: or, how to die an interesting medieval death'

by Michael J Evans, Lecturer in Medieval History at Canterbury Christ Church University College

The Middle Ages presented a person with a greater than average possibility of dying in an unpleasant or unusual way. Not content with seeing their social inferiors wiped out by plague, famine, warfare, and a lack of proper toiletries, the upper-classes of medieval Europe must have spent a remarkable amount of time thinking up interesting deaths for themselves or their political opponents.

When they were not killing their enemies in a remarkably wide range of nasty ways, the aristocracy were more than capable of finding novel ways of hastening their own doom. This is not to say that they never used simple and straight-forward modes of killing; on the contrary, when it came to wiping people out, medieval Europes rulers frequently didnt mess around. Take the legislation against the Lollard heretics passed by the English parliament in 1401 - this was given the reassuringly simple title De Haeretico Comburendo, which translates as `about burning heretics. This was a law that did exactly what it said on the tin. Not for them the fancy packaging of modern politicians, who would no doubt have called this white paper `Off Benefits, Onto the Bonfire.
Likewise the famous and memorable murder of Edward II, who was allegedly dispatched by a red hot poker thrust up his `secrete place posterielle, as John Trevisa put it (the phrase, that is, not the poker): this may have been an original mode of killing, but was nevertheless quick, painful, and relatively simple.

When it came to their own deaths, however, Europes rulers proved capable of a great deal of ingenuity. Apparently harmless animals could prove lethal; King Fulk of Jerusalem - evidently the Jimmy Carter of the twelfth century - was killed by a rabbit, while Philip, son and heir of Louis VI of France, was consigned to an early grave by a `diabolical pig. In fairness to the two men, their deaths were horse-assisted; the rabbit and the pig merely dashed out into their paths at a bad moment, causing their horses to throw them and break their necks. So images of an evil-tempered killer bunny must, alas, be consigned to Monty Python. The diabolical pig is rather more intriguing, however. Prince Philip and his boy-racer pals were galloping rather too quickly through the streets of Paris in 1131 when the porcine emissary of Satan shot suddenly out of a dung-hill, startled the princes horse, then vanished as suddenly as it had appeared. This clearly labelled it as a devilish apparition, of the sort which people often see at around 11.30 on a Friday night (`honesht, offisher, it was a shatanic apparition).
Sadly, the sources do not record whether the pig was later hunted down and turned into smoky Satan crisps. Everyone agreed that this tragedy was a great loss for France, except for the Anglo-Welsh writer Walter Map, who uncharitably reckoned that France was better off without Philip - although this may just have been because the crown instead passed to the hapless Louis VII, who obligingly let Walters boss, Henry II of England, make off with Louis wife and half his kingdom.
`Never work with animals or Satan might therefore be a good working motto for a medieval toff.

However, the blame for some horse-related deaths was entirely the riders. Take the case of Robert Marmion, a nasty piece of work who, along with many of the Anglo-Norman elite, welcomed the civil war between King Stephen and the Empress Matilda as a great opportunity for a bit of mindless killing. Robert is proof of the old joke that `military intelligence is an oxymoron - with the emphasis on `moron in his case. In a shrewd tactical move, Marmion had a series of pits dug on the battlefield to trap the enemy knights horses. Less shrewdly, he did not think to record where they were, and managed to ride his own horse straight into one, breaking his thigh. Struggling out of the pit, he unwisely raised his head above ground level just in time to have it sliced off by an enemy foot-soldier.

If medieval Europe was a dangerous place, it had nothing on the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, established by the crusaders in the harsh climate of the east. Quite apart from its killer rabbits, Syria was full of nasty diseases that could carry off the western interloper. The most feared of these was leprosy. Although not especially infectious, nor fatal, this disease was viewed with horror in the Middle Ages because of its disfiguring results, and because Christians, inheriting the Old Testaments injunctions against disease and impurity, regarded it as a divine punishment. The high incidence of leprosy, and the shortage of able-bodied Christians to defend the Holy Land, led to the formation of the curious Order of St Lazarus. This was a military order, like that of the Templars or Hospitallers, with the distinction that it consisted of leprous knights. Their one major engagement, at the battle of Harbiyeh in 1244, was, predictably, not a success. This was probably the only battle in history where the field was littered with severed body-parts before the fighting even began.

The most notable victim of leprosy was the boy-king Baldwin IV, whose brief reign was overshadowed by this illness, and by the probability that he would die young and without an heir. The uncertain political circumstances after his death led to a real free-for-all struggle over the throne, with a predictable lowering of the life-expectancy of the various candidates for king.
The most clueless of these candidates, Guy of Lusignan, lost almost the whole of the Kingdom to Jerusalem and its army in the battle of Hattin in 1187, a particularly bad day at the office by anybodys standards. After this catastrophe, it was decided that the rulership of what little remained of the kingdom of Jerusalem should be entrusted to someone with at least a modicum of military ability.
Ironically, Guy came out of the whole affair rather well, being sent off into comfortable retirement as King of Cyprus. The crown passed to Conrad of Montferrat, an Italian nobleman on the make, who was quickly married off to Isabella, the heiress to the kingdom - over the understandable complaints of her husband. However the new King Conrad was not to last long; one night, feeling peckish, he nipped out to visit the Bishop of Beauvais, who he hoped might have a few beers and vol-au-vents left over from the post-coronation bash. On the way, the king was murdered by two assassins, who had disguised themselves as monks. By Assassins, I mean not just any run-of-the mill politically-motivated murders, but the real thing - Assassins, members of a radical Shiite sect devoted to wiping off the face of the earth anyone who wasnt a fellow Assassin - which certainly kept them busy. They are often said to have derived their name (Hashishun in Arabic) from the fact that their leaders got them high on hashish, promising that this was taste of the Paradise that they would enter if they killed for God. However, this is probably a myth; unlike alcohol, hashish is a drug that suppresses violent urges. Anyone under its influence is less likely to go out and kill than go out to the all-night garage and buy large quantities of Mars bars.
With Conrad out of the way, Isabella was once more on the marriage market for anyone with enough of a death-wish to want to be King of Jerusalem. This time, the favoured candidate was Henry of Champagne. He managed to avoid being assassinated, dying in battle, or catching leprosy, only to fall to his death from an open window. Some accounts say that he fell out because he was startled by the arrival of an embassy, and he plummeted to earth with his favourite dwarf - who tried in vain to save him - clinging to him. Others say that he lost his balance while attempting a discreet nocturnal pee.
Honest, Im not making this up...
We can imagine Isabella breathing a resigned sigh and dusting down her old wedding dress.

So what have we learned from this aimless stagger through medieval history?
Well, if you are a medieval nobleman, I would offer you the following advice; don't disturb strange pigs; dont apply for the post of King of Jerusalem; dont go into battle alongside the Order of Lazarus; and install a flush toilet in your castle.

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