37 Facts About The Middle Ages That’ll Make You Glad You Live In The 21st Century

Published December 8, 2022

From cat burning to divorce by combat, these facts show exactly why the medieval period is known as the "Dark Ages."

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37 Facts About The Middle Ages That’ll Make You Glad You Live In The 21st Century
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The medieval period is often thought of as a time of kings, castles, knights, and damsels. But this era was far more violent and bizarre than most realize — as these 37 facts about the Middle Ages will prove.

The medieval era, which stretched from roughly the 5th century C.E. to the 15th century, was a period of strange customs. Just like today, people eagerly followed the latest fashion trends, no matter how questionable. Take women's beauty standards. Hoping to achieve a round, smooth face, women took to plucking their eyebrows, eyelashes, and even their hairlines.

Middle Ages Facts

Public DomainWomen took extreme steps to achieve medieval beauty standards.

However, women weren't the only ones who kept an eye on new trends. Men — especially men of a certain class — also made sure that they flaunted the latest fashions. During the medieval period, the length of men's shoes reflected their social status. Because of this, some men's shoes grew so long that they had to be reinforced with materials like whalebone.

But while fashion crimes may have been sneered upon during the Middle Ages, that was nothing compared to the punishment for actual crimes. Then, even animals like pigs and roosters could be put on trial and executed for their actions. Still, the worst punishments were reserved for people.

The Darkest And Strangest Facts About The Middle Ages

During the medieval era, people suspected of committing a crime might be subjected to a variety of grisly torture methods. Among these, rat torture was one of the worst. This involved a torturer placing a rat in a half-cage on the victim's abdomen, and then heating the cage from above. The rat, desperate to escape the heat, would claw its way through the victim's stomach.

Those found guilty of a crime often faced an even more gruesome fate. Throughout South and Southeast Asia, especially in India, people were sometimes put to death by elephants. Even someone found guilty of a crime like tax evasion could get crushed to death by the massive animals.

Execution By Elephant

Public DomainOne disturbing fact about the Middle Ages is that some people in South Asia were executed by elephants.

And even people who were known to be innocent could suffer a terrible end due to widespread disease and lack of modern medicine. An estimated 30 to 60 percent of Europeans lost their lives to the plague in the 14th century.

But of course, not everything that happened during the Middle Ages had to do with torture and death. There were also moments of levity, like the bizarre notes and raunchy drawings that medieval monks left in the margins of manuscripts while painstakingly copying out the texts by hand.

These additions, known as marginalia, ranged from rude illustrations to complaints from the scribes, according to The Guardian. In one instance, a monk complained about the cold. In another, a scribe drew a tree full of penises. These notes and drawings were often added to religious texts that the monks were copying, complicating historians' views of medieval people.

Medieval Marginalia

Roman de la Rose/Bibliothèque Nationale de FranceMarginalia like this suggests that medieval people had a sense of humor, even while copying out manuscripts.

Indeed, the medieval era — like any age in human history — is impossible to define in one way. Over the course of several centuries, people ate strange meals like peacocks, viewed archery as one of life's most important skills, and plucked out their own eyelashes just to be fashionable.

The 37 facts about the Middle Ages in the gallery above may seem outlandish today. But for medieval people, it was just normal life. Maybe in hundreds of years, future scholars will puzzle over our habits as well.

After looking through these facts about the Middle Ages, discover some of the greatest architecture from medieval times. Or, go inside the Phantom Time Hypothesis, which suggests that the Middle Ages never existed.

Kaleena Fraga
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Kaleena Fraga has also had her work featured in The Washington Post and Gastro Obscura, and she published a book on the Seattle food scene for the Eat Like A Local series. She graduated from Oberlin College, where she earned a dual degree in American History and French.
Jaclyn Anglis
Jaclyn is the senior managing editor at All That's Interesting. She holds a Master's degree in journalism from the City University of New York and a Bachelor's degree in English writing and history (double major) from DePauw University. She is interested in American history, true crime, modern history, pop culture, and science.
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Fraga, Kaleena. "37 Facts About The Middle Ages That’ll Make You Glad You Live In The 21st Century." AllThatsInteresting.com, December 8, 2022, https://allthatsinteresting.com/middle-ages-facts. Accessed May 21, 2024.