There is no doubt that people in medieval Europe were extremely superstitious and prone to believing tall tales. But who can blame them? They lived in a time period where religion dictated daily life and played an integral part in how people understood the world around them. Beyond that, very few people were literate or educated, nor did many people travel far from their birthplace. In other words, their understanding of the world was limited to what they heard from people around them. Though urban legends and myths seem incredibly prevalent today due to social media and the internet, untruths still spread like wildfire in the medieval period as well. Here are the top 10 best medieval urban legends and superstitions. And by “best,” we actually mean disturbing.
Medieval Urban Legends
10. The Land of Darkness
The Land of Darkness is an actual place with tons of creepy myths surrounding it. It is a densely-forested area named Abkhazia in modern day Georgia. Many medieval travelogues chronicled creepy journeys through the area. Medieval travelogues were the tabloids of the middle ages – they were usually (but not always) exaggerated and altered for entertainment value. The Land of Darkness was supposedly always covered in darkness and its forests were thought to be the home of many malevolent spirits. Western European travelers alleged that no local people would venture into the forest alone, because anyone who walked among the trees and darkness would hear faint voices all around them, beckoning them further into the darkness.
9. The Gates of Hell are in… Sicily?
Historically, dozens of legends have pointed to many different locations as being the physical door to eternal punishment. However, one of the most prevalent and repeated locations mentioned throughout literature is Mt. Etna, the volcano located on the Italian island of Sicily. It is somewhat understandable that medieval folks would believe that a volcano – a hole in the earth that spews fiery red-hot lava – is the actual entrance to hell. This explanation was compounded when it was repeated in tons of popular literary works, spanning from Shakespeare’s plays to Dante’s hellishly-long epic poem, Inferno. Medieval art and stories were full of depictions of hell. It is no wonder that Europeans would try to locate a physical portal into the underworld.
8. Prester John, the Christian King of the Far East
Prester John was supposedly a Christian king who ruled over a kingdom in the east. The first mentions of Prester John date back to the twelfth century, but his name is mentioned in texts well into the 1600s. His existence was a widely-circulated legend in medieval times, but Prester John’s location and exact time period depend on which version of the legend you hear. Some of the earliest versions of the legend have him living and ruling in India around the 1100s. Later versions of the legend state that Prester John placed his kingdom in modern day Ethopia. Despite efforts to prove that Prester John was a real person, it is far more likely that he was an imagined king, like King Arthur.
7. Robert the Devil
Robert the Devil is like Rosemary’s Baby, but from the medieval period. There are many versions of this tale, but the basic story tells that Robert was a knight returning from one of the Crusades. Having committed many acts of violence and deviousness, Robert reflected on his actions and tried to understand why he did them. He sought out his mother for answers. She confessed to him that she had committed herself to the devil in a moment of weakness before he was born, and then she mysteriously became pregnant. Robert repudiated his mother and her satanic bargaining, and committed himself to undoing all of the wickedness of his past. He then went on to do many acts of kindness and courage, but refused the rewards and honors of his actions. He died old and alone, but as a saint.
6. Madoc the Voyager
According to legend, Madoc was a Welsh prince who sailed to North America in 1170. Supposedly, Madoc grew tired of his royal family’s constant quarreling, so he set sail in the Atlantic to explore the vastness of the ocean. There are multiple versions of the story with slightly different details, but most versions state that Madoc ventured to America and sailed back to Wales to report his findings. He then sailed back to the new continent along with a hundred or so colonists, only to never return. Madoc’s story became popular throughout Britain during the Elizabethan era, about 60 or so years after Columbus “found” America. However, historians attribute this popularity to English explorers’ attempt to justify their claim to the continent. No historical or archaeological evidence indicates that the Welsh prince ever set sail at all.
5. The Holy Grail and Eternal Life
The legend of the Holy Grail is one of the few medieval urban legends that has remained prominent in popular culture, mostly due to its appearances in literature and movies throughout the years. The Holy Grail was supposedly a cup that gave eternal life to anyone who drank from it. Different stories exist that explain how the Holy Grail became imbued with such power, but they usually revolve around the cup being part of Jesus Christ’s Last Supper and eventual crucifixion. However, the existence of this cup did not appear in any text until Chrétien de Troyes’s romance Perceval, the Story of the Grail from the 12th century (de Troyes’ story was the first major texts mentioning King Arthur). From then onward, the Grail appeared throughout all kinds of Arthurian stories and legends. While it first appeared in a fictitious story, many believed that the Holy Grail actually existed (and many still do!). However, no historians or archaeologists have been able to confirm the actual existence of the cup. Sorry, Indiana Jones.
4. Muslims Worship Termagant?
Let’s just say that most medieval Europeans – even highly educated scholars and priests – had a very poor understanding of Islam. Many Europeans actively despised Muslims and accused them of being pagans. Many famous texts from the medieval period (including the epic Song of Roland) call the pagan deity Muslims supposedly worshiped Termagant. Historians have not been able to find the origin of this term, but some suspect it comes from confusing Persian Zoroastrian Magi with Muslims (“tyr-magian” or Magian god). Literature across Europe repeated this untruth despite having zero proof of its veracity, and Termagant was usually likened to a Satan-like character in those texts. Those in power had plenty of reasons to repeat these lies about Muslims because Muslim rulers in Africa and the Near East proved to be a real political threat. It was easier to justify violence and war against them by calling them evil-worshiping pagans. Gradually over time, the association between Termagant and Islam lessened as more and more stories used Termagant as a generic stand-in for an evil or chaotic character.
3. King Arthur’s Return
Arthurian legend is one of the most complex series of stories in medieval European history. There are hundreds, if not thousands of versions of stories chronicling King Arthur’s kingdom. One of the most peculiar story lines involves King Arthur’s death and eventual return to Earth. While the particular details surrounding Arthur’s death differ between versions, some of them mention that King Arthur will eventually return to save his people. While Arthurian legend spread throughout much of northwestern Europe, this particular story line became hugely popular among Britons in the 11th and 12th centuries. However, the idea of King Arthur’s return did not die then and there. Many kings of the Plantagenet dynasty claimed to be the legitimate kings and caretakers of Britain until Arthurs return – they often appropriated Arthurian symbols to support this claim. Additionally, when Philip II of Spain married Mary I in 1554, Philip supposedly promised to hand over the reign of his kingdom to Arthur, should he return in their lifetime. These historical instances demonstrate that the lines between legend and fact were often blurred, especially when a king could use legend to bolster support.
2. Cynocephaly a.k.a. Dog-People
Cynocephaly is the characteristic of having a dog’s head and a human’s body. While similar creatures have and still do appear in stories and tales, many medieval travelers and scholars insisted that dog-headed people truly existed on Earth. Travelogues written by Giovanni da Pian del Carpine and Marco Polo (!) reported the existence of actual dog-people. Del Carpine recounted that the armies of Ögedei Khan (Genghis Khan’s third son) had encountered and fought dog-headed people in Siberia. Polo described meeting some dog-headed people firsthand. He said that dog-headed people lived on the Andaman Islands, off the eastern coast of India. While he called them barbarians, he also noted that they were still able to grow spices. While there is a chance that Polo mistook the Andaman natives’ clothing and headdresses, Europeans weren’t exactly known for their kind descriptions of non-Europeans (especially people who they considered to be barbaric or uncivilized).
1. Blood Libel
Blood libel refers to the bizarre and false allegation that Jewish people kidnapped Christian children and used their blood in religious ceremonies. This was actually an extremely prevalent myth, and it lead to an unimaginable amount of prejudice and violence against Jewish communities in Europe throughout the medieval period. It also is the root of many anti-Semitic myths that exist today. Historians believe that the wave of accusations started in England in 1144 after a little boy in Norwich was found dead with visible stab wounds. Thomas of Monmouth, a Christian monk, claimed that every year Jewish leadership would meet up in a single location and sacrifice a Christian child to ensure their return to the Holy Land. Similar accusations occurred within the proceeding decade across England, and people began attacking Jewish people who dared to appear in public. The violent attacks became all-out massacres. Historians estimate that thousands of Jewish people were massacred due to baseless blood libel accusations. After decades of bloodshed, Edward I expelled all of the Jews from England. Unfortunately, similar accusations started occurring across the entire European continent. As a result, massacres and progroms against Jewish communities throughout Europe became normal for the subsequent centuries. Many anti-Semitic rumors and conspiracy theories have roots in this prevalent and very harmful medieval myth.
Medieval Urban Legends – Honorable Mentions:
- William Tell: A Swiss marksman assassinated an evil Habsburg bailiff. While historians agree that William Tell never existed, his legend lives on in popular culture thanks to Gioachino Rossini’s catchy William Tell Overture.
- The Pied Piper of Hamlin: According to the Brothers’ Grimm version, a piper was paid to play his pipe and lead the rats out of town. Instead, he lead the town’s children into a cave and they were never seen again. This story was touted as truth for many years in the German city of its origin, Hamelin. Historians think the story was a metaphor for some disastrous disease or event that killed many of the town’s children.
- Pope Joan: Popular legend dictates that a woman was mistakenly elected as pope in the 11th century, but she died days after her election and the church erased her from history. Scholars conclude that there is no veracity to this claim.