6 Odd Medieval Ideas and Inventions That Didn’t Last | History Hit

6 Odd Medieval Ideas and Inventions That Didn’t Last

An image of a duel between a man and a woman from Hans Talhoffer's fighting manual
Image Credit: Public Domain

During the medieval period, some inventions we consider critically important to modern life were being created. The printing press, spectacles, gunpowder and paper money are just a few examples. However, some of the things created during this period were not so longstanding, or successful. In fact, some of them seem downright odd to us today.

There was the concept of divorce by combat, for example, in which married partners publicly, and violently, battled out their disagreements. The medieval period also saw the holding of trials against animals and the consumption of bread riddled with hallucinogenic lysergic acid.

Let’s take a look at 6 examples of medieval ideas that didn’t stick.

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1. Animal trials

From the 13th to the 18th centuries, there are numerous records of animals being put on trial and receiving punishment, often capital. The first case cited is often that of a pig tried and executed in Fontenay-aux-Roses in 1266, though the presence of a trial is disputed.

On 5th September 1379, three pigs from a herd, apparently wound up by the squealing of a piglet, rushed at Perrinot Muet, the swineherd’s son. He suffered such terrible injuries that he died shortly afterwards. The three sows were arrested, tried and executed. Furthermore, because both herds in the field had rushed over, they were deemed accomplices to the murder, and the rest of both herds were tried and executed too.

A pig on trial for murder in a courtroom

Illustration from Chambers Book of Days depicting a sow and her piglets being tried for the murder of a child.

Image Credit: Public Domain

In 1457, another pig and her piglets were tried for the murder of a child. The mother was found guilty and executed, while her piglets were declared innocent because of their age. Horses, cows, bulls and even insects were the subject of legal cases.

2. Divorce by combat

Before divorce was something a husband or wife could pursue in the law courts, how could you bring an end to a failing marriage? Well, German authorities found a novel solution to the problem: divorce by combat.

The duel would take place inside a small ring marked out by a low fence. To offset the physical disparity between husband and wife, the man was required to fight from within a waist-deep hole with one arm tied to his side. He was given a wooden club, but forbidden to leave his pit. The woman was free to move around and was usually armed with a stone that she could wrap in material and swing about like a mace.

Knocking an opponent out, causing them to submit, or the death of either husband or wife would end the duel, but even if both survived the punishment might not end there. The loser had failed in trial by combat, and that could mean death. For a man, it meant hanging, while a woman might be buried alive.

3. Kyeser’s war cart

Konrad Kyeser was born in 1366. He trained as a physician and was involved in the crusade against the Turks that ended disastrously at the Battle of Nicopolis in 1396. He would end up in exile in Bohemia in 1402, when he wrote Bellifortis, a collection of designs for military technology that has earned Konrad comparisons to Leonardo da Vinci.

Amongst the designs are a diving suit and the first known illustration of a chastity belt, as well as designs for battering rams, siege towers, and even grenades. One device illustrated by Kyeser is the war cart, a way of transporting troops which had spears sticking out from either side as well as multiple other sharp edges that rotated with the turning of the wheels to shred and mangle enemy infantry.

4. Ergot bread

Okay, this wasn’t really an invention in the sense that no one wanted it, but it was present throughout the medieval period. A wet winter and spring could cause ergot to grow on rye crops. Ergot is a fungus that was also known as ‘St Anthony’s fire’. Bread made from rye that had been affected by ergot caused violent and sometimes deadly reactions in those who ate it.

Ergot bread contains lysergic acid, the substance synthesised to create LSD. Symptoms after ingesting it could include hallucinations, delusions, convulsions and the sensation of something crawling under the skin. Ergotism also restricts blood flow to the extremities, so can result in gangrene setting in to fingers and toes.

In 1518, one of the most bizarre afflictions in history struck Strasburg; dancing mania.
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The symptoms it can cause, and its constant presence, have led to suggestions it was behind outbreaks of dancing mania between the 7th and 17th centuries. One of the biggest outbreaks was in Aachen in June 1374, and in 1518 in Strasbourg several hundred people are reported to have danced wildly in the streets. It has even been suggested that the Salem Witch Trials in 1692 were the result of an outbreak of ergotism.

5. Greek fire

It is believed that Greek fire was developed in the Byzantine Empire in the 7th century. It was used during the Crusades and spread to Western Europe in the 12th century. The precise recipes used are unknown and the subject of debate. The oily substance was sticky and combustible, and when alight it couldn’t be put out by water, only burning hotter. It was not dissimilar to modern napalm.

A manuscript image of one boat firing Greek Fire at another

Depiction of Greek fire in the late 11th century from the Madrid Skylitzes manuscript

Image Credit: Public Domain

Often used in naval battles, Greek fire could be poured through long copper pipes. However, it was highly unstable and as likely to cause harm to those using it as those it was aimed at. In July 1460, during the Wars of the Roses, the Tower of London was besieged by Londoners and Yorkist forces when Lord Scales, who was tasked with defending the fortress, poured Greek fire from the walls onto the people below, wreaking havoc.

Other combustible substances were used in medieval warfare. Quicklime was sometimes used in naval battles, the powder thrown into the air on the wind. It reacts to moisture, so if it got in an enemy’s eyes or any areas of sweat, it would burn instantly.

6. The brazen head

This one is more of a legend than an invention, though the 13th-century monk and scholar Roger Bacon was accused of having invented it (he is also credited with the first written recipe for gunpowder, the magnifying glass, as well as for predicting manned flight and cars). Supposedly made from brass or bronze, the brazen heads might be mechanical, or magical, but they would reportedly answer any question they were asked – like a medieval search engine.

A drawing of Roger Bacon's assistant Miles looking frightened before the Brazen Head

Roger Bacon’s assistant Miles is confronted by the Brazen Head in a 1905 retelling of the story.

Image Credit: Public Domain

Other scholars of the 12th and 13th century Renaissance, such as Robert Grosseteste and Albertus Magnus, as well as others throughout history including Boethius, Faust, and Stephen of Tours were rumoured to have owned or created brazen heads, often employing the aid of a demon to give it power.

If they existed, they were perhaps a medieval version of the Wizard of Oz’s trickery.

Matt Lewis