10 most absurd deaths from medieval Europe

The Darwin Awards are annual and don't concern themselves with historical (ig)noble sacrifices. Let's correct that injustice.

The Darwin Awards were created in the 1980s to honor those individuals who made the ultimate sacrifice to protect humanity’s gene pool. That is, they died in such an extraordinarily idiotic manner that their deaths actually significantly raised the quality of the DNA passed on to the next generation — as per Charles Darwin’s theories on natural selection.

But the Darwin Awards are annual, only concerning themselves with candidates who have expired within the last year. This leaves a vast array of figures throughout history who have gone unrecognized for their (ig)noble sacrifice. This hardly seems fair. Of course, there’s a lot of history to cover, so in the interests of brevity we will start by looking at the Middle Ages (specifically Europe, from around the 7th to the 16th centuries; I know, technically the 16th century is the Early Modern period but I’d thought I’d stretch the point for a few of them).

Therefore, in recognition of these pioneers in self-administered eugenics, I present to you the winners of the Medieval Darwin Awards!

The Children’s Crusade — Nicholas the Shepherd and his followers

The Children’s Crusade, by Gustave Doré.

Of all the religious wars in the Middle Ages, none was stranger than The Children’s Crusade. The 12th century was the height of crusading fervor, and although the official Crusades had seen early successes, by the beginning of the 13th century Jerusalem was back in Muslim hands and the last two attempts to capture it had failed.

However, in the year 1212 a popular movement sprang up across Europe, led by two children who promised to lead their followers to Jerusalem and retake it by the power of faith alone.

In Germany a shepherd boy called Nicholas started gathering followers sometime in 1211, preaching that those who followed him would simply walk to the Holy Land when the seas opened up before them (like Moses at the Red Sea), whereupon they would convert the Saracens through the simple power of their faith rather than take Jerusalem by force of arms. Children from all across Germany started leaving their families to follow him; the “crusade” took a few months to send out preachers and gather strength (while the majority seem to have been children, many adults joined up as well).

In the Spring of 1212 Nicholas led his army across the Alps. Sadly, Nicholas was no Hannibal, and about two thirds died en route, which in turn caused many to turn around. However, about 7000 of them still made it to the Italian port of Genoa.

Strangely, the seas stubbornly refused to part for them. Over a couple of months of waiting, the crusade started to fragment. Some of those who hadn’t already gone home made for other Italian ports to try and find passage to Palestine, while Nicholas led the remainder to Rome… where the Pope told them to be good children and return home to their families.

Unfortunately, Nicholas didn’t survive the harsh Alpine conditions a second time; even more unfortunately, when it became clear that the few ragged survivors that made it back were all that was coming, the angry families of his followers had his father hanged.

Meanwhile in France, another shepherd boy was leading his own section of the Children’s Crusade; a twelve year old known as Stephen of Cloyes. Stephen claimed to have a letter from Jesus he was taking to the king of France, and accrued a following of 30,000 children and adults at his peak. Fortunately, the King Philip was less than impressed and ordered them all to go home; Stephen wandered around for a while preaching as his band of followers slowly dwindled, but never made it out of France.

All in all, nothing was accomplished apart from several thousand dead children. Also, many of the children who made it to Italy were tricked by unscrupulous merchants and sold into slavery, so some of them did likely end up in the Holy Land after all. It’s doubtful that they appreciated finally getting the chance to convert the heathen from their new positions in the Saracens’ harems.

The heart (and brains) of a lion — Richard the Lionheart

Richard the Lionheart was the epitome of Medieval chivalry: brave, charismatic, with peerless martial prowess. He was also an arrogant tyrant who preferred to spend his time looting and burning his way through Europe and the Middle East rather than actually ruling his kingdom. After his participation in the Third Crusade (which failed in no small part due to Richard’s infighting with the other Christian commanders), Richard traveled back via central Europe and was captured and imprisoned by Leopold of Austria, forcing England to pay three times the crown’s annual revenue to get him back. None of this put a dent in his prodigious ego.

His downfall began in 1199, when he found himself in a dispute with one of his French vassals, Vicount Aimar of Limoges, over a hoard of Roman gold coins that had been discovered on his land.

Europe is littered with buried treasure and coin hoards. This soapstone jar full of Roman gold coins from no later than 474 AD was recently discovered under a former theater in northern Italy.

Richard decided to settle the issue by — you guessed it — burning and looting his way through Aimar’s domain (which drew disapproval even from Medieval chroniclers, but probably only because he did it during Lent).

This culminated in the Siege of Châlus-Chabrol, a tiny castle on the road to Limoges. Richard, entirely confident of victory over the small force of defenders, didn’t even think it worth putting his armor on to go and survey the entrenching works. Nor did he see any issue in standing within bowshot of the castle walls.

To no one’s surprise — except Richard’s, of course — one of the castle’s defenders picked up a crossbow and shot him. The bolt only hit him in the shoulder, but the wound turned gangrenous and within a few days Richard was dead. He did, however, live long enough to find out that the great warrior who had slain him was in fact only a young peasant boy. As one Medieval chronicler put it: “The Lion by the Ant was slain.”

Twelve angry men — Jan Matthys

There are some historical events that would be really fascinating to have been present for. Like Cortes riding into Tenochtitlan for the first time, or Michelangelo unveiling the Sistine Chapel, or Joan of Arc leading the French armies into battle. I personally would love to have been outside Münster on the 5th of April 1534, just to see the looks on the faces of the besieging soldiers when rebel leader Jan Matthys led his army against them.

In 1534 a group of Anabaptists — a radical Lutheran offshoot — seized the city of Münster in the Holy Roman Empire, forcing the ruling Prince-Bishop Franz von Waldeck to flee. The Anabaptists then started a sort of proto-communism in the city, redistributing property to the poor, tearing down church icons, and preparing to spread their revolution to the rest of Germany. However, von Waldeck soon returned with an army and besieged the city; the force of hardened mercenaries and Imperial troops sitting outside their walls posed something of a problem for the shopkeepers, tailors, bakers, etc, who made up the rebels.

However, their savior was at hand: Jan Matthys, a baker from Haarlem. So convinced was he of the righteousness of their cause that rather than sit behind the city’s walls he sallied forth with a band of hand-picked men, inspired by the Biblical Gideon. In fact, Matthys was so confident that Almighty God would smite his enemies for him that he only took twelve men with him. That’s right, he attacked the besieging army with just twelve men. Really, I wish I could have been there to watch von Waldeck’s troops standing there, looking on open mouthed, wondering ‘what the hell is this guy doing?’

Strangely, no angels jumped in to intercede on the rebels’ behalf; instead, Jan Matthys was immediately cut down. His head was placed on a spike, and, just to hammer the point home, his severed genitals were nailed to the city gates. Von Waldeck retook the city a few months later, and the Anabaptists were finished as a political force in Germany. There are still Anabaptist sects today, like the Mennonites and the Amish, among others, but in true Darwinian form the only ones that survived were the pacifists.

Head over heels in love — Louis III of France

Every king wants to leave their mark on history. Not every king succeeds. However, within that category there are the kings who don’t leave much of an impression because their reigns were several decades of uneventful peace, and then there are the ones who lasted three years then died during an attempted rape.

Louis III, King of the Franks, falls into the latter category. His reign was actually going quite well up until his death in 882, Louis having defeated a major viking invasion the year before. One of the few historical sources we have for his truncated reign is a short poem (the Ludwigslied) which praises him for this victory and, ironically, for his piety.

He wasn’t even on campaign at the time of his death (which by Medieval standards would at least have been some justification for rape); he just happened to be riding through his own kingdom when he saw a girl he was so instantly smitten with that he just have to have her right there and then — whether she wanted him or not.

It would be ignominious enough if he had simply been killed while attempting to rape this girl, but he didn’t meet his end at the hands of a protective father or brother. No, Louis hit his head on a door frame while chasing the girl into her father’s house. Given that he was on his horse, this was enough to fracture his skull and kill him.

He was only eighteen when he died; not that that really excuses much.

A knight’s fail — Henry II of France

The fatal tournament between Henry II and Montgomery (Lord of “Lorges”). 16th Century anonymous German print.

If you’re a king, it generally pays to take a certain amount of care with your personal safety. After all, the prosperity of an entire country hinges on your well-being. Should you die — especially if you have no adult sons — your entire kingdom could be thrown into chaos.

This makes Henry II of France‘s decision to take up jousting as a hobby rather ill-considered. By the 16th century, jousting had largely become irrelevant as martial training, but was still a favored leisure pastime of Europe’s nobility, despite its well-known dangers.

And sure enough, on the 1st of July 1559, Henry II was jousting against the captain of his Scottish guard when a splinter from his opponent’s lance penetrated his visor. This was a typical jousting injury, and to avoid it most participants would turn their head away at the last second to avoid the splinters, but the bravest — or stupidest — would keep their eye on the target right up to the moment of impact to ensure their victory. Apparently Henry II didn’t think being king of France was impressive enough, or at least not as impressive as knocking a guy off his horse.

The splinter that penetrated Henry’s visor went through his eye and into his brain, but didn’t kill him immediately; it was sepsis that finished him off ten days later (somewhat ironically Henry was wearing the three-crescent emblem of his mistress, Diane de Poitiers, at the time of his accident; it looks eerily similar to the modern biohazard symbol).

Henry already had ten children with his wife and several more with his various mistresses, so this isn’t a Darwin Award in that sense (although it counts, since he certainly didn’t have any more after the accident); however, his premature death probably contributed to the extinction of the House of Valois-Angoulême. His widow, the formidable Catherine de Medici, was left to try to hold the kingdom together for his infant sons, who all died one after the other; the only one to survive their mother was Henry III, who outlived Catherine by just eight months before being assassinated, thus ending Henry II’s male line.

Don’t drink and drive! — William Adelin

Nothing embodies the Darwin awards like drunk drivers. How dumb do you have to be to get behind the wheel of the vehicle when you can barely walk straight? Surely, though, this is only a modern problem — after all, the car was only invented at the end of the 19th century.

Well, life — or in this case, death — finds a way. This particular tragedy claimed the lives of not only William Adelin, son and sole male heir of Henry I of England, but also almost three hundred other noblemen, courtiers and servants.

It was the evening of November 25th, 1120, and the seventeen year old William was in the Normandy port of Barfleur preparing to leave for England. The seas were calm, and the ship they planned to cross the English Channel on was the fastest, most modern ship in the royal fleet: the White Ship (“la Blanche-nef” in French). So William saw no harm in having a party before leaving, trusting a speedy crossing would make up for any delay.

William kept drinking throughout the evening, providing a veritable river of wine not just for his noble companions (which included two of his half-siblings), but also his servants and, unwisely, the crew of the ship. It was therefore the middle of the night by the time the ship was ready to get underway.

The White Ship didn’t even make it out of Barfleur’s harbor before the drunken helmsman steered it straight into a rock. The ship sank quickly, and of the three hundred passengers aboard — which included some of the cream of the Anglo-Norman aristocracy — only one man survived; a humble butcher from Rouen called Berold.

William had actually made it onto a lifeboat, but insisted on going back for his half-sister Mathilda, which led to the boat being swamped by desperate drowning people and sending them all to their deaths.

William’s death led to a twenty year civil war after the death of his father Henry. Chroniclers of the time said of this period: “God and all His saints were asleep.” Of all the drunk driving accidents in history, this far and away is the worst in terms of total death toll.

Interestingly, Stephen of Blois, who was able to crown himself Stephen I after Henry’s death (albeit not uncontested), had intended to travel to England with William on the White Ship. However, seeing the overcrowding and general intoxication of the crew, he wisely got off at the last moment. Stephen therefore went down in history as a king, while William went down with the ship: Darwinism in action.

The blind leading the blind — King John of Bohemia

Death of John of Bohemia illustrated by Charles Édouard Delort.

If any phrase can be used to describe the catastrophic French defeat at the Battle of Crécy in 1346, it would be “charging blindly into battle.” The French knights repeatedly hammered at the heavily outnumbered English through the course of the day and long into the night, only to be beaten back every single time by a hailstorm of English arrows. And yet they kept charging, wave after wave going in despite seeing what had happened to the previous lot to try their luck.

It’s tempting to give a Darwin award every French knight who saw what had happened to the first wave and decided to do exactly the same thing anyway. However, the grand prize really can go to none other than King John of Bohemia, who decided to charge into the fray despite having been blind for ten years.

Determined not to let a little thing like being completely unable to see the enemy keep him from martial glory, he tied his horse’s bridle to those of his two attendants, and having commanded them to keep him pointed towards the English he literally charged blindly into the battle.

…for all that he was nigh blind, when he understood the order of the battle, he said to them about him: ‘Where is the lord Charles my son?’ His men said: ‘Sir, we cannot tell; we think he be fighting.’ Then he said: ‘Sirs, ye are my men, my companions and friends in this journey: I require you bring me so far forward, that I may strike one stroke with my sword.’ They said they would do his commandment, and to the intent that they should not lose him in the press, they tied all their reins of their bridles each to other and set the king before to accomplish his desire, and so they went on their enemies. The lord Charles of Bohemia his son, who wrote himself king of Almaine and bare the arms, he came in good order to the battle; but when he saw that the matter went awry on their party, he departed, I cannot tell you which way. The king his father was so far forward that he strake a stroke with his sword, yea and more than four, and fought valiantly and so did his company; and they adventured themselves so forward, that they were there all slain, and the next day they were found in the place about the king, and all their horses tied each to other.

Needless to say, they were killed not long after reaching the English lines.

Pissed off — Tycho Brahe

Not every stupid death in the Middle Ages was the result of reckless bravery on the battlefield. Take the case of the famous astronomer Tycho Brahe, for example, who died because he was a stickler for etiquette.

According to several first-hand accounts, including that of his assistant, a young Johannes Kepler, Tycho Brahe was invited to dine with a local baron in Prague one October evening in 1601. Despite being a prodigious drinker, Brahe considered it a breach of etiquette to leave the table before the baron did, and so refused to excuse himself to go to the toilet all through the evening. When he finally got home to the blessed relief of a chamber pot, he found that he was no longer able to urinate except in very small amounts and with excruciating pain.

Doctors at the time attributed his death to kidney stones, but 20th century historians exhumed his corpse and autopsied it: the complete lack of kidney stones led them to allege that a jealous Kepler had poisoned him, especially when traces of mercury were found. However, more recent analyses have discounted the mercury poisoning theory, as there wasn’t enough of it in his body to kill him, and traces on his beard were likely the result of his alchemical studies. According to the more recent work, it’s most likely that his death really was caused by kidney failure from holding in urine for too long.

Tycho Brahe’s own self-penned epitaph sums it up best: “He lived like a sage and died like a fool.”

B(l)owback — Henry Pert

Most of the people on this list were notable people in their own right, not just remembered for the manner of their deaths; after all, Medieval historians generally liked to concentrate on kings and Popes; ordinary people generally only feature in broad strokes, like “The King devastated the Viscount’s land with fire and sword.”

Yet many Medieval kingdoms were actually quite scrupulous in their everyday record keeping. Buried in the archives modern historians can often find a wealth of interesting data on the lives of the common people — or rather, how they ended — from the coroner’s reports. In the archives of English law, of particular interest to this list are the reports that record: “death by misadventure.”

I cannot tell you much about Henry Pert except that he was a gentleman (non-noble but reasonably well-off) from the village of Welbeck in northern England. On October 28th of 1552, Henry was out training with that traditional English weapon, the longbow, when he drew the string back so far that the arrow got lodged in the bow.

Don’t fuck around with the English longbow.

We all know that if your guns jams it’s not a great idea to look down the barrel to see what’s gone wrong. Apparently, no one thought that this basic piece of firearms safety was worth teaching in the days of the longbow — I mean, how can a longbowman manage to shoot himself with his own weapon?

To the shame of all of his English forebears who fought at Crécy and Agincourt, Henry Pert showed us the way to do just that.

When his arrow got stuck, he put the bow down and leaned over it to see if he could unstick it. Which he did, to fatal effect. As the coroner’s report records: “Because his face was directly over the arrow as it climbed upwards, it struck him above his left eye, near to his eyelid, and into his head to the membrane.” He died the next day.

Martyr to fashion — Hans Staininger

Hans Staininger statue on the facade of the Rathaus, Braunau am Inn, Austria.

There have been many well-deserved modern Darwin Awards won by those who have gone too far in the pursuit of fashion. From leaking breast implants to overzealous liposuction and failed butt-lifts (yes, that’s a thing). However, again, surely that can only be a modern problem, right? After all, it’s not like cosmetic surgery existed in the Middle Ages.

Well, it didn’t, and yet Hans Stainiger (his wikipedia entry redirects to Unusual Deaths) somehow found a way. He was elected mayor of Braunau am Inn for a record six times in the mid-16th century (incidentally, Braunau am Inn is mostly known as the birthplace of Adolf Hitler). As a dedicated public servant, he held the love of the public with his honesty, his wisdom, and his… extremely long beard.

Stainiger grew his beard so long that it reached down to the ground, which necessitated him rolling it up and carrying it around in a pouch most of the time. However, on one occasion — accounts differ here, but either the town hall caught fire or he was rushing to pay his respects to a passing prince — he was in too much of a hurry to tuck it in properly, and in his haste he tripped over his own beard, causing a fatal fall.

His beard is still on display in Braunau, which might be some consolation for Stainiger given how proud he was of it. As an 18th century German historian put it, he died “als Märterer seiner eingebildeten Schönheit” (as a martyr to his own imagined beauty).