In every age the laws and moral precepts of the nations have struggled to discourage the inveterate dishonesty of mankind. In the Middle Ages—not demonstrably more nor less than in other epochs—men, good and bad, lied to their children, mates, congregations, enemies, friends, governments, and God. Medieval man had a special fondness for forging documents. He forged apocryphal gospels, perhaps never intending them to be taken as more than pretty stories; he forged decretals as weapons in ecclesiastical politics; loyal monks forged charters to win royal grants for their monasteries;58 Archbishop Lanfranc of Canterbury, according to the papal Curia, forged a charter to prove the antiquity of his see;59 schoolmasters forged charters to endow some colleges at Cambridge with a false antiquity; and “pious frauds” corrupted texts and invented a thousand edifying miracles. Bribery was general in education, trade, war, religion, government, law.60 Schoolboys sent pies to their examiners;61 politicians paid for appointments to public office, and collected the necessary sums from their friends;62 witnesses could be bribed to swear to anything; litigants gave presents to jurors and judges;63 in 1289 Edward I of England had to dismiss most of his judges and ministers for corruption.64 The laws arranged for solemn oaths at every turn; men swore on the Scriptures or the most sacred relics; sometimes they were required to take an oath that they would keep the oath they were about to take;65 yet perjury was so frequent that trial by combat was sometimes resorted to in the hope that God would identify the greater liar.66

Despite a thousand guild and municipal statutes and penalties, medieval craftsmen often deceived purchasers with shoddy products, false measures, and crafty substitutes. Some bakers stole small portions of dough under their customers’ eyes by means of a trap door in the kneading board; cheap cloths were secretly put in the place of better cloths promised and paid for; inferior leather was “doctored” to look like the best;67 stones were concealed in sacks of hay or wool sold by weight;68 the meat packers of Norwich were accused of “buying measly pigs, and making from them sausages and puddings unfit for human bodies.”69 Berthold of Regensburg (c. 12 20) described the different forms of cheating used in the various trades, and the tricks played upon country folk by merchants at the fairs.70 Writers and preachers condemned the pursuit of wealth, but a medieval German proverb said, “All things obey money”; and some medieval moralists judged the lust for gain stronger than the urge of sex.71 Knightly honor was often real in feudalism; but the thirteenth century was apparently as materialistic as any epoch in history. These examples of chicanery are drawn from a great area and time; though such instances were numerous they were presumably exceptional; they do not warrant any larger conclusion than that men were no better in the Age of Faith than in our age of doubt, and that in all ages law and morality have barely succeeded in maintaining social order against the innate individualism of men never intended by nature to be law-abiding citizens.

Most states made grave theft a capital crime, and the Church excommunicated brigands; even so, theft and robbery were common, from pickpockets in the streets to robber barons on the Rhine. Hungry mercenaries, fugitive criminals, ruined knights made roads unsafe; and city streets after dark saw many a brawl, robbery, rape, and murder.72 Coroners’ records from thirteenth-century Merrie England show “a proportion of manslaughters which would be considered scandalous in modern times”;73 murders were almost twice as numerous as deaths by accident; and the guilty were seldom caught.74 The Church labored patiently to repress feudal wars, but her modest measure of success was won by diverting men and pugnacity to the Crusades, which were, in one aspect, imperialistic wars for territory and trade. Once at war, Christians were no gentler to the defeated, no more loyal to pledges and treaties, than the warriors of other faiths and times.

Cruelty and brutality were apparently more frequent in the Middle Ages than in any civilization before our own. The barbarians did not at once cease to be barbarians when they became Christians. Noble lords and ladies buffeted their servants, and one another. Criminal law was brutally severe, but failed to suppress brutality and crime. The wheel, the caldron of burning oil, the stake, burning alive, flaying, tearing the limbs apart with wild animals, were often used as penalties. Anglo-Saxon law punished a female slave convicted of theft by making each of eighty female slaves pay a fine, bring three faggots, and burn her to death.75 In the wars of central Italy in the late thirteenth century, says the chronicle of the contemporary Italian monk Salimbene, prisoners were treated with a barbarity that in our youth would have been incredible:

For some men’s heads they bound with a cord and lever, and strained it with such force that their eyes started from their sockets and fell upon their cheeks; others they bound by the right or left thumb only, and thus lifted the whole weight of their bodies from the ground; others again they racked with yet more foul and horrible torments which I blush to relate; others … they would seat with hands bound behind their backs, and laid under their feet a pot of live coals… or they bound their hands and legs together round a spit (as a lamb is carried to the butcher), and kept them thus hanging all day long, without food or drink; or again, with a rough piece of wood they would rub and grate their shins until the bare bone appeared, which was a misery and sore pity even to behold.76

Medieval man bore suffering bravely, and perhaps with less sensitivity than the men of Western Europe would show today. In all classes men and women were hearty and sensual; their festivals were feasts of drinking, gambling, dancing, and sexual relaxation; their jokes were of a candor hardly rivaled today;77 their speech was freer, their oaths vaster and more numerous.78 Hardly a man in France, says Joinville, could open his mouth without mentioning the Devil.79 The medieval stomach was stronger than ours, and bore without flinching the most Rabelaisian details; the nuns in Chaucer listen unperturbed to the scatology of the Miller’s Tale; and the chronicle of the good monk Salimbene is at times untranslatably physical.80 Taverns were numerous, and some, in modern style, supplied “tarts” with ale.81 The Church tried to close the taverns on Sundays, with small success.82 Occasional drunkenness was the prerogative of every class. A visitor to Lübeck found some patrician ladies in a wine cellar, drinking hard under their veils.83At Cologne there was a society that met to drink wine, and took for its motto, Bibite cum hilaritate; but it imposed upon its members strict rules for moderation in conduct and modesty in speech.84

The medieval man, like any other, was a thoroughly human mixture of lust and romance, humility and egotism, cruelty and tenderness, piety and greed. Those same men and women who drank and cursed so heartily were capable of touching kindnesses and a thousand charities. Cats and dogs were pets then as now; dogs were trained to lead the blind;85 and knights developed an attachment for their horses, falcons, and dogs. The administration of charity reached new heights in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Individuals, guilds, governments, and the Church shared in relieving the unfortunate. Almsgiving was universal. Men hopeful of paradise left charitable bequests. Rich men dowered poor girls, fed scores of the poor daily, and hundreds on major festivals. At many baronial gates doles of food were distributed thrice weekly to all who asked.86 Nearly every great lady felt it a social, if not a moral, necessity, to share in the administration of charity. Roger Bacon, in the thirteenth century, advocated a state fund for the relief of poverty, sickness, and old age;87 but most of this work was left to the Church. In one aspect the Church was a continent-wide organization for charitable aid. Gregory the Great, Charlemagne, and others required that one fourth of the tithes collected by any parish should be applied to succor the poor and the infirm;88 it was so done for a time; but the expropriation of parish revenues by lay and ecclesiastical superiors disrupted this parochial administration in the twelfth century, and the work fell more than ever upon bishops, monks, nuns, and popes. All nuns but a few human sinners devoted themselves to education, nursing, and charity; their ever-widening ministrations are among the brightest and most heartening features of medieval and modern history. Monasteries, supplied by gifts and alms and ecclesiastical revenues, fed the poor, tended the sick, ransomed prisoners. Thousands of monks taught the young, cared for orphans, or served in hospitals. The great abbey of Cluny atoned for its wealth by an ample distribution of alms. The popes did what they could to help the poor of Rome, and continued in their own way the ancient imperial dole.

Despite all this charity, begging flourished. Hospitals and almshouses tried to provide food and lodging for all applicants; soon the gates were surrounded by the halt, the decrepit, the maimed, the blind, and ragged vagabonds who went from “spital to spital, prowling and poaching for lumps of bread and meat.”89 Mendicancy reached in medieval Christendom and Islam a scope and pertinacity unequaled today except in the poorest areas of the Far East.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!