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10 Medieval Mysteries We'd Really Like To Solve

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Vote up the mysteries from the Middle Ages you'd really like answers to.

Speculation about history can be fun. Asking questions, getting answers - there's some satisfaction that comes from both sides of that exercise. But what happens when there aren't answers? When a mystery has been around for so long and so many theories exist, it sometimes seems like it's just unknowable.

There are many conundrums from the Middle Ages we fear may never be solved. We're not ready to accept defeat, though. We took a look, assessed what we're up against, and are as excited as ever to see what continued investigation may reveal.

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  • Where Did The Two Princes In The Tower Go?
    Photo: John Everett Millais / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
    1
    1,211 VOTES

    Where Did The Two Princes In The Tower Go?

    The two sons of King Edward IV of England - Edward and Richard - were confined in the Tower of London by their uncle, the Duke of Gloucester, after their father's death in 1483. They were lodged there purportedly for their safety as the War of the Roses raged in England.

    As the regent for the new King Edward V, the duke soon had both boys declared illegitimate and took the throne as his own, becoming Richard III. The exact details about what happened to Edward and Richard, ages 12 and 9, respectively, have never been clear. Once the princes were ensconced in Tower of London, neither was ever seen again. At the time, observers noted:

    Withdrawn to the inner apartments of the Tower proper, and day by day began to be seen more rarely behind the bars and windows until at length they ceased to appear altogether. Already there is a suspicion that they have been done away with.

    There's widespread speculation that the newly crowned King Richard III had the princes murdered to secure his position. Assertions that the boys escaped led to rumors that they fled to continental Europe, perpetuated by men like Perkin Warbeck, who claimed to be young Richard during the 1490s. When Sir Thomas More wrote about the event during the early 16th century, he described the deaths of the boys at the order of Richard III:

    The innocent children lying in their beds, Miles Forest and John Dighton, about midnight, came into the chamber and suddenly lapped them up among the clothes, so bewrapped them and entangled them, keeping down by force the feather-bed and pillows hard unto their mouths, that within a while smothered and stifled, they gave up to God their innocent souls.

    Despite claims that Richard III had, in fact, ordered the deaths of his nephews, there was no proof. Some historians insist he had no real motive, and for centuries, researchers and archaeologists have looked for physical evidence of the boys' fate. Bones discovered at the Tower of London and St. George's Chapel (the burial site of King Edward IV) have yielded inconclusive findings, and requests for DNA tests have been denied by the Crown.

    1,211 votes
  • What's In The Voynich Manuscript?
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
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    896 VOTES

    What's In The Voynich Manuscript?

    The Voynich Manuscript (named for Wilfrid Voynich, the bookseller who "rediscovered" it in 1912) was written during the 15th century. It includes undeciphered words and codes and an array of unusual images - all of which remain a mystery. 

    Attempts to read and explain the manuscript's contents have been truly interdisciplinary in nature. Forensics specialists, historians, and cryptologists alike have tried to definitively explain the contents. Divided into six sections, the tome encompasses topics such as botanicals, astronomy, biology, cosmology, pharmaceuticals, and even recipes.

    Over time, researchers have identified Latin letters and Arabic numerals, but figures that look like aliens and strange flora and fauna continue to puzzle observers. Scholars like Egyptologist Rainer Hannig insist the manuscript is written in a language based on Hebrew, while Nicholas Gibbs claimed in 2017 that the document was a mix of copied and plagiarized information from ancient and medieval health manuals. 

    896 votes
  • Who Were The Green Children Of Woolpit?
    Photo: Rod Bacon / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA 2.0
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    1,077 VOTES

    Who Were The Green Children Of Woolpit?

    According to William of Newburgh, a 12th-century English chronicler, two children - a boy and a girl - appeared in Suffolk at some point during the reign of King Stephen (r. 1135-1154). The youngsters were "completely green in their persons, and clad in garments of a strange color, and unknown materials." 

    Found by men out in their fields, the children were taken to the village of Woolpit and initially refused all food but raw beans. When they eventually began eating a better diet, Newburgh related that they "changed their original color" and, with time, they "became like ourselves, and also learned our language." 

    When asked where they came from, the children said they were from "the land of St. Martin," although they had no real idea where that was. They described their home as a place where "[T]he sun does not rise upon our countrymen; our land is little cheered by its beams; we are contented with twilight, which, among you, precedes the sun-rise, or follows sun-set."

    Exactly who the Woolpit children were - if they ever existed - has puzzled historians and nonhistorians alike. Theories range from the youths having been poisoned or simply malnourished, although more outlandish ideas revolve around them being aliens.

    The most likely explanation is that they were the children of immigrants from Flanders who, at some point during the turbulent years of King Stephen's time on the throne, were orphaned. Animosity between the Flemish and English can be seen in the actions of Stephen's successor, Henry II. He targeted Flemish individuals living in England specifically, casting them out of England after he took the throne in 1154. 

    1,077 votes
  • What Was The Dancing Plague?
    Photo: Pieter Brueghel the Elder / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
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    1,117 VOTES

    What Was The Dancing Plague?

    In 1518, hundreds of residents of a town in the Holy Roman Empire started dancing - and didn't stop for three months. The so-called Dancing Plague seized Strasbourg through the summer months, with Frau Troffea being the first victim. She danced to exhaustion for days, bloodying and bruising her feet until eventually succumbing to her affliction. 

    The Dancing Plague lasted from July to early September, at which point it subsided. Historians still wonder what the root cause was, but Strasbourg wasn't the only place it struck. Similar instances of dancing to death occurred in various parts of Germany, France, Holland, and Switzerland as early as 1374.

    At the time, the disorder was thought to be caused by "hot blood," the devil, or a curse from Saint Vitus, the patron saint of dancers and entertainment. Other theories involve poison, spider bites, or a communal possession of sorts, bred in an "environment of belief" that some supernatural force was at large.

    1,117 votes
  • What Was The Recipe For Greek Fire?
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    5
    882 VOTES

    What Was The Recipe For Greek Fire?

    As an incendiary weapon of choice for fighters in the Byzantine Empire, Greek fire was first used during the 670s. The flammable liquid burned on water, making it inextinguishable and highly effective in naval combat.

    While Greek fire wasn't the first such weapon used in history, the exact composition of the Byzantine version remains unknown. Called "artificial fire," it was sprayed on enemy ships, bringing with it flames and smoke alike. Greek fire may have been a mixture of sulfur and quicklime or saltpeter, but historians continue to debate its true make-up.

    The Byzantines continued to use Greek fire, and they admittedly wanted to keep it a secret.

    882 votes
  • 6
    617 VOTES

    What Happened To The Vikings In Greenland?

    During the mid-10th century, Norse settlers arrived on the island of Greenland. They stayed through roughly the middle of the 15th century, at which point they abandoned their settlements.

    Erik the Red was the first so-called King of Greenland, leading settlers to found two major communities on the island during the 980s and 990s. Erik also gave Greenland its name, a strategic moniker intended to make the cold, desolate location sound more appealing. 

    The height of Viking presence saw thousands of Norse men and women living there. They were farmers and hunters, seizing upon the availability of walrus tusks to succeed in the ivory trade as well. By the mid-14th century, the Viking population of Greenland declined and, by the mid-1400s, they were gone. 

    It was widely thought the Norse left Greenland due to changes in climate. Warmer weather not only influenced survival on the island but made travel by sea more difficult. Coupled with already difficult conditions and natural disasters, some researchers believe many Vikings starved to death, perhaps because they couldn't adapt to their new surroundings.

    Geographer Jared Diamond and historian Thomas McGovern used to believe this - but they now think there was a much slow migration out of Greenland. McGovern also thinks some Vikings actually stayed and moved to other parts of Greenland, but ultimately lost their fight to survive.

    617 votes