When it comes to scandals, most involve sex, money, and power - or some combination of these. The same is true for scandals across historical boundaries, including the Middle Ages.
Medieval scandals demonstrate how many aspects of life during the Middle Ages differed from contemporary society. They also highlight much that has stayed the same. Nobles behaving badly and some of the issues involving the Church didn't begin or end during the medieval period, although different views on sex and marriage are certainly seen in some of the most scandalous events from the time. Excess and questionable decision-making account for much of what was shocking, too.
Take a look at some major scandals from the Middle Ages and vote up the ones that are, by any measure, pretty darn scandalous.
- 1685 VOTES
Nuns 'Played And Romped' With Young Boys At Littlemore Priory
Questions about events at Littlemore Priory received renewed attention during the 2010s when nearly 100 skeletons were found on the grounds of its former location in Oxford, England. During the early 1500s, investigators had visited Littlemore after rumors spread about illicit and inappropriate behavior by the nuns there.
Littlemore was founded during the 12th century and never boasted large numbers. When John Derby visited on behalf of the Bishop of London in 1445, only seven nuns resided there. He reported they were not living according to the Benedictine Rule - they regularly shared beds, ate meat, and drank alcohol.
In 1517, Littlemore was again visited by an episcopal official named Edmund Horde, who reported the prioress had borne an illegitimate daughter with a priest and stolen from the priory. Nuns at Littlemore were said to have "played and romped" with boys, even in the face of "excessive" punishments from the prioress.
Ultimately, Littlemore was one of the institutions dissolved during the reign of King Henry VIII. The discovery of human remains at the priory revealed one young woman buried with a child, found in a position often used for individuals considered to be witches. Archaeologist Paul Murray also noted: "Another possibility is that she sinned during her life and to atone for her sins she requested to be buried face down."
Contemporary Johann Burchard provided a description of the event:
On the evening of the last day of October, 1501, Cesare Borgia arranged a banquet in his chambers in the Vatican with fifty honest prostitutes, called courtesans, who danced after the dinner with the attendants and the others who were present, at first in their garments, then naked.
After dinner, the candelabra with the burning candles were taken from the tables and placed on the floor, and chestnuts were strewn around, which the naked courtesans picked up, creeping on hands and knees between the chandeliers, while the Pope, Cesare, and his sister Lucretia looked on. Finally, prizes were announced for those who could perform the act most often with the courtesans, such as tunics of silk, shoes, barrettes, and other things.
The pontificate of Alexander VI was no stranger to excess, but Burchard's version of the banquet is the only one that exists. This has resulted in some skepticism about its objectivity. Even with the likes of Right Reverend Monsignor Peter de Roo attempting to explain the event as nothing more than a feast, it remained undeniable that Borgia could have taken part in such a "scene truly bestial."
Pope Agapetus II appointed his son, Octavius, to be his successor as the ruler of Rome, a position the teenager took in 955. He adopted the pontifical moniker John, but as the spiritual and temporal leader, struggled to secure support in either sphere. John XII enlisted the help of Holy Roman Emperor Otto I, whom he in turn crowned emperor in 962.
While in Rome, John allegedly had many mistresses, gambled with papal funds, and behaved so poorly that the Emperor himself criticized him. Otto tried to remove John from office in 963, calling a council at which the pontiff was accused of:
Homicide, perjury, sacrilege, incest with some of your female relatives and two sisters... that you have toasted the devil, and gambled with dice, while playing thusly you have evoked Zeus, Venus, and other demons.
Despite an attempt to replace John with Pope Leo VIII soon after, John was able to retake Rome for himself. In 964, however, John died, purportedly after having a stroke while in bed with another man's wife. In another account, the woman's husband engaged in defenestration - throwing John out a window.
- 4760 VOTES
King Philip IV's Daughters-In-Law Were Involved In The Tour De Nesle Affair Of 1314
At the time, King Philip IV of France was busy arranging marriages for his offspring. His son Louis married Marguerite (also called Margaret), daughter of the Duke of Burgundy, while two more sons, Philip and Charles, married two of Burgundy's daughters, Joan and Blanche, respectively. The king's daughter, Isabella, married King Edward II of England.
When Marguerite and Blanche arrived in France, they began to spend their time at the Tour de Nesle with the d'Aunay brothers. Joan, for her part, was only a witness to the debauchery said to take place there. Soon, both women were accused of adultery and, according to sources, it was Isabella who told her father about their indiscretions.
As rumors swirled, the marriage between Marguerite and Louis was annulled, and their daughter was disinherited. Charles would secure an annulment from Blanche in 1322, but both she and Marguerite were confined at the Chateau Gaillard. Before imprisonment, their heads were shaved to humiliate them. Marguerite passed in 1315 and Blanche later joined a convent.
The d'Aunay brothers were executed in 1314 for the affairs with the king's daughters-in-law; the men reportedly were drawn and quartered, flayed, castrated, and hung after their bodies had been dragged through the streets of Paris.
Philip had Ingeborg placed into confinement and appealed to the Church for an annulment. At first, he argued he and Ingeborg were too closely related (within the limits of consanguinity), but Ingeborg appealed and this was dismissed. Philip also said their marriage had never been consummated, although Ingeborg insisted it had. Philip admitted in 1212 that it had, in fact, been consummated.
Pope Celestine III condemned their divorce in 1195, but this didn't prevent Philip from marrying again the following year. As Ingeborg languished in prison for years, Philip kept trying to have their marriage dissolved. By 1199, Pope Innocent III placed an interdict on France and, in response, Philip feigned reconciliation with Ingeborg.
Considered a bigamist for marrying Agnes of Merania in 1196, Philip ultimately had to accept Ingeborg as his queen. In 1213, he brought Ingeborg back, in name only, to secure Denmark against England and in exchange for the pope legitimizing his children with Agnes: Marie and Philip Hurepel.
John Rykener, who called himself Eleanor, was "detected in women's clothing" in December 1395 (or 1394) in London. When questioned by authorities, Rykener admitted to being paid for having sex. According to accounts, Rykener's foray into prostitution began when a woman named Anna "first taught him to practice this detestable vice in the manner of a woman." Rykener explained how:
A certain Elizabeth Bronderer first dressed him in women's clothing; she also brought her daughter Alice to diverse men for the sake of lust, placing her with those men in their beds at night without light, making her leave early in the morning and showing them the said John Rykener dressed up in women's clothing, calling him Eleanor and saying that they had misbehaved with her.
Rykener confessed to having relations with women and men, including chaplains, "many nuns... many women both married and otherwise... many priests." The latter were, according to sources, "more readily than other people because they wished to give [him] more than others."
There's no record of what happened to Rykener, and no punishment is on record. It's possible Rykener was imprisoned and escaped from confinement in 1399.
Regardless, the cross-dressing prostitute upended traditional ideas about gender, family, and order on social and religious levels. This is why, in some historical interpretations, the legal document about Rykener is a work of fiction, one written as a critique of 14th-century London under the authority of King Richard II.