The Middle Ages: Fact or Fiction?

It’s April Fool’s Day, and that means I’m supposed to come up with some outlandishly hilarious story about the Middle Ages and try to pass it off as real. But since everyone knows that that’s what happens today, any post dated April 1st is almost guaranteed to be false, possibly spawning inadvertent liar’s paradoxes all across the time-space continuum of the blagosphere. Just to be safe, I’d like to start a new tradition for April Fool’s Day, in honor of Jonathan Frakes–you know, that guy who played Lt. Cmdr. Belly on Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Ten or so years ago, Frakes hosted a show on Fox called Alien Autopsy: Fact or Fiction?, which was so successful that it spun off a short-lived* series, Beyond Belief: Fact or Fiction? Each installment featured a handful of unlikely stories dramatized by actors and charged the audience with deciding which of the stories were fact and which were fiction.

So allow me to introduce Beyond Belief: Middle Ages Edition: Fact or Fiction? (Now with 100% more colons!). Below, I offer you five tales of the Middle Ages. Some of these are true, others are not. Some of them are factual, and others not factual; some bear the mark of truth, and still others of falsity. Some, you could file under “I,” and the others under “I” as well, providing your first file was labelled “Indubitable” and the second “Inaccurate.” Read on, dear reader, read on, if you dare… [cue spooky music and maybe a crow cawing or something]:

Case 1: The Unlikely Insemination — In the 9th century, Lothar II of Lotharingia wished to divorce his wife, Theutberga. Chief among his reasons was that Theutberga had been unfaithful, and not just unfaithful, but incestuously unfaithful, with her own brother, Hubert. As if this was not enough, the couple had compounded their crime by engaging solely in anal intercourse. Still more egregious, their sodomy produced a child, which Theutberga caused to be aborted in order to avoid their affair becoming known.

Case 2: The Knight with “Gender Issues” — In order to prove his love to his foxy lady friend, Sir Ulrich von Liechtenstein, the famous 13th-century knight errant, traveled around Europe in drag, complete with a blond wig, claiming to be Venus, challenging all comers to joust. Knights who he beat were sent back to his ladylove to do homage, while those who bested him got a golden ring for their trouble. He ended his en femme jousting career with 347 wins and 271 losses.

Case 3: Banking Holinesss — In the Middle Ages, it was always important to have somebody nearby being extra holy, as a sort of holiness overdraft protection for the rest of the village. So, from time to time, churches would find a particularly holy woman and brick her up inside the walls of the church, in a small vault. These women had to be warned about becoming gossips and cautioned not to let the newfound celebrity that their confinement brought upon them go to their heads.

Case 4: The Importance of Having a Human Head — In the 9th century, the Church met with a strange problem while trying to arrange the conversion of the Scandinavians. Rimbert, one of the men sent on the mission, wrote back to the pope Ratramanus of Corbie for advice. During his mission, he said, he had encountered some men who had dog heads, and he needed to know if they were a part of his task. Do dog-headed men count as humans or as monsters? Did they have souls that needed saving?

Case 5: The Little Monkey That Could — You’ve heard of the medieval fascination with monkeys at a reputable blog, no? Well, for one medieval noble family, the fascination had a special significance. The Earl of Kildare in the 14th century, John FitzThomas, almost didn’t grow up to be heir. When he was a child, a fire broke out at the family’s castle in Woodstock and by the time the family got to his bedroom, it was nothing but char. When all looked darkest, the family heard a chattering coming from one of the high towers of the castle: there, on the battlements, stood their pet monkey, holding the child in his arms. When Lil’ John grew up, he put the monkey on his family’s heraldic coat of arms to commemorate the favor.

*Further research reveals that the show lasted for five years! Thank you, Wikipedia, for this, and for the further revelation that the show is still very popular in Germany, where it runs in nonstop syndication as X-Factor: Das Unfassbare–further proof of the Hasselhoff Relativity Theorem, which is the theory that holds that the popularity of American syndicated television stars grows exponentially as they near the German border.

ANSWERS: Turn the blog upside down to read them! (Reverse text courtesy of Flip.)

˙pǝuǝddɐɥ ʎllɐnʇɔɐ ʇı ʇɐɥʇ ʇɔǝdsns oʇ uosɐǝɹ ou ǝʌɐɥ ǝʍ ʇnq ‘sɯɹɐ ɟo ʇɐoɔ ɹıǝɥʇ ʇnoqɐ ploʇ splɐɹǝƃzʇıɟ ɹǝʇɐl ʇɐɥʇ ʎɹoʇs ǝɥʇ ʎlǝʇıuıɟǝp sı sıɥʇ
ʎlqɐqoɹd ˙˙˙uoıʇɔıɟ :ǝʌıɟ ǝsɐɔ

“˙sǝɥʇolɔ ƃuıɹɐǝʍ ɟo ǝɔuɐʇɹodɯı ǝɥʇ” ‘pǝlʇıʇ ǝq plnoɥs ʎɹoʇs ǝɥʇ ‘ʎlqıssod ‘os ˙uǝɯ pǝɹǝpısuoɔ ǝq oʇ ǝɹɐ uǝɯ pǝpɐǝɥ-ƃop ǝɥʇ ‘sǝɥʇolɔ ɹɐǝʍ puɐ puɐl ǝɥʇ ǝʇɐʌıʇlnɔ ʎǝɥʇ ǝsnɐɔǝq ˙sı ǝsuodsǝɹ ,snuɐɯɐɹʇɐɹ ʇnq ‘ʇsol sı ɹǝʇʇǝl lɐuıƃıɹo ǝɥʇ
¡ʇɔɐɟ :ɹnoɟ ǝsɐɔ

¿ɐʎllıʍ ‘ɹɐqǝpıs slɐuosɹǝd ɔıɹoʇsıɥ ǝɥʇ pɐǝɹ “˙sǝʇıɹoɥɔuɐ” pǝllɐɔ ǝɹǝʍ (ooʇ ‘uǝɯ puɐ) uǝɯoʍ ǝsǝɥʇ ʇɔɐɟ :ǝǝɹɥʇ ǝsɐɔ

˙suoıʇuǝʌuoɔ ʎlʇɹnoɔ ɟo ʎpoɹɐd ɐ sɐ pǝpɹɐƃǝɹ ʎlǝpıʍ ǝɹɐ sƃuıʇıɹʍ sıɥ ʇnq ‘sıɥʇ ǝuop ǝʌɐɥ oʇ ɯıɐlɔ pıp ǝɥ puɐ ‘ɥɔıɹln pǝɯɐu ʇɥƃıuʞ ɐ sɐʍ ǝɹǝɥʇ ʇɐɥʇ ǝnɹʇ s,ʇı ˙
ɥsıuoıʇɔıɟ :oʍʇ ǝsɐɔ

˙ǝdod ǝɥʇ ʎq pǝsɹǝʌǝɹ ɹǝʇɐl ʇnq ‘pǝʇuɐɹƃ ʎllɐıʇıuı sɐʍ ǝɔɹoʌıp ǝɥʇ ‘ǝɹoɯ s,ʇɐɥʍ
ʇɔɐɟ :ǝuo ǝsɐɔ

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  • Got Medieval

    It’s come to my attention that some people (or perhaps cats that wear minuscule versions of human clothing) cannot read these answers because of their inferior technology. Here are the answers re-flipped:

    Case One: Fact. What’s more, the divorce was initially granted, but later reversed by the pope.

    Case Two: Fictionish. It’s true that there was a knight named Ulrich von Liechtensten, and he did claim to have done this, but his writings are widely regarded as a parody of courtly conventions.

    Case Three: Fact. These women (and men, too) were called “anchorites.” read the historic personals sidebar, willya?

    Case Four: Fact! The original letter is lost, but Ratramanus’ response is. Because they cultivate the land and wear clothes, the dog-headed men are to be considered men. So, possibly, the story should be titled, “The Importance of Wearing Clothes.” Rimbert went on to become the archbishop of Hamburg-Bremen and today is revered as a saint. No word on what happened to the dog-headed men.

    Case Five: Fiction… probably.
    This is definitely the story that later FitzGeralds told about their coat of arms, but we have no reason to suspect that it actually happened.

  • Brendan M

    It’s weird that the text flipping doesn’t make the l’s extend down rather than up.

  • Diane

    wow that is a good history lesson. Some things are definitely worth learning about when they are strange because it makes you think more.

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