What are the scandals that made headlines in the Middle Ages? Kings and Popes would be involved in some of the craziest stories of sex and corruption that would make today’s news seem quite tame. From a cross-dressing prostitute to the trial of a dead Pope, here are ten almost-unbelievable medieval scandals.
1. Bal des Ardents (Ball of the Burning Men)
Charles VI became the King of France in 1380 at the age of 12. By the 1390s he was suffering from a mental illness which left him delusional and psychotic – at one point he thought he was made of glass. On January 28, 1393, his wife Isabeau of Bavaria held the ball to honour the remarriage of a lady-in-waiting. During the festivities, Charles and four noblemen dressed up as wild men and danced about. However, the king’s brother, Louis of Valois, Duke of Orléans, arriving late and drunk, carried a torch into the room (despite orders to keep torches away). He then accidentally set one of the wild men dancers on fire, and because their clothes were very flammable the flames spread quickly to the other dancers. The king was saved by a young lady who threw her dress over him, while another dancer escaped by jumping into a vat of wine. One chronicler describe the scene: “four men were burned alive, their flaming genitals dropping to the floor … releasing a stream of blood”, while other nobles were severely injured trying to rescue them. When word spread of the tragedy, the citizens of Paris, blaming the decadence of the court, almost revolted, and had to be appeased by public shows of contrition by Charles’ family.
2. The Banquet of Chestnuts
One of the most infamous Popes from the Middle Ages was Rodrigo Borgia, who became Alexander VI in 1492. Along with his children, most notably Cesare and Lucretia, Rodrigo was notoriously corrupt and eager to gain power, and his pontificate had a series of scandals. Perhaps the worst of them was the so-called ‘Banquet of Chestnuts’, which was described by the papal official Johann Burchard: “Cesare Borgia arranged a banquet in his chambers in the Vatican with fifty honest prostitutes called courtesans, who danced after dinner with the attendants and 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, barrets, and other things.”
3. Abelard and Heloise
Perhaps the most famous couple of the Middle Ages – Peter Abelard was one of the leading scholars of 12th century, and Heloise d’Argenteuil was his gifted student. They began a secret and intense sexual relationship that led to Heloise becoming pregnant – they would have a son named Astrolabe. Peter convinced her that they should marry, but she only agreed to a secret one in order that his career would not be damaged. However, in a sad turn of events, Heloise’s uncle got a group of men to attack Abelard, where they castrated him. Peter would then go on to become a monk, and Heloise a nun, but would continue to write to each other. It is likely that they are buried together.
4. Tour de Nesle Affair
This was an adulterous affair that involved the three daughters-in-law of the French King Philip IV. In 1314 his daughter, Isabella (who was married to Edward II of England) informed her father that the purses she gave her sisters-in-law were now in the hands of two Norman knights, and the king started an investigation. It was believed that the knights and the princesses were carrying out the illicit affairs inside a tower in Paris known as Tour de Nesle. Eventually Philip had two knights seized and tortured until they confessed. They would be castrated before being either drawn-and-quartered or broken over wheel, and then hanged. Meanwhile, the three daughters-in-law were put on trial, with two of them being found guilty. Their heads were shaved and both sentenced to life-long imprisonment. One died the following year under mysterious circumstances, probably being murdered, while the other princess was kept eight years in an underground prison before she was released and became a nun. Having suffered from poor health because of the imprisonment, she died a few years later.
5. Collapse of the Medici Bank
At the end of the 14th century the Medici family of Florence opened their own bank, and over the next century they would become the wealthiest family in Europe. Branches were set up throughout the continent, but bad loans and questionable business decisions began to chip away at the bank’s fortune. Eventually, the problems got so bad that the Medici would embezzle money from the Florentine state treasury and even a charitable fund to provide dowries to young women. In 1494, while King Charles VII of France was invading Italy, the bank was dissolved and Piero de’ Medici, known as Piero the Unfortunate, was exiled from Florence.
6. John Rykener, A Male Cross-Dressing Prostitute in London
In 1395 London authorities arrested John Rykener while he was dressed up as a woman and having sex with another man. The record of his questioning reveals that John was cross-dressing for months, and working as a prostitute for men and women. The account reveals the names of many people who were his clients, and ends with John noting “that he often had sex as a man with many nuns and also had sex as a man with many women both married and otherwise, how many [he] did not know. Rykener further confessed that many priests had committed that vice with him as with a woman, how many [he] did not know, and said that [he] accommodated priests more readily than other people because they wished to give [him] more than others.”
7. Pope Benedict IX sells the Papacy
Benedict IX was about 20 years old when he became Pope in 1032 – one of his successors wrote that about “his rapes, murders and other unspeakable acts. His life as a pope was so vile, so foul, so execrable, that I shudder to think of it.” The worst point of his pontificate took place in 1045 when his godfather bribed him with a large amount of money to resign (so he could then be elected to the Papal throne). Benedict took the money, but within a year, regretting his decision, came to Rome and seized the Papacy. The antics became so bad that the German Emperor marched into Italy and deposed Benedict and his godfather.
8. The Marriage of Philip Augustus and Ingeborg of Denmark
In 1193, the French king Philip II Augustus married the Danish princess Ingeborg. The day after their marriage Philip repudiated his wife and demanded the marriage be annulled. The reasons why he decided to do this are a mystery, and rumours spread that the King could not consummate the marriage. Ingeborg was sent away from the French court, and for the next 20 years was kept as a virtual prisoner in castles around the country. News of the scandal spread throughout Europe, and the Pope even excommunicated Philip to force him to reconcile with his wife. It would not be until 1213 that the French King agreed to release Ingeborg and treat her as his queen, which he did only for political reasons.
9. Corruption in the English Court
The final years of Edward III’s reign saw accusations of corruption by leading members of the government. Men such as William Latimer, the King’s Chamberlain, and Richard Lyons, the Warden of the Mint, were believed to be getting rich by taking bribes, embezzling government funds, and using financial loopholes to charge huge amounts of interest on loans. Meanwhile Edward’s mistress Alice Perrers, was accused of tricking the elderly king into giving her lands and gifts. In 1376 the English Parliament tried to put an end to the corrupt practices – they imprisoned Latimer and Lyons, and forced Perrers to leave England and forfeit lands. However, the actions of Parliament were undone in the following year, allowing these people to return to power. The problems would continue, and were one of the causes of the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381, in which the rebels found Richard Lyons in London and beheaded him in the street.
10. The Cadaver Synod
During the 9th and 10th centuries the Papacy was often embroiled in petty conflicts and intense rivalries. Perhaps the lowest point in the history of the Papacy took place in 897, when Pope Stephen VI had the body of his predecessor, Pope Formosus, exhumed and put on trial. In a macabre scene, Formosus’ corpse was propped up on a throne while Stephen screamed at him and listed various charges. Unsurprisingly, Formosus was found guilty, and was punished by having his clothes stripped off, three of his fingers chopped off, and the rest of the body thrown into the Tiber River. Outrage from the Roman people led to Stephen being arrested and throne in jail, where he was strangled to death.
Learn more about these scandals:
The Poisoned Image of the Borgias: A Look at the Public Image of Pope Alexander VI and His Children
The Original Medieval Lovers: Books on Abelard and Heloise
The Medici Bank and the World of Florentine Capitalism
The Interrogation of of a Male Transvestite Prostitute in Fourteenth Century London
The Cadaver Synod: Strangest Trial in History
The Danes and the Marriage Break-up of Philip II of France