Last week we took a look at medieval superheroes – here we present ten of the worst villains from the literature and legends of the Middle Ages.
1. Morgan le Fay
In the earliest Arthurian tales, Morgan le Fay appears as a healer, but by the 13th century her character expands significantly. Although she is the half-sister of King Arthur, she hates him and can be found spending much of her time scheming against him and his wife Guinevere. She also becomes an expert in evil magic, and can be found either capturing many of the heroes from Arthur’s court or trying to seduce them. Morgan also plays a role in Arthur’s death, as she steals Excalibur’s protective scabbard from the king while he is sleeping and throws it into a lake; without the magical protection the scabbard offers, the King is killed in his final battle.
2. Grendel’s Mother
“Devil-shaped woman, her woe ever minded” – In the story of Beowulf, Grendel’s Mother is never exactly described, but she is one of the great villains of Old English literature. Upon the death of her son Grendel, this “mighty mere-woman” comes to get her revenge, forcing the hero Beowulf to come to her underwater lair.
3. Gog and Magog
Perhaps individuals or entire peoples, in the Middle Ages Gog and Magog were presented as the great danger that resides in far off lands. Having developed from Biblical and Quranic literature, they were said to have been locked behind a great wall by Alexander the Great. By the later Middle Ages they became associated with the Mongols, and many European travellers to Asia noted how they looked for and wondered where they might be.
In the medieval Welsh tale Culhwch ac Olwen he is the cruel and vicious king of the giants, who defeated the former ruler and killed his 23 children. The hero of the story, Culhwch, has come to marry Ysbaddaden’s daughter Olwen, but the giant gives him a number of impossible tasks that he must do before he will give his daughter away.
This poor wolf from the stories of Reynard the Fox is almost always constantly outwitted and humiliated by Reynard. A greedy liar, Ysengrimus ends up getting tricked by the fox, such as when he convinced him to use his tail when ice fishing, only to get it frozen in the lake. Modern commentators believe that the wolf is an allegorical representation of corrupt monks and church officials.
A pseudo-historical character, Vortigern is the ‘superbus tyrannus’ from 5th century Britain. In the 12th century, he is portrayed as one of the most evil rulers in history, with William of Malmesbury writing that he was “a man calculated neither for the field nor the council, but wholly given up to the lusts of the flesh, the slave of every vice: a character of insatiable avarice, ungovernable pride, and polluted by his lusts. To complete the picture, he had defiled his own daughter, who was lured to the participation of such a crime by the hope of sharing his kingdom, and she had borne him a son. Regardless of his treasures at this dreadful juncture, and wasting the resources of the kingdom in riotous living, he was awake only to the blandishments of abandoned women.”
7. Vlad the Impaler
Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia was a minor ruler in the 15th century who was allied with then fought against the Ottomans. He would earn a reputation for cruelty and for impaling his enemies. By the end of the Middle Ages stories were circulating throughout Eastern Europe about Vlad and how “he roasted children, whom he fed to their mothers. And he cut off the breasts of women, and forced their husbands to eat them. After that, he had them all impaled.” While in Romania he is seen as a heroic leader who defended his country, he also became the basis for Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula.
More of a trickster figure than a genuinely evil character, Loki is a god in Norse mythology. While at times he can be found helping, hindering or insulting the other gods, he also engineers the murder of the god Baldur. Eventually he is bound in the entrails of one of his children and thrown into a cave.
9. The Sheriff of Nottingham
The leading villain in the stories of Robin Hood, the Sheriff of Nottingham is tasked with capturing the English outlaw. In the oldest surviving tale, A Gest of Robyn Hode, the sheriff holds an archery contest, which Robin wins, who then manages to escape arrest. Later on Robin shoots and kills the sheriff while rescuing one of his friends.
10. The Devil
An important character in Christian and Islamic theology, the Devil, he can be found in many legends and literary tales from the Middle Ages. In secular and hagiographic texts he often appears to unleash trouble or tempt the heroes, only to have his schemes (usually) defeated.
See also our list for the Top 10 Superheroes of the Middle Ages
The Devil as a Christian Author? The Case of Versus maligni angeli
The role of the devil in Old English narrative literature
The Three Tellings of Beowulf’s Fight with Grendel’s Mother
Analytical Psychology Approach to the Love-Hate Relationship between King Arthur and Morgan le Fay in Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur
Sympathy for the Devil: the legend of Gog and Magog
The Impalings of Vlad the Impaler