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6 medieval mysteries that remain unsolved to this day
The medieval world was a place steeped in fable and superstition, myth and legend – but the boundaries of folklore and fact were not always so clearcut. Many of the most famous medieval mysteries and legends, like the six here, still give us much to ponder over today.
1. The Dancing Plague
Aachen, June 1374 – the people of the famous German city of kings stepped out of their houses en masse and started to thrash about uncontrollably in a state of delirium that resembled a manic kind of dancing. This was just one outbreak of what came to be known in medieval Europe as ‘the dancing plague’, or ‘choreomania’.
In 1518 Strasbourg, another famous flare-up of the ‘plague’ took place. A local woman named Frau Troffea kicked off the bout of bopping, and in a few weeks 400 of the townsfolk had reportedly come down with the ‘sickness’.
Medieval church authorities believed it was either demonic possession or a curse. In Italy, spiders were thought to be the cause. Locals called it ‘tarantism’ because they believed the arachnid venom was bringing on the delirium.
One modern explanation is the psychological stress from severe bouts of famine and disease at the times of the group gyrations. Another scientific theory is ergot poisoning, the result of dodgy rye, which can bring about hallucinations, involuntary movements, and delusions.
The precise cause of ‘the dancing plague’, though, remains a mystery to this day.
2. The Green Children of Woolpit
According to 12th-century chronicler William of Newburgh, during the tumultuous reign of King Stephen of England (1135-1154) a curious incident occurred which is only believable because of the many ‘credible witnesses’.
The chronicle states that a boy and girl emerged from two holes in the ground just outside the village of Woolpit, Suffolk. Bedraggled and bewildered, they were found by harvesters, who took the children to the village. They spoke in a language unknown to the villagers, wore clothes of a ‘strange hue and texture’, ate only green beans, and their skin was green - completely green.
Ralph of Coggeshall, writing in the early 13th century, explained that the boy eventually became ill and died, but the girl slowly lost her green colour and recovered.
The young girl later learned to speak English, and as a young married woman in King’s Lynn, she regaled others with talk of her mysterious origins. She claimed that she and her brother had come from a country where everyone had green skin and the sun was dull and green. One day they stumbled upon a cavern and emerged into our world, dazzled by the bright sun.
Who were these mysterious children? Were they lost orphans with a skin condition? Or perhaps they had found their way out of a secret underground realm?
3. The Princes in the Tower
Tudor writers such as Thomas More and William Shakespeare helped to create the popular image of King Richard III: a hunchbacked usurper who allegedly had his two young nephews – the uncrowned Edward V and his brother Richard – murdered in the Tower of London in 1483. Over five centuries later, the consensus among historians is still that it was probably the work of Richard III.
But the truth is that nobody knows for sure. It remains a mystery.
Henry Stafford or Margaret Beaufort might have had them bumped off, they might have died in the Tower years later by some other means, or they may have been secretly freed.
Before the century was out two young lads – Lambert Simnel in 1487 and Perkin Warbeck in the 1490s – both falsely claimed to be the real young Richard.
In 1674 the incomplete remains of two children were unearthed by workmen in the Tower of London. It was assumed that the remains were those of the two princes because a deathbed confession by one of the alleged assassins said the boys had been buried there. However, the same confessor also said that the remains were later moved. An analysis of the bones in 1933 caused much excitement but was ultimately inconclusive.
4. Prester John
In 1145, Bishop Hugh de Gebal added substance to mysterious old rumours among crusaders by telling the pope of a priest-king called John. Prester John, Hugh wrote, ruled a wealthy Christian kingdom ‘beyond Persia’ and was a descendant of one of the Biblical kings who had visited Jesus in his manger.
Later, in the 1160s, a series of letters were sent to three of the most powerful rulers of Europe at the time – correspondence which was apparently from the kingdom of Prester John itself. These epistles boasted of a rich and powerful realm covering a vast area, including modern-day Iraq. Another letter describes in fantastical detail this wondrous land, home to giantesses, cannibals, wild hares as big as sheep, and a forest of pepper swarming with giant snakes.
These letters were deemed genuine, and for centuries European adventurers headed east in search of the magnificent domain of Prester John.
A hundred years later, Marco Polo claimed to have found the country of Prester John, not in the Middle East, but much further away – in Mongolia. And Polo reckoned that Prester John was murdered by Genghis Khan.
Was the Venetian telling the truth? Nobody really knows. Others over the centuries have placed Prester John’s territory in such regions as modern-day Ethiopia and the Caucasus Mountains, but the truth remains elusive.
5. The Turin Shroud
Inside Turin Cathedral is a large piece of cloth, 13.5 ft x 4.25 ft, bearing the imprint in negative of a bearded man bearing signs of crucifixion. For centuries many have believed this cloth to be the burial shroud of Jesus, and the man to be Jesus himself.
The story goes that Jesus’s shroud was hidden for three centuries after his crucifixion, then moved to Constantinople. Then, in the 13th century, it made its way to France before finding its current home in Turin in 1578.
For centuries, pilgrims have flocked to Turin to see the Holy Shroud, but it remains controversial.
Pieces of the shroud were carbon dated in 1988, and these tests determined that the fabric was made sometime between 1260 and 1390 (although even these results have been disputed by some).
The scientific plot has continued to thicken. Traces of blood have been found on the cloth, the eyes are covered in coins minted at the time of Jesus, and traces of pollen in the cloth have been dated to 1st-century Palestine.
Sceptics remain unconvinced, but millions continue to believe in the authenticity of the Turin Shroud.
6. The Seven Sleepers of Ephesus
In the middle of the 3rd century AD, Roman emperor Decius initiated a lethal persecution of Christians.
In Ephesus (one of the great cities of the ancient world, located in modern-day Turkey), seven young Christian men became swept up in the oppression. Refusing to offer up sacrifice to the Roman gods, the seven lads, fearing punishment, fled to a local cave. Here they were discovered, and the grotto was sealed up behind them as retribution.
Knowing that there was no hope, they went to sleep. The next thing they knew, daylight was shining in on them. They woke up to find the stones being removed by a local who was nabbing the rocks for building materials.
One of the group of nappers, thinking it was safe to come out, headed into Ephesus to get some bread. The baker was alarmed to see the man trying to pay with coins that had not been seen for a very long time. The man soon discovered that he and his six friends had been asleep for a whopping 156 years (some versions of the story say even longer).
What is the truth of the matter? While convention logic says it cannot be true, this tale gripped the imagination for centuries, with versions of the story in nine medieval languages and 200 medieval manuscripts.