What political scandals rocked the Middle Ages?
March 14, 2008 11:23 AM   Subscribe

I'm writing a story about medieval , and I need historically-accurate backdrops/minor plot elements that relate to conspiracies, intrigues, and crackpot theories from Europe in the 900s-1400s A.D.

Yes, I'm a professional writer whose question was asked in the form of a run-on sentence. I'm in brainstorming mode, and I need raw material to sort through.

My story is developing into something like "The Name of the Rose" meets "V for Vendetta," with a conspiracy-fiction slant: I want to know what sort of intrigue would be attention-worthy to a detective/freedom fighter in the days before counterculture, when empirical knowledge was scarce outside the monasteries, and the youth cared less for protests, and more for downing mead.

Was there a medieval Watergate? Any mass executions with mysteriously-vanished documentation? Hidden heirs? I know that wars were common, but what sorts of sociopolitical scandals occurred during these centuries? I want 'em huge and attention-grabbing.

I'm not really locked down on a specific date range yet, so I'll base the setting on whatever I find out.

Hope you can help!
posted by Chaotician to Writing & Language (38 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
I'm writing a story about medieval ____________, and I need [...]

Looks like an editorial slip. About medieval what? times? Poland? musicians?
posted by mumkin at 11:33 AM on March 14, 2008

Might be a little to early for you, but Pope Joan might fit the bill.
posted by Bernt Pancreas at 11:36 AM on March 14, 2008

There were some pretty appalling antipopes.
posted by box at 11:36 AM on March 14, 2008

Towards the tail end of your time period, Gilles de Rais fits the bill perfectly.
posted by cerebus19 at 11:38 AM on March 14, 2008

Read "A Distant Mirror" and "The March of Folly" by Barbara Tuchmann. Lot's of good info.
posted by Riemann at 11:40 AM on March 14, 2008

There's of course the battle of wills between Henry II and Thomas Becket, culminating, of course, in the latter's assassination.
posted by cerebus19 at 11:42 AM on March 14, 2008

Speaking of Henry II, there's also the war between his mother Empress Matilda and King Stephen.
posted by cerebus19 at 11:47 AM on March 14, 2008

Best answer: Maps and navigator journals (rutters) were highly valuable items. A 12th-century rutter that described a plausible route to the West (ie, to the New World via Greenland) would be an interesting macguffin.
posted by SPrintF at 11:49 AM on March 14, 2008

The Children's Crusade

Prester John
posted by J-Train at 11:52 AM on March 14, 2008

The Templar crisis is the usual go-to for this kind of stuff.

The Donation of Constantine
is one cool thing to base a story around--scheming popes and the corruption of the Church!
posted by nasreddin at 11:52 AM on March 14, 2008

Response by poster: SPrintF, that's a whole new field of research for me, but it looks like just the sort of item to contribute to the backdrop I need. Can you recommend any articles about rutters?
posted by Chaotician at 11:53 AM on March 14, 2008

In the late 15th century: The Princes in the Tower.
posted by ericb at 11:56 AM on March 14, 2008

The Black Death certainly got everyone's attention, and there were plenty of crackpot theories about why it happened, where it came from, and how to stop it. Medieval medical theory is comically insane and I think the plague was politicized in various places ("Those filthy foreigners started it!" "The Jews caused it!" etc). It's been done before but it's a rich lode of facepalming idiocy.
posted by Quietgal at 12:03 PM on March 14, 2008

It's all about the Templars, baby. They're a lightning rod for nutty conspiracy and secret history theories.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 12:04 PM on March 14, 2008

Assassin's Creed is a recent Ubisoft game set ostensibly during the Third Crusdade. I have no idea how much real history it's conspiracy bits are rooted in, but it could be thematically inspiring if nothing else.

While the actual history evidence behind it is sketchy at best, some believe China reached the Americans in 1421. A conspiracy to keep this knowledge secret from Europe could perhaps be interesting.
posted by Nelsormensch at 12:05 PM on March 14, 2008

Richard III and the Princes in the Tower, perhaps?

If you go there, be careful to whom you pay attention. As the Plantagenet "dynasty" ended with Richard, the victorious but only vaguely legitimate Tudors got to write the history books, so to speak, and were quite anti-Ricardian. Shakespeare, for example, is not to be trusted here. Something like Sunne in Spendour by Sharon Key Penman, while certainly pro-Richard, seems to me to be well-thought and well-researched.

Another good resource is the Richard III Society. Unabashedly pro-Ricardian, they strive to rehabilitate his reputation through solid scholarship.

Plenty of controversy here, no matter which side you take. Amazing how people still have strong feelings about this over 500 years later.

Not a member of the RIII Society, but used to date someone who is. Did some reading, and formed my own conclusions, so yeah, pro-Ricardian.
posted by johnvaljohn at 12:08 PM on March 14, 2008

Maps and navigator journals (rutters) were highly valuable items.

Some resources on Medieval Cartography: 1, 2.

There's also The Hereford Mappa Mundi, probably the most famous example of medieval cartography.
posted by ericb at 12:10 PM on March 14, 2008

Ahhh, @ericb beat me to it.
posted by johnvaljohn at 12:10 PM on March 14, 2008

More on period maps of the Middle Ages.
posted by ericb at 12:15 PM on March 14, 2008

Many people blamed the massive defeats in the First Crusade to Eleanor of Acquitaine's presence. Louis VII, her husband, decided to allow her to come, and she brought with her attendants and large amounts of baggage. She was blamed with both distracting Louis and encumbering the crusaders' progress, which caused the columns that accompanied the baggage to fall behind and be summarily slaughtered when the Turks came upon them. Interestingly, Eleanor was not marching along with the rest of the women and the baggage - she was marching with the column that had no baggage to carry and protect. The unenecumbered column marched ahead, and therefore escaped the attack. The marching ahead was a change of plan, and many people blamed Eleanor for it directly, both because it was her stuff, and also because her uncle was a Turkish prince.
posted by DrGirlfriend at 12:23 PM on March 14, 2008

As a backdrop or story element, consider the Medieval Mystery Plays.

BTW -- such was used as a focus in the 2003murder mystery The Reckoning, starring Willem Dafoe, Paul Bettany et al.
posted by ericb at 12:24 PM on March 14, 2008

It's an awfully broad question, but you might want to read The Great Cat Massacre. I seem to recall reading once (in a book about French medieval culture that I have at home but can't remember the title or author) that some amazing percentage of men in France in the middle ages had participated in a gang rape.

Any plot involving a rutter would have to steer clear of Shogun to avoid cliches.
posted by thomas144 at 12:28 PM on March 14, 2008

East-West Schism is a good backdrop, IMO. The reasons are, to the layman, fairly esoteric and byzantine (pun intended), so you can pretty much insert whatever you want in there as the "true" reason.

Though, along the idea of the map, you could go with a before-its-time discovery that threatens the status quo, like gunpowder, or that some important royal is really the adopted child of some commoner who is the catalyst for your conspiracy.
posted by mkultra at 12:47 PM on March 14, 2008

Because of the whole might-makes-right thing I would think that scandals as we regard them today might not be so common. But a sort of blackmail might fit the bill. What comes to mind is the way that various Cossack hosts would squeeze protection money and noble titles out of princes and tsars in Muscovy and the Ukraine.

And I don't know about hidden heirs but there were certainly lots of fake heirs, including a couple of Cossack pretender tsars that almost made it to the throne by force of arms.

Another thing that comes to mind is the legend of Prester John, a Christian king rumored to rule somewhere beyond Muslim lands who would help European Crusaders to outflank the Islamic Empires. Surely a few Brooklyn Bridges were sold to Crusaders desperate to contact him...

The number of false religious relics brought back from the Holy Land was truly staggering, I've read something like "an entire forest's worth of fragments of the True Cross." It kinda seems like it would be more fun to write a story about a medieval crook rather than a detective. ;^)
posted by XMLicious at 12:49 PM on March 14, 2008

You may want to read the sections pertaining to that period of history in The Discoverers, a history of science/knowledge/technology by Daniel Boorstin, the former Librarian of Congress. Then check into his bibliography for more depth. As I recall, the quest to come up with a seaworthy timepiece was a big deal for navigation.
posted by Doohickie at 1:09 PM on March 14, 2008

It's just a little outside your time range, but the Cadaver Synod of 897 is a ghoulish bit of fun. Pope Stephen VI exhumed the corpse of the previous pontiff, propped it in a chair, and put it on trial. (Nasreddin's fine MeFi write-up here.)

Historically, the trial (as well as the subsequent conviction, mutilation and river burial of Formosus' body) was motivated by old ecclesiastical and political grudges. But who's to say that darker, more ominous forces didn't lurk behind the scenes? After all, there's no clear evidence that Formosus wasn't a vampire.

(I'd stay away from the Templars. It's been done.)
posted by Iridic at 1:13 PM on March 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

The Black Death was in 1348, and a variety of conspiracies spread about who "caused" it, mostly blaming the Jews for poisoning wells, etc. If your detective wants to clear someone of being involved in a conspiracy, an innocent accused of spreading the Black Death might be a good place to start. Plus yu have a backdrop of TOTAL CHAOS, the breakdown of society, thousands fleeing cities, etc. Philip Ziegler's "The Black Death" is the best text for a beginner. The work of Rosemary Horrox is also excellent on this period.

For general background and loads of colour about the feel and mind of the Middle Ages, read Jan Huizinga's "The Waning of the Middle Ages".

The persecution of the Cathars is a tale not dissimilar to that of the Templars, and it has the beautiful backdrop of Carcasonne.

If you want a tyrant for your V to work against, there's the awful Edward II, possibly England's worst king, who waged war on the Scots and lost horribly badly (allowing them to pillage as far south as York), let a dreadful family called the DeSpensers loot the country, and presided over a famine in 1311-1312. He promoted a rather untalented favourite of his called Piers Gaveston into the high offices of state (they may have been lovers) and was deposed by his own wife, Isabel, and her lover, Mortimer (how embarrassing!). He was basically awful. The main historical argument about him is whether he was actively evil or simply monstrously incompetent.
posted by WPW at 1:35 PM on March 14, 2008

(PS Edward II was murdered, and it's a common bit of apocrypha that it was by red-hot poker up the jacksy. This is not true. He was probably starved or smothered.)
posted by WPW at 1:36 PM on March 14, 2008

In the 12th century Europe experienced a warming trend known as the "Little Optimum." This increase in temperatures is considered by some to be partially responsible for the Renaissance, or at least the parts of it that started in that period, such as the beginnings of the University system in Paris.

Maybe some political debate at the time about whether the earth was warmer, and if so, who caused it?
posted by charlesv at 4:00 PM on March 14, 2008

when empirical knowledge was scarce outside the monasteries, and the youth cared less for protests, and more for downing mead.

People held protests then, lots of them, but we don't know about most. There were also many rebellions, including the well known Peasants Rebellion in England in 1381.

And lots of people had empirical knowledge outside of the monastaries. In fact, considering that scholastic thought was decidely un-empirical, I'd say the monastaries had less empirical knowledge than the average person outside. Sure, most of that knowledge would have been about things like farming or weaving or the complex chemistry of tanning or dying, but it was knowledge. Medieval people were really sophisticated, as were their economies and societies. Land tenure alone can make a historian's head ache - and yet most medievals could just hold this stuff in their heads.

There was a big todo among the Muscovite nobility over a belt in c1433 during their civil war (scroll down for the belt bit) which I heard a very good paper on recently - turns out the belt was a big symbol in terms of allegiances, etc (and the subject of at least one dramatic painting). Actually, if you want a period of "huge and attention-grabbing" sociopolitical scandals, that civil war would do you in good stead - belts were grabbed, cousin fought cousin, kings were blinded and then came back to rule again. Of course, they were all named Vasily, so maybe that would confuse your readers (I'm still confused and we were given geneological flow charts).

But to be honest, I would just start reading medieval political and dynastic history. Politics of the medieval world was so unlike our own that you really need to immerse yourself in the way they thought or else it just won't ring true as medieval (you'll also need some recent social history to get physical details right). It's so dynastic and personality is so much a part of it. Keep reading until something grabs you - there are many crazy stories (like trying dead popes, fake heirs popping up, Kings coming to popes barefoot in the snow) that will germinate something. And if you decide that you don't want to deal with actual history and you just want a medieval flavour, go with a fictional princedom somewhere in Germany - there were so many half your readers wouldn't even know you made it up. Just please don't do a Guy Gavriel Kay and do the annoyingly loosely fictionalized history that just messes me up because I recognise the original, but I don't know enough to keep the history and the fiction straight (I'm looking at you Sailing to Sarantium, or should I say, Byzantium? that was so obviously Theodora and Justinian. But at least Kay's a better writer than that Shogun guy.)

I would avoid the Wars of the Roses (especially Richard III and the princes). It's really over done. Earlier bits - Richard II, etc, that would be more interesting. I haven't come across any novels or stories about the Peasant's Revolt of 1381, and there were big todos later between Richard II and the City of London (again, heard a short presentation on this from a medivalist) in the 1390s (they wouldn't loan him money, he took away their liberties). But Richard II and the Peasant's rebellion would be depressing, considering he deceived the leaders and had them executed.

There have been a few novels which have addressed the civil war in England between Stephen and Maud, including the epic how-to-build-a-cathedral book Pillars of the Earth, and are the Cadfael novels set then?

But non-English medieval history is much more ripe for dramatic potential, mainly because it is less well known to an Anglo audience.
posted by jb at 5:12 PM on March 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

Sorry, my stupid typos make it look like only one peasant rebelled in 1381. Of course, it was the Peasants' Rebellion
posted by jb at 5:13 PM on March 14, 2008

Response by poster: Thank you all so, so much. I spent all afternoon clicking and reading those links (no kidding!). I don't want to single one person out, but ericb and jb, you were both hugely helpful. I will continue looking into the atmosphere of royal politics around that time, because so far I agree with jb's statement that the intrigues and scandals took quite different forms from the "-gates" in politics today.
posted by Chaotician at 6:02 PM on March 14, 2008

the youth cared less for protests, and more for downing mead.

I agree with jb - why on earth do you think young medieval Europeans were apolitical? Admittedly the northern Europeans lacked a lot of their former academic structures (the neoplatonic academies had been driven out of the eastern Empire into Persia, Egypt, and Iraq), but science and technology were progressing very well in Islamic Europe. You could do worse than read a few of the bildungsroman-style autobiographies from upper-middle-class Muslims that were written during that period. Generally they travelled from Afghanistan through the Middle East to Spain and Italy, or down to west Africa, and wrote about everything they saw along the way. Eventually northern European writers began to imitate their style and form and we got stuff like Polo's Il Milione or Rubruquis Itinerarium.
posted by meehawl at 6:15 PM on March 14, 2008

Response by poster: @meehawl,

Perhaps I overstated; all I meant is that so far as I know, Europe in the Middle Ages had no rough equivalent of the 20th century's hippie or punk movements--widespread cultures of youth rebellion that were formed for the purpose of living outside (or in opposition to) established societal mores. If I'm off-base with that assumption, though, I would love to hear about any medieval European youth revolt movements; they'd fit quite nicely into my story.
posted by Chaotician at 7:27 PM on March 14, 2008

A great source of info for these sort of things, Rosicrucians, alchemists et cetera, is Charles Mackay's wonderful Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (link to full text). Can't recommend it highly enough.
posted by Kattullus at 8:36 PM on March 14, 2008

I'm no medievalist, but as far as I know there were forms of ritualized misrule to get out some of the natural rebelliousness of youth - festivals when boy bishops were elected, rituals of charivari (such as hazing cuckolds). I study the 16th to 18th centuries, and all I know is that when a riot happened in a city, it's dimes to dollars that there are apprentices (and other young men) were involved. As a youth, I wasn't involved in that much rebellion at all - youths in the early modern world often had yearly (or more) festivals dedicated to turning the world upside-down, if only for a day.

Political expression for the lower classes was different back then. Again, I'm drawing on the sixteenth century (and wary of generalizing - medievalists, please correct), but generally the premodern popular classes seem to have acted politically through petitions - lobbying by appealing to suposedly sympathetic rulers (who are just being misled by bad counselors, I'm sure) - and when things got bad, riot and rebellion. But even riots were themselves often sort of ritualized, so that people would attack the object of displeasure (such as a hedge, in the case of enclosure disputes) rather than uncontrolled violence.

I have wondered if one of the reasons that ritualized protest seems to have lost some of its legitimacy in this century is that the vote has taken over its place as legitimate political expression - as if people think, why are people banging pots and pans when they are displeased? Why don't they just vote differently?
posted by jb at 10:50 PM on March 14, 2008

If I'm off-base with that assumption, though, I would love to hear about any medieval European youth revolt movements; they'd fit quite nicely into my story.

You might be interested in the Brethren of the Free Spirit.

In general, whenever there was an incipient radicalism in the Middle Ages, it always took the form of some wacky millenarian or other heretic movement. If you need a youth-revolt storyline, you could just make up a heresy--there were so many that it's not too farfetched if there was an actual punk-rock subculture in the Black Forest being pursued by the Inquisition.
posted by nasreddin at 3:35 AM on March 15, 2008

I came across this book today -- Mysteries of the Middle Ages: And the Beginning of the Modern World. Might be worth reading to get a "sense of the times."
posted by ericb at 11:54 AM on March 18, 2008

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