Tag Archives: Middle Ages

Maddest Medieval Monarch Week: Charles the Mad

Many times history is more interesting than fiction if we just look in the right places.  Follow me as I venture into the lives of some of the most scandalous, most murderous, most insane monarchs of the Middle Ages.  Day three of Maddest Medieval Monarchs Week brings us to a monarch of two names: Charles the Well-Beloved, a name her earned in his younger years, and Charles the Mad.

Article Written by Andrea Cefalo

Charles VI of France

Charles’ inherited the throne from his father at the age of eleven.  Too young to rule,

Charles VI de France, Charles VI of France

Charles VI ofFrance (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

his unlces Philip of Burgundy, John of Berry, Louis of Anjou and Louis of Bourbon served as regents until Charles was twenty-one.  Feeling ill-advised and tired of watching his uncles squabble and squander the nation’s fortunes, Charles no longer sought the advice of his uncles.  Instead, he looked to his father’s former advisers to help him rule, a move which resulted in greater prosperity for France.  This earned Charles his first epithet, the well-beloved.

Français : Charles VI saisi de folie non loin ...

Painting of Charles attacking his own men in 1392 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In 1392, Charles experienced his first psychotic episode shortly after the attempted murder of his friend, Olivier de Clisson. Charles grew increasingly impatient as his troops traveled to Brittany in order to bring the attempted murderer to justice.  A leper grabbed the king’s horse and warned that he was being betrayed by his men.  When a page accidentally dropped his lance, creating a commotion, Charles went into a rage.  The king killed one of his knights and a few more of his men.  Once subdued, Charles slipped into a coma.

Charles suffered psychotic episodes off and on for the rest of his life.  In 1393, Charles could not remember his name, his wife, or that he was king.   He sometimes ran wildly through the hallways of his home, Hotel Saint-Pol, so that the entries had to be boarded to keep him from running like a madman through the streets of Paris.   During certain points in his life, Charles believed himself to be made of glass and went to great lengths to make sure that he would not shatter.  Though Charles had periods of lucidity, his illness kept him from being an effective ruler and his relatives fought fiercely for power leading to a civil war between the Burgundians and Armagnacs.

King Henry VI. Purchased by NPG in 1930. See s...

Charles VI’s grandson, King Henry VI of England, suffered from psychosis like his grandfather. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Not surprisingly, Charles illness caused him to earn his second epithet, Charles the Mad.  Mental illness seemed to run strongly in the family.  Charles’ mother suffered a breakdown while he was young and Charles’ grandson, King Henry VI of England, suffered an episode very similar to Charles’ first bout.  While Henry VI was not violent, he did slip into a coma.  However, Henry’s coma lasted an unbelievable eighteen months.

Article written by Andrea Cefalo, author of The Fairytale Keeper: a novel of corruption, devotion, and the origins of Grimm’s fairytales

To follow Andrea Cefalo and hear more about The Fairytale Keeper series, please visit:



Maddest Medieval Monarch Week: Isabella of France

Many times history is more interesting than fiction if we just look in the right places.  Follow me as I venture into the lives of some of the most scandalous, most murderous, most insane monarchs of the Middle Ages.  Day two of Maddest Medieval Monarchs Week brings us to a monarch made legendary by literature and cinema, Isabella of France.

Article Written by Andrea Cefalo

Isabella “She-Wolf” of France

English: Isabella of France, wife of Edward II...

English: Isabella of France, wife of Edward II of England. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Most of us equate Isabella of France with the kind-hearted and lonely English princess from the movie Braveheart or the she-wolf of plays by Brecht and Marlowe.  Based on her life, it is easy to conclude that Isabella was lonely in her marriage to a bi-sexual English king. However, determining whether she was the she-wolf, as literature labeled her, or the sweetheart, as Hollywood made her, is not so easy.

Isabella was wedded at twelve to Edward II of England.  Edward, however, was in love with Piers Gaveston whom he openly showered with gifts. Isabella learned to tolerate Edward’s relationship, but some of the English barons never did. Four years into their marriage Gaveston was murdered.  Isabella consoled her grief-stricken husband and the two became closer.  They even had three children together, but in 1319, another man, Hugh Despenser the young, gained Edward’s affections. Despenser was ruthless, greedy, and insanely jealous.  For six years, Isabella’s power, influence, and income were reduced upon the advice of Despenser.

English: Illustration of the execution of Hugh...

English: Illustration of the execution of Hugh the Younger Despenser, from a manuscript of Froissart (Bibliotheque Nationale MS Fr. 2643, folio 197v) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When Isabella visited her brother, King Charles IV of France in 1325, she met and fell in love with Roger Mortimer, a former English general who had since turned against the king and Despenser.  She and Mortimer raised an army, overthrew Edward, and tried Despenser for treason.  Despenser was hanged, drawn, and quartered.  Edward was imprisoned, tortured, and starved, but did not die until 1327.  It is rumored that he was killed under Isabella’s orders by a red-hot poker being inserted into his rectum.   Edward’s heart was placed in a silver coffin and given to Isabella.

Isabella served as regent for a short time until her son Edward III was old enough to take the throne.  Mortimer turned out to be every bit as greedy and ruthless as Despenser.  Edward III, with the support of English barons, arrested and executed Mortimer.  Isabella was imprisoned for two years in Windsor Castle, where she was rumored to have had a nervous breakdown after the loss of Mortimer.  Isabella was later cleared of any wrong-doing and lived a comfortable life.  Upon her death, she was entombed with Edward III’s heart, though buried next to Mortimer.

In literature and legend, Isabella is often remembered as a king-killer, but no one knows for sure who gave the orders for Edward II’s murder.  So was Isabella the she-wolf or simply a desperate woman trying to save England from a careless king?  No one really knows, but we can certainly speculate.

Article written by Andrea Cefalo, author of The Fairytale Keeper: a novel of corruption, devotion, and the origins of Grimm’s fairytales

To follow Andrea Cefalo and hear more about The Fairytale Keeper series, please visit:


Maddest Medieval Monarchs Week!

Many times history is more interesting than fiction if we just look in the right places.  Follow me as I venture into the lives of some of the most scandalous, most murderous, most insane monarchs of the Middle Ages.  Day one of Maddest Medieval Monarchs Week, brings us to a little-known monarch, Queen Joanna I of Naples.
Article Written by Andrea Cefalo

Joanna I of Naples

Queen Joanna I of Naples: Murderess, Madam, Madwoman

Queen Joanna I of Naples: Murderess, Madam, Madwoman

Power-hungry Joanna inherited the throne from her grandfather at an early age. Joanna knew she might have to share power with her cousin, and soon-to-be husband, Andrew of Hungary, who, through his lineage, had a strong claim to the throne, but the thought of sharing power enraged Joanna. She and her allies convinced the Church that she should rule alone and she was crowned on the orders of Pope Clement VI .

Murder of Andrew, Duke of Calabria, painted by Karl Briullov.

Murder of Andrew, Joanna I of Naples first husband, painted by Karl Briullov.

Not surprisingly, Joanna’s marriage to Andrew was not a happy one. Andrew was in constant fear for his safety.  Two attempts were made on his life while in Joanna’s court. The first attempt, a staged hunting accident, was foiled.   Andrew was not so lucky the second time around when a group of assassins strangled Andrew and threw him out of the window. Joanna’s disinterest in catching Andrew’s killer not only made her look guilty, it made her an enemy to the Vatican and the powerful Hungarian empire.  To this day, her guilt has never been proven, but she seems a likely suspect.

Medieval painting of reading nuns

Medieval painting of reading nuns

Joanna had a taste for money, as well as power.  To increase her wealth, she opened a brothel entitled “The Abbey” in 1347.  The brothel looked just like a monastery.  The women attended daily mass, abstained from work on Sundays, and served only the most elite Christians.  While it may seem that this façade was meant to disguise the base entertainments inside, it wasn’t.  The Abbey was widely known as a whorehouse.

King Charles III of Naples

King Charles III of Naples

In the end, Joanna made many enemies.  She landed on the wrong side of a papal dispute in 1380 when she backed the French anti-pope Clement VII against Urban VIPope Urban VI took her crown, imprisoned her, and gave her throne to her niece’s husband, Charles of Durazzo.  Charles had Joan suffocated with pillows to avenge Joanna’s suspected murder of her first husband, Andrew.  Her corpse was put on display in Naples and then dumped in a well.


Mad Kings and Queens:  History’s Most Famous Raving Royals by Alison Rattle and Allison Vale

Wikipedia Article of Joanna I of Naples: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joanna_I_of_Naples

Article Written by Andrea Cefalo, author of The Fairytale Keeper: a novel of corruption, devotion, and the origins of Grimm’s Fairytales

To follow Andrea Cefalo and hear more about The Fairytale Keeper series, please visit:


5 Facts about Medieval New Year’s

In this cartoon by John T. McCutcheon, the Baby New Year of 1905 runs old 1904 off into history .

In this cartoon by John T. McCutcheon, the Baby New Year of 1905 runs old 1904 off into history .

January 1st.  It’s New Year’s. The notion is ingrained in us as though there is some  significant point Earth strikes within its orbit on this day each year.  Scientifically speaking, there is no reason for the New Year to be on January 1st.  So I’ve found myself wondering this evening why the Western world has decided to observe New Year’s on January 1st.  So, in true nerd-fashion, I’m spending my New Year’s Eve researching New Year’s and since I’m obsessed with all things medieval, I’ve collected 5 fascinating factoids about the history of this infamous holiday in Medieval Europe.

Obscure Roman God Janus whom the month of January is named

Obscure Roman God Janus whom the month of January is named

5.  Julius Caesar declared January 1st as the New Year in 45 BC, starting the tradition.  Caesar chose the date because the month of January is named for the Roman God Janus, a two-faced God who looks to the future and past. The Council of Tours abolished January 1st as the beginning of the New Year in 567.

4.  It took 561 years for Europe to agree that January 1st was the start of the New Year.  Eastern European nations were the first to adopt the date in 1362 and Greece was the last to adopt it in 1923. (The Holy Roman Empire, which I write about in The Fairytale Keeper series, accepted January 1st as the New Year in 1544.)

3.  Medieval Europeans declared New Year’s a Pagan holiday; therefore, it was not celebrated.

2.  Medieval European countries observed the beginning of the New Year on different days.  Some countries recognized December 25th, Christmas, as the beginning of the New Year.  Some others observed March 5th and Easter as the New Year.  However, most of medieval Europe recognized the New Year as March 25th, the Feast of the Annunciation.

Etching of William the Conqueror

Etching of William the Conqueror

1.  England’s New Year’s date changed many times throughout its history. Anglo-Saxon England kept December 25th as the New Year, but when William the Conqueror took over, he decreed that January 1st should be the New Year so it could coincide with his coronation, as well as the date of Christ’s circumcision (eight days after Christmas).  Years later, England united with the rest of Europe and set their New Year as March 25th.  March 25th remained the beginning of the New Year in England until 1752 when they switched back to January 1st.



The Six Strangest Medieval Diseases

For most people living during the Middle Ages, life was short and harsh. Unsanitary conditions and habits led to the spread of some horrific diseases. Due to the general ignorance and superstitious nature of the population, people resorted to ineffective treatments that sometimes made symptoms worse. From the unexplained madness of two kings to the miraculously cured boils plaguing Parisian peasants, below are six of the strangest Medieval diseases.


Black masses cover the neck of this boy suffering from scrofula.

6. The King’s Evil (Existed throughout the Middle Ages)

The Problem:  The king’s evil caused painless black masses to spread across the neck. As the disease progressed, these masses ruptured, resulting in large open sores.  Perhaps even stranger than the disease was the proposed cure: the touch of a king.  In fact, an Anglican prayer book entitled The Book of Common included a ceremony in which the king handed afflicted people “holy” coins.  It is documented that King Henry the IV of France touched and cured 1,500 sufferers of the ailment.

The Cause:  Scrofula is a lesser-known type of tuberculosis that infects the lymph nodes rather than the lungs. The current treatment for the disease is nine to twelve months on antibiotics. While so many months on antibiotics is an inconvenience, it is far more effective than the touch of a king.

5.  Water Elf Disease (Existed throughout the Middle Ages)

The Problem:  Sufferers of this strangely named disease developed sores, blackened nails, and watery eyes.  It was believed to be caused by a witch’s stab.  Much like the king’s evil, this disease had some odd treatments. Victims ingested a dozen different plants and herbs, soaked in ale, and then sang the first verse of the song below three times and the refrain repeatedly.

“I have bound on the wounds the best of war bandages, so the wounds neither burn nor burst, nor go further, nor spread, nor jump, nor the wounds increase, nor sores deepen. But may he himself keep in a healthy way. May it not ache you more than it aches earth in ear.
“May earth bear on you with all her might and main.”

The Cause:  While the source of this disease remains unknown, it shares similar symptoms with endocarditis, an infection of the heart valve. Endocarditis occurs when bacteria infecting one part of the body spread to the heart through the bloodstream. Today, the disease is rare and most commonly afflicts people with weakened hearts. But when we consider how ineffective medieval treatments were for bacterial infections and weakened hearts, it seems likely that the disease was more common during the Middle Ages than it is today.

Detail of Bosch painting illustrating a victim of St. Anthony's fire

This detail of Bosch painting illustrates the painful boils covering a victim of St. Anthony’s fire

4.  St. Anthony’s Fire Epidemic of Paris (945 A.D.)

The Problem:  When the people of Paris were tormented with painful boils and sores, the only cure seemed to be a trip to St. Mary’s church in Paris. There Duke Hugh the Great nourished the ill with his own holy stores of grain.  The ill quickly recovered, but as soon as they returned home, they were plagued again with the terrible sores.

The Cause:  Ergot is a fungus that grows on rye during cold, damp conditions.  When the grain is ground up and then made into bread, people consume the fungus and poisoning ensues.  There are three different types of ergotism: gangrenous, convulsive, and hallucinogenic.  In the case of the Paris epidemic, sufferers were stricken with the gangrenous type of ergotism.  So why were victims cured when they went St. Mary’s?  The answer is simple. Since Duke Hugh’s stores of grain were better maintained, they weren’t contaminated with ergot. When people ate his grains their ergotism went away, but as soon as they returned home, they consumed their contaminated grain and were poisoned again.

Medical photo of a man suffering with pustular syphilis

This victim of pustular syphilis suffered the spread of painful boils.

3.  The French Disease (1490’s)

The Problem:  During the siege of Naples in 1493, a strange disease spread rapidly from the French to the Italians, causing sores at the site of infection. As the illness progressed, painful, green, pus-filled boils spread across victims’ bodies.  Eventually, the disease affected the mental capacities of its victims and many went insane.  Because the Italians were first infected during the French invasion, the illness became known as the French disease.  It quickly spread throughout Europe, but within fifty years, the disease and its symptoms became less debilitating.

The Cause:  The first European epidemic of syphilis had, by far, the worst symptoms. Some hypothesize that the sexually transmitted disease originated in the Americas, was brought back to Europe by Spanish sailors, and spread from there. It’s also assumed that a lack of exposure to the disease (or anything like it) may have been the reason Europeans suffered such severe symptoms.

So why did the symptoms become so mild so quickly?  That is quite simple.  People avoided contact with anyone covered in the nasty boils, and without physical contact, a sexually transmitted disease can’t spread. As time passed, only strains with milder symptoms spread because their carriers weren’t so easy to spot.


This print illustrates the near insanity suffered by victims of the Dancing Plague.

2.  The Dancing Plague (7th, 14th, and 16th centuries)

The Problem:  The two best-documented cases of the dancing plague took place in Aachen, starting on June 23, 1374, and later in July 1518 in Strasbourg.  The 14th-century outbreak spread throughout Germany and then into France, Holland, and Italy.  People afflicted with the disease danced uncontrollably.

The Strasbourg outbreak started with one woman named Frau Troffea.  Within four days, more than thirty people joined her.  By the end of the week, the number rose to four hundred.  People danced constantly for weeks, dying of heart attacks, strokes, dehydration, and exhaustion.  The supposed cure for the ailment according to physicians of the time? More dancing.  Towns hired musicians and built stages to encourage the sick to continue  dancing, which probably didn’t help.  Some believed St. Vitus and St. John “blessed them” with the Dancing Plague. This may have encouraged healthy people to join in with the sick because they wanted others to think they were also touched by saints.

The Cause:  Unknown.  Eugene Backman suggests ergot poisoning was the culprit in his book, Religious Dances in the Christian Church and in Popular Medicine. There certainly are types of ergotism that cause hallucinations and strange behavior.  I, for one, find this hypothesis hard to believe. Since ergot poisoning is caused by ingesting ergot-tainted rye, then rye would have to have been tainted throughout all of Europe at the time. Since the disease seemed to spread from a central location over time, it seems more likely that the culprit would have been a contagion rather than a fungus.

Some suppose that Sydenham’s chorea, also known as St. Vitus dance, was the cause.  Symptoms of this disease—caused by a strep bacteria—usually take a considerable amount of time to demonstrate, six months or more. But sometimes the rapid jerking of the face, hands, and feet associated with the disease can be the first symptom.

Historian John Waller, author of  A Time to Dance, A Time to Die: The Extraordinary Story of the Dancing Plague of 1518, has an even stranger hypothesis.  He believes that the dancing plague was caused by a “mass psychogenic illness” brought on by severe stress due to famine, illnesses, and the belief that, when angered, a Sicilian martyr by the name of Saint Vitus would cause these dancing plagues.

  1. The Sleeping Sickness of King Henry the VI of England (1453-1471)
King Henry VI of England

The catatonic states that King Henry VI experienced may have been hereditary.

The Problem:  In 1453, while in his young thirties, King Henry VI of England slipped into a catatonic state after a supposed sudden fright.  His first trance lasted over a year and a half—though he slipped in and out of this odd mental state for the rest of his life.  During his first lapse, Henry remained asleep. Not even torturous treatments elicited a response.  When he finally came out of the catatonic state, he was said to be very agreeable, devout, and childlike.  He often did not recognize people whom he had known for years.  His inability to rule caused him to lose his throne to the Yorks during the famous War of the Roses.  He died in the Tower of England.  It is suspected he was murdered so that no one would continue to fight for his cause.

The Cause:  Unknown.  This is one of the greatest medical mysteries in all of history.  Some suppose that Henry suffered from catatonic schizophrenia since he illustrated paranoia, delusions of grandeur, and hallucinations before slipping into his unresponsive state.

Whether catatonic schizophrenia or not, Henry’s illness seems to be heredity. His grandfather, Charles VI, suffered through extended bouts of insanity alternated with periods of lucidity, as well.  Charles once murdered four of his own men before being tackled to the ground. Afterward, he slipped into a coma for two days. Unlike Henry, Charles suffered from physical symptoms, such as fever, hair loss, and loss of fingernails, but I wouldn’t let that rule out a heredity mental illness. A separate disease may have caused Charles’ physical symptoms.

profile picAndrea Cefalo is a historical fiction novelist and history blogger. Her debut novel The Fairytale Keeper, was a quarter-finalist in Amazon’s 2013 Breakthrough Novel Contest. The sequel–The Countess’s Captive—is now available.  She is currently working on the third book in her series.

Did you enjoy this article? Well, there’s more where that came from! Check out the archives or peruse the sidebar for a list of trending posts.  To make sure you don’t miss out on my latest articles, follow this blog or sign up for the newsletter.


The Three Army-Surgeons: A Little-Known German Tale Despite Being Essentially, Grotesquelly Grimm

Life during the Middle Ages was harsh and children, like those that would be told the sometimes gory German folklore later compiled by the Grimm brothers, lived an R-rated existence.   Death due to infection and disease was common, especially during times of war.  And as the saying goes when life hands you lemons, make lemonade, or in the case of this story, when life hands you a horrific war in which people die of infection and horrible wounds, compose a story about three foolish surgeons who have the magic to fix such problems.

“The Three Army Surgeons” is a tale of three men roaming the countryside on their way back home from war.  The men spend a night at a tavern and participate in a very grotesque challenge.  The innkeeper dares the surgeons to detach their own body parts and reattach them the next morning.  Each of the surgeons accepts the challenge and amputates a part of his own body:  the first removes his hand, the second tears out his heart, and the third gouges out his own eyes.   The surgeons put the parts on a platter and the innkeeper locks them in a chest for safe-keeping. The innkeeper gives his serving wench the key to the chest and the charge of guarding these items for the night, but when she opens the case later and accidentally leaves it open all night, all goes awry.  The parts are missing and fearing punishment from her employer, the girl forces her lover to go out to search for them.  Unfortunately, a cat snatched the items and has mauled them beyond repair so the lover must set out to find replacements.

Illustration by Agnieszka Wrzosek of The Three Army Surgeons

The essentially dark humor and magical elements traditionally associated with many of Grimm’s tales comes into play during the second half of the tale. The lover, in his scramble to find a replacement hand, heart, and eyes, comes up with a silly solution by turning to second-hand parts.  In the end, a thief’s hand, a pig’s heart, and a cat’s eyes end up on the platter.  The following morning, the unsuspecting surgeons use a magical ointment to successfully put the used body parts back into their bodies.  Within a day, they find themselves feeling and acting strangely, due to their new animal anatomy, but I won’t spoil the humorous ending for readers.

For those looking for an authentically Grimm tale, I highly recommend “The Three Army Surgeons.”  My readers can look forward to seeing it in one of the installments of The Fairytale Keeper series.