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10 Ways to Die in the Middle Ages

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Danse macabre, the "Dance of Death", refers to the medieval belief — expressed through poems and art — that death was inevitable and all-conquering.

Danse macabre, the "Dance of Death", refers to the medieval belief — expressed through poems and art — that death was inevitable and all-conquering.

Death was no stranger to medieval folk, who were beset by plague, starvation and war on every side.

Medieval Christians hoped for what was called "the good death" — dying in bed with a priest on-hand to administer the last rites. Religious as they were, they feared the "bad death", sudden death with no opportunity to confess one's sins and receive entry to heaven.

Whether death was of the good or bad variety, it was certainly ever-present. Here are 10 ways to die in the Middle Ages.

  1. Plague
  2. Boiled Alive
  3. Burnt Alive
  4. Buried Alive
  5. Contaminated Water
  6. Contaminated Grain
  7. Surgery
  8. Starvation
  9. Leprosy
  10. Childbirth
"Bring out your dead". A corpse wagon travels the plague-ridden streets of London.

"Bring out your dead". A corpse wagon travels the plague-ridden streets of London.

1. Plague

Poor sanitation made plague a familiar foe. Medieval folk had no idea how to stop this virulent killer, which was most commonly spread by rats that thrived in the squalor of medieval cities.

The most famous example is "the Black Death", an apocalyptic epidemic that ravaged Europe in the mid-14th century. A third of Europe's population was wiped out by this terrifying illness, which caused lymph nodes to swell and form the "buboes" (hence its official name 'bubonic plague').

In 1894, Alexandre Yersin (a student of Louis Pasteur) discovered the Yersinia pestis—the bacterium that caused the plague. It was carried by rats and spread to the populace via flea bites.

2. Boiled Alive

The medieval period is well known for its brutal forms of execution. One such method was to imprison the condemned in a cauldron of boiling water or oil—a horrifying death supposedly reserved for those who committed murder with poison but also prescribed for relatively minor crimes such as coin forging.

The "kettle" in Deventer, Netherlands. Those sentenced to death by boiling were imprisoned in this cauldron and cooked alive. The holes in the kettle were later made by Napoleon's army.

The "kettle" in Deventer, Netherlands. Those sentenced to death by boiling were imprisoned in this cauldron and cooked alive. The holes in the kettle were later made by Napoleon's army.

A contemporary chronicle describes the execution of Richard Roose, a cook who killed two people with poisoned porridge:

He roared mighty loud, and divers women who were big with child did feel sick at the sight of what they saw, and were carried away half dead; and other men and women did not seem frightened by the boiling alive, but would prefer to see the headsman at his work.

It's no wonder the framers of the American constitution included an amendment forbidding cruel and unusual punishment.

An illustration of a witch burning, from a 19th-century book.

An illustration of a witch burning, from a 19th-century book.

3. Burnt Alive

Accusations of witchcraft were rife in the Middle Ages, and the punishment was brutal. Consider how many women were burnt at the stake simply for prescribing herbal remedies.

Medieval witch hunts were especially prevalent during the 15th to 17th centuries. Malleus Maleficarum ("The Hammer of Witches") was published in Germany in 1486 and sold more copies than any other book except the bible.

The book, which sanctioned torturing suspected witches in order to secure confession, was accepted as the definitive authority on witch-hunting by Catholics and Protestants alike.

Antoine Wiertz (1806 — 1865) illustration of a premature burial.

Antoine Wiertz (1806 — 1865) illustration of a premature burial.

4. Buried Alive

"I'm not dead!" cries a peasant in Monty Python and the Holy Grail as he is carried to the corpse wagon. Being mistaken for dead was indeed a risk during the Middle Ages. People were occasionally pronounced dead, then buried, only to wake up later in their coffins.

Such events may have contributed to legends of vampirism, as the sound of the unfortunate souls attempting to escape their coffins led people to assume it was the dead rising from their graves.

medieval-health

5. Contaminated Water

Dysentery was a rampant killer in the Middle Ages, claiming the lives of commoners and kings alike (including the great warrior king Henry V).

The illness; which causes fever, vomiting and severe diarrhea; spreads through tainted food and water. Sanitation in the Middle Ages was poor, and water was often polluted with human waste. This is why medieval peasants preferred to drink ale with their meals rather than water, as access to a clean water supply was difficult to obtain.

Dysentery was prevalent during military campaigns, especially during sieges. Soldiers died in the thousands for lack of access to clean water.

Saint Anthony's Fire, an affliction caused by ingesting rye bread contaminated with the fungus Claviceps purpurea.

Saint Anthony's Fire, an affliction caused by ingesting rye bread contaminated with the fungus Claviceps purpurea.

6. Contaminated Grain

Rye grain contaminated by fungus caused an illness known as Saint Anthony’s Fire, symptoms of which were burning sensations, sores, convulsions, and the spread of gangrene throughout the limbs.

An outbreak of Saint Anthony’s Fire during the 10th century caused an estimated 20,000 to 40,000 deaths in France. The illness was so prevalent during the Middle Ages that an abbey was founded in France specifically to treat it.

A patient is restrained as his limb is amputated. Burning brands are on-hand to cauterise the wound.

A patient is restrained as his limb is amputated. Burning brands are on-hand to cauterise the wound.

7. Surgery

Surgery was viewed as a "low art" in the Middle Ages, such that physicians trained in 13 century France were required to swear an oath that they would never perform it.

So with doctors unwilling to perform surgery, someone had to satisfy demand. That someone was the local barber, whose services included pulling teeth, setting bones and amputating limbs, as well as cutting hair.

As you can imagine, surgical procedures were primitive. The patient was given alcohol to dull the pain, and burning brands were used to cauterise wounds.

The most horrific procedure was trepanning, prescribed for patients suffering from mental illness and severe headaches. A hole was drilled in the skull, supposedly releasing malign forces. Survival rates were low.

The Great Famine (1315 — 1317). A Biblia Pauperum (picture bible) depicts Death astride a lion whose tail carries the personification of famine.

The Great Famine (1315 — 1317). A Biblia Pauperum (picture bible) depicts Death astride a lion whose tail carries the personification of famine.

8. Starvation

This was less of an issue for the rich, who regularly held sumptuous banquets with enough food to feed a peasant family for a year.

But for the peasant folk, famine was one of the two major killers of the Middle Ages (the other being plague).

A particularly severe famine, known as the Great Famine, ravaged Europe from 1315 to 1317 (it was followed soon after by the Black Death, making the 1300s one of the most deadly periods in human history).

The famine was caused by a drop in temperatures (the Little Ice Age) that brought about mass crop failure. This was preceded by population growth resulting from agricultural surplus, making the Great Famine especially deadly as there was now a larger population with less food to feed it.

A medieval leper clutching a leper bell.

A medieval leper clutching a leper bell.

9. Leprosy

We now know that leprosy is caused by a bacteria known as Mycobacterium leprae, but for the highly religious folk of the Middle Ages, the bible's multiple references to leprosy as punishment for sin made it a particularly dreaded affliction.

Lepers were forced to isolate themselves from society, living in designated leper colonies and carrying small bells to warn people of their approach.

The illness mysteriously disappeared by the 16th century, leading scientists to believe that the population developed immunity to it.

A woman seated on an obstetrical chair giving birth, aided by midwives.

A woman seated on an obstetrical chair giving birth, aided by midwives.

10. Childbirth

Nowadays, there are doctors, both male and female, who specialise in dealing with childbirth; but during the Middle Ages, men weren't even allowed in the room.

A woman giving birth was attended by other women, including the midwives whose role was to deliver the baby and ensure there was nothing left over (such as a placenta) that could be used for witchcraft.

Giving birth was a dangerous affair, such that many women wrote their wills beforehand. They had to rely on faith to carry them through, clutching crosses or other holy relics as they underwent the pain of labour.

It was dangerous for the babies as well, many of whom did not survive.

Yet despite the dangers of childbirth, women of the Middle Ages facilitated ever-growing populations, ensuring there were plenty of people available for plague and famine to kill. Yet another reason to be grateful for modern medicine.

References

Claire Ridgway. 2015. Childbirth in Medieval and Tudor Times by Sarah Bryson. The Tudor Society.

Alixe Bovey. 30 April 2015. Death and the Afterlife. The British Library.

Surajit Bhattacharya. 2012. Wound healing through the ages. National Library of Medicine (USA).

Greig Watson. 19 October 2016. King John: Dysentery and the death that changed history. BBC.

The Great Famine. Clark Science Center @ Smith College.