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5 Strange Medieval Stories That Shouldn't be True (But Are)

Mark Twain Quote Fiction Truth Stranger

Writing historical fiction is kind of strange sometimes. I spend so much effort weaving my fictional worlds into real historical settings that I often forget about the actual medieval stories themselves. Mark Twain once said, "Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn't." I think the same goes for history. The history I research for my books is quite often far stranger than the fiction I write around it.


Here are 5 strange medieval stories that shouldn't be true (but are).


The Story of the Medieval Crusaders Who Portaged Ships Across Bithynia

The siege of Nicaea is the main conflict of my book Storm of War. Wild that it ends so strangely.


Nicaea is built on the shore of the Askanian Lake, a large enough body of water that even with their massive army, the medieval crusaders couldn't encircle the entire city and lake. Any siege would last for months or even years, since Nicaea could continue to get supplies through the lake.


In the book (and in real life) this is a real issue for the crusaders. They decide to take ships from Emperor Comnenus and portage them—or carry them on carts—eighteen miles across the hills of Bithynia. From there, they drop them into the Askanian Lake and complete the encirclement of Nicaea. The city surrenders soon after.


The Strange Severed Head that Killed Sigurd Eysteinsson

The story of Sigurd Eysteinsson can be found in the Heimskringla and Orkneyinga, collections of sagas that depict both real and legendary Norwegian and Swedish kings. Here, you can read about Sigurd Eysteinsson (that's a name, isn't it?). He defeated and beheaded Máel Brigte of Moray. I definitely prefer the title Máel Brigte the Bucktoothed, especially considering what comes next. Sigurd fastened Máel's severed head to his saddle, but Máel had one last piece of resistance in him. Supposedly, one of his buck teeth scraped Sigurd's leg, cutting it severely enough for an infection to form and eventually take Sigurd's life.


Maybe don't strap your enemy's head to your saddle?


The Medieval War of the Bucket

Strange Medieval Story about a War over a Bucket

The place: Northern Italy.

The time: AD 1325.

The Combatants: Modena vs. Bologna.

The Prize: A bucket?


Yep, that about sums it up. Or does it? There is a common myth that Modena stole an oaken bucket from Bologna, and that this set off the war, which was actually only a single battle in a larger conflict.


In reality, the two Italian city-states had a long history of conflict. After winning the Battle of Zappolino, some accounts state that the Modenese army took a bucket from well outside the city walls as a kind of trophy. The Modenese army won the battle despite being outnumbered 7,000 to 32,000—an upset that should be more memorable than the bucket.


I suppose the bucket's more interesting.


The Sleepy Commander at the Battle of Stirling

True, this is a relatively minor part of the Battle of Stirling. Still, let me set the stage.

The Scots have camped at Abbey Craig—where the National Wallace Monument can be found today—under the leadership of the legendary William Wallace of Mel Gibson fame (Freeeeeedom!). John de Warenne leads the English army. He is so sure the Scots will surrender or negotiate that he takes his time and delays crossing The River Forth. At one point, he even sends his men to Wallace, who return with these words: "Tell your commander that we are not here to make peace but to do battle, defend ourselves and liberate our kingdom. Let them come on, and we shall prove this in their very beards."


Eventually, Warenne decides to cross the narrow bridge and face the Scots. Daybreak comes and his mighty army sets out, only to turn around because they forgot their commander, still asleep in his tent.


I can sympathize. Do you know how long it took me to get out of bed to write this?


The Strange Story of John Deydras (And His Cat)

Probably my favorite out of all of these wild (but mostly true) stories. John Deydras simply walked up to the gates of Beaumont Palace and claimed that he, not Edward II, was the king. Apparently, he looked a lot like the king. Except, of course, for John's missing ear.

His claim was simple: He was born the rightful king, yet when a wild sow bit his ear off as a toddler, his terrified caretaker didn't want to be punished for letting this happen to a future king. Instead, she swapped John out with another servant's child. And thus, John Deydras, the rightful king of England, was removed from his throne before he ever had the chance to be king.

Devil cat and Strange story of John Deydras

Rubbish, but that was his story. At least, it was his story until he challenged the king to combat and was summarily arrested on counts of sedition and thrown into prison. At his trial, he confessed that the entire story was made up and that his cat—who was actually the devil in disguise—had encouraged him to make the claims. The English authorities did what anyone would do: They hung John and his cat.


Cats are the worst.



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