Here are fifteen mysteries that are still puzzling medieval historians.
1. Why did the Norse disappear from Greenland?
Although the Norse had settled in Greenland for over 400 years, their colony was at most only a few thousand people. By the later Middle Ages, the colony was in decline, but it seems the last visitor to Greenland came in 1420. What happened to its remaining residents – did they get killed off in a plague, or by attacks from the Inuit? Or did they just leave the island and return back to Europe?
2. What caused the Dancing Plague?
In July 1518 a plague broke out in the town of Strasbourg – first one woman began to dance uncontrollably in the streets. Others soon joined her, and eventually over 400 people were afflicted, with some of them dying from heart attacks or exhaustion. The authorities tried to cure them by allowing them to keep dancing – they even paid for musicians to perform for them. What caused this dancing mania, which broke out on a few other occasions in Europe, between the 14th and 17th centuries?
3. Who were the Green Children of Woolpit?
Two English chroniclers reported a story from the 12th century – that the villagers of Woolpit discovered two children, a brother and sister, who had green skin and spoke an unknown language. Eventually their skin colour returned to normal, but the boy died shortly after being baptized. The girl grew into adulthood and learned to speak English – she explained they were from St Martin’s Land, where everything was green, and they had been tending their father’s cattle when they followed the animals into a cave. Emerging out of it, they found themselves in Woolpit. Many experts have tried to figure out if the story was some kind of folk tale, or was based at least in part on a true story.
4. What happened to the Princes in the Tower?
The two brothers, Edward V, King of England and Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York, were only 12 and 9 years old when in 1483, Richard III seized the English throne. The boys were kept in the Tower of London, but by the summer of that year they had completely disappeared. Were they murdered, and if so, by who? In 1674, some workmen at the Tower of London dug up a wooden box containing two small human skeletons – these bones now reside in Westminster Abbey and many believe they belong to the two brothers.
5. What is written in the Voynich Manuscript?
This illustrated manuscript comes from the 15th century, but it is written in an unknown language. Ever since its discovery in 1912, scholars have been puzzled over its words and its strange images of plants and astronomical signs. In recent years one scholar believes he has partly deciphered some of the text, figuring out a handful of words.
6. Did an army of children go on Crusade?
Dozens of accounts from the 13th century offer a story of ‘children’ attempting to go on crusade to reach Jerusalem. While the versions are often very different, they have a young boy from France or Germany preaching and leading up to 30,000 people on a march south to Italy. It was then said that merchant ship owners promised to take them to the Holy Land, but instead either sold the children as slaves in Muslim lands, or sank at sea. Historians have been very skeptical of these accounts, but some believe they might be poor men and women who were going on pilgrimages.
7. What was the fate of Owain Glyndwr?
Owain Glyndwr led a Welsh rebellion against England starting in 1400, and over the next several years was able to take control of much of Wales – he was even proclaimed the Prince of Wales by his supporters. However, the English were able to gradually recover Wales, and force Owain from his strongholds. The last sighting of the Welsh rebel was in 1412, and one chronicler reports that in 1415 he died and was secretly buried. Folk legends continue to tell his story, and offer different versions of what ultimately happened to Owain.
Many theories have emerged of what this cloth is – some believe it shows an image of Jesus Christ when he was crucified. Radio carbon tests have revealed the cloth was made between 1260 and 1390, but it still disputed that the image comes from the Middle Ages or who created it. A recent study suggests that the shroud was created to be used in medieval church plays about the Resurrection of Jesus.
9. What happened to Caliph al-Hakim?
From the year 996 to 1021, Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah ruled Egypt and parts of North Africa and the Near East as the Fatamid Caliph. While his enemies called him the ‘Mad Caliph’ his reign is usually seen as very successful. In the final years of his reign, al-Hakim became more interested in asceticism. On one night in February 1021 and at the age of 36, al-Hakim left for one of his journeys to the hills outside of Cairo, and never returned. A search found only his donkey and bloodstained garments. No one has ever discovered if he was killed, or perhaps engineered his own disappearance.
10. How far did the Vikings travel into North America?
Archaeological discoveries have found that the Norse had set up a small colony at L’anse aux Meadows on Newfoundland, and had sailed to Baffin Island in Canada’s far north. It is believed that they ventured further into North America – and since the 19th century some people have offered evidence that the Vikings had reached as far as Minnesota. Some of this evidence has been revealed to be a hoax, but scholars are still searching to see where the land of Vinland might have been.
11. What was the fate of John Cabot and his crew on their final voyage?
The Italian explorer John Cabot was able to reach North America in 1497, the first European to visit the continent since the Vikings. A year later he tried again, but we are unsure what happened to him – did his fleet get lost at sea, or perhaps did they return back to England?
12. What happened to King Edward II?
Edward II had ruled England for nearly 20 years before he was deposed by his wife Queen Isabella and her lover Roger Mortimer in January 1327. It has been reported that several months later he was executed by the new regime, but some accounts say that he was able to escape his imprisonment and went on to become a monk. There are even reports of his son Edward III meeting with a man who claimed to be his father living in Antwerp.
13. What was the secret behind Greek Fire?
This deadly incendiary weapon was invented in the Byzantine empire in the 7th century – and for centuries afterwards it was used to defend Byzantium. However, the formula for this weapon was a state secret, and now historians and scientists are unsure of what was actually used to create this liquid, which could burn on water.
14. What was contained in the Inventio Fortunata?
The Inventio Fortunata is said to be a lost book, written in the 14th-century for England’s Edward III. Penned by a Franciscan from Oxford who travelled the North Atlantic region in the early 1360s, he describes islands in the far north. How far did this person reach in his travels? His work has now become lost, but it was very influential with medieval and early modern geographers.
15. Is the Vinland Map real?
In 1965 scholars presented to the world a 15th-century map that depicts part of North America. Ever since then scholars have disputed whether or not the Vinland Map is real or a fraud. The document can still be found at a library at Yale University.
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