Even in medieval times they had stories and legends about people with extraordinary gifts – saints and warriors with special powers. Here is our list of ten superheroes from the Middle Ages.
Superpowers: Made of stone, invisibility, great hearing
In medieval Jewish folklore, the Golem was a stone creature that could be animated using magic and prayers. The most famous story involves the Golem of Prague, who was created by a rabbi in the 16th century. Known as Joseph, the golem could not talk but could hear from great distances and could become invisible. He would protect the Jewish community from antisemitic attacks, except on Saturdays, when he had to rest during the Sabbath. Eventually, he was deactivated and placed in the attic of Prague’s synagogue, where it is said that he still remains and could be restored to life if needed.
Superpowers: Dragon-killing, surviving death.
Saint George was one of the most popular saints in the Middle Ages – the story of the third century Roman soldier who became a martyr includes an account of how he saved a princess who was about to be sacrificed to a dragon. When he refuses the demand from the Emperor Diocletian to renounce Christianity, George is put to death three times —chopped into small pieces, buried deep in the earth and consumed by fire—but each time returns unharmed. Finally, he is beheaded and as a martyr often comes to help medieval Christian armies.
3. The Green Knight
Superpowers: Transformation, surviving a beheading.
One of the most interesting characters in the Arthurian Romances is the Green Knight. In the tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, he is a knight named Bercilak de Hautdesert, who is transformed by Morgan le Fay to test the knights of King Arthur’s Court. When he first appears he dressed in green and has green skin, and challenges anyone to strike him with an axe. Gawain takes up the offer and cuts the Green Knight’s head off. However, the decapitated man retrieves his head and tells Gawain he will meet him again in one year. Before meeting again Gawain undergoes secret tests of his loyalty and chastity, and in the end the Green Knight spares him.
Superpowers: Invincibility and invisibility.
In the medieval German epic tale Nibelungenlied, one of the main characters is Siegfried, who is based on Sigurd, a hero of Norse mythology. In the Nibelungenlied he kills a dragon and then bathes in its blood, making his body invulnerable – except for a spot on his back where a leaf had fallen on his skin. His adventures continue, and he obtains a cloak of invisibility that also helps him out. However, the secret of his invincibility is discovered by one of his enemies, who spears him when he is drinking from a stream on a hunting trip.
Superpowers: Long life, great strength, demon destroyer.
The hero of the 10th century Persian epic Shahnameh may have the child of supernatural beings – when he was born he was so large that they needed ten wet nurses to feed him. After killing a mad elephant as a child, Rostam would undertake many adventures, killing dragons and demons. After protecting Persia for 500 years, his evil half-brother Shaghad throws him into a well filled with poisoned spears. Before he dies, Rostam gets his revenge by shooting an arrow that goes through a tree trunk and then strikes Shaghad, killing him.
Saint Patrick is one of the 5th century missionaries credited with converting Ireland to Christianity. His legends also explain that he drove all the snakes of Ireland into the sea after they began attacking him while he was undertaking a 40-day fast on top of a hill. He performed many other miraculous deeds across the country, including turning his walking stick into a tree and turning a lake red after killing the serpent swimming in it.
Superpowers: Great warrior, enchanted sword.
The 11th century poem The Song of Roland tells the story of how Charlemagne’s leading knight, Roland, is surrounded by an army of a hundred thousand Saracens. The knight, who carries an enchanted, unbreakable sword named Durendal, fends off the Saracens, allowing the rest of Charlemagne’s forces to escape – and as he is about to be overwhelmed, he blows his olifant (horn) to summon revenge, until his temples burst and he dies.
8. William Tell
Superpowers: Extreme accuracy, strength.
The legend of the Swiss hero William Tell began in the 15th century – it tells how over a hundred years earlier the evil Hapsburg official Albrecht Gessler forced William Tell to test his legendary marksmanship by shooting an apple off of his own son’s head. Tell succeeded, but Gessler ordered him imprisoned. As Tell was being taken away by a boat, a storm came up and the crew asked William to save them. Using his great strength, Tell was able to steer the ship back to shore, and then he leaped from the boat back onto land, ran across the country and on finding Gessler, shot him dead with a crossbow bolt. He is credited with launching the rebellion that created the Swiss confederacy.
Superpower: Extreme long life.
Many legends developed from the Middle Ages that a great leader had not died, but remains hidden and sleeping, awaiting for a time when he will once again be needed to lead his people. King Arthur, Charlemagne and Frederick Barbarossa are among those found in these legends. One story has Constantine XI Palaiologos, the last Byzantine Emperor, having been turned to marble and buried underground, will one day return to reclaim in his empire.
Superpowers: Stigmata, Levitation, Talking with animals.
The 13th century saint Francis of Assisi was said to be the first Christian since Jesus to be given the stigmata – to have the same five wounds that Christ received when he was crucified.
It was also reported in accounts that he could be “suspended above the earth, often to a height of three, and often to a height of four cubits,” and their are several stories in which he spoke with animals, even convincing a wolf to stop terrorizing a town.