While Medieval Knights get all the glory and attention, spare a thought for the Ribalds, who were in charge of pillaging, wall-scaling and portering.
The Ribald appears in the military in the 12th century. Organised into units with their own flags and kings, they were the first to attack and scale the enemy walls. A 13th century Ribald flag is described as “white, with the ribalds painted looting and gambling”. Dressed and armed lightly, if at all, they erected catapults and scaled them. “Nude like a ribald” was a contemporary term.
How to insult insult real Knights? Send the “Knights of S**t” or Ribalds to challenge them. Ribalds from the army of Charles d’Anjou wound up slaughtered like sheep, “but this hardly affected the army of Charles”. The other job consigned to Ribalds (and prostitutes) was pillage. A standard part of Medieval warfare, it’s usually politely passed over by contemporary writers or blamed on the Ribalds. A noble would not do such a thing!
Ribalds were famous for selling pillaged loot and gambling. In one story, a ribald, finding a cadaver, throws it on an ass and goes around yelling: “Who wants to buy the body of Manfred?” Italian statutes even defined the ribald as “someone who undressed down to his underclothes while gambling”.
In military campaigns, Ribalds may have acted as pimps, with most armies having plenty of “whores, boys, and Ribalds”. Certainly, the King of the Ribalds punished prostitutes as well as his own.
While all foot soldiers were originally named ribalds, it was later applied to foot-soldiers charged only with destruction, and finally limited to only those doing the lowest form of wrecking.
The name (ribaldae or ribaldi) became associated with prostitutes and brothel-keepers. In the 12th century French court, an official named king of the Ribalds investigated all crimes committed within the precincts of the court, and controlled vagrants, prostitutes, brothels and gambling-houses.
In the Medieval Low Countries, Ribalds weren’t allowed access to certain hospitals. They cleaned cesspits, swept streets, removed animal carcasses, and even did the work of executioner. Despite this, their elected leader, the “King of the Ribalds”, had real power, because the city officials expected him to control marginalized groups: prostitutes, lepers, vagabonds, and mentally ill.
Military and civil authorities spent large sums of money on insulting the enemy. Who performed these insults? Naturally, the Ribalds and the prostitutes.
On October 4, 1325, Lucca staged a series of insult races at the gates of Florence; Florence insulted them back at their front entrance in 1330. Luca’s show involved a “horse race, one on foot, and one by whores”. The women apparently rode on little donkeys up to the gates of Florence.
In 1335, the Perugian army ran an insult race “in front of the gate of Arezzo by the prostitutes, [their clothes] raised up to the belt”. Sadly, many details of this race were omitted “for the sake of decency”.
The aggressors often minted coins, aimed at humiliating the enemy. The coins usually showcased the attackers’ victory and the victims’ humiliation. Sometimes the minters even hammered impressions of the new coins into the enemy gates.
Adding further to the insult, the vanquished city was forced to use these coins, ensuring that their conquered status was never forgotten.
Siena, Italy, hosts a medieval-style horse race twice a year in the summer that dates back to the 13th century. Like the Medieval insult races, anything goes at this palio. Jockeys whip their horses, and each other, with crops made from cured distended bull’s penises. If a jockey is forced off his mount, his riderless horse can win on its own.
Winning and losing is taken very seriously. A few years ago, when the Contrada Pantera (the Panther) was beaten by its long-established enemy, the Contrada dell’Aquila (the Eagle), a loudspeaker mounted on the Eagle’s church tower reportedly mocked the Panther 24 hours a day for more than a month.
Even Saints can be knocked down at a palio. A statue of Saint Anthony spent 20 years down a well after not ensuring the victory of the Chiocciola team. After a losing streak for those 20 years, Chiocciola retrieved the saint, and they won the very next palio.