With April Fool’s Day nearly upon us, here’s some top Medieval pranks, tricks and hoaxes

You’d be forgiven for thinking that Medieval folk were a miserable lot.

Not so. Even monks spent time coming up with Medieval pranks, wheezes, and practical jokes.

Thomas Betson kept a notebook of his Medieval pranks.

The one about hiding a beetle inside a hollowed-out apple so that the apple appeared possessed probably brought down the monastery!

In the run-up to April Fool’s Day, here’s some top pranks, jokes, and hoaxes from the Middle Ages.

Maybe don’t try some of them at home!

The Fallacious Foreskin

Of all the holy relics that circulated throughout medieval Europe, relics associated with Jesus Christ were the most prized.

The Holy Foreskin first showed up in medieval Europe around 800 AD, when King Charlemagne presented it as a gift to Pope Leo III.

Charlemagne said it had been given to him by an angel.

However, rival foreskins soon began to pop up all over Europe. All told, twenty-one different churches claimed to have the Holy Foreskin, often at the same time!

Various miraculous powers were attributed to these foreskins. In particular, they were supposed to be able to protect women during childbirth.

Given the glut of Holy Foreskins, churches made efforts to have their foreskin authenticated by Church leaders as the sole genuine article.

In the early 12th century, the monks of San Giovanni in Laterano, Rome asked Pope Innocent III to rule on the authenticity of their foreskin, but he declined to do so.

Later, the monks of Charroux claimed their foreskin to be the only real one, pointing out that it apparently yielded drops of blood.

This convinced Pope Clement VII (1523-1534) who declared theirs to be the authentic skin since it was an actual body part of Christ.

The Catholic Church eventually sought to extract itself from the Holy Foreskin controversy, deciding that it was rather unseemly for so much attention to be paid to Christ’s private parts.

It adopted the view that all the rival foreskins were frauds.

To seal the deal, after 1900 writing or speaking about the Holy Foreskin was a crime punishable by excommunication.

The Pregnant Pope

Pope Joan giving birth. Woodcut from a German translation by Heinrich Steinhöwel of Giovanni Boccaccio’s De mulieribus claris, printed by Johannes Zainer at Ulm ca. 1474 (British Museum)

Legen says that Pope Joan was a woman who concealed her gender and ruled as pope for two years, from 853-855.

Imagine the surprise when riding one day from St. Peter’s to the Lateran, she stopped by the side of the road and gave birth to a child.

Pope Joan was apparently born an Englishwoman. She concealed her gender to pursue her scholarly ambitions as a woman.

Calling herself John Anglicus, she traveled to Athens where she gained a reputation for her knowledge of the sciences.

Eventually, still disguised as a man, she became a Cardinal, and when Pope Leo IV died in 853 AD was unanimously elected pope.

According to one legend, upon discovering the Pope’s true gender, the people of Rome tied her feet together and dragged her behind a horse while stoning her.

A gentler legend has it that she was sent to a faraway convent to repent her sins and that her child grew up to become the Bishop of Ostia.

The Catholic Church at first seemed to accept the reality of Pope Joan.

Marginal notes in a fifteenth-century document refer to a statue called “The Woman Pope with Her Child” that was supposedly erected near the Lateran.

There was a rumor that, as a result of Pope Joan, the chairs used during papal consecrations had holes in their seats so that an official check of the pope’s gender could be performed!

During the Reformation in the sixteenth century, the Catholic Church began to deny the existence of Pope Joan.

However, at the same time, Protestant writers insisted on her reality, mainly  to annoy the Catholics.

Modern scholars disagree about the historicity of Pope Joan.

 

The Marco Polo Porkie Pie

Marco Polo presenting his book to the Church

Marco Polo’s famous Description of the World was written around 1298. It was Polo’s account of the many years he had spent in China.

Marco Polo’s book became enormously influential and served in Europe as one of the primary sources of information about the Orient for many centuries.

Christopher Columbus, for instance, took the book with him on his fateful voyage to the Americas.

It also inspired a number of legends, such as the idea that Marco Polo brought the secrets of spaghetti and ice cream with him back from China (he didn’t).

Some scholars now suspect, however, that Marco Polo never went to China. The argument for this case has been laid out by Frances Wood in her book Did Marco Polo Go to China?

First of all, no reference has ever been found in Chinese archives to an Italian visitor like Marco Polo, despite the fact that China’s bureaucrats kept numerous forms of documentation.

Second, Polo’s account omits many details about Chinese culture. Wood notes Polo’s “apparent failure to pick up even a few Chinese or Mongol place-names in his seventeen-year stay in China.”

Nor does he ever mention the Chinese style of writing, despite the dramatic difference between Chinese script and the Roman alphabet.

Marco Polo doesn’t mention seeing woodblock printing, then unknown in Europe. He never mentions the Chinese custom of drinking tea (also unknown in Europe at that time), despite the fact that he discusses varieties of Chinese wine.

He never mentions the practice of foot-binding, even though this custom fascinated all other Europeans who traveled to China.

He never mentions the use of chopsticks; and finally, he fails to mention the Great Wall of China.

Wood suggests that Marco Polo probably never traveled further than his family’s trading posts on the Black Sea.

He did have access to Persian or Arabic guidebooks to China from which he may have pieced together his account of China.

 

The Sir John Mandeville Mendacity

Illustration from the earliest printed edition of Mandeville’s Travels

The seventeenth-century writer Sir Thomas Browne declared that Sir John Mandeville was “the greatest liar of all time.” Mandeville wouldn’t mind; he probably never existed.

The travel book attributed to Mandeville, which first appeared around 1371, was certainly one of the most popular books of the late Middle Ages.

The Travels of Sir John Mandeville described the travels of an English knight who left England around 1322 and journeyed throughout Egypt, Ethiopia, India, Persia, and Turkey.

He told of islands whose inhabitants had the bodies of humans but the heads of dogs, of a tribe whose only source of nourishment was the smell of apples, of a people the size of pygmies whose mouths were so small that they had to suck all their food through reeds, and of a race of one-eyed giants who ate only raw fish and raw meat.

Despite all of this fantastical stuff, the book was used as a work of reference by travelers including Christopher Columbus (again).

The authorship of Mandeville’s Travels remains unknown.

Historians cannot even decide whether the author was French or English, though they agree that the book was originally composed in French.

 

The Hi-Brazil hogwash

Detail from the Catalan map of 1350 showing the location of Hi-Brazil.

In 1480 a ship from Bristol, England failed to find the island of Hi-Brazil.

The two ships which sailed the following year in search of the island didn’t fare any better. And the five ships captained by John Cabot which set sail in 1498 to search for Hi-Brazil came up equally empty-handed.

There was one very good reason why none of these ships could find Hi-Brazil: the island didn’t exist.

Stories about the island had circulated around Europe for centuries, telling that it was the Promised Land of the Saints, an earthly paradise where fairies and magicians lived.

But supposedly the island was surrounded by thick fog, hidden from the eyes of mortals.

Cartographers were confident enough in the existence of the island to start putting it on maps in the mid-1300s.

One Captain John Nisbet claimed that he accidentally found the fabled island of Hi-Brazil.

Apparently, his crew chanced upon the island after sailing through an especially thick cloud of fog. They discovered that it was inhabited by large black rabbits and a magician who lived alone in a castle.

The magician informed them that the spell that had kept the island hidden from the eyes of mortals had been broken.

A man named Mathew Calhoon immediately filed a request with King Charles I for a patent of ownership to the island of Hi-Brazil.

Apparently, he felt that the island should rightfully be his since he had read Nisbet’s account!

Whether or not Calhoon ever received his patent doesn’t really matter, since the island was never found again.

Evidently, the spell still holds.

 

The Athanasius Kircher Chump

Athanasius Kircher was probably the greatest expert on ancient and universal languages, archaeology, astronomy, magnetism, and Chinese and Egyptian culture in Europe in the 1600’s.

This didn’t stop him from being a bit of a chump.

A rival named Andreas Muller made up a meaningless manuscript and sent it to Kircher with a note explaining that it had come from Egypt.

He asked Kircher for a translation, and Kircher obligingly produced one at once.

Another time, some practical jokers sent a piece of silk paper to Kircher. The paper was covered with strange characters.

Naturally, Kircher duly set to work translating it. After a few days of work, he happened to see the characters reflected in a mirror, whereupon he saw that they were simply Roman characters printed in reverse.

The message was: “Noli vana sectari et tempus perdere nugis nihil proficientibus,” or, “Do not seek vain things, or waste time on unprofitable trifles.”

Lesson learned?  Not likely.

While a new building was being constructed in Rome, some jokers carved various voluptuous figures and mysterious symbols on stones.

When discovered, the stones were widely admired as ancient relics.

Kircher (who else?) was brought in as interpreter.

He proceeded to give an elaborate interpretation of the circles, crosses, figures, and other meaningless signs with which they were inscribed.

The Michelangelo Machination

 

In 1496, when he was a young man, Michelangelo sculpted a sleeping cupid.

He, or an accomplice, then buried it in acidic earth to age it. The plan was to pass it off as an antique, which would increase its value.

The forged sculpture was sold through a dealer to Cardinal Raffaello Riario of San Giorgio.

Eventually, the Cardinal learned of the forgery, and he demanded his money back from the dealer. However, the Cardinal was so impressed by Michelangelo’s obvious talent that he didn’t press charges against the young artist.

In fact, he allowed him to keep his percentage of the sale!

Michelangelo’s cupid eventually came into the possession of the d’Este collection in Mantua, where it was reportedly displayed side by side with a genuine antique sleeping cupid.

It’s believed that the statue was destroyed in a fire in 1698.

Ironically, even though a “fake”, the cupid would be considered priceless today, because of its famous forger!

The Secretum philosophorum stunt

The Secretum philosophorum was a medieval ‘bestseller’ originating in England c.1300–1350.

Supposedly an essay on the Seven Liberal Arts, it actually describes and reveals practical tricks, ‘tricks of the trade’ and applied science.

It contains all sorts of fun stuff, like how to make different colors of ink, riddles, and creating scientific experiments like how to make a soap bubble.

One useful recipe is for magically transforming water into wine.

The trick was to secretly drop pieces of bread into the water, after first soaking the bread pieces in dark wine and then drying them in the sun.

Other tricks include making cooked meat appear full of worms, making invisible ink or – that old favorite- making a tower appear in a urinal flask.

 

 

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Siobhan O’Shea is a freelance writer. She writes about pretty much everything but especially likes to bring readers’ attention to new tech, marketing, human behavior, and other oddities.