Top 10 Myths and Legends of Medieval Times

Introduction to Top 10 Myths and Legends

The medieval period lasted from the fifth to fifteenth centuries in the history of Europe. It began with the fall of the Western Roman Empire and culminated with the Renaissance and the age of discovery.

In the medieval period, people were very superstitious and believed in various tales and legends.

There were various legends, characters and myths associated with the medieval period.

Myths had symbolic meanings and they were described as supernatural. Mythical characters like unicorns and dragons were sometimes believed to be real by people of Middle Ages.

Legends consisted of real events and stories but with some fiddled facts like the story of Robin Hood which was not entirely true but was based on some heroic character.

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1 – Robin Hood

Robin Hood was a heroic outlaw depicted in English folklore. According to the legends, he was a swordsman and archer.

There were various versions of Robin Hood, one legend depicted that he fought in the Crusades before returning to England.

The traditional account depicted him attired in a Lincoln green dress.

As per the famous narrative, he robbed from the rich and gave it to the poor.

Various characters were also associated with his story. These included his lover, Maid Marian, his band of outlaws, the Merry Men, and his chief opponent, the Sheriff of Nottingham.

There are various ballads and tales from the Middle Ages about the character.

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2 – King Arthur

According to medieval histories, King Arthur was the legendary king who defended Britain against Saxons’ invasion in late 5th and early 6th centuries. His character is mostly based on literary invention and folklore.

His character gained more popularity and became a figure of pan-European interest through Geoffrey of Monmouth’s imaginative 12th century Historia Regum Britanniae.

In this work, he depicted King Arthur as a king of Britain who established a vast empire by defeating the Saxons.

The French writer of 12th century, Chretien de Troyes, added Lancelot and Holy Grail to the story and characters like the Knights of the Round Table.

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3 – Unicorns

The Unicorn is a legendary creature that was described as the beast with single, large, pointed horn projecting from his forehead.

Unicorns were depicted in the ancient seals of Indus Valley Civilization and in ancient Greek.

In European folklore, it was depicted as a horse-like or goat-like creature with a horn on his forehead.

In the middle ages, unicorns were described as wild woodland creatures which symbolized purity and grace, and could only be captured by a virgin.

The predecessor of medieval bestiary, known as physiologus, depicted a unicorn trapped by a maiden (Virgin Mary).

The unicorn stood for incarnation and upon seeing her, laid its head on her lap and fell asleep.

The medieval notions justified unicorns in every religious art.

4 – Wyverns ‘Dragons’

A Wyvern was a legendary bipedal dragon with its tail ending in an arrow shaped tip.

It was derived from the figure of dragon faced by Trajan’s army in Dacia.

Its depiction was also found in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s history of British where the red dragon of Wales beat the Anglo-Saxon dragon.

Wyverns were very similar to the dragons so there was no clear distinction between the two.

The only difference was that Wyverns had two legs while dragons had four legs.

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5 – Vikings and their helmets

Vikings were Scandinavians who invaded Europe from late 8th to 11th centuries from their Northern European homelands.

The period from their earliest European raids from 6th century until the Norman Conquest of England in 1066 is known as the Viking Age.

There are various historical depictions of Vikings.

One source depicted Vikings as violent adventurers who wore helmets. They were unusual with their use of axes as weapon.

The guard of the Viking King Cnut was armed with metal axes and helmet.

Viking helmet was conical made from hard leather and reinforced by metal.

Legends depict Viking helmets as horned but in reality Vikings actually wore only plain helmets.

6 – The Holy Grail

The Holy Grail was a treasure mentioned in the legendary tales of King Arthur. Various stories described it as a cup or stone that provided happiness and youth and was in the custody of Fisher King.

In the late 12th century, Robert De Boron wrote that the grail was a vessel from the last supper.

The literature divided it into two groups, first, in Arthurian literature and second in the Joseph of Arimathea.

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Sir Lancelot was involved in the quest of Holy Grail, along with his son Galahad.

7 – Prester John the King

Prester John was the king who was popular in European chronicles from 12th to 17th centuries.

He was the ruler of Nestorian Christian nation which was lost amid the Islamic caliphates.

The earliest accounts of Prester John originated from the accounts of the Orient and of Westerners travelers.

His legend started during the period of Crusades when European Christians hoped to get their land back from the Muslims.

John defeated Muslim kings of Persia as per the legends. His legendary figure would inspire missionaries for centuries.

8 – The Pied Piper

The Pied Piper of Hamelin was a legendary character from the town of Hamelin, Lower Saxony, Germany.

In the middle ages, he was described as a piper dressed in multicolored clothes who acted as a rat catcher hired by the town.

With his magic pipe, he lured rats away from the town.

When the villagers refused to pay him, he retaliated by using his magic pipe on their children and taking them away as he had lured away the rats.

There are many theories about the piper. Some says he was a symbol of hope for the people of Hamelin which were attacked by plague; he drove rats away hence saving people from epidemic.

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9 – Beowulf

Beowulf is an old English poem consisting of 3,182 lines and is one of the most important works of Old English literature.

The date of its composition is uncertain but the certain dating in the manuscript was between 975 and 1025.

The author was known as “Beowulf poet" who was an Anglo Saxon poet and the story is set in Scandinavia.

Beowulf, the hero of the tribe comes to aid Hrothgar, king of the Danes.

The mead hall of king in Heorot is attacked by a monster, Grendel. Beowulf confronts the monster and kills him.

After the victory, Beowulf returns home and becomes the king of Geats.

Fifty years later, he defeats a dragon but is wounded. After his death, his people cremate his body and build a tower in his memory.

Medieval Poem Beowulf

Medieval Poem Beowulf

10 – The Wandering Jew

The Wandering Jew was a mythical immortal man who became popular after his legends spread in the 13th century Europe.

The original legend depicted a Jew who taunted Jesus on the way to Crucifixion.

Some versions showed him as a shoe maker while in others he is a doorman at the estate of Pontius Pilate.

The origins are uncertain but some elements are found in the Genesis of Cain who was given the punishment to wander over the earth, never reaping and with the punishment of endlessness.

In this legend, the man who taunted Jesus is then doomed to wander the earth and incur the taunts of the world without end.

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