Category: medieval

Portrait of a woman (potentially Mary Magdalene) by Lucas Cranach the Elder. 

The artist used contradictory symbolism in this painting, making identification a little difficult. Her hair is loose, signalling an unmarried virgin, but her direct gaze was inappropriate for an unmarried woman of a respectable family. Lucas Cranach the Elder was a great German artist painting for 16th-century aristocratic patrons. His paintings had to be respectable, able to be hung in the most eminent homes. That leaves the most likely subject the biblical Mary Magdalene, who was supposedly once a prostitute before converting.

Courtesy of the Walters Art Museum


THERE were 18 martial arts (bugei or bujutsu) in medieval Japan, and these included use of weapons, unarmed self-defence techniques, swimming, and equestrian skills. Initially designed to hone the skills of warriors for greater success on the battlefield, many of the arts were later practised by civilians as a method to foster discipline, agility, and mental alertness. Many of the arts remain popular today, notably judo, kendo, karate, and aikido.

Several of the martial arts which became popular in medieval Japan were introduced from China where, according to tradition, they had begun as a way for Buddhist monks to ensure they were fit enough to sit in meditation for hours on end and as a method to aid their concentration. Over time, these exercises began to incorporate skills with weapons and they spread across to Japan. Kendo, for example, which emphasised skill with a sword, was likely introduced there in the 7th century CE. Nevertheless, the Japanese added their own weapons, skills, and psychological emphasis to martial arts to both suit their own military needs and their philosophical approach. From the 10th century CE and throughout the medieval period (1185-1603 CE), warriors, especially the samurai, practised their skills at weaponry and horse riding in order to prepare themselves for the challenges of the all-too-frequent wars that plagued the country as rival warlords fought for dominance.

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OUR friends at The Medieval Magazine ( have introduced new subscription types for you to enjoy! You can now access as much as the full back-catalogue of this excellent magazine on the Middle Ages!

IN this issue, all that glitters is gold! The Medieval Magazine goes east and visits the vibrant culture, art, and life of the Byzantine Empire. This issue takes a look at music, medieval travel in the Aegean islands, war on the frontier, Ravenna’s beautiful basilicas, and the important contributions made to Byzantine history by powerful women such as Sophia Palaiologina and Zoe Porphyrogenita. We hope you enjoy this trip to the golden East with us!  

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from Java (Indonesia) in the first half of the 900s CE.


THE medieval Ryukyu castles on the island of Okinawa, Japan are impressive testimony to the kingdom’s power and wealth from the 12th to 16th century CE. Notable castles include Shuri Castle, the royal residence, and four excellent examples of medieval fortresses built in the Okinawa style: Nakijin, Zakimi, Katsuren, and Nakagusuku. Another star attraction is the religious shrine at Seifa Utaki considered the place of creation in Ryukyu mythology. All of these monuments are collectively listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

The Ryukyu Islands (Ryukyu Shoto) are an archipelago of around 70 islands located at the very southern end of Japan. The largest island by far is Okinawa and its name is sometimes used to refer to this whole group of subtropical islands. The islanders of Ryukyu were independent for most of their history which goes back some 30,000 years. With genetic and cultural connections to the ancient Jomon and Ainu, the islanders have also regarded themselves as distinct from the Japanese occupying the more northern islands. Even their language, although similar, is different from the Yamato spoken in the rest of Japan. Japan only formally claimed the Ryukyu islands as part of its territory during the Meiji period (1868-1912 CE) when they became the Okinawa Prefecture in 1879 CE. Prior to that, the archipelago enjoyed some seven centuries of independence or semi-autonomy.

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THE life of a cat in the Middle Ages (c. 476-1500 CE) differed significantly from that of a dog owing primarily to its association with witchcraft, darkness, and the devil. In the ancient world, the cat was regarded highly by cultures as diverse as China, Egypt, and Rome but, by the 13th century CE in Europe, it had long lost its former status and was generally tolerated for its practical use in curbing vermin but not often valued as a pet.

The cat lost its former position through the efforts of the medieval Church which encouraged the association of the cat with devils and darkness as part of their long-standing agenda of demonizing pagan faiths, rituals, and values. Scholar Desmond Morris writes:

“Religious bigots have often employed the cunning device of converting other people’s heroes into villains to suit their own purposes. In this way, the ancient horned god that protected earlier cultures was first transformed into the evil Devil of Christianity and the revered sacred feline of ancient Egypt became the wicked sorcerer’s cat of medieval Europe. Many things considered holy by a previous religious faith have automatically been damned by a new religion. In this way began the darkest chapter in the cat’s long association with mankind. For centuries it was persecuted and the cruelties heaped upon it were given the full backing of the Church.” (158)

Once the cat was associated with Satan, it was regularly tortured and killed either to ward off bad luck, as a sign of devotion to Christ, or an integral part of rituals involving ailuromancy (using cats to predict the future). Cats were condemned by popes and massacred by entire villages and would not regain even half their former status until the Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century CE. The Victorian Age of the 19th century CE would see the cat’s full restoration in status.

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Koreans invented moveable type made of durable metal in the 1200s CE. The oldest existing book made from moveable metal type is the Jikji a collection of Buddhist teachings, hymns, eulogies, and poetry. It was compiled by a Korean Buddhist monk named Baegun, and printed in 1377.

The large Czech town of Uherské Hradište is believed to have been a center of the Holy Moravian Empire, which was the first major state that was predominantly West Slavic. The empire was notable for ushering in Christianity in the region after the arrival of St. Cyril and St. Methodius in 863; the Holy Moravian Empire’s use of the Glagolitic alphabet invented by those saints also birthed the first ever Slavic literary culture.

Uherské Hradište itself boasted a large church and baptistery and was inhabited by dukes, noblemen, craftsmen, tradesmen, farmers, and probably slaves. A team of researchers have recently conducted a study comparing samples of DNA obtained from 75 men buried in high-status graves between the 800s and 1200s CE with 340 living men, whose last names appeared in historic registry records. In other words, the living men’s last names suggest their families have been in the area of Uherské Hradište for quite a while.

Y-chromosome markers identified 18 men, out of the 340, who are descended from Great Moravian noblemen. The researchers were surprised by such a large number. It seems small, yes, until you consider that East Moravia used to border Hungary. As a liminal space between Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire it was affected by many wars, from the Thirty Years’ War to World War II.

THE latest Medieval Magazine is out! In this issue, we celebrate the lives, achievements, & contributions of medieval women. From 16th century Korean muse Hwang Jini, to the bravery of Maria Comnena, the myth of “Queen Maker” Melusine, and Saint Bridget of Sweden, we criss-cross the globe to learn more about women’s lives, & challenge the myth that they lived in an age where they were viewed solely as 2nd class citizens.  

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