For those who are unaware, the Medieval Death Bot is one of the more entertaining bots on Twitter, giving a random death that has been recorded from the death records of the 14th century. It is strangely humorous to talk to the death bot and figure out what random death one will receive on any given day in such times where panic is so widespread. For those who are unaware, the fourteenth century was a particularly deadly one for humanity as a whole. One could die from any number of disasters, be it the horrors of warfare like the Ming rebellion against the Mongols or the first part of the Hundred Years’ War, or the famine that befell Europe for several years, or the Black Death, most famously of all. A less cheeky person would not revel in reading about the deaths of people in the Middle Ages, given the fear and panic over pestilence that currently fills the earth. That said, I am not most people and I like my humor to be on-point and on the nose whenever possible. So I would like to share with you, dear readers, some insights that one can gain from the Medieval Death Bot.
A great many of the deaths of the 14th century could have been avoided with some basic knowledge of swimming. Humanity has always preferred to live near water for a variety of reasons–fish have been a good supplement to insecure diets, water from rivers has been vital for bathing, drinking, and sewage (sometimes all at the same time), and trade routes through rivers, canals, and seas has always been much cheaper than land transportation. Yet the fact that mankind has (and still today) lives close to water by and large has not meant that humanity has been well-prepared to deal with the hazards of the water. Most notably, if one is going to live and work near water, travel on boats to fish or trade, or travel over bridges, it is important to learn how to swim, because it is not hard to imagine that one may have to deal with being in the water. Yet it seems that swimming or even floating skills were not a priority in the Middle Ages, despite the many deaths that resulted from drowning.
There was once upon a time where being literate meant more or less that one was above the law. Technically speaking, those who were accused of murder (or other crimes) were allowed to claim the benefit of clergy if they could prove that they knew how to read Psalm 51, and instead of being properly put to death for murder, they would merely be branded. The extraterritoriality enjoyed by the literate was a source of considerable political problems, as kings who wanted to preserve law and order in their realm were faced with the anarchical tendencies of intellectuals (at least by the standards of the 14th century) who took advantage of the legal system to their advantage. Part of the immense hostility felt by the common folk towards lawyers and clergy that would later prove to be decisive during the ages of Reformation and Revolution that would eventually come to Europe was the double standard that existed between harsh laws that existed for poor and ignorant folk and vastly less harsh laws that existed for those who had the knowledge to navigate the legal system and exploit its loopholes or those who were wealthy and influential enough to have others to do that mental labor for them. The fact that this sort of problem remains today suggests that double standards relating to knowledge and power and money are a fundamental problem with status-driven human beings in all places and times.
One cannot always trust death notices. Although those who conduct autopsies or record the causes of death try their best, it is not easy to know or polite to say how someone died. The Medieval Death Bot does not appear to suffer from any scruples of politeness, but there are definitely suspicious causes of death that have made it into the historical record anyway. What is the red plague, and how does one know that it was given to one by a Lollard? In 14th century England, the Lollards were not particularly popular people, seeing as how they disrupted the cozy religious hierarchy and called corrupt priests and murderous clerks to account for their sins against God and men. Those who are undesirable populations who cause trouble have long been accused of being plague vectors in societies where there are panics relating to plagues. At times these accusations may even be just, in situations where the health and sanitation practices of populations is low enough that their presence does represent a threat to the public health of ordinary and generally law-abiding citizens. Similarly, it is unclear what it means to die of natural causes. If one wants to be precise, all deaths result from a cause and are not natural. If someone lives long enough, they are likely going to be more vulnerable to organs failing and to the inability of the body to overcome all manner of illnesses because the body’s defenses have been ravaged by the effects of time and by the long struggle to survive in the face of a hostile and malign world full of dangers and threats. Still, when one can be in prison long enough to die old and nearly forgotten for the fault of stealing a sheep while a murderer can get off for being literate, the justice system hardly seems just.
In the meantime, hopefully you enjoy the humor of medieval death as much as I do, and stay alive during these times of fear and panic and pestilence.