Hey Good Looking, What’s Cooking? Cannibalism in the Middle Ages

Joseph Gatt-styr-hbo

Styr, Magnar of the Thenn as portrayed by (Joseph Gatt) lead the cannibalistic Thenn clan. Image: (c) HBO.

In a stomach turning scene, Game of Thrones depicted the Thenn – a hybrid of the A Song of Ice and Fire Skagosi and Thenn – roasting an “arm of Crow”. In Game of Thrones, the Thenn, a free folk who came from the most northern regions beyond the Wall, are cannibalistic. They like to feast on their enemies. Did cannibals exist in the Middle Ages? Yes, they did: both in folklore and in fact.

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No doubt the couple was enjoying a pleasant autumn evening. Perhaps their horse’s hooves scattered copper autumn leaves as it made its way down the road. A young wife sat behind her husband on their horse. They were riding home from selling their crops at the autumn crop fair. It might have been a great day. Maybe they even made some decent money.

As they made their way down the road, a gang of thieves ambushed them. The man fought bravely with a sword and pistol, even using his horse to try to trample them and kick them off. The hoodlums grabbed his poor wife and dragged her off the horse from behind.

The husband could not fight his way through the warring gang – there were so many of them he was helplessly trapped in place — to rescue his wife. Some of the thieves, beat her savagely, and possibly raped her. After the men had finished with the pitiable wife, the gang’s women folk then descended upon her, slitting her throat and lapping up her scarlet blood. As the young wife lay dying, the women hacked open her belly and started pulling out her guts.

Finally, the fracas and the couples agonized shrieks drew twenty or thirty fairgoers or vendors. Outnumbered, the gang of thieves – known to legend as the Sawney Bean family – fled into the thick woods and made their escape.

Sawney_bean

An imagined depiction of Sawney Bean in front of his cave.

The surviving husband relayed his hellish tale to his rescuers and showed them what remained of his wife’s body parts. Aghast, the townspeople sent word to James I, who a few days later assembled a body of 400 men and, with hounds, tracked down Sawney Bean’s coastal lair. In a cave in Bennane Head on the Galloway coast, they found an incestuous band of cannibals who survived by attacking, robbing, and eating travelers and other unfortunates.

Without the hounds and the huge determined party, it is unlikely anyone would have ever found the Bean family’s den. The cave extended almost a mile underground and it flooded twice a day. It was only accessible in low tide. Who would ever think to look there?

In the cave, the king’s men discovered arms, legs, thighs, and hands of the victims hanging from hooks on the cave walls. They also found heaps of gold, silver, jewels, clothes, and other booty. For twenty-five years, the ne’er do well Sawney Bean, his wife, and their eight sons, six daughters, eighteen grandsons, and fourteen granddaughters – the third generation all born of incest – lived a life of ease and squalor in a cave hideaway on the Galloway seashore. The patriarch Sawney was a ditcher and hedger’s son who loathed hard labor. Sawney met a woman as vicious as him and they fell or choose to enter into a murdering, thieving, and dining lifestyle – sometimes even pickling their victims for consumption later. Legend has it they killed – and ate — more than a thousand people.

The Bean family were executed in Leith without a trial. The men had their hands, legs, and penises chopped off and then were left to bleed to death. The women were made to watch their men bleed out and then were burned at the stake in three separate fires. Or, so the story goes.

Many historians are doubtful the legend of Sawney Bean was ever anything more than anti-Scottish propaganda (notably from the eighteenth century) that has been turned into a great story to tell tourists. It’s a fabulous yarn – one that has inspired at least two horror movies: The Hills Have Eyes (1977, 2006) and the Hillside Cannibals (2006).

Long_handled_bill_hook

Christie may have used a billhook or a long-handled bill to pull down his victims. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Folklore similar to Sawney Bean survives for a fourteenth-century cannibal known as Christie of the Cleek – who got his food by hook or by crook. Legend has it that Andrew Christie was a butcher in Perth, who may have used his meat carving skills a little more resourcefully than his neighbors expected.

During what is likely 1340s – part of the overall cycle of clusters of famines in the Great Famine decades – Christie and a gang of starving scavengers began to ambush travelers in the Grampians foothills. Christie’s gang would kill, rob, roast, and then eat the travelers and their horses.

Prior to this, Christie’s gang began eating people after one of them starved to death, and Christie put his skills to work to fix them a meal – and no doubt save the others’ lives.

Christie and his gang jumped travelers in the passes of the Grampians. Christie dragged his victims off their horses using a hook or a “crook” (that is, a “cleke”) – which is how he got his nickname.

Christie’s gang murdered 30 riders before armed men from Perth captured them. Christie, however, escaped and lived out his days under a new name. Like the legend of Sawney Bean, historians are skeptical about the authenticity of this legend.

Other possible Scottish cannibals include a wealthy cattle owner, Nichol Brown, who, while staggeringly drunk, tried to roast his wife one night, and members of the nobility, such as James Douglas.

Born in 1697, James Douglas 3rd Marquis of Queensberry (later Earl of Drumlanrig) might have been a little off his rocker to put it mildly. Stories describe him as violently insane and an “imbecile.” Like Rochester’s insane wife-in-the attic in Jane Eyre, his family kept him locked up in his family home, Queensberry House. During the riots over the Act of Union, the crafty ten-year old escaped.

When James’ family found him, he had captured a young scullion, roasted him alive on a spit, and begun eating him!

James was shortly thereafter dubbed the ‘Cannibalistic Idiot’.

All of the gory legends aren’t meant to take away from the real cannibalism that occurred during the Middle Ages out of desperation, which will be discussed in part 2 of this article.

To be continued…

Jamie Adair is the editor of History Behind Game of Thrones, a website about the history behind George RR Martin's "Songs of Ice and Fire" novels and the hit TV show, "Game of Thrones."

5 Comments

  • Reply May 2, 2014

    Craig

    Legends about cannibals make great tales of terror. There’s the ancient story from the Odyssey where poor Odysseus’s men are transformed into pigs by the witch Circe, and consumed by her people – a village which some will tell you can still be located today. Cannibalism is however much more likely to occur as a cultural and ceremonial practice, as with certain groups of New Guinea tribesman, or out of sheer necessity. There were reports of cannibalism amongst Napoleon’s troops during the Russian Campaign, trapped without supplies in the months-long blizzard of the Russian winter. And similar reports of Germans in WWII. In Game Of Thrones, with the deep Winter almost upon us – we can only imagine what the barbarity of war and harsh necessity may bring men to.

    • Reply May 2, 2014

      Jamie Adair

      Eeeew. Re: GoT and the winter. I hadn’t even thought of that.

  • Reply May 3, 2014

    Watcher on the Couch

    I can remember a documentary (narrated by Gary Cooper to give some idea how long ago) about “The Real West” (i.e. of the USA) where the survivors of one of the wagon trains moving west only survived by eating the members of the wagon train who didn’t survive. I don’t know the details but I got the impression that the survivors ate people who were already dead though…..

  • Reply May 4, 2014

    Jamie Adair

    Oh that’s very interesting. Although it is shocking, it isn’t really that surprising. I don’t know that much about how the West was settled, but I’d think that any kind of cross-country travel/long voyage could result in starvation really easily. In those circumstances, cannibalism wouldn’t be far behind (I’d think).

    Cannibalism is also alluded to by the Night’s Watch military trainer /master-at-arms Alliser Thorne I think it was. When Thorne is goading Sam as being fat enough to keep them well fed when they go north of the Wall and get stuck without food – I think it was.

  • Reply May 5, 2014

    Watcher on the Couch

    I thought Sweeney Todd, the demon barber of Fleet Street was a real person, but apparently he was an urban legend http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sweeney_Todd. “The Sweeney” was a popular 1970s police series “Sweeney Todd”, shortened to “Sweeney” being rhyming slang for “the flying squad”. But that’s more of an aside that a historical contribution to the thread.

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