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What Did Espionage Look Like in Medieval Europe?

Have you ever wondered how espionage was carried out in the medieval period?

The speed of information was really slow and took some time for it to travel from one place to another.

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If your enemy attacked you or planned to do so, you would want to know about it as soon as possible.

You would need to be warned of the attack before it was too late.

In order for you to gather information faster, you would need your own espionage team.

How Did Espionage Start in the Medieval Period

After the collapse of the Roman Empire, many newfound kingdoms were established on the ruins of the western Empire.

They were kingdoms with low administration systems that were nothing more than a tower of cards.

There were many barbaric lords that were in constant conflict with each other, which meant that their battlefield could as well be their house.

They needed to be informed on the position and placement of their enemy so that they could defend or attack efficiently.

Even though there aren’t many sources about espionage in this time period there is no doubt that spies were used, mostly by the Catholic Church and the Byzantine Empire.

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As kingdoms developed so did their scouts, this was particularly the case in France and England.

Many people were employed as spies on both sides that had a job to gather information on  “competition”, this was done for political and personal gain.

The espionage system in medieval times

As the espionage system developed it got more complex.

People that were of low status or even invisible to the higher lords were spies.

They could gain potential information while not being noticed.

These people were from various rankings, from street orphans to merchants and all the way to military members.

With the rise of the Catholic Church, its dominance was expanding.

Fifty percent of the Church’s subjects didn’t want to be controlled by the church and they had to improvise.

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A complex system of espionage was used by the church that could bribe and blackmail everyone.

The church gained massive power with its espionage system because they had extensive networks throughout society.

Later with the Crusades and the Inquisition the church gained more power and used espionage to eliminate enemies.

The espionage system for personal use in medieval times

As merchant companies and individual families grew more in size, the need for espionage did the same thing.

The sabotage of ships and cargo caused heavy monetary damage.

Rumors were also used as a form of espionage to spread or receive information, and thus cause confusion.

Not everyone was employed as a spy (in the true meaning of the word), sometimes people came with valuable information and sold it.

They didn’t receive a constant payment for it, only once upfront for that information.

There were professional spies employed by the kings that were spread everywhere. They didn’t have a 007 look to them but they still had a good set of skills.


“The Elizabethan Secret Service” by Alan Haynes (Pub. Sutton 1992)
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