Author Topic: Ancient and medieval methods of assassination  (Read 7746 times)

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nijis

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Ancient and medieval methods of assassination
« on: December 26, 2007, 04:55:03 PM »
First off, this is in no way related to any feature that it is in the works. It's just something about which I was personally curious.

After having read some of the threads about assassination missions for the game, I have been trying to find out how pre-modern assassinations were actually carried out.

Basically, as far as I am aware, two scenarios that often come to mind when gamers think of assassination -- an assassin sneaks close to a target and dispatches him or her using a missile weapon, or an assassin breaks into a protected area, kills the target, and escapes -- were very, very rare, if not completely unheard-of.

Rather, the archetypal pre-modern assassination of a public figure was something like the killing of Julius Caesar, in that...
1) The victim knew and to some degree trusted the killers
2) The killers used knives
3) The killing took place in the course of a coup d'etat, which meant that the assassins did not need to escape

Other modes of pre-modern assassination include:
* Overpowering the target by weight of numbers. This can include murders by a bodyguard (multiple Roman emperors), collaring the target in public with a large group (the Pazzi plot in Florence or the murder of Byzantine emperor Leo V)
* Going up to the target in broad daylight, stabbing them, and either not planning to get away or relying on confusion to get away (Hashashiyin, the Sicorii). After the 16th century you start getting pistols as well (William the Silent), but keep in mind that these are also carried out at very close range. A considerable proportion of these assassinations are religiously motivated -- indicating that escape is very much a secondary priority
* Poison (usually best when administered by the victim's wife or servants)

Even today, it's very hard to assassinate someone from long-range. Virtually every assassination of which I can think uses a firearm fired from close range (no more than 10-20m), explosives, or a melee weapon (be it knife or poison-tipped umbrella). Even modern states which regularly sponsor assassinations and who could presumably train a cadre of marksmen don't normally use them to off their opponents. However, there is very well-known long-range assassination -- JFK -- which tends to heavily shape the popular perception of assassinations.

Even with a high-powered scoped rifle, it's hard to predict a target's movements, find a spot which has a good line of sight but is secluded enough to set up with a rifle and wait, get a weapon there without being spotted, and hit a moving target surrounded by guards, retinue, petitioners, etc. It would be considerably harder with a crossbow, which are (1) more difficult to conceal, (2) less lethal, (3) have much less range, (4) are more vulnerable to wind, adrenaline-induced hand shaking, etc, (5) cannot be reloaded in a timely fashion.

There is one case in which an assassin tried to use an arquebus from concealment, had a plan of escape, and did actually wound the victim -- the attempted assassination of Admiral Coligny in Paris in 1572. Note however that the assassin probably had the backing of some very highly-placed courtiers, if not the king himself,

As for sneaking into someone's bedchamber, I'm guessing that it also didn't happen very much, if at all. Medieval palaces were just too crowded. This assumes that the story involving Salaheddin al-Ayyubi and the note left by his bedside is apocryphal.

All of this means that there is very little chance that a professional assassin who is targeting a high-profile target would be able to do the deed and collect the paycheck. This leaves the field to the Hashashiyin and others who have other-worldly motivations.

What about ninjas, you ask? I am much less familiar with the Far East than I am with the Middle East and Europe, but this article suggests that while there may have been ninjas, of a sort, they weren't much use as assassins. It's not a scholarly piece, but it does seem to make a serious effort to review contemporary sources. http://www.illuminatedlantern.com/cinema/archives/ninja.php

Note that I am sure you had medieval contract killers -- they exist in pretty much every contemporary anarchic situation, so you would expect the same laws of supply and demand to function in the Middle Ages as well -- but I doubt they spent much time going after well-protected high-profile targets, and I doubt they were particularly well-trained. Rather, a lord might hire a couple of thugs to ambush a creditor, a troublesome spouse, an unruly tenant, etc.

Any thoughts? Anyone have any counter-examples?
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Grunwalder

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Re: Ancient and medieval methods of assassination
« Reply #1 on: December 26, 2007, 05:29:07 PM »
For brevity's sake, let's toss defenestration into the mix. That's about as cheap as it can get, with the only real hassle being to get that close as such to push someone from a height.
Quote
Even with a high-powered scoped rifle, it's hard to predict a target's movements, find a spot which has a good line of sight but is secluded enough to set up with a rifle and wait, get a weapon there without being spotted, and hit a moving target surrounded by guards, retinue, petitioners, etc. It would be considerably harder with a crossbow, which are (1) more difficult to conceal, (2) less lethal, (3) have much less range, (4) are more vulnerable to wind, adrenaline-induced hand shaking, etc, (5) cannot be reloaded in a timely fashion.

That's not entirely true. A rifle is subject to just about all of those. They're definitely not easy to hide, are quite vulnerable to the wind and an unsteady hand, and the mechanism of reloading is different in difficulty, be it semi-automatic or fully, bolt-action or clip.

Oswald was a crack shot, and so was Chuck Whitman. Very few could do what they did. Probably the best marksmen in fifty years, especially Oswald.
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Re: Ancient and medieval methods of assassination
« Reply #2 on: December 26, 2007, 07:34:45 PM »
Other modes of pre-modern assassination include:
* Overpowering the target by weight of numbers. This can include murders by a bodyguard (multiple Roman emperors), collaring the target in public with a large group (the Pazzi plot in Florence or the murder of Byzantine emperor Leo V)
Wouldn't that not be more of a coup than an assassination?

There's also the trick of 'accidentally' shooting the victim during a hunting party or 'mistaken identity' on the battlefield. Not to mention the practice of 'accidentally misplacing' the heirs to the throne.
Quote
All of this means that there is very little chance that a professional assassin who is targeting a high-profile target would be able to do the deed and collect the paycheck. This leaves the field to the Hashashiyin and others who have other-worldly motivations.
Well  if he managed to pick up the paycheck then it probably wouldn't be recorded as an assassination. Take King Alexander III of Scotland for example - he leaves a pub on a stormy night, becomes seperated from his guides and is later found dead at the foot of a cliff. It's assumed his horse lost it's footing and carried him over the precipice, but nobody actually saw the moment of his death. When his heir apparent Margaret takes ill and dies in Orkney on her way to Scotland, is it merely coincidence or did one of the Scottish nobles or Longshanks himself have a skilled assassin in their employ?
Quote
What about ninjas, you ask? I am much less familiar with the Far East than I am with the Middle East and Europe, but this article suggests that while there may have been ninjas, of a sort, they weren't much use as assassins.
From what we have the evidence suggests they were more like spies or guerillas than assassins. Mythological stories aside, when the Ninja did kill someone it seems to have been more of an ambush or attack of opportunity, no different from normal contract killings in other words. They did perform acts of sabotage prior to a battle, but I think Special Forces would be a better description.
 As I understand it professional assassins in the East tended to be prostitutes or similar roles, again preferring small and easily concealed blades. Of course, this could simply be myths based on misogyny, but I'd think they would certainly be the most likely candidates for assassins.
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Re: Ancient and medieval methods of assassination
« Reply #3 on: December 26, 2007, 07:53:39 PM »

From what we have the evidence suggests they were more like spies or guerillas than assassins. Mythological stories aside, when the Ninja did kill someone it seems to have been more of an ambush or attack of opportunity, no different from normal contract killings in other words. They did perform acts of sabotage prior to a battle, but I think Special Forces would be a better description.
 As I understand it professional assassins in the East tended to be prostitutes or similar roles, again preferring small and easily concealed blades. Of course, this could simply be myths based on misogyny, but I'd think they would certainly be the most likely candidates for assassins.

Note: Shogun: Total War's ninjas were not realistic. The above statement only reinforces this.
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Merlkir

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Re: Ancient and medieval methods of assassination
« Reply #4 on: December 26, 2007, 09:46:09 PM »
What about the good old stabbing from the toilet shaft? :) I think I've heard it more than once, might have even happened to a czech noble..I'll try to find out...

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Re: Ancient and medieval methods of assassination
« Reply #5 on: December 26, 2007, 09:47:15 PM »
I think the most common method of medieval assassination was to hire a gang of thugs to to ambush and stab someone in a dark alley. The next most popular was to send a group of low-status knights or men-at-arms to hack someone to pieces somewhere e.g the murder of Thomas Becket. I think in Italy poisoning was the most popular method.
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Re: Ancient and medieval methods of assassination
« Reply #6 on: December 26, 2007, 11:04:33 PM »
Did any assasin use bow or crossbow like a sniper? I've never heard of such but might've happened.
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Re: Ancient and medieval methods of assassination
« Reply #7 on: December 27, 2007, 01:39:26 AM »
Well, Becket wasn't an intentional death apparently, but I'd guess that ambush by a gang of thugs, or else bribing someone who could get the target close and alone to stick a knife between the ribs would be the most common methods. Of course, if you move forward from the Medieval era a tad you have things like Guy Fawkes, and a host of conspiracies by protestants or catholics to assassinate the ruler (though how true they were is anyones guess).

Don't think there's anything specific regarding people assassinated, although King William II was 'accidentally' shot with a bow while on a hunting trip.
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Grunwalder

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Re: Ancient and medieval methods of assassination
« Reply #8 on: December 27, 2007, 05:46:38 AM »
I think the most common method of medieval assassination was to hire a gang of thugs to to ambush and stab someone in a dark alley. The next most popular was to send a group of low-status knights or men-at-arms to hack someone to pieces somewhere e.g the murder of Thomas Becket. I think in Italy poisoning was the most popular method.

Eh. Italians were always weird.

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Merlkir

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Re: Ancient and medieval methods of assassination
« Reply #9 on: December 27, 2007, 06:54:23 AM »
I think the most common method of medieval assassination was to hire a gang of thugs to to ambush and stab someone in a dark alley. The next most popular was to send a group of low-status knights or men-at-arms to hack someone to pieces somewhere e.g the murder of Thomas Becket. I think in Italy poisoning was the most popular method.

probably true, king Václav was killed by thugs hired by his own brother on the doorstep of a church ! :D

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Re: Ancient and medieval methods of assassination
« Reply #10 on: December 27, 2007, 10:59:12 AM »
From what I read, at least here in Italy, most of the time they didn't waste a lot of creativity in assassinations, especially when the victim was less powerful; in medieval Rome a noble could just go and throw an influential (but of lower social class) enemy out of a window. :shock: And, just like today, most "assassins" were simple thugs, with little money and even less morals, hired on the spot; the stereotype of the professional, independent assassin is just something made popular by movies (today, mafia killers are usually common thugs paid less than 500 € for killing someone).
Elaborate methods were used, though; poison became notorious because of the Borgia family, but when visiting a castle near Rome (it was either of the Orsini or Colonna family, can't remember which one. Anyway, these were two notorious  rival Roman families) I was showed a trap apparently used to kill hated guests: it was a trapdoor, with a pit beneath with sharp blades and caustic lime at the bottom, positioned in the corridor leading to one of the guests room.
The problem, of course, is that gathering information on this kind of subject is difficult. I mean, we do know about blatant murders, but if an assassination was meant to be as quiet as possible, we may never learn about it (and so, never know about the method used). In some way the same problem with secret organizations in general, or with the Japanese ninjas...
« Last Edit: December 27, 2007, 11:01:26 AM by Maan »

Buxton

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Re: Ancient and medieval methods of assassination
« Reply #11 on: December 27, 2007, 02:11:23 PM »
I agree with man in thinking that most 'assassins' would just be peasants or thugs at the bottom of the bottle. Hired to mainly attempt to kill their target, or even just scare them. As it's not really a loss if you lose these people.

I don't think using many thugs or soldiers to kill (and rush) the target really counts as an assassination. IMO, an assassination is done quickly, stealthily or not, by two or less people to bring more of a shock - JFK for example. Also, it's easier to get these people away so they can't reveal who they did it for.

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Re: Ancient and medieval methods of assassination
« Reply #12 on: December 27, 2007, 03:10:43 PM »
Thanks to all for all the thoughts...

I don't think using many thugs or soldiers to kill (and rush) the target really counts as an assassination. IMO, an assassination is done quickly, stealthily or not, by two or less people to bring more of a shock - JFK for example. Also, it's easier to get these people away so they can't reveal who they did it for.

I would use a loose definition because I'm guessing the tighter one -- the violent and stealthy killing of a well-protected individual by two people or less -- was extraordinarily rare, and pretty much only happened when the target was not particularly interested in escape.

A rifle is subject to just about all of those. They're definitely not easy to hide, are quite vulnerable to the wind and an unsteady hand, and the mechanism of reloading is different in difficulty, be it semi-automatic or fully, bolt-action or clip.

It is, which is probably why very few assassins these days -- even those sponsored by governments who can train sniper cadres -- almost never use high-powered rifles, preferring commando squads with automatic weapons, car, letter, or cell-phone bombs, poisoned umbrellas or diving suits, or other exotica. You'd think a marksman would be much more straightforward, but too much can go wrong. (Snipers in a military setting are different, because they can hide in friendly territory or no-man's land indefinitely with minimal fear of discovery and because they can take targets of opportunity rather than specific individuals).

A crossbowman faces all of the problems faced by a rifleman, except that the problems are magnified. Consequently, I suspect that neither the crossbow nor the bow were used in the medieval era as weapons of assassination. (William Tell is a probably a legend which derives from earlier legends, rather than from historical incidents).

This is why I am tempted to put down William Rufus' death in a "hunting accident" as a genuine hunting accident. You can fire an arrow at someone, and 1) you're not likely to hit, and 2) if you hit, you're not likely to kill. Fire more than once, and you've blown your plausible deniability.

I would also doubt that medieval monarchs maintained a cadre of trained assassins. The only cadre of trained assassins that existed in the medieval era of which I am aware were the Hashashiyin, and they were successful precisely because they were willing to die in the attempt.

I know that it is difficult to prove a negative, particularly when the negative is something that would not necessarily be public knowledge. However, the amount of medieval potentates who died mysterious violent deaths I think is pretty small, especially given the amount of people in a political system based on dynastic inheritance have to off the ruler.

Also, I am unaware of any reference in chronicles and such to the training of assassins who use stealth. You can argue that this kind of stuff would not make it into chronicles, but there are plenty of references to rulers who dabbled in poisons and grew lots of interesting herbs. There was even a textbook on the topic, De Venenibus, written by Pietro d'Abino in 1300.

To take this further, I would argue that the death of Alexander III was probably an accident. How lucky would a paid assassin have to be for his target to get separated from his retinue, yet still be able to be tracked by a stranger, and go riding near a cliff?

However, a convenient death by illness, such as Margaret's, may not have been an accident. The amount of medieval potentates who might have been poisoned is vastly larger than the amount who might have been violently murdered, because people were always keeling over from surfeits of eels and other such digestion-related disorders. Alexander's death opens up an incentive to get rid of Margaret.

In this sense, the "art" of medieval assassination isn't so much the art of using stealth and violence, but the art of being able to assemble a knowledge of the human geography of the target's court, from heirs to servants, to know who among those who have access to the target's food or drink can be suborned.

« Last Edit: December 27, 2007, 03:40:31 PM by nijis »
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Re: Ancient and medieval methods of assassination
« Reply #13 on: December 27, 2007, 04:17:33 PM »
From what we have the evidence suggests they were more like spies or guerillas than assassins. Mythological stories aside, when the Ninja did kill someone it seems to have been more of an ambush or attack of opportunity, no different from normal contract killings in other words. They did perform acts of sabotage prior to a battle, but I think Special Forces would be a better description.
 As I understand it professional assassins in the East tended to be prostitutes or similar roles, again preferring small and easily concealed blades. Of course, this could simply be myths based on misogyny, but I'd think they would certainly be the most likely candidates for assassins.

i felt an urge to add a bit:

     The courtesans mentioned ( if you were mentioning the professional ones ) are also trained by schools , they are kunoichi ( female ninja) they are picked among volunteers and taught with the pleasing methods of the current era. they are used mostly in death missions as a last resort. they are not expected to return, even if they do they get killed for the sake of removing the suspicion from  the employer.
     
     Ninjas are mainly used for espionage and assassination but they were not always the "hollywood black pajama" ninja they mostly disguised as merchant assistants, herbalists (in order to carry medicines and poisons without suspicion), priests, poets,even ronin or samurai, shortly whatever the mission requires.

     Only in sieges (because they are used for infiltration and sabotage missions) and night operations they wore dark clothes in order to sneak easily but black is not always preferred because in dim light (such as campfire, lantern etc.) black stands out. the black uniform is a methaphor to the kabuki theter prop assistants. these prop assistants wore also fully black and the audition knows they are prop assistans and ignore them since the kabuki theater is played in fron of a black background. if you want to get rid of the misconceptions about ninjas: http://www.chinatownconnection.com/misconception-ninja.htm

On topic: ninjas carry assassination missions by getting close to the targets either by sneaking at night as an operation by quad groups and silently infiltrate and take out both close guards and the target, or getting close by using a harmless disguise and using poison dipped material (knife, spike, hatcet, umbrella, fan etc) to take out the target. either ways they were working very close ( since missing the target with an arrow and alerting everyone was not an option) and escape by using confusion or the night.
« Last Edit: December 27, 2007, 04:27:28 PM by Kuzgun »
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nijis

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Re: Ancient and medieval methods of assassination
« Reply #14 on: December 27, 2007, 04:21:13 PM »
Does anyone actually have a specific example of an individual in medieval Japan who was killed by a disguised professional assassin?
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