Take it from a guy who knows about this sort of thing – being a feudal peasant in late-13th century Bulgaria sucked gigantic donkey balls.
Imagine the worst job you can possibly think of. Pig herder, for instance. In the summertime you work all day slopping around in knee-deep mud being attacked by angry pigs while the blazing sun and oppressive ten thousand percent humidity makes you wish those five hundred pound walking chunks of future bacon would just get it over with, tear out your Achilles tendon with their pig-teeth, and slowly devour your entire body. In the wintertime, temperatures get so cold that your urine flash-freezes mid-stream and your only pair of homemade shoes protects you about as well against negative-twenty temperatures as a baseball cap protects you from being dropped head-first off the roof of a fifteen story building into a swimming pool full of liquid nitrogen. You're ostensibly under the protection of your local feudal lord, whose primary job is to keep other people from burning your town to the ground and punching your mom in the head, but all that dickhead cares about is taxing your non-existent profits, and any time you can't pay he burns down your village, punches your mom in the head, and tells you he'll do it again unless you can somehow find gold somewhere. Meanwhile the Orthodox Church changes up their customs and beliefs every couple months or so, and if you don't get the memo that now we're making the sign of the cross with three fingers instead of two your bitchy next-door neighbor will label you a heretic and set you on fire.
Oh right, and then every couple of months these guys ride into town and plunder/burninate/enslave anyone and anything they can find.
Those are Mongol warriors of the Golden Horde (not to be with the Evil Horde, the legendary enemies of She-Ra), and throughout the years 1276 and 1277 they rode roughshod through the Dobrudja region of the northeastern Bulgarian Empire, pillaging and raiding and enslaving the populace without any regard to how this was going to be perceived by the international community. The Byzantine Empire, long-time haters of the Bulgarians, were totally chill wit it, and the Bulgarian Emperor, Constantine Tikh, was too busy complaining about some lame hunting injury to do anything to protect his own populace, and didn't even send an army to try and fight the Mongols. Not that it would have mattered of course – the Mongols had never, in the history of the Mongol Empire up until this point, been defeated on the field of battle by a Bulgarian military force.
Well one Bulgarian peasant had enough of this bullshit. He was sick of being pillaged and running around with this hat on fire while Tatar assholes on horseback took potshots at him with compound shortbows, and he resolved he was going to do something about it or die trying. If the Emperor and our local lord won't help us, fuck 'em. We got rakes and hatchets and pitchforks and that can fuck a Mongol up just as good as anything they got anyways.
Ivajlo was a dirt-poor, illiterate swineherd who, up until 1277, had accomplished nothing with his life more impressive than turning pigs into salami. But this ham farmer was tired of the bullshit going down in his country, grabbed a torch and a pitchfork, and organized every able-bodied man in his region to take up arms, stand together, and fight for their homes and lives against the full might of a Mongol Horde raiding party. Which, in 1277 AD, is kind of like saying you're going to take your little sister's third-grade P.E. class and train them to compete for the Stanley Cup against the 1976 Philadelphia Flyers.
Nevertheless, Ivajlo, some unknown peasant jobber from nowhere, led his rag-tag makeshift army of farmer-warriors into battle against a rampaging force of the same Mongol cavalry that had spent the previous twenty-five years treating the most elite professional armies in Europe and Asia like bowling pins being smashed into subatomic dust with a crane-mounted wrecking ball made out of dynamite.
He kicked the shit out of them. The entire Mongol force was annihilated.
Two days later, the Mongol Khan sent a second force to avenge the inexcusable defeat.
Ivajlo destroyed that army too.
When it turned out that an illiterate pork herder was more effective at quelling barbarian incursions than the Emperor of Bulgaria, people started to think maybe there was something more to this Ivajlo character. Ivajlo, who by now was going by the equally-awesome/ridiculous/unflattering nicknames "Bardokva" (Bulgarian for "radish" and/or "lettuce" depending on whether or not the Bulgarians have separate words for those two distinctly different vegetables) and "Lakhanas" (Greek for "cabbage" or "kale" or something equally leafy and green), immediately became a local legend, as peasants and lower-level nobles flocked to join him in his asskicking adventures. Ivajlo, realizing he had this shit down, told his followers he was blessed by the Saints and should probably just be the Emperor of Bulgaria or something, and those guys were all pretty much like, "Whatever dude go nuts as long as you keep the Mongols from looting our homes and shit."
Naturally, this Cabbage Emperor thing didn't sit all that well with the reigning Tsar of Bulgaria, and once he got word that an unruly horde of commoners was marching towards the capital, Emperor Constantine Tikh got off his ass, put together his professional army, and marched out to kick the shit out of this upstart asshole.
Ivajlo ambushed the Tsar during his march, captured him and all of his closest advisors, personally executed the friggin' Emperor of Bulgaria with his own weapon, destroyed his demoralized army in battle (it helped that most of the soldiers defected to Ivajlo's side as soon as the battle started), entered the capital, married the now-widowed Empress (her idea, not his – she was one of those Circe Lannister types who never really liked her husband anyways and enjoyed being Empress a hell of a lot more than she enjoyed being exiled…), and in 1278 was formally coronated Emperor Ivajlo of Bulgaria.
Now, remember how I said the Byzantine Empire hated the Bulgarians? Well Emperor Michael VIII of Byzantium wasn't all that thrilled that some peasant jerkass named Ivajlo the Cabbage was cleaning up the place and uniting all the Bulgarians under one battle flag, so Michael VIII decided to step in and regulate with the realness. He sent a huge army into Bulgaria to kick Ivajlo's ass and put Michael's son-in-law, some inept dickweed named John Asen, on the throne. Then, as if one gigantic Byzantine Army wasn't bad enough, the Golden Horde Mongols launched a massive attack as well, seeking revenge for the victories Ivajlo had just gained. Two armies invaded Bulgaria from separate directions at the same time, each one seeking to crush the usurper at all costs.
Ivajlo the Cabbage met the Byzantine Emperor's son-in-law on the field of battle, arraying a motley assortment of peasants and Bulgarian Army regulars against a professional force of heavily-armored warriors from the richest and most powerful Empire in Europe.
He annihilated them.
They sent reinforcements.
He fucked them up too.
Then the Mongols showed up.
He kicked their asses as well.
Then he celebrated by spinning around a massive pile of enemy corpses and human skulls while performing the new dance he invented – a famous undulating jig now known to history as the Cabbage Patch.
The next year or so was pretty quiet, but then in 1280 the Mongols rolled into town YET AGAIN, this time managing to blockade Ivajlo in a fortress along the Danube and laying siege to him for over three months. With no word from Ivajlo, the Byzantines started circulating rumors of Ivajlo's untimely demise in battle, claiming that the Emperor was dead so why don't we put that John Asen guy on the throne instead?
The Bulgarian nobles weren't convinced, mostly because John Asen totally sucked and was about as Bulgarian as Kim Jong Un, and they told the Byzantines they liked another guy instead – Georg Terterii, a prominent noble from a well-respected family who had a winning smile and was really delightful to talk to.
The Byzantines, who were basically just looking for a reason anyways, launched an attack. Without Ivajlo to help them, the Bulgarians were defeated, the Byzantines took over the capital, and put Asen on the throne.
The next morning, John Asen looked out the window of his palace. Any idea what he saw?
How about Ivajlo the Fucking Cabbage standing there at the head of a massive army.
Medieval Bulgarian warrior.
Picture like twenty thousand of this in a battle line.
John Asen dispatched a Byzantine force out to attack. Obviously, they failed, were crushed in a humiliating and hilarious manner, and John Asen was forced to run crying back to his father-in-law in Constantinople.
Ivajlo was once again the hero of his people, but this time they weren't waiting for him with open arms – he'd brought them a lot of war and heartache, and besides, haven't you met Georg yet? He's pretty great.
With the entire nobility allied against him, and not wanting to cause another civil war that would destroy his country, Ivajlo the Cabbage left Bulgaria, spent a little time hanging out with the Khan of the Mongols, and then was beheaded by a Byzantine assassin. Nowadays he's revered as a folk hero across the country.
Not bad for a man who lived the majority of his life as an impoverished swineherd.
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Fine, John V.A. The Late Medieval Balkans. Univ. of Michigan Press, 1994.
Helmot, Hans Ferdinand. The World's History. W. Heineman, 1907.
"The Bulgarians". Fraser's Magazine. Longmans, Green, 1876.
Vasary, Istvan. Cumans and Tatars. Cambridge Univ. Press, 2005.