If you have been using the internet for any length of time, the chances are you have come across the email forward listing all sorts of horrible indignities our ancestors lived with and (in some versions) suggesting that these are the origins of modern sayings. To give you an example of what I mean here is one version of the essay:
The next time you are washing your hands and complain because the water temperature isn’t just how you like it, think about how things used to be. Here are some facts about the 1500’s:
Most people got married in June because they took their yearly bath in May, and still smelled pretty good by June. However, they were starting to smell, so brides carried a bouquet of flowers to hide the body odor. Hence the custom today of carrying a bouquet when getting married.
Baths consisted of a big tub filled with hot water. The man of the house had the privilege of the nice clean water, then all the other sons and men, then the women and finally the children. Last of all the babies. By then the water was so dirty you could actually lose someone in it. Hence the saying, Don’t throw the baby out with the Bath water..
Houses had thatched roofs-thick straw-piled high, with no wood underneath. It was the only place for animals to get warm, so all the cats and other small animals (mice, bugs) lived in the roof When i t rained it became slippery and sometimes the animals would slip and fall off the roof. Hence the saying .. It’s raining cats and dogs.
There was nothing to stop things from falling into the house. This posed a real problem in the bedroom where bugs and other droppings could mess up your nice clean bed. Hence, a bed with big posts and a sheet hung over the top afforded some protection. That’s how canopy beds came into existence.
The floor was dirt. Only the wealthy had something other than dirt. Hence the saying, Dirt poor. The wealthy had slate floors that would get slippery in the winter when wet, so they spread thresh (straw) on floor to help keep their footing. As the winter wore on, they added more thresh until, when you opened the door, it would all start slipping outside. A piece of wood was placed in the entranceway. Hence the saying a thresh hold.
In those old days, they cooked in the kitchen with a big kettle that always hung over the fire. Every day they lit the fire and added things to the pot. They ate mostly vegetables and did not get much meat. They would eat the stew for dinner, leaving leftovers in the pot to get cold overnight and then start over the next day. Sometimes stew had food in it that had been there for quite a while. Hence the rhyme, Peas porridge hot, peas porridge cold, peas porridge in the pot nine days old..
Sometimes they could obtain pork, which made them feel quite special. When visitors came over, they would hang up their bacon to show off. It was a sign of wealth that a man could, bring home the bacon. They would cut off a little to share with guests and would all sit around and chew the fat..
Those with money had plates! made of pewter. Food with high acid content caused some of the lead to leach onto the food, causing lead poisoning death. This happened most often with tomatoes, so for the next 400 years or so, tomatoes were considered poisonous.
Bread was divided according to status. Workers got the burnt bottom of the loaf, the family got the middle, and guests got the top, or the upper crust.
Lead cups were used to drink ale or whisky. The combination would sometimes knock the imbibers out for a couple of days. Someone walking along the road would take them for dead and prepare them for burial. They were laid out on the kitchen table for a couple of days and the family would gather around and eat and drink and wait and see if they would wake up. Hence the custom of holding a wake.
England is old and small and the local folks started running out of places to bury people. So they would dig up coffins and would take the bones to a bone-house, and reuse the grave. When reopening these coffins, 1 out of 25 coffins were found to have scratch marks on the inside and they realized they had been burying people alive. So they would tie a string on the wrist of the corpse, lead it through the coffin and up through the ground and tie it to a bell. Someone would have to sit out in the graveyard all night (the graveyard shift.) to listen for the bell; thus, someone could be, saved by the bell or was considered a dead ringer..
And that’s the truth…Now, whoever said History was boring ! ! !
It’s an interesting read. However, it is completely untrue. While some of it does sound plausible, there are a few clues that give it away, for example the inclusion of American sayings which are either not used in England, or which only became commonplace here in the 19th and 20th centuries. Furthermore, the period the essay is said to cover varies from sender to sender. Sometimes, specific centuries are mentioned, in other versions the essay is alleged to be a description of the whole medieval period.
The Middle Ages lasted from the 5th century to the early 16th. During that period society was not static and life in the 5th century was dramatically different to that in the 16th. Enormous advances were made in the fields of science and technology, which may seem quite basic to our modern eyes, but which did provide great improvements to the lives of those who were around at the time. It’s easy to look back and assume people were smelly, primitive barbarians, but really they weren’t. Remember Gutenberg invented the printing press in the 15th century, not long after this, Copernicus developed a formula to prove that the earth was not the centre of the universe, and glasses (spectacles) and water mills had been invented. It was also a period of great literary and artistic works, both Leonardo da Vinci and Chaucer were Medieval folk.
If you want to know more about medieval life, try the following links:
- Snopes: Life in the 1500s – detailed debunking of the essay.
- Top 10 Lists: Top 10 Medieval Inventions – list of the most useful or important inventions from the Medieval period.
- About.com: Medieval Science – a selection of articles about science in the Middle Ages.
- Epact: Scientific Instruments of Medieval and Renaissance Europe – Online museum of Medieval instruments and equipment.
- Wikipedia: Medieval Art – Article and further reading about Medieval art.
- Wikipedia: Medieval Literature – Article and further reading about Medieval literature.
- Internet Medieval Source Book: Intellectual Life – List of sources for discovering more about the thinkers, philosophers and intellectuals of the Medieval world.
- Internet Medieval Source Book: Social History – List of sources to help you learn more about life in Medieval society.