Feature #10

In response to Feature #8 (Life in the Sixteenth Century - So Much For Being Romantic!), I received an email which is quoted below. It contained the corrections to the previous feature. While I didn't post feature #8 assuming it was 100% historically correct (it was more entertaining then a history lesson) I feel that it is important to post the accurate information.

Life In The Sixteenth Century - Try Again
By Sol Squire
(Reproduced with without permission)

Next time you're washing your hands and the water temperature isn't just how you like it, think about how things used to be. Here are some facts about the 1500s.

Initially it has to be assumed that the "facts" about the 16th Century offered here apply to the whole of Europe unless otherwise specified. However, since the author is using an exclusively English vocabulary, this needs to be revised to just the 16th Century in places were English was spoken and the culture of the English.

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 odour.

Most people did not bathe only once a year. Regular bathing is recommended in many medieval books (example: Constantinus Africanus, Opera Domestica, 1536). Paintings and drawings of the time show people of both peasant and aristocratic classes with washed hair and (for men) shaved faces. Most towns had several public bathhouses that were in operation all year around and the source of much documented moralizing on how people should behave when using them. Basic hygiene, while not as rigorously practiced as it is today, was a normal part of 16th Century life. Regarding flowers as a means of hiding body smells, the practical consideration of how a small amount of flowers could mask the smell of a room packed with (supposedly) unwashed people is just not credible. Flowers were then as they are now, symbols of fertility and love. The tradition of "June Bride" has no origins in bathing habits.

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."

Bathing was not conducted this way in the 16th Century. As noted above, there were public bathhouses, as few homes had the means to heat a substantial amount of water at one time. There is no literature stating that people bathed in the manner of man-of-house down to baby and the practical considerations of keeping that much water warm during such a ritual are not plausible. Lastly, children of the 16th Century were bathed far more often than adults (see numerous works by J. Brundage, F. Braudel, M. Block, and many others) and anyone who has ever been charged with the care of an infant knows personally the obvious requirement to clean them daily. The notion that a mother of any century would lose her child in a bath of clouded, cold, and filthy water is laughable. The idea that this was part of a yearly infant cleansing ritual, as suggested above, is simply nonsense.

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 dogs, cats and other small animals (mice, bugs) lived in the roof. When it 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 really 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.

Anyone who has spent time in a thatched structure knows that cats and dogs could not have lived in the thatch itself. As in all homes today that have a fireplace, medieval domestic cats and dogs stayed by the fireplace or with people to keep warm, not in the roof thatch. And, again, anyone who as spent time in a structure with open fires and no chimney, as was the case in most (meaning peasant) medieval homes, knows that choking smoke and soot would drive an animal as large as a cat or dog out of any elevated place. Lastly, dogs would not have been able to navigate the interior beams and other structures supporting the roof. Dogs in general were nearly all large animals and no more inclined to be on roofs than dogs today are. It is true that mice and insects regularly inhabit thatched roofs. The rain of small particles of straw and roof dust is part of the reason bed covers were invented, but not canopy beds. The reason for canopy beds was the retention of heat (always a problem in medieval homes of all classes) and privacy as all canopy beds of the 16th Century were enclosed on all sides. This total enclosure kept the occupant warm and secluded during a time when servants and other domestics were prone to enter rooms to keep fires going or for other tasks. This is also born out in numerous paintings of the time and surviving examples of medieval furniture. Additionally, canopy beds were, for the most part, highly valued property exclusively of the aristocrats and not the peasantry. Aristocratic homes were not thatched, but had slate roofs, which considerably lessens the argument for formal canopy beds being the result of falling debris from thatch .

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 the floor to help keep their footing. As the winter wore on, they kept adding more thresh until when you opened the door it would all start slipping outside. A piece of wood was placed in the entranceway, hence, a "thresh hold."

Wealthy people did not have slate floors. Wooden floors from the 16th Century are normal in nearly all structures of the time with the exception of great palaces. The phrase "dirt poor" first appears in literature from the mid-1800. It is generally construed to mean having no possessions other than dirt to farm. Anyone with a home, dirt floor or not, was not poor by 16th Century standards. " Threshold" is not derived from thrashed straw on the floor. The Oxford English Dictionary shows that the term was in use several centuries before the 16th Century and is actually from a term meaning to tread, step, or trample. A threshold was the board that was a step into a home or structure and had nothing to do with straw being held down.

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 the stew had food in it that had been there for quite awhile. Hence the rhyme, "peas porridge hot, peas porridge cold, peas porridge in the pot nine days old."

A simple experiment will suffice to deflate this claim. Cook some peas and leave them unrefrigerated, as they would have been in medieval times, for nine days. The result will be a stinking mass of moldy paste that no right-minded person would eat without suicidal intent. The point of the rhyme is humor, not actual taste preferences.

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."

There is no literature to support this. "Chewing the fat" simply means to sit about a table, as in a meal, and talk with the jaws going as much as they do when chewing fat. Impressing visitors with pork fat has no place in any European tradition. Additionally, bacon was never hung up as a display item in any medieval home. In one-room peasant homes bacon was kept in a dry place away from insects and in aristocratic homes it was where bacon is now, in the kitchen and out of sight (see F. Braudel, Capitalism and Material Life). There are no paintings or drawings from the 16th Century showing bacon as a symbol of material wealth in any domestic setting.

Those with money had plates made of pewter. Food with a high acid content caused some of the lead to leach onto the food, causing lead poisoning and death. This happened most often with tomatoes, so for the next 400 years or so, tomatoes were considered poisonous.

The facts around lead poisoning are that lead kills with a slow accumulation in the body that affects the nervous system. Food in lead-soldered cans was responsible for many deaths in 19th Century armies and navies, but the reason was not known until late in the century. Considering the amount of time an acidic food like a tomato is on a dinner plate, perhaps 10 minutes at most, the amount of lead leached from pewter would be wholly inconsequential. Also, acidic foods were popular in the Middle Ages as shown in the copious use of vinegars and other sauces (see, again, F. Braudel). Tomatoes were considered a poison because of their relationship to the nightshade family, as shown in the shape of their leaves.

Most people did not have pewter plates, but had trenchers, a piece of wood with the middle scooped out like a bowl. Often trenchers were made from stale bread which was so old and hard that they could be usedfor quite some time. Trenchers were never washed and a lot of times worms and mold got into the wood and old bread. After eating off wormy, moldy trenchers, one would get "trench mouth."

Another trip to the Oxford English Dictionary shows that "trench mouth" comes from the Old French "tranchée" meaning a sickness or pain from inflammation or worms, in original context specific to horses. It is not derived from "trencher". Also, trenchers were not scooped out like a bowl. Authentic trenchers were flat and absorbed juices from the meal and were often eaten as part of the meal. Lastly, people of all classes quit using trenchers somewhere in the 15th Century.

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 "upper crust."

No one at any time has ever cut a loaf of bread horizontally or served it so. Bread was never eaten this way. Workers in the 16th Century were often paid in loaves of bread and this meant the whole loaf and not the supposedly burned bottom part. Bread was not cut with knives until the later 19th Century and always taken, as in France today, as chunks torn from the loaf. This simple is a false statement.

Lead cups were used to drink ale or whiskey. The combination would sometimes knock them 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."

Another trip to the Oxford English Dictionary shows that "wake" derives from the ancient Irish tradition of watching over the dead through the night. It comes from a Celtic custom originating well before the supposed advent of lead cups and has nothing to do with waiting to see if someone would awaken from a near-lethal dose of lead poisoning. This custom is practiced in many cultures. Additionally, ale or whiskey were never drunk from lead cups as lead was a highly valued and rare metal that, as anyone who has worked with lead knows, is far too soft to be used for cups or other high-impact daily functions.

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 thought 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."

The absurdity of this claim is not worth much comment. There are no statistics as to the number of 16th Century coffins with scratch marks. Graves were never violated in this manner. There are no bells or bellhouses in graveyards. There are no examples of the supposed apparatus described here. All "bell" references have other derivations, as a look in any reputable dictionary will show.

And that's the truth... (whoever said that History was boring?)

This is not the truth. This is a collection of false and misleading conjecture. One of the effects of the Internet is to allow anyone to blather about anything with no filter or check of authenticity. This kind of intellectual dung gets spread about and becomes popular belief, sadly, in spite of the far more interesting and colorful real history.

Cheerfully yours
- Sol Squire

If you want to, you can Check Out Some Past Features.

Back To Home Page | Mail Me | Search