Friday, August 26, 2011

The 16th Century Absolutely Rocks!

The next time you're washing your hands and complain because the water temperature isn't just how you like it, think about how things used to be in the 16th century.

Yes, you heard correctly. The. 16th. Century.

For instance, did you know that most people got married in June? Why? Because they took their yearly bath in May and still had a decent aroma when June rolled around. However, to be on the safe side (and to keep their stomach settled) the brides carried a bouquet of flowers to hide that growing ripeness.

As for bathing, that was truly an adventure. Baths consisted of a big ass tub filled with hot water. The man of the house had the privilege of the nice clean water. He was followed by his sons and then by the rest of the men, then the women, then finally the children, with the babies dragging up the rear (figuratively). By then the water looked, smelled and probably felt so nasty that you could actually lose someone in it, hence the saying "Don't throw the baby out with the bath water."

Let me tell you about the living habitat. Most houses had thatched roofs with thick straw piled very high, with no wood underneath. It was the only place for the animals to get warm, so all the dogs, cats and other small animals (mice and bugs) lived in the roof. When it rained, it became slippery and sometimes the animals would drop down uninvited, hence the saying, "It's raining cats and dogs."

One side effect of this kind of roof was that there wasn't really any good way to stop things from falling into the house. This posed a major problem in the bedroom where bugs and other droppings could really mess up not only your nice clean bed, but whatever extracurricular activities you might be partaking in. Thus, a bed with big posts and a large sheet was the best idea that someone came up with, and viola! the canopy bed was born.

The floor was dirt. Grimy, smelly, disgusting, creepy and gross. Only the wealthy (like anyone who probably made more than five pounds a year) had something other than dirt, hence the saying, "dirt poor". The wealthy had slate floors which would get slippery in the winter, so they would spread fresh thresh (straw) on the floor to help keep their footing. As 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 entrance way, hence, a "thresh hold".

In them days, they cooked in the kitchen with a big ass kettle that always hung over the fire. Every day they lit the fire and added things to the pot. They ate mostly vegetables (they weren't vegetarians by choice you know) and did not get much meat. They would eat the stew for dinner, leaving the leftovers in the pot to get cold overnight (yum!) and then start over the next day. Sometimes the 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 though, they were able to get their hands on a good piece of pork, which really pumped up their ego and self-esteem. 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 the guests and would sit around and "chew the fat".

Those with money (like about 5% of the population) had plates of pewter. Food with a high acid contest caused some of the lead to leach onto the food (extra yummy for the tummy!), causing lead poisoning and death. This happened most often with tomatoes, so for the next 400 years or so, tomatoes were considered poisonous.

Most people though (like the remaining 95% of the population) did not have pewter plates, but instead had trenchers, which was a piece of wood with the middle scooped out like a bowl. Often trenches were made from stale bread which was so old and hard that they could be used for quite some time. Trenchers were never washed (OMG!) and a lot of times worms and mold got into the wood and old bread (extra flavoring and seasoning is da bomb!). After eating off of wormy, moldy trenchers, one would get "trench mouth".

Bread was divided according to status (class warfare at its best). Workers got the burnt bottom of the loaf, the family got the middle, and guests got the top, or "upper crust". Lead cups were used to drink ale or whiskey. The combination would sometimes knock them out for a couple of days (fried brain cells are da best!). Someone bopping down the road would take them for dead (dead body? robbery!) and prepare them for burial (the maggot motel!). They were laid out on the kitchen table (mommy, I can't eat my porridge 'cause daddy is laying in it!) for a couple of days and the family would gather around and party hearty and wait to see if the "deceased" 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 their loved and unloved ones. So they would dig up the coffins and take the bones (yeech!) to a "bone house" and reuse the grave (recycling!). When reopening the coffins, 1 out 25 coffins were found to have scratch marks on the inside and they realized that they had been burying people alive (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".

And that's the god honest 100% unfiltered, unadulterated truth about a few of things in the ultra modern age of the 16th century.


  1. Fascinating!! Love this bit of 16th century history.

  2. So fun to see where these sayings came from. Sometimes we just take that stuff for granted.

    I do not relish the idea of a wet dog or cat falling on me through the ceiling, so I am thankful I live in the present century. :)

  3. Jewel: Thanks. I've always been interested in history (I like Barbara Taubman's non-fiction writings) and this was a nifty little e-mail that I kept from my early days of working for the guv'ment.

    Lynn: Where's your sense of adventure? :D

    Yes, it's very interesting to see where these old saying originated from.

  4. So glad I was born when I was born. I am so addicted to indoor plumbing and electricity that I don't even like camping.

  5. R: I just don't like camping, but I can certainly sympathize.

  6. I didn't know that source for "it's raining cats and dogs." very interesting.

  7. Charles: Cliche history is often the best kind to learn about.

  8. for a second I was having flashbacks to a certain Western Civ prof. had you started talking about siege warfare and the heads of friends sailing over walls it would have been complete

  9. Darth: Ah yes, the real life version of those Capitol One credit card commercials.

  10. I must say this is one of the most interesting blog posts (and blogs) that I have seen in a while. This post convinced me that my previous regard for life in the 16th century
    was a complete delusion and I quickly got my mortgage payment in the mail. I have also withdrawn my request for rebirth in said century. My best

  11. Count Sneaky: Mi'lord, I thank thee for gracing my blog with your presence today, and I hope I can live up to your high expectations.

  12. Was this an old email or did you look it all up? Dead ringer was quite odd... but interesting.

  13. Snaggle: Old e-mail that I had stashed away.

    I tweaked it a little with my asides so that it wouldn't sound so dry.


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