Friday 4 December 2020

All You Need to Know about the Olden Days

1. The Ancient Greeks couldn't see blue because they had no word for it.

2. Marriages were all arranged; romantic love was invented by 19th century poets.

3. Nobody washed, look at Queen Elizabeth I – she had a bath once a year "whether she needed it or not".

4. Nobody drank water, because it was contaminated; they drank alcohol instead and were drunk all the time.

5. Spices were popular – to disguise the taste of rotting meat. (Somehow at the same time food was unpalatably bland because only the very rich could afford spices.)

6. Medieval theologians argued about how many angels could dance on the point of a pin.

7. Parents didn't love their children because infant mortality was so high.

8. Everybody died aged 40.

9. People were much smaller – look at short beds, low-ceilinged cottages and tiny suits of armour.

10. Those tiny suits of armour were so heavy that a medieval knight needed a pulley to hoist him on his horse, and if he fell off he was as helpless as a beetle on its back. 

11. Apart from royals and aristocrats, everybody lived in a rustic cottage that resembled a stable inside with exposed beams, exposed stone and brick, and distressed wood.

12. Everyone was illiterate apart from priests and aristocrats. Paintings and sculpture were the books of the lower classes.

1. According to Goethe, Nietzsche and W.E. Gladstone, the colour-blindness of the ancient Greeks is proved by the paucity of colour words in Homer, and the fact the Greeks called the sea “wine-dark”. The Greeks had two words for blue: “cyanos” for dark blue, and “aethrios” for light blue.

2. Abelard and Heloise, Lancelot and Guinevere, Dante and Beatrice were famous medieval lovers. And there is plenty of romanic love in ballads, folk songs and the Song of Songs (circa 500BCE).

3. Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) wrote himself a memo: “Go every Saturday to the hot bath where you will see naked men.” Attempts to find a contemporary source for that quote about Elizabeth I have failed. Southwark was famous for its Turkish baths in the medieval period.

4. Our ancestors avoided dirty water and valued clean springs and rainwater, but didn’t know that diseases were water-borne. They blamed “bad air” until Dr John Snow halted an outbreak of cholera by removing a Soho pump handle in 1854. If nobody drank water, how could the polluted water from the pump cause cholera? And didn't they drink coffee, tea, chocolate, milk, lemonade, barley water? They also "took the waters" at holy wells and spas. In the medieval period wine was highly diluted – with water. Beer was between 1% and 3.5% alcohol. “The three best cooling drinks are apple water, goat’s whey and spring water,” says a medieval Welsh medical manuscript. 17th century diarist Samuel Pepys records that on a hot day he and his wife went to a dairy to drink whey (skimmed milk), but it ran out and they drank water. Charles II banned coffeehouses, and forbade people to sell coffee, chocolate, sherbet or tea from any shop or house. (Another version of this myth states that wine was added to water to disinfect it – but any alcohol strong enough to kill germs would kill you. Others say that alcohol was drunk because tea was too expensive – tea, made with boiled water, was also safe. If our ancestors were wise to this fact, why didn't they just boil their drinking water?)

If nobody drank water, ever, why did they repeat proverbs like these:

Adam’s ale is the best brew. (Water is the best beer.)

Drinking water neither makes a man sick, nor in debt, nor his wife a widow.

And 18th century tea caddies constantly turn up on Flog It!.

5. Wikipedia says that spices were expensive, and those who could afford them could afford fresh meat. Meat was eaten fresh; leftovers were smoked, salted or turned into sausages. The less well-off brightened up their food with sharp-tasting sorrel, quinces, crab apples etc, plus thyme, sage, mint.

6. says the first mention of the angel debate is in a 17th century book. After the Reformation, and especially during the Enlightenment, scholars loved to poke fun at the superstitious Catholic past.

7. See heart-breaking poems on the death of children by Victor Hugo (1802-85), Robert Burns (1759-96); Egil Skallagrimson, (910–990); Po Chu-I (772-846), and many others.

8. Many are confused by reading that “in the 18th century the average life expectancy at birth was 40 years”. It’s an average, and infant mortality was high. If you made it past 5, your chances of living to 60 or 70 (the Biblical life-span) improved. And if it was average age of death, some would die sooner and some later than 40.

9. Research by Richard Steckel of Ohio State University shows that Early Medieval men were taller than men of the 17th-19th centuries. Cottage floors have risen, and tiny suits of armour were probably samples. Beds were shorter because people slept propped up on pillows.

10. Someone's made a film of a man in armour, a firefighter carrying full kit and a soldier ditto running an obstacle course.

11. Country dwellers plastered and whitewashed walls, and painted wood – usually in cream gloss. They concealed everything they could conceal. If they couldn't afford pictures, they pasted up pages from magazines.

12. Until recently it was thought that the majority of people were illiterate in the classical world, though recent work challenges this perception. Anthony DiRenzo asserts that Roman society was "a civilization based on the book and the register", and "no one, either free or slave, could afford to be illiterate". Similarly Dupont points out, "The written word was all around them, in both public and private life: laws, calendars, regulations at shrines, and funeral epitaphs were engraved in stone or bronze. The Republic amassed huge archives of reports on every aspect of public life." The imperial civilian administration produced masses of documentation used in judicial, fiscal and administrative matters as did the municipalities. The army kept extensive records relating to supply and duty rosters and submitted reports. Merchants, shippers, and landowners (and their personal staffs), especially of the larger enterprises, must have been literate. (Wikipedia)

More myths here, and links to the rest.

The whole set are collected in What You Know that Ain't So: A Dictionary of Received Ideas.

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