The next time you are faced with a small inconvenience, say your computer is running a little slow or you dial a wrong number, consider life in merry old England in the 1500s.
- Most people married in June after the initial rush of crop planting, roof thatching castle sieging was done. They normally took their yearly bath in May and by June, while not reaching the peak of the odoriferous scale, they were by now pretty ripe. Brides carried a bouquet of flowers to fend off the smell arising from the gathered well-wishers, a custom followed even today, though for more for aesthetic reasons than practical ones.
- Speaking of baths, they consisted of a large tub or some such accommodation, into which buckets of laboriously fetched and heated water was poured. The process was so labor intensive that a pecking order for bath time was established. The men of the house bathed first, women next, then children and, finally, the baby. By the time the infant was submerged, the water was so dirty you could actually lose someone it in. From this we garner the saying, “Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.”!
- Houses had thatched roofs. Dried grasses and straw so thickly piled formed a natural home for many small animals, to say nothing of the bugs and more unwanted varmints. It provided a cozy home most of the time, but when it rained the thatch became slippery and sometimes the roof residents slithered off the eaves. This is why we often say, during a hard rain, that it is raining cats and dogs. Inside the house, droppings from mice and bugs became such a nuisance as to prompt the lady of the house to erect four posts at the corner of the bed and drape a sheet over all, forming the first canopy bed.
- Only the wealthy had floors of anything other than dirt. Hence, most everyone was dirt poor. And while on the subject of floors. The straw left from the threshing of grain was strewn over the floor for warmth and comfort in the winter. They added layer upon layer as winter progressed until the stuff would ooze out the door. This was solved by putting a piece of wood across the door opening to hold the thresh in place and it was forever after known as the thresh hold.
- In those days they cooked in a big pot over the open fire, letting the fire burn down each night. Each morning they cranked up the fire and added something new to supplement the leftovers from the day before. They ate mostly vegetables with little meat. Sometimes this “stew” had food in it that had originated days before. Do you remember, “Peas porridge hot, peas porridge cold, peas porridge in the pot nine day old”?
- Bacon was a delicacy and not often available but when it was, the household was quite proud of its bounty. If a neighbor came to visit he was shown that the man of the house had managed to bring home the bacon and he was given a slice so that they could all sit around and chew the fat.
- Those more privileged ate from plates made of pewter, a metal high in lead content. Acid in food would cause the lead to “leach out”, sometimes causing death. Tomatoes, being high in acid, were blamed for causing these deaths and for many years it was thought that tomatoes were poisonous.
- The lead in metal cups interacted with ale or whiskey to produce a kind of coma to the imbibers and they were often pronounced dead. They were laid out on the kitchen table for a couple of days while the family and neighbors gathered around to eat and drink and wish them well in the afterlife. To their amazement, the “deceased” often awoke from his stupor to join them. This is the origin of the custom of holding a wake.
- England being old and crowed, especially in the cities, began running out of burial space so they were forced to dig up coffins and take the bones to a bone house. When reopening these graves many were found to have scratch marks on the inside of the coffin. They realized they were burying people alive. To correct this, they would tie a string to the wrist of the corpse, lead it through a hole in the coffin and up through the ground where it was attached to a bell. Someone would stand sentinel over the grave for a day or two, this was the graveyard shift, and if the bell sounded, the coffin was brought up and the occupant was “saved by the bell”. He was also considered to be a “dead ringer”.
- After sailors had crossed the Atlantic Ocean to the West Indies, they would take women on board the ship and have their way with them between the cannons. The boy children of these women were said to be “sons between the guns”. The saying was shortened to “son of a gun”.
- Want to wet your whistle? That’s just what pub frequenters in England did. They had a whistle baked into the rim or handle of their ceramic cups and when they needed a refill they blew the whistle for service.
- Old English law says a man could not beat his wife with a stick any thicker than his thumb, thus we have the “rule of thumb”.
- Candles were expensive and time consuming to make so most times a reed dipped in tallow was burnt when guests arrived. If the guest was unwanted, a short reed was used and the person was said to have gotten the short end of the stick.
- Piglets were sold in bags at the market. The bags were called pokes. That’s where you could get a pig in the poke. Sometimes unscrupulous sellers substituted a cat, thought to be worthless, for the pig. Smart shoppers opened the bag to check on the pig and thus they let the cat out of the bag.