Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Fun With History (Old English Sayings)

One of my favourite authors, Neil Postman once said that the only subject worth studying in schools is history. In Technopoly, he argues that every curriculum should include a historical survey of that subject. This is especially when technology seems to grab society by the neck and makes us feel helpless about the relentless changes and new gadgets flung at us by many commercial initiatives. Indeed, everything has a beginning. I am not sure how true the following is, but it sure makes an interesting case to argue that history indeed can be fun.
The next time you wash your hands and complain that the water temperature isn't just the way you like it, think about the way things used to be...real honest to goodness facts about the 1500s:

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.

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 supports 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. Which posed a real problem in the bedroom, where bugs and other droppings could really mess up your nice clean bed. Hence, a bed with tall 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, like slate tiles that would get very 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 out. A piece of wood was placed in the entranceway to catch the thresh -- hence, 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 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, they could obtain pork. This would make 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 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.

Most people did not have pewter plates, but did have trenchers. They are a piece of wood, with the middle scooped out, to form a bowl. However, trenchers were often made from stale bread, which was so old and so hard, they could be used for quite some time. These trenchers were never washed and a lot of times worms and mold got into the wood and old bread. And after eating off these wormy, moldy, trenchers, people would get "trench mouth."

Bread was divided according to status. Workers got the burnt bottom of the loaf, the family got the middle, and guests got the top, which was called the "upper crust."

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!"

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. Then someone would sit in the graveyard, all night long (on the " graveyard shift") and listen for the bell. Thus, the expression, he or she was "saved by the bell" or considered a "dead ringer."

And...whoever said, "History was boring?!"
(source: unknown)

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