Could these stories be true? If they are, they explain a lot of figures of speech that we commonly hear.
In the 1500’s:
- Most people got married in June because they took their yearly bath in May and were still smelling pretty good by June. A bride’s flowers masked remaining body odors.
- Baths were a tub full of hot water. The man of the house had the first bath, using the cleanest water, then other males of the household. Next in line were the women and children, all bathing in the same water. Lastly were 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 underneath. it was the only place for animals to get warm, so all the pets . . . dogs and cats and other small animals; mice, rats, bugs, lived on the roof. When it rained it became slippery and sometimes the animals would slip and fall off the roof. Thus the saying, “It’s raining cats and dogs.”
- With a thatched roof, 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. So, they found if they made beds with big posts and hung sheet over the top, it addressed that problem. The four poster bed with canopies were created. Is this where we get the saying “Good night and don’t let the bed bugs bits”?
- Their floors were dirt. Only the wealthy had something other than dirt, so the saying “dirt poor” emerged. The wealthy had slate floors which would get slippery in the winter when wet. So they spread thresh 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 at the entryway creating a ‘threshold’.
- They cooked in the kitchen in a big kettle the always hug over the fire. Everyday they lit the fire and added things to the pot. They mostly ate vegetables and didn’t get much meat. They would eat the stew for dinner leaving left overs in the pot to get cold overnight and then start over the next day. Sometimes the stew had food in it that had been in there for a month. Hence the rhyme, ‘Peas porridge hot, Peas porridge cold, Peas porridge in the pot win days old.’
- Sometimes they could obtain pork and would feel really special when that happened. When company came over, they would bring out some bacon and hang it to show it off. It was a sign of wealth and that a man could really ‘bring home the bacon’. They would cut off a little to share with guests and would all sit around and ‘chew the fat’.
- Most people didn’t have pewter plates, but had trenchers – pieces of wood with the middle scooped out like a bowl. Trenchers were never washed and a lot of times worms got into the wood. After eating off wormy trenchers, they 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, or the ‘uppercrust’.
- 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 they started running out of places to bury people. So, they would dig up coffins and would take their bones to a house and re-use the grave. In reopening these coffins, one 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 ties a string on their wrist and 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 to listen for the bell. So, on the ‘graveyard shift’ they would know that someone was ‘saved by the bell’ or he was a ‘dead ringer’.
To figure out if these stories are true please visit the website Our Heritage: 12th Century and Beyond. On this site there is a quiz to take and substantial investigation as to the origins of these stories. If nothing else, they are fun to read!