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Historical Facts: Medieval

During the Middle Ages monks were given 7 lashes for singing out of tune. Posted 4/15/2011

During the Middle Ages, one lb. of pepper could pay an English laborer for 2 weeks of work, bribe an official, or secure a bride.  It was a very good dowry. Posted 4/01/2012

Due to the physical aspects of marriage, the Medieval church felt it unsuitable to exchange the wedding vows inside the sacred building, thus marriages took place at the church porch. Posted 6/15/2012

During the Middle Ages, it was thought that bathing opened the epidermal pores and encouraged deathly vapors to invade the body, thus causing the spread of plague.  They thought the best way to combat the plague was to cover the pores with dirt, so for the next 600 years, most people didn’t wash or even get wet. Posted 1/01/2013

In 1419, 100 years before Magellan reached the Philippines, the Chinese mariner Zheng He led his famous “Treasure Fleet” to the Philippines and engaged in trade with the locals. This merchant fleet comprised thousands of crewmen sailing massive ships known as junks, some of which were so big they even carried enough topsoil to create floating farms. Posted 8/15/2013

In the Middle Ages, Londoners frequented the bathhouses at Southwark, where they were attended by Flemish women in steaming hot tubs. The men among them were normally treated to more than a wash and a rubdown, so when syphilis arrived in England in 1500, it spread rapidly through the bathing community. In short, people who bathed fell ill. So Henry VIII shut down all the bathhouses in Southwark. 1/15/2016

Under Constantine in the fourth century, those Christians and Jews who intermarried faced the death penalty, which was usually burning at the stake. Posted 6/15/2017

In 1477, when Mary of Burgundy married the Archduke Maximilian of Austria, he gave her a diamond betrothal ring for their engagement; this is the first time diamonds were used for an engagement ring. Posted 6/01/2018

The Magna Carta, signed June 15, 1215 was important because it laid the foundation for legal concepts such as trial by a jury of your peers and a ban on cruel and unusual punishments.  There were also a few less-than-important issues addressed in the charter, including details on how wide the bolts of cloth should be when making monk’s clothes.  The clauses within the Charter were whittled away over the centuries, and by the middle of the 20th century, there were only three of the original clauses left in British law. Posted 6/01/2019

From the late Middle Ages to the mid-19th century, no kitchen was without a turnspit dog.


Before this time, the fireplace spit was turned by the lowliest person in the kitchen staff--a small boy--who stood behind a bale of wet hay for protection from the heat, turning the iron spit for hours and hours until his hands frequently blistered. Then in the 16th century, these boys gave way to dogs.


When meat was to be roasted, a small dog was hoisted into a wooden wheel mounted high on the fireplace wall. The wheel was attached to a chain running down to the spit. As the dog ran like a hamster in a cage, the spit turned, and the large animal roasting over the fire turned with it, giving the food an even cook. The wheels were deliberately set away from the fire, so the dogs would not overheat and faint.


Turnspit dogs were bred to be able to run for hours without stopping. “A large solid piece of beef would take at least three hours before it was properly roasted.” If a dog couldn’t run for three hours without stopping, it might find a hot coal tossed into the wheel to motivate it.


The turnspit was bred especially to run on a wheel that turned meat, and that’s how the breed got its name: vernepator cur, Latin for "the dog that turns the wheel." These dogs were very small, with long backs and short legs. They were thick and a little stocky, with a short coat and longer snout. Their thick tails usually curled up and touched or almost touched their backs. The Turnspit dog came in a variety of colors, from red, brown, grey, and white to sometimes a mix of multiple colors. They also commonly had bent legs because of how long and hard they worked.


Turnspit dog mostly worked in kitchens or performed other tasks that required turning a large wheel, like butter churns, fruit presses, grain mills, and water pumps. In America, these dogs were used in large hotel kitchens in cities to turn spits until the 1850s, when the way the turnspit dogs were treated in the hotels of Manhattan led to the founding of the SPCA.


The availability of cheap, mechanical spit-turning machines, called clock jacks, which turned meat automatically, and the use of gas flames to replace large open kitchen fireplaces, ended the use of the turnspit dog. Although the breed became extinct, its nearest living canine relatives are probably the Welsh Corgi and the Welsh Bowsy Terrier. Posted 11/15/2021

Contrary to popular belief the burning of witches was not a common activity during the Middle Ages. The notorious witch hunts occurred much later, reaching their height in the 17th century, particularly during the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), when belief in witchcraft consumed Europe. This is when the witch hunts of popular imagination began in earnest.

The Middle Ages did not see the widespread burning of women at the stake for the alleged crime of witchcraft. In fact, during the Middle Ages the Catholic Church actively opposed the very notion of witchcraft. The Lombard legal code of 64 AD explicitly stated, “Let nobody presume to kill a foreign serving maid or female servant as a witch, for it is not possible, nor ought to be believed by Christian minds”, whilst the Council of Paderborn, 785 AD, went so far as to outlaw the condemnation and execution of those accused of witchcraft.

When crops failed in Denmark, Pope Gregory VII wrote to King Harald II in 1080 AD commanding him not to allow women to be put to death in the nonsense belief they were responsible for the weather.

Moreover, in the rare event of a witch trial during the Middle Ages, these persons were not burned at the stake for their supposed crimes. They were hung. Burning as a method of execution was reserved for heresy. This is why Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in 1431. Posted 10/1/2023

During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance a salt cellar, which was a big bowl of salt, was placed in the center of the table.  If one was of the nobility, one sat above the salt, and if one was of lower class, one sat below the salt. Posted 12/15/2011

In pre-Medieval times sheep were not shorn.  The hair was plucked from their bodies. Posted 5/15/2012

During the Middle Ages anyone caught adulterating saffron was burned at the stake. Posted 9/01/2012

During the Middle Ages, the nobility had to have their overlord’s consent to marry, if they didn’t get permission they could be accused of “disloyal to the crown,” which meant execution. Posted 6/15/2013

Until the mid-15th century, handwriting remained a specialized vocation mostly reserved for the church and the aristocratic classes. Posted 9/15/2013

During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, when one entered the eating hall, someone would be standing there with a bowl of bread and a bowl of salt.  Each diner ripped off a piece of bread, dipped it in the salt and ate it to turn away any bad spirits that might have followed them from the church graveyard. Posted 10/15/2014

William the Conqueror, the Norman king who invaded England on October 14, 1066 and fundamentally changed the course of British history, was descended from Viking raiders. His ancestors received the French duchy of Normandy in the early 10th century in exchange for promising to stop pillaging France. Posted 10/01/2016

The tall cone-shaped headdress called a hennin first appeared in France in 1428 and could reach up to 18 inches tall. Posted 10/15/2017

Richard the Third was the last English monarch to die on the battlefield.  He died at the battle of Bosworth Field, which ended the civil War of the Roses on August 22, 1485. Posted 8/15/2018

The military salute is a motion that evolved from medieval times, when knights in armor raised their visors to reveal their identity. Posted 11/01/2019

By the Medieval period, it was unlawful in some places to sail without a ship's cat. aboard to remove vermin. Posted 4/01/2020

Medieval archers did not draw their arrows from a quiver on their backs unless they were mounted. Instead, they preferred to draw from a quiver attached to their belts. Posted 10/01/2020

When Richard the Third took the throne of England, the laws of the land were written in either Latin or French, which only the upper classes would have spoken. He had the laws of the land translated into English so that ordinary people could understand them. Posted 6/01/2021

Medieval armor was not anywhere near as heavy as is popularly believed today, nor that rare. Despite looking weighty, medieval plate armor was not a cumbersome impediment to combat. Designed to protect but not prevent fighting, covering the entire body from neck to toe, a suit of steel plate armor weighed between 33-55 pounds– far less than a modern firefighter’s equipment and comparable to a modern soldier’s gear. Furthermore, by the late Middle Ages, plate was not an exceptionally rare accessory for a soldier to use in battle. In fact, an estimated 60%-70% of French armies during the 15th century fought on foot wearing full plate armor, as did the English engaged in the War of the Roses.


The reasons for this weight misconception proliferating in modern culture are threefold. First, suits of armor that have survived in good enough condition to be preserved in museums are those that were of particularly high-quality. Secondly, the 1944 cinematic masterpiece “Henry V” by Laurence Olivier espoused this myth against the advice of the film’s historical advisers, cementing the notion in our imaginations. And finally, “tournament armor” was indeed exceptionally heavy and highly ornate; consequently, it is tournament armor that is commonly displayed in museums rather than combat armor. These suits weighed in excess of 110 pounds and had to be locked into place to prevent the rider from collapsing under the mass. Posted 10/15/2021

Danse Macabre or The Dance of Death: a popular allegory in the Late Middle Ages showing that no matter one's status or wealth, we all dance our way to the grave. Masked balls with this theme may have sparked the custom of dressing up for Halloween.

According to superstition, Death appears every year for these masquerades on All Hallows Tide, calling forth the dead - Hamelin-like - while playing the fiddle.

Posted 10/15/2022

Sideless surcotes, popular with 13th century fashionable ladies and nobles, were described as “the gates of hell” by one particularly censorious preacher, because the wide, low-cut sides showed off the more formfitting undergown or kirtle. If a belt was worn, it was never worn over the top of this garment, but low on the hips of the gown underneath, thus emphasizing the hips. This clearly would lead men into temptation, and therefore, the gates of hell itself.

Posted 11/15/2023

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