LIFE IN THE 1500's


The next time that you are washing your hands, and complain because the water temperature isn't just how you like it, think about how things used to be. Here are some 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. Even so, they were starting to smell, so brides carried a bouquet of flowers to hide the body odor. Hence the custom today of carrying a bouquet when getting married.

Baths consisted of a big wooden 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—the order depended on their age, oldest first—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, made of thick straw or rushes, with no wood underneath. It was the only place for animals to get warm, so all the cats and other small animals, including  mice and various kinds of bugs, lived in the thatched 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 the various things from falling or filtering down into the house. This posed a real problem in the bedroom where bugs and other droppings could mess up your nice clean bed. Hence, a bed with big 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. Hence the saying "dirt poor." The wealthy had slate floors that would get 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 adding more thresh until when you opened the door it would all start slipping outside. A piece of wood was placed in the entranceway. Hence the saying a "thresh hold."

In those good old days, food was cooked in the kitchen in a big kettle that always hung over the fire in the fireplace. Every morning the woman of the house lit the fire and added things to the pot. The diet of most folks was primarily vegetables, with very little meat. They would eat the stew for dinner, leaving leftovers in the pot, which would get cold overnight, and the whole process started over the next morning. 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 the late-Middle Ages-bread-winner was able to obtain pork, which was quite an event. When visitors came over, they would hang up their bacon or smoked ham to show off. It was a sign of wealth that a man could "bring home the bacon." When guests came by they would cut off a little to share and they would all sit around and "chew the fat."

Those with money had plates made of pewter. Food with high acid content caused some of the lead to leach onto the food, causing death by lead poisoning. This happened most often with tomatoes, so for the next 400 years or so, tomatoes were considered poisonous.

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 "upper crust."

Lead cups were used to drink ale or whisky. The combination would sometimes knock the imbibers 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."

The flea was much more common then than now, mainly because the folk of the day had not learned that a good scrubbing of the body crevices would go a long way towards eliminating them. Remedies for getting rid of the nuisance were varied, most of which were grossly ineffective. One remedy—which was found written in a monk’s diary—was to lay one’s flea-infested garments next to a fire built on a white sandy beach. Presumably the heat would induce the fleas to leave the garments, at which time the owner could then bludgeon them to death with his club.

Although toilets that employed running water are thought to have been used by the Minoans almost 4000 years ago, the kings and queens of Europe were still using chamber pots in the 1500s, and the common folk had to make do with a slit trench or a bush to answer the call of nature. The invention of the flush toilet is widely attributed to a London plumber named Thomas Crapper in the late 1800s, but actually he merely perfected and patented a device for flushing the contents of the modern style toilet...and I’ll bet you can guess where the slang word “crapper” came from.

There were some great additions to the bland diets in the major cities of Europe in the 1500s though. Spinach had been brought back from the Crusades in the 1200s, but broccoli, cauliflower, runner beans, and brussels  sprouts were all developed by horticulturists in the years leading up to the beginning of the 1500s. Some will be probably be surprised to learn that there were no potatoes in Europe prior to the start of the sixteenth century, and tea, coffee and chocolate were also unknown. Horrors! And sugar? It did not become a favorite of the masses until the 1600s when sugar was imported from the sugarcane plantations that had been developed in the English Caribbean island possessions.

The Renaissance was in full swing in the city states of the Italian Peninsula during the late 1400s and early 1500s. Leonardo da Vinci was painting such masterpieces as The Last Supper, Mona Lisa, and The Virgin, Child and St. Anne, and his inventions amaze engineers even now in the 21st century. Venice was a world economic power, the Borgias ruled the Catholic Church, and Michelangelo was doing his best work.

Yet in Scotland there was hunger among the commoners, and rebellion on the minds of the “upper crust.” On June 11, 1488 James III was killed as he tried to escape a group of rebels. His son, who was supported by the insurgents, was crowned as James IV fifteen days later, which by coincidence was the anniversary of Bruce’s victory over the English at Bannockburn. But the old troubles with the English surfaced again...this time with Henry VIII. Initially the Scots were dominant, but the English prevailed—again—in the end.                                                                                                                   »»»