HOLDING A WAKE
Back then, cups made of lead were used to drink ale or whiskey, because nobody knew that lead is a pretty strong poison. The combination of lead and liquor could even knock the imbibers out for a couple of days.
Quite often, a passer-by would take them for dead and prepare them for burial. The ‘corpse’ would then be 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 the person would wake up… as some would do. And so the custom began of holding a “wake”.
SAVED BY THE BELL
England is ancient, small, and has always been well populated. In the 1500’s they started running out of places to bury people. So, they would dig up coffins and would take the deceased’s bones back home and re-use the grave.
On reopening these coffins, one out of 25 coffins were found to have scratch marks on the inside and they realized that some didn’t awaken at the wake and they had been burying people alive (modern medicine wasn’t that modern).
To prevent this reoccurring, the undertaker would tie a string on their wrist and lead it through the coffin and up through the ground and tie it to a bell. Someone would be employed to sit out in the graveyard all night to listen for the bell. Hence, being on the “graveyard shift” where occasionally someone would be “saved by the bell” and who would become known as a “dead ringer”.
Back then, most people got married in June, for two reasons. Firstly, it is the most clement and warmest month in England and, secondly, because it was customary for people to take their yearly bath in May (whether they needed it or not!).
While most people still smelled comparatively okay, brides began the tradition of carrying a bouquet of flowers, to hide any body odor.
DON’T THROW THE BABY OUT WITH THE BATH WATER
Yes, baths in the 1500s were rare but when they were taken it was in a big tub filled with hot water. There was, naturally, a pecking order. The man of the house had the privilege of the nice clean water (and he was probably the dirtiest), and then came all the other sons and men, then the women and finally the children. Last of all 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 bathwater”.
RAINING CATS AND DOGS
Those lucky enough to have houses had houses with thatched roofs made from thick straw, piled high, with no wood underneath. This was the only place for animals to get warm, so all the pets… dogs, cats and other small animals like mice and rats, lived in the roof. When it rained it became slippery and sometimes the animals would slip and fall from the roof. Hence “It’s raining cats and dogs.”
DON’T LET THE BEDBUGS BITE
Despite the skills of the best thatcher, there was really 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 (relatively speaking). So, they found if they made beds with big posts and hung a sheet over the top, it addressed the problem. Hence those beautiful big 4 poster beds with canopies. “Good night and don’t let the bedbugs bite”…
PEAS PORRIDGE HOT
In the kitchen, they cooked in a big kettle that always hung over the fire. Every day 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 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 in there for a month. Hence the rhyme: “peas porridge hot, peas porridge cold, peas porridge in the pot nine days old.”
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 “upper crust”.
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