Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Would you believe it? : Foot Factoids

During the late Middle Ages (about 1500s) men wore long toed shoes (sometimes 24 “longer than their feet) and so it is reported enjoyed under table shenanigans with the fair ladies of the court. This became known as “footsie footsie.”

Perhaps it was distance, which led to enchantment, or just stopped would-be lovers from being overpowering by body smells, which often prevailed. The custom then was for people to bathe only once a year and the annual wash and scrub up took place in May. “May Day” traditionally was when people washed themselves in the morning dew. Some experts believe this accounts for why so many people got married in June.

In any event to mask body odours, brides carried a bouquet of flowers.

Bathing was a family affair and the senior man of the house had the privilege of the nice clean water. Sons preceded the women of the house then children and finally the baby. By this time 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."

Most homes in the Middle Ages had thatched roofs where the domesticated animals lived. When it rained the roof became slippery and sometimes the animals would slip and fall off. The term "It's raining cats and dogs," derived from this time.

With no wooden roofing nor ceilings to protect animal droppings and bugs frequently fell on the occupants beneath. Only a bed with big posts and a sheet hung over the top afforded some protection, hence the four-poster bed.

There was no floor surface other than dirt in commoner’s houses and hence the saying “dirt poor." The better off 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 kept adding more thresh until when you opened the door it would all start slipping outside. A piece of wood was placed in the entrance way and this was called the threshold. Carrying the bride over the threshold was quite literal and meant lifting the new woman into her house.

Cooking was less sophisticated than today and took place in a big cauldron suspended over the fire. Each day the fire was lit and new ingredients were added to the pot. The staple diet of the peasant was vegetables with little meat. Stew was the main meal and leftovers were kept in the pot. Sometimes the stew had food in it that had been there for quite a while. Hence the old rhyme,

"Peas porridge hot, peas porridge cold, peas porridge in the pot nine days old."

For most pork was a delicacy and kept for special occasion, the display of bacon was common sign of how well off you were and became encapsulated in the phrase “bringing home the bacon”. Visitors were treated to a nibble of the precious meat and all sat around the fire “chewing the fat."

More affluent households had pewter plates which meant food with high acid content caused some of the lead to leak onto the food. Many died from lead poisoning. Tomatoes were especially vulnerable to lead uptake and for centuries were considered poisonous.

Alcohol was drunk from lead cups and the combination and quantities consumed made for a heavy dose which rendered the imbiber unconscious for a couple of days. Collapsed drunks were frequently taken as dead and prepared for burial. Laid out on the kitchen table for a couple of days the grieving family gathered around, eating and drinking to see if their loved one would wake up. Hence the custom of holding a "wake."

The death toll of the Black Plague and high infant mortality was so immense as to create the problem of no spaces to bury people. The English custom was to dig up coffins and take the remains to a "bone-house" and reuse the grave. When reopening the coffins, about 4% were found to have scratch marks on the inside, indicating 1 in every 25 people buried, were buried alive. Desperate matters required desperate measures and corpses henceforth had a string tied around their wrist lead through the coffin and up to the surface where it was tied to a bell. Night watchmen sat in the graveyard listening for the bell. This gave rise to the sayings “the graveyard shift" and "saved by the bell" as well as “dead ringer."

Breads were 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."

Trades people were not always as honest as they might and often punished for cheating. The favoured corporal punishment was foot beating (falanga). British bakers were in fear of being accused of shonky practice and adopted a policy of giving an extra roll with every dozen sold, hence the Bakers’ Dozen.

Reviewed 13/03/2018

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