Factoids Debunked & Verified, Part III

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Factoids Well, I got another factoid e-mail that was just too ripe to pass up, so here's the debunking. The e-mail was called A Little History Lesson, and seems to be a re-hashing of an earlier chain e-mail called Life in the 1500s. This really is one of the worst factoid e-mails I've seen. Usually, there are at least some germs of truth. This one seems to be fabricated through and through.

In the course of researching some of the claims, I did find a few sites that had already tackled it. However, they didn't get everything right, sometimes left out some things that I thought were interesting, and for one, didn't provide sources to where they'd gotten their information. So, I still feel it's worthwhile to publish this. First off, here are the other sites I found that dealt specifically with this e-mail in its entirety.

Also, since these claims are about the 1500s, which is right around the end of the Medieval period and the beginning of the Renaissance, I figured it would be nice to put some general information about life in that time.

Since many of these claims are about phrase etymologies, it's also worth noting a few very good places to check actual etymologies.

A note on the references - I made the links the full url, not a "pretty" link like I'd normally do on most web pages. That's because I've found that some people have copied and pasted some of my other factoid debunking pages, and in doing so lost the url's to the references. This way, people who copy and paste will at least include the references.

One last note. I've put the claims in bold, and my responses in plain text. The e-mail also had a few comments interspersed with the claims. I've put those in bold italics.


Subject: A Little History Lesson

The next time 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. However, 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.
False- First of all, bathing wasn't as unpopular in Medieval times as modern myth has it. The first two pages listed below have links to many sites dealing with this misconception, including artwork of people taking baths. It appears that, as in earlier Roman times, bathing was a popular social activity. In fact, it seems that religious warnings against bathing were because it was so popular, and was seen as a worldly indulgence. It wasn't until the Renaissance that bathing became less popular, as people believed that the Plague was spread by air or water, and a bath could open up the pores leaving someone more vulnerable to disease. However, it doesn't appear as if it ever became mainstream to limit bathing to twice a year, as detailed in those first two pages listed below.

As to how bouquets came about, it appears that it was partly superstitious, to ward off evil sprits, and partly symbolic.

Baths consisted of a big 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, 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.'
False- This one's just silly. If bath water got so dirty that you couldn't even see through it, what would be the point of washing in it? This saying actually originated as a German proverb, and dates back to at least 1512. It didn't even appear in English until the mid 1800s. And it appears that it was always intended figuratively, never literally.

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 cats and other small animals (mice, bugs) lived in the 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.'
False- While mice and insects no doubt inhabited thatched roofs, they wouldn't have made good homes for anything bigger. I could imagine cats prowling around up on one to hunt mice, but can you honestly imagine a dog climbing up onto a roof? There are several possible explanations to this saying, but the most likely seems that it's a metaphor for cats and dogs fighting.

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 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.
False- Thatched roofs went on poor people's houses, and they couldn't have afforded canopy beds. Rich people, who could actually afford the beds, had solid rooves over their heads and didn't need any protection from falling pests. Canopy beds were probably originally invented for extra insulation to keep out drafts, and for privacy.

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 floor to help keep their footing. As the winter wore on, they added 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'.
False- "Dirt poor" originated in the U.S. during the Great Depression, in reference to poverty and the Dust Bowl. Second, although most houses had dirt floors, not all of them did. There was one type of construction method known as Sunken Featured Buildings where a hole would be dug, and a floor installed over top of that. The cavity in between, similar to the crawl space in some modern houses, would probably have been used for either storage or insulation. Third, "thresh" does not mean straw. Thresh is a verb. In this sense, it is used to mean "stamp" or "trample," since the threshold is the first place you step in a house. About the only thing right in this paragraph is that straw was spread on the floor, but it was probably replaced a little more often than annually.

(Getting quite an education, aren't you?)
I'll say.

In those old days, they cooked in the kitchen with a big kettle that always hung over the fire. Every day they lit the fire and added things to the pot. They ate mostly vegetables and did not 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 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.”
Sort of True- This is the closest thing in the whole e-mail to a true claim, but even it isn't completely right. Yes, peasants in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance were pretty poor, and had diets consisting of mostly plants. However, grains, in the form of bread, were the main constituent of their diets, not vegetables. And grains were actually a large part of what they drank, too, since ale was preferred over water because it was more sanitary. And yes, they did make pease porridge, which was very similar to today's split pea soup, and like split pea soup, can taste better after a day or two of letting the flavors meld. But the pease porridge wouldn't have set in the pot much longer than that - the most likely scenario being that the leftovers from the night before would have been finished off at breakfast the next morning. As to the actual origins of the nursery rhyme, noone's really sure. It could simply be silly exaggeration, a little mocking of street vendors serving a bad product, or as the Wikpedia article says, "a bit of doggerel by partisans of Princess Mary (Queen Mary I of England) celebrating the downfall of and disparaging the pretentions of Lady Jane Grey, the 'Nine Days Queen.'"

Sometimes they could obtain pork, which made them feel quite special. When visitors came over, they would hang up their bacon to show off. It was a sign of wealth that a man could, 'bring home the bacon'. They would cut off a little to share with guests and would all sit around and 'chew the fat.’
False- As to the claim of bacon only being for the rich, smoked pork actually was fairly common even for the poor. Peasants would raise their own pigs, and occassionally slaughter them. Since a whole pig's too much to eat all at once, the meat would have to be preserved, and smoking was a common way to do that. So, bacon and ham would probably have been the way that peasants usually ate meat, with fresh pork being limited to the few times when they actually did slaughter their pigs.

As to the etymology of the phrases, noone's quite sure where they came from. The online etymology dictionary says "bring home the bacon" didn't appear in print until 1908, without giving an actual etymology, but there are still several theories for an older origin. One is that it had to do with a contest popular in 19th century fairs, where the contestant who caught a greased pig would get to keep it. Another is that it came from a still practiced tradition called the Dunmow Flitch from England, wherein a couple pledges that they won't fight for a year and a day. If they pull it off, they're awarded a side of bacon.

"Chew the fat" similarly has several proposed etymologies. There are actually a couple variants of this saying, too, "chew the cud" and "chew the rag," though again, noone's sure where the variants came from, either. Several of the proposed etymologies relate the motions of chewing with those of talking. One theory is that it came from women's sewing circles, where the "rag" was the material they were sewing, while the "fat" could have been gossip. Another is that it originated in the U.S. Civil War - when soldiers ran out of tobacco, they began chewing on scraps of cloth. At the same time, they'd complain about the lack of supplies, so that act of complaining became known as "chewing the rag." Finally, some have proposed that it's a nautical term, since the salted pork sailors had was so tough, they'd need to chew on it for quite a while before swallowing.
http://www.dunmowflitchtrials.co.uk/history.htm http://www.takeourword.com/TOW112/page2.html#Bacon

Those with money had plates made of pewter. Food with high acid content caused some of the lead to leach onto the food, causing lead poisoning death. This happened most often with tomatoes, so for the next 400 years or so, tomatoes were considered poisonous.
False- Remember that tomatoes are from North America, so Europeans couldn't have eaten them at all until after 1492. They were quickly adopted in the Mediterrean countries, but not everywhere in Europe. According to Wikipedia, the British didn't like tomatoes originally mainly because of the taste - not necessarily that they thought they were poisonous. Nevertheless, at some point the myth did crop up and become entrenched in some areas (such as the uneducated in the U.S.), that tomatoes were poisonous. This was likely because of their resemblance to poisonous plants in the nightshade family (and in fact, the leaves of tomato plants are poisonous, though I don't know to what degree). There's even a story (possibly an urban legend itself), that a Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson gave a public demonstration in 1820, eating a basket of tomotoes on the steps of the Salem courthouse to prove that they weren't poisonous.

Pewter containing lead has been used at least since Roman times, and probably from before that. It was probably more commonly used for drinking vessels, not plates, but still probably did contribute to lead poisoning. A much more common plate in the Middle Ages was the trencher, a plate made out of bread.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tomato#History_and_distribution http://www.tomatoandhealth.com/index.php/tomato/cons_hist3/

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'.
False- One reference does exist from 1460, instructing people to "Kutt ye vpper crust for youre souerayne" (Cut the upper crust for your sovereign), but that's the only known reference from that age, and is a far cry from using the phrase we have today. It appears more likely that this phrase originated in the 19th century, in comparison to outermost layer of the Earth, and not to bread. It may even have originally been used to describe hats, and not aristocracy.

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.
False- Pewter cups containing lead were used in the Medieval period, but lead poisoning is a chronic condition, not acute. You don't simply pass out and then recover. The etymology of wake in the sense of holding a vigil, comes from -wacu, as in nihtwacu, or night watch. It's possible this was to make sure the person was really dead, but was probably more of a religious vigil.

England is old and small and the local folks started running out of places to bury people. So they would dig up coffins and would take the bones to a bone-house, and reuse the grave. When reopening these coffins, 1 out of 25 coffins were found to have scratch marks on the inside and they realized they had been burying people alive. So they would tie a string on the wrist of the corpse, 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 (the graveyard shift) to listen for the bell; thus, someone could be, 'saved by the bell' or was considered a ‘dead ringer.'
False- Well, there have been several instances throughout history of mass disinternments (just consider the catacombs of Paris). The ones I've read about seem to have all happened in cities, where real estate is at a premium. I've wondered why they didn't just start new graveyards a little further out, but I guess it has a lot to do with living in a time when you got everywhere by walking.

Now, as to how many of the people had been buried alive, the 1 in 25 stat seems awfully high. In 1896, a funeral director named T.M. Montgomery, who was in charge of transferring remains at Fort Randall Cemetary, stated that "nearly 2% of those exhumed were no doubt victims of suspended animation." If true, that would work out to 1 in 50. But that's still a questionable stat. When people decompose, it generates a lot of gases, and those can sometimes generate a lot of force. It can force the body into all kinds of positions that after the fact could look like the person had been struggling. It could maybe even generate enough force to scratch the coffin. Still, there are enough documented cases of "near misses," that it seems sure that people have been buried alive numerous times - just probably not very often.

However, no matter how often it happened, at certain times in the past, there has definitely been a great fear of being buried alive - enough that people have stipulated in their wills that doctors take extraordinary measures to ensure they're dead, and enough that there were patents for the types of coffins described in the e-mail (though there's a question to whether any were actually produced. In Germany, it seems that there were even buildings where corpses were left until they began to decompose, to make sure noone would ever wake up six feet under.

As to the phrases, they're obviously bogus. "Saved by the bell" is a boxing term that originated in the early 1900s. "Dead ringer" comes from using dead in the sense of being right on, like "dead on," and ring from the sense of copying. Graveyard shift appears to have originated as a nautical term, and is used as a metaphor for the loneliness of a late night shift.

And that's the truth. ..Now, whoever said History was boring! ! !

Educate someone. Share these facts with a friend.

Well, I hope I have shared some facts and educated people, but not in the way the writer of this e-mail wanted.


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