Wednesday 16 September 2015

When "Answers" Paint Middle Ages Black

1) Φιλολoγικά/Philologica : "in a time when most people died at an average age of 35" ; 2) What others have to say about Life Expectancy through history - and my take on that ; 3) Longevity in Selected Ancestry and Inlaws of Eleanor of Montfort ; 4) Tudor Times Demographical Stats ; 5) How Many Hours are we Talking About, and How Heavy? ; 6) New blog on the kid : When "Answers" Paint Middle Ages Black ; 7) Creation vs. Evolution : CMI Provided some Lifespans of the Past ; 8)Other list from CMI of lifespans ; 9) Φιλολoγικά/Philologica : Medieval and Early Modern Lifespans, Again: Berkeleys and Related ; 10) Story of a Cardinal's Title with Pre-Industrial Demographics

I was looking at the slide show 15 Medieval Hygiene Practices That Might Make You Queasy.

Some of them are not Medieval, some that are are misrepresented.

1 Chamber Pots Chamber pots were containers for collecting urine overnight. Back in old Edinburgh, you always have to be alert for the shout of 'garde loo,' which is French for 'watch out for the water.' If you're not quick enough, you could find yourself being showered with the contents of chamber pots hurled from tenement windows.


Streets have gutters where content of chamber pots can run to some larger sewer - often without covering.

2 Leaves or Moss as Toilet Paper Neither rich nor poor people had toilet paper. Poor people used leaves or moss to wipe their bottoms while the rich used lamb's wool instead. Kings had a royal bum wiper known as the 'Groom of the Stool.'

I know too little of the subject, but probably at times genuine. Sticks with a flat surface have also been used.

I am less certain about that chore of Groom of the Stool. However, when Vespasian opened the service of letting slaves of the Emperor run about with chamber puts, these also covered clients with their cloak and wiped their arses. I suspect kings had a Groom of the Stool (if this is the genuine context) simply to empty the chamber pot, so the king didn't have to do it.

3 Ceruse Lead Makeup Poisoned People Ceruse was the foundation make-up choice for both men and women as it gave them a smooth, pale look. However, it contained lead that seeped into the body through the skin, leading to poisoning.

Ceruse was mainly Roman Antiquity and Tudor/Renaissance.

Most or all of the Middle Ages were presumably relatively free from it.

4 Nosegays When Walking in a Crowd A nosegay was something to keep the smells at bay, usually held in the hand or on the wrists on a lapel. It could be a small bouquet of flowers or a sachet of dried flowers and herbs. People held it up to their noses while walking in a large crowd.

Probably genuine, but not sure of what time period.

5 People Bathed Using the Same Water Public baths were popular during the 13th century. But because of the scarcity of firewood used to heat the bath, bathing became an expensive practice. Whole families and friends had to share a bath, or many of them would remain dirty.

Necessity or not, this is not just genuine for Middle Ages, but also for Japan. Sharing a bath is socialising there.

6 Laundry Was Scoured in Lye Made of Ashes and Urine Ancient Romans believed in the ability of urine to remove stains. Until the medieval times, people used lye made of ashes and urine in order to clean their clothes.

That ashes were used in lye is certain, that urine was used in it is probable enough, I don't know enough to refute it, and really don't need to.

Urine and ashes unite in a chemical process, and the lye is not exactly either of the two, it's a new stuff. Ashes, sand and lots of heat also makes another new stuff, called glass. This making of new stuffs by mixing stuffs that are reactive or made to be reactive by heating is called chemistry.

7 Privies and Garderobe In Tudor houses, toilets were a bowl with a slab of wood and a hole carved at the top. Builders set the toilet into a recess or cupboard-like area called a garderobe. In castles, a slab of wood covers a hole in the floor that took waste products straight into the moat. Poor people didn't have the luxury of toilets, so they simply relieved themselves wherever they could and just buried the waste matter.

Probably true.

In Antique Rome, those who didn't use the slaves of Vespasian used toilets that looked pretty much the same as the picture, which is not really described but there was water running under the bench with holes. Men went in, sat down, went out.

8 No Changing of Clothes King James VI of Scotland wore the same clothes for months on end, even sleeping on them on occasion. He also kept the same hat on 24 hours a day until it fell apart. He didn't take a bath as he thought it was bad for his health.

Plagues in the Late Middle Ages had probably given baths (common, remember) a reputation of being contagious. However, he is well after Middle Ages, when there was printing and when he persecuted Catholics, at least on Ireland, and some in England too.

Isabella of Castille did the same as a penance - up to the fall of Granada. Then she thanked God and the Blessed Virgin, and took a bath and new clothes. But she was really Medieval, the fall of Granada being in 1492, the year when early estimates of "end of Middle Ages" go.

9 Lice-Infested Wigs Nits and lice were common back then, so many of the more wealthy folks would shave their natural hair and wear periwigs instead. Unfortunately, even periwigs could be infested with nits, especially during plagues.

Not Medieval. Whigs are from the time of Louis XIV to the time of Haydn and Mozart. And lice was probably not the reason either.

Them being common is probably exaggerated. Except they are common in some places. France every year has school children, at least around Paris, going to delicing cures.

10 Mouse-y Eyebrows People were already fashion-conscious during the medieval times. When their eyebrows did not look fashionable, they often masked them with tiny pieces of skin from a mouse.

Anyone's guess how genuine this is. Unless some historian can confirm.

Sounds more like the Whig Period than like the Medieval one. If true at all.

11 Cesspits Since the sewage system back then was not yet proper, people had to make do with burying much of their waste material in a cesspit in their cellar or garden. People should have emptied these cesspits regularly, but only a few of them did. The stench was overwhelming, especially during summer and winter.

Cesspits exist to this day, whereever sewage system is absent or inadequate.

A wording like "the sewage system back then was not yet proper" sounds as if:

1) it was not absent back then
2) but permanently inadequate.

This is of course wrong. Medieval people were no bunglers, however much some people like to pretend that competence during that time was reserved to the ghettos and Jewish villages. So not. Same for those who pretend it was only the Caliphate which had any skill and style - a pretence actually kept up back then in a Muslim Historian's very unrealistic accounts of how Crusades were decided.

"People should have emptied these cesspits regularly, but only a few of them did."

Where do you get that from?

When a cesspit has dried out, it is very certainly emptied for the manure. If it ever does dry out. If it doesn't, why should it be emptied? At least if not to close to where people were actually staying.

Emptying one that was still active was probably NOT pleasant and so put off. Unless it was necessary, for manure.

The stench was overwhelming, especially during summer and winter.

If people were stupid enough to walk near them, that is.

Which they generally weren't.

12 Infection from Rushes One of the biggest sources of infection during the medieval times was the use of rushes or straws to cover up the natural dirt floor of a building. Although people often changed the top rushes, they did not do the same to the bottom layer, hence leading to all manner of possible infection sources.

Sounds very much like Medical Historians making up just so stories about how epidemics arose and pin pointing some usually benign habit.

Rushes or fur twigs on the ground were of course swept out of the room with brooms after some shorter period of putting new layers on top of lower ones (like the 12 days of Christmas). Or even changed faster than that if getting some real disgusting dirt.

13 A Peculiar Cure to Baldness A 17th century publication by Peter Levens instructed men on how to cure thinning hair and pattern baldness. Men had to combine potassium salts with chicken droppings, and then place the mixture on the affected area. If they wanted to remove unwanted hair from any area of the body, they had to make a paste consisting of eggs, strong vinegar, and cat dung, and then apply it to the area where they want to remove hair.

As I have understood, some women are so into removing hairs from their legs (since my blonde hairs don't show in the dark and lamplight, I have been asked what wax I use!), and for THEIR sake one might hope the modern preparations are somewhat gentler to the skin.

However, 17th century is no longer the Middle Ages. It is Early Modern. Not the same century.

14 Lead-Lined Water Tanks Even though the rich paid for private water companies for their drinking and other water needs, the water that they consumed was not exactly better than those of peasants. The main water supply came from elm trunks and domestic pipes lined with lead. Water also required storage in large lead tanks and often became stagnant.

Lead lined pipes sounds more like Roman Antiquity.

How water was actually brought to the rich in the Middle Ages, I don't know.

15 Bird Droppings on the Bed Houses in the past didn't have the protective roofing that houses have today, so it wasn't unusual for bugs, pests, and droppings to fall onto the clean bedding. People then invented four-poster beds in order to keep a canopy that would catch all unpleasant stuff falling from the roof and not soil the bedding.

Always beware of generalisations that go "x in the past". I am very disinclined to believe this just so story about canopies.

They are decorative.

But perhaps Jews and Muslims seeing the custom and not sharing the taste in decorations invented this story? I don't know what sources this refers to, except for the fact that canopies are a fact.

This explanation would more probably be marginally hinting at a more subtle explanation, namely that the rare times this happened, they were becoming squeamish about it.

Source, so far, Health : 15 Medieval Hygiene Practices That Might Make You Queasy

Now I go on to: 14 Medieval Hygiene Practices That Are Just Filthy

1/14 = 3/15, 2/14 = 4/15, 3/14 = 5/15, 4/14 = 8/15, 5/14 = 9/15;

6/14 = 10/15 except that here for an unknown reason, St Joan of Arc (who was certainly not using these) is set side by side with Elisabeth Tudor;

7/14 = 12/15, 8/14 = 13/15, 9/14 = 14/15, 10/14 = 15/15;

11/14 = approximately 9/14=14/15:

11 Drinking Water Where you got your drinking water depended on your wealth, but just because you had money didn't mean your water was any cleaner. While the poor collected water from rivers or public wells, the rich were able to pay water companies. The water typically came from domestic pipes that were lined with lead and would become stagnant after sitting in tanks for a long time.

What about them that owned wells in the yard of their house?

12 Preventing head lice in food Having a man keep his hat on during a dinner wasn't a sign of disrespect, he was actually protecting the food! Men kept their hats on in order to prevent their long hair from reaching the food and also from head lice falling on the table.

First of all - did they really keep hats on?

Yes. I just verified by a Medieval bankquet painting on this blog:

Ritaroberts's Blog : Some thoughts on Food in Medieval England.

On the indoors and non kitchen painting, the men wear hats.

They also wear more clothes than just shirt and necktie.

The reason was not lice, the reason was cold. During winter, castles were plain cold. This was not compensated for by very much heating, except in private rooms, but simply by dressing according to temperature.

Peasants had warmer homes at winter - as well as less clothes on inside.

The kitchen scene shows no hats on. The outdoors scene also shows no hats on, but laurels. Obviously, when it is warm enough to be outside, it is also warm enough not to wear hats when eating.

13 is a calumny against Marie Antoinette which I refuse to grace by repeating. Here are a few articles by Elena Maria Vidal:

Tea at Trianon : Review of Marie-Antoinette (2006)

Tea at Trianon : Why Marie Antoinette wore perfume

It quotes and links to a post no longer there.

Perhaps words like these were challenged: With bathing a rarity and a rather liberal interpretation of the word rest room, the world of the French court stank. And author, whoever he was, preferred to withdraw.

This one (linked to) certainly mentions ablutions:

Making History Tart and Titillating : A Day in the Life: A Lady’s Maid

If ablutions were not in running water, they were probably with wet gauntlets, dipped and redipped in water for cleaning your body. So, Marie Antoinette may have been unique in having baths for France (but perhaps less so for Austria where she grew up), this did not mean her court stank, it means they used water more sparingly and used gauntlets, as are still offered in France when offering someone a shower or in hotels.

And to connect with the Medieval theme, what about this one, quoted and linked to, Amy Licence being Elena Maria's guestblogger:

his story, her story : What did Babies Wear in the Past? The gratitude of a Modern Mother.

Now, recall that part about lye being made of ashes and urine? Well, if I guessed a chemical reaction involved admixture of urine to make lye, I am probably a bad chemist. Here is, this historian's or "her-storian's" version of the relevant recipes:

Then must have been endless laundry, in the days before washing machines, tumble driers and liquid capsules. Medieval and Tudor maps of London show sheets and clothing spread out on the ground in fields and over bushes to dry: someone usually needed to remain with them though, as clothes were valuable commodities in the days before they were bought ready to wear and could be the target for thieves.

1) White clothes were treated with lye, made by running water through the ashes of a wood fire; cherry wood, apple and pear were most common but seaweed was also burned and used.

2) Urine provided a detergent, collected from chamber pots, for pre-wash soaking.

3) Soap was very popular, enough to attract comment from foreign visitors, surprised to see it used so frequently and to such effect. It was usually made from animal fat and fragranced with flower essences.

So, urine was used as a detergent, before applying soap or lye. And chamber pots were not always emptied onto gutter after shouting to people below. London was not Edinburgh?

Lye was made by running WATER through ashes, sensibly enough.

However, saying soap was made from animal fats omits the fact that like lye it involved - ashes. Still does, if you make your soap at home.

I took the liberty of breaking up second paragraph in three numbered pieces, according to the three washing commodities. Just to make sure for you, that urine is not identic to lye. Or cited here as ingredient in it.

14/14 = 11/15

The two items have basically same text, except the fifteen list omits the more general on drinking water, as understood from lead pipes item for rich, and except the fifteen list omits any reference to Marie Antoinette. Also omits reference to hats. The 14 list itself has 15/14 = 2/15. Added was 1/15, about chamber pots, which was genuine, and - well, unscholarly as I feel this morning, I can't be bothered.

The main idea was to paint the Middle Ages black, and I hope I have cleared them some.

OK, the other two additions were 6/15 and 7/15.

Hans Georg Lundahl
Nanterre UL
Sts Cornelius of Rome
and Cyprian of Carthage

PS, if you want to know some good history about Middle Ages, not just a more pleasant subject, but better research too:

Answers : Music : About the Medieval Music Period

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