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Weird 'Trends' From The Middle Ages That Have Us Scratching Our Heads

Mar 27, 2021

Image: Medieval jester -
If you need perspective on your modern-day concerns, be grateful that you didn’t have to live through the tumultuous and strange Middle Ages according to People were still figuring out the whole "being human experience" in Europe, and, in the process, engaged in some pretty weird traditions. From odd thoughts on moles and freckles to gross alternative hair sources, here are the strangest trends from the Medieval era that we're glad never stuck.
Courtly Love
Since their marriages were for political gain, people of the court needed some outlet to express their feelings of romance. This was “courtly love,” a system that allowed the royals to show affection for their crushes, while remaining married.
Messy Divorce
The most popular way to resolve a serious spousal dispute in Germany was trial by single combat. The unhappy couple went into a ring and fought each other, while following another bizarre set of rules for fighting. Whatever works, we guess.
Animal Laws
Animals were held to the same judicial process as humans. If they were accused of a crime, they had a trial. If they were convicted of their crime, they were sentenced to death by either being burnt at the stake or hanging. This hopefully taught the animals that crime doesn’t pay.
Look At Those Shoes!
Rich people loved to show off their wealth by wearing fancy clothes. For instance, European men had a period in which they all wore long, pointed shoes. The lengthiest shoes were stiffened with whalebone to hold their shape.
Forehead Oo La La
Medieval women hated hair. They saw their foreheads as their face’s central attraction. To draw more attention to this feature, some would pluck their eyebrows and eyelashes. The most devoted even plucked their hairlines into an oval.
Alternate Eyebrows
If a woman got tired of not having eyebrows after plucking them, she could make a pair from rodent fur. Sometimes their eyebrows stopped growing back after years of constant removal, and this was their only solution for hair.
The ancient English were very serious about their favorite sport, Shrovetide football. Played in Derbyshire, England, there wasn’t a limit to how many people could participate in a game — which would take over a town — and matches often ended in violence.
Dying Day Dreams
Death was a major part of existence in the Middle Ages. People were concerned with making their own death as beautiful and peaceful as it could be. If their final moments were at hand, they tried to be free of despair, disbelief, impatience, pride or avarice, and fill themselves with peace.
Did You Mean Ox Or Unicorn?
When the Bible was mistranslated, it compared Jesus to a unicorn, instead of an ox. This idea grew around the medieval art communities, and unicorns became a major subject in their work.
Jesters Who Jest
Jesters were given the unique privilege to say pretty much anything. Whatever they said was ruled to be treated as jest, so some even gave their political opinions to their royal audience.
Playing with Food
Medieval chefs loved to experiment with different animal combinations during their meals. Helmeted cock was one of these meals. They sewed a rooster on top of a pig so it looked like it was riding the creature.
Feast of Fools
During the Feast of Fools in January, the upper and lower classes would switch places. A king of misrule was crowned during this raucous festival. There were parades, comedians, singing, and plenty of drinking.
Festival of the Ass
Another popular yearly tradition was the Festival of the Ass. A little girl would ride a donkey into a church during service. The churchgoers would then end all of their prayers in donkey noises, instead of “amen.” This lasted until the Protestant reformation.
Rose of Lily
Flowers and roots were used for lipstick – especially in shades of rose of lily. These connoted a sense of purity for the wearer didn’t offend the church as much. As long as the color wasn’t too bright, women could get away with wearing their homemade makeup.
Another important female trend was being blond. Angels were depicted as blond, and women wanted to mimic this in their humanly forms. Once they achieved their desired shade, they wore opal necklaces to charm their hair into lightness.
And Brunettes
For those who wanted to go brunette, there were a few options. Women would cook roots and nuts and then soak their hair in the mixture. They would keep it in for two days before rinsing the solution.
"Is That A Freckle?
Moles, freckles, and birthmarks were associated with witchcraft at the time. There were a variety of ointments and home remedies for lightening or attempting to rid yourself of “unsightly” blemishes.
The Do In 'I Do'
Marriage traditions were much different in Medieval Europe. When children reached puberty, they were ready for marriage, and weddings were often a major event with plenty of public interest. Audiences would ensure the couple properly consummated the event.
See Through
Being pale was in during Medieval Europe. Women would use blue ink to draw blue veins on their skin. There were also special powders to whiten their appearance. Their goal was to make themselves look almost translucent.
Curing A Disease With Touch
One of the many diseases that ravaged Europeans was the King’s Evil, a kind of tuberculosis that appeared in the form of oozing black sores on someone’s neck. Until the 1700s, it was believed the only cure was the touch of a royal’s hand. That wasn’t an effective treatment.
Space Sachets
The church wanted to keep people pious and discouraged bathing, so they wouldn’t be forced to look at their own nakedness. To keep away some of the body odor, women would hide spice sachets in their bosoms and under their legs and arms.
That's What You Get
Right before the Bubonic plague swept through Europe, a pope had warned that witches were using cats for magic, and so, a bunch of jerks killed all the cats. Because of their cruelty, flea-ridden rats quite effectively spread the illness across the continent.
That's A Grudge
Pope Stephen VI really hated Pope Formosus. In 897, Stephen dug up Formosus’ body, put it on trial, found it guilty, and then cut off his index and middle finger, reburied him, and then retrieved the body from the fresh grave and threw it in the Tiber river. Can you imagine being there for that? What a wild ride.
Party At The Cemetery, Bro
Need a break from the pressures of medieval life? Party at the cemetery. These served as early townhalls and hosted events like elections, public trials, and even theatrical groups. Sex workers even frequented the area.
For about 18 months, King Henry VI was in a catatonic state, and no one knows why. After waking up, he became much more agreeable, though sometimes he had trouble recognizing his staff members. No one’s perfect.
A Terrible Famine
Besides the plague, there was also a terrible famine in the 14th century. From 1315 – 1317, three excessively wet summers ruined the crops in farmer’s fields, and at least 10% of Europe’s population starved to death.
Statues From The Other Side
For some reason, people wanted to be remembered as putrid, decaying corpses. If someone’s family had enough money, they would pay for an effigy of the dead person, which showed them as a rotting body. These medieval aesthetics … just no.
Mental Health Experts
People thought those suffering from mental health disorders were possessed by demons, immoral, or terrible sinners. They “solved” these problems with exorcisms, whipping, drilling a hole in someone’s head to release the evil energies. No, these didn't work either.
Keeping It Clean
Something surprising: medieval Europeans didn’t throw their chamber pot contents into the streets. Instead, they used latrines or local bodies of water. We’re not sure how modern researchers discovered this, but stay out of River Thames.
Church And State And Boiling Fat
Religion and government were heavily mixed at the time, so most Europeans had major hang-ups around sex. Experiencing sexual pleasure was a death sentence, so when Francesca Romana was forced to marry, she burned her genitals with boiling fat to take away any sensation.
Cruentation Kings
Europeans were fond of cruentation — the idea that a victim's body would spontaneously reveal who their slayer was. But this wasn’t at all real. Cruentation was 'used' until the late 1600s during trials, until medical researchers proved that this was an impossible system for justice.
Child Warriors
In 1212, some genius had the idea to do a Children’s Crusade — gathering children to try to convert Muslims to Christians instead. These child warriors made it to Italy before being betrayed by shop owners and sold into slavery.
Jugglers For The Win
During the Battle of Hastings, the Normans were concerned with their field position and sent out a juggler to entice the Saxons to attack them. This worked. The Saxons had the high ground, but lost this advantage and the entire battle, because they attacked the juggler.
Game Of Thrones But Real
This is something straight out of Game of Thrones: King Edward III needed more soldiers to defeat the French army, so he and his team went around to prisons and sketchy areas to collect fighters. These were some violent people, but they got the job done.
This is one of the nastiest facts out there — fair warning. Saints were supposed to have healing powers. They licked wounds. They. Licked. Wounds. Sometimes they reported swallowing scabs or sucking out maggots. Shudder.
You Won't Like This Donkey
If there’s one thing medieval Europeans loved, it was torture. One method was the Judas Cradle, right, which was a giant triangular spike a prisoner would sit on — the point only had one place to go. The Spanish Donkey used a similar method.
Drawing And Quartering
Another method used for torture was drawing and quartering: dragging the victim behind a horse, hanging them until they were nearly dead, disemboweling the person, and finally cutting or putting them in four.
How Fun And By Fun We Mean Terrible
And let’s not forget the choke pear. A torturer would insert this into their victim’s orifice (dealer’s choice) and then expand it. We’re guessing the choke pear wasn’t sanitized after being used. People died afterward, so that probably wasn't the top priority.
The Iron Chair
There was also the Iron Chair. This is what it sounds like — an iron chair. The chair had sharp metal spikes that a prisoner sat on. They’d live through this, but when they stood up, the spike popped out, and their blood quickly followed.
Hope For This
If you were going to be punished, hope for this. Occasionally, the guilty would have to wear a weird animal mask around town, or sometimes had to wear a special sign with their crime on it for the rest of their life.
What's That Smell?
Castles were smelly. With a general lack of running water and extreme difficulty in obtaining it, most servants and other lower-class residents couldn’t clean themselves. And the types of toilets they used definitely didn’t help.
The Porcelain Throne
Toilets weren’t fancy. When you needed to go, you’d likely have to do it on a wooden bench with a little hole in it. Your waste would fall into a vast poo pit or straight into a moat. Outside the bathroom, life wasn't much better.
When you were using this gross, dirty toilet, you probably wouldn’t have any privacy either. Castle makers followed the HGTV network's sage advice and went with an open floor-plan. Unless you were a noble, you probably didn’t have a room to call your own.
Crowded Hallways
Generally, more than 100 people would live in a castle, meaning you’d never feel alone. There was so much square footage that needed to be maintained, so royalty required an enormous staff for upkeep.
The high-ranking officials were responsible for managing the politics and land protection and delegated all cleaning and cooking work to their staff. Anyone who lived in the castle had some kind of job, even the royals.
Job Opportunities
There were five different types of careers in a medieval establishment: if you were upper-class, you could choose nobility, the clergy, or just being a royal. Lower classes were merchants, craft-makers, and laborers. Who do you think had to rise with the sun?
Small Windows
It was critical that people in castles started their day with the sun because so little of it found its way inside the walls. This meant all the indoor servants had a small window of time to get their work done.
Drink Up!
Castle life may have been lousy, but at least there was always liquor around. Water was still teeming with bacteria and other waste, making it dangerous to safely consume. So, people got drunk for their health, in a way.
Party Time (Sort Of)
A big part of castle life revolved around preparing for feasts and parties. These were a massive to-do and it took the entire staff working diligently to properly prepare for them. The lame part? Servants wouldn’t even get to eat the fancy food they were making.
Family Dinners
In the dining hall, people sat based on their royal status. The king and queen would sit at the head, while the rest of their court filed in around them. They were also served the food first, which might have been cold by the time they got to eat it.
Time for Church
Within the filth, you could attend church. Even though your body wasn’t clean, your spirit was, we guess. If religion was your thing, you wouldn’t have to leave the compound to worship. Still, you should probably bring something to cover your nose.
If You're Having Rat Problems...
If you have musophobia, stay out of medieval-era castles. They were filled with rats because warmth, food (any kind of food), and open water sources are only a few of the many things that draw rats inside. Castles really are the perfect ratly environment.
Cats And Dogs
And like everything else in a castle, floors were extremely dirty. Cats and dogs were given free reign and used the space as a massive toilet. To cover this smell, servants threw fragrant herbs on the ground. It was a crunchy, poopy mess. Getting clean was tough.
Bath Routine
If someone wanted to take a bath, it would be in a portable wooden tub. The tub would be moved from one room to the next for people to use. Was there privacy? No. Was it hygienic? Also no. But, it was available.
No Tinder
Not that there was a ton of opportunity in all that open space, but you weren’t allowed to copulate with your spouse unless you were planning for a child. Even admitting to having sexual thoughts about them was a sin and could be punished.
Send Them To The Rack
Torturing prisoners wasn’t just something created to spice up TV shows. Whenever a ruler was feeling feisty, they could order prisoners who were in the dungeons to be terribly punished.
Many prisoners were captured due to conflicting political beliefs, making this treatment even more heinous. One particular method involved capturing rats in a basket, tying it to a helplessly bound person, and then letting the rats eat their way out. Fun!
Where's The Thermostat?
There’s a reason castles are known for fireplaces — they were dark, cold structures. The windows were high and narrow, to help defend the castle against archers and the stone walls themselves didn’t hold heat. So, bundle up if you’re planning to sleep over in one.
Kitchen Fires
To add to this, kitchens commonly caught on fire. For some reason, they were made of wood and the food was being cooked over huge flames. You do the math. Eventually builders changed to stone.
Help From The Stairways
Stairways in castles were always clockwise. This helped defend against right-handed swordsmen who would have their blows blocked by the stone walls. Defenders in the castle had the advantage.
No Longer Museums
Today's castles might be museums or houses for royalty, but when the original medieval castles were built, they were designed to serve as fortresses during times of war. All of the planning that went into them was about defending the grounds from enemies.
When you think of a castle's first line of defense, you probably imagine a moat, right? Traditionally, a moat was a large body of water that circled the castle and separated it from the land. But it wasn't there to keep enemies from crossing...
First Way In
For people designing most castles, their biggest fear was that their enemies might dig underneath the walls to gain entry. If there was a moat, it ensured that any tunnels would be immediately flooded.
Different Locations
In fact, for some castles, the moat wasn't even located outside the place at all! Instead, it could be found between the first and second walls of the castle. That way, anyone digging a tunnel would get a truly unpleasant surprise...
Waste Disposal
Speaking of unpleasant surprises, moats didn't exist solely to keep invaders from digging tunnels to gain entry, either. The moats served other purposes for those living in the castle. For instance, they made for a great way to dispose of human waste.
When it came to other methods of protecting the castle, one of the oldest traditions in design was the concentric circles of defense. Looking at this castle from above, you can see how the circles were created to make entry very difficult.
Creating Obstacles
Concentric circles of defense were designed to act as a series of obstacles. While the layout of medieval castles might be all too familiar to us when it comes to how we look at castles today, they were a true innovation in the world of design when they were originally built.
Keeping Armies Guessing
The concentric circles of defense meant that invading armies would have to conquer one obstacle after another, slowing them down as they made their assault on the castle. First there was a wall, then there was a moat, then another wall, a keep, and so forth...
Deadly Doors
The main gate of the castle might look imposing, but to our modern eyes that's all it is. The truth of the matter is that, during medieval times, the main gate of the castle was more than intimidating; it was downright deadly!
Two Barriers
The main gate was often comprised of two barriers. If invaders made it past the first entryway, they could become trapped between the first and the second gate by the castle's inhabitants. They might think that their siege was going to be successful, but they were wrong.
Intruder's Nightmares
The invading soldiers would then be trapped in one of the castle courtyards, and this wasn't pleasant to say the least. There were thin slits in the courtyard walls that allowed the castle inhabitants to fire upon the trapped intruders.
Secret Passages
Secret passages were a critical part of the design of any and every castle that was built. These passages could serve many different purposes, including allowing a means of escape for those who lived in the castle.
Shelter, Please
These secret passages could also lead to rooms where the castle's inhabitants could take shelter. In the event of a siege, they could also serve as a great way of getting much-needed supplies and other assistance into the castle.
War Fortresses
Sometimes the secret passages led to secondary wells for the castle's inhabitants in case the attackers breached their walls of defense and poisoned their drinking supplies. Castles may be glamorous, but they were also critical war fortresses.

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