Friday, September 16, 2011

Fun Friday Facts #8: Medieval Edition

I've always been fascinated by the Middle Ages. I couldn't tell you why, really – it doesn't sound that exciting. No one ever took a bath, people dropped dead over the simplest things and you went to church whether you liked it or not. There was no aspirin or mustache wax and if I'd lived there, I'd have cut my hair and posed as a man.

If I'm gonna have a mustache, I might as well use it.

Thankfully, I don't have to live there, at least not in this incarnation. So I'm going to sit here enjoying my electricity, vaccine-induced antibodies and civil rights, while I tell you guys all about it.

1) As many of you know, the Moors (that's what they called Muslims back then) occupied Spain from about 711 AD until 1492, when Columbus sailed the ocean blue and the Moors were evicted from Spain because f*ck them. During that time, Arab civilization, technology, science and culture advanced far, far beyond anything the non-bathing, dead-dropping Christians to the north were able to come up with. Among other things, they invented mathematics, neurosurgery and freakin' parachutes.

Like this one.

And what are parachutes made of? That's right, silk. Know what else was made of silk back then? Burial shrouds. Christian Europe needed a lot of those, on account of all the dying going on, so for hundreds of years, they imported them from Muslim Spain.

The Muslims, being proud craftsmen, marked their work to show it was theirs. These shrouds were expensive, so they were used to wrap up important people – like Saint Cuthbert, who lies in his tomb in Durham Cathedral in a shroud that reads, “There is no God but Allah.”

Joke's on you, Cuthbert.

2) Some scholars believe that King Richard the Lionheart (the one who went to the Crusades and left King John in charge in that Disney movie about Robin Hood), was gay. The evidence? He had no children with his wife, Berengaria, which was kind of a big deal back in the “give me a son or I'll chop off your head” days.  

I mean it, b*tch.

Richard spent so little time with his wife that the Pope had to order him to do so. Their “relations” were said to be “formal,” and what's more, Richard appeared to share a “passionate love” with King Philip of France. By which I mean they ate together, “from the same dish,” slept in the same bed, and presumably gazed into one another's eyes between battles. Some historians like to think that this behavior was purely political and not at all sexual, merely symbolic of the union between the two countries.

Uh-huh. Right.

Richard was Catholic, and Catholics have to confess their sins. In the Middle Ages, people often did this publicly, up in the pulpit, in front of the whole church. Guess what Richard repeatedly confessed to?

If you guessed "boning this guy," you win one (1) Internet.

3) In Europe during the Middle Ages, drinking water wasn't very safe. Wine and beer were popular substitutes – wine for the nobility, beer for the peasants. Hard liquor became popular around the time of the Black Death of 1347-1351. Everyone was dropping dead and medicines seemed useless. Every medicine, that is, except for booze.

Sweet, sweet booze. ~ xlibber

Liquor alone appeared to revive plague victims and restore them to some state of strength. Medieval doctors logically deduced that maybe getting dead drunk could keep you from getting actually dead. So, for about three hundred years, everyone in Europe drank until they couldn't flee the witch hunters. They still caught plague and died, but at least they didn't give a sh*t.

Today, the tradition continues. ~ senator86

4) Ok, so I lied to you about the bathing. I wanted to see who would stop reading right now and rush to the comments to tell me off.

There's always one. ~ bisgovik

People in the Middle Ages did bathe. I know it's fun to think of people in the past as stupid and disgusting, but plenty of people in the present are stupid and disgusting, too, and pointing that out is much more gratifying. Bath houses existed, and flourished until the time of the Protestant Reformation, when uptightness got the better of us. Wooden bathtubs were common, and baths probably occurred at intervals ranging from daily to monthly, depending on the person. Just like some people today, some people back then couldn't be bothered to bathe.

Etiquette manuals of the time suggested cleaning the hands, face, teeth and fingernails daily. Hair was usually washed in a bowl of warm water. Fragrant herbs or rose petals were sometimes added to the water, and perfumed powders were often applied after bathing.

5) Remember how I told you that Muslim civilization was far more advanced than Christian civilization? That being the case, many young men traveled to Spain to get an education. One of these men was Gerbert d'Aurillac, who became the first French pope, Pope Sylvester II. He's credited with reforming European education by emphasing the importance of rhetoric, logic and grammar in monastery schools. He introduced the Arabic numeral system to Europe, helped to standardize the use of the abacus, and revolutionized European astronomy with a gadget called the armillary sphere, or spherical astrolabe.

This thing. It's important. Trust me.

Of course, you don't get to change the world without catching some sh*t. People accused Gerbert d'Aurillac of dark sorcery and cahooting with the Devil.

Pictured here. 

Rumor held that Gerbert won his papal office in a game of dice with Satan, fiddling contests having not yet been invented. Others believed he'd stolen his Muslim teacher's spellbook, and then used it to evade the man's pursuit. He was said to have built a mechanical head, which answered his yes-or-no questions, like a Magic 8-Ball for the 10th century AD.

I bet he got sick of hearing "Ask again later" real damn fast.