Medieval Muck and Mumbo Jumbo

Q: What is a 'piss prophet'?
A: Doctors used to examine a patient's urine to see what was wrong with them, much as we still test urine today. But back in the middle ages, part of the testing process also involved tasting!

Q: What is a 'gong-farmer' (gong-fermour)?
A: Gong-farmers emptied medieval cesspits. Dung (mundungus) was a very useful commodity in the middle ages. It was mixed with mud, straw and water and used to seal the walls of wattle and daub cottages. It was also used to fertilise fields, very important at a time when a failed crop meant starvation for a peasant and his family.

Q: What was stale urine used for?
A: Urine was used by fullers and dyers when making cloth - it made a good bleach. It was also sold to leather-workers.

Q: What is 'crazy bread' and why did the peasants eat it?
A: July was known as 'the hungry month', when last year's harvest was coming to an end, but new grain was not yet ripe for harvesting. To keep starvation at bay, peasants would gather seeds from hedgerows: e.g. poppy and darnel and hemp, to bake with the last of the grain. Rye was sometimes added, but rye could be infected with ergot, a fungal disease with hallucinogenic properties similar to LSD. If it didn't kill you, it sent you crazy!

Q: What is 'poor man's opium'?
A: The milky sap from wild lettuce when it goes to seed was mildly narcotic - and was used to induce sleep, calm anxiety and ease pain. (It may have been given to patients undergoing surgery or other painful medical procedures at a time when there was no anaesthetic.) NB Don't go digging up the veggie patch to experiment: our domestic lettuce today has had the bitterness and medicinal properties bred out of it, and is absolutely harmless!

Q: How do you build a wattle-and-daub cottage?
A: Long lengths of pliable 'wattles' (thin branches) are woven into panels around a wooden frame. The gaps are sealed with 'daub': a mixture of dung, mud, straw and water. The dung stops the mud drying out and cracking in hot weather. There are no windows, and only a hole in the roof to let out the smoke from the fire.

Q: What is a garderobe (or reredorter)?
A: The toilet. It was usually built next door to the 'wardrobe' where the clothes of the nobles were stored, as it was thought the smell would keep the moths away! The toilet paper of choice was moss. Garderobes were built over running water, or had drains leading to the nearest river. NB Never drink water downriver from a castle or abbey!

Q: What do herbs, leeches, precious stones, prayers, charms and saints' relics have in common?
A: They were all, either separately or in combinations, used to cure various illnesses in medieval time. Medieval people had many strange ideas about disease and what caused it. A headache, in Saxon times, could be blamed on 'aelfshot' - they believed the pain was caused by 'wyrms' or by little elves, or devils, who shot small darts or arrows at you. Drilling a hole in the head was not uncommon (ouch!) to 'release the devil'. But if you think wrapping a spiderweb around a wound, or putting a leech on it to suck out the pus, is a waste of time, you're wrong because both have antiseptic properties. Indeed, many herbs that were used to cure illnesses in the past are now being used in natural remedies, and often for the same purpose as they were in the past.
One cure to relieve pain in medieval time in Germany was to place an arrowhead or piece of metal on the sore spot and recite: 'Come out worm, with nine little worms, out from the marrow into the bone, from the bone into the flesh, from the flesh into the skin, from the skin into this arrow - so be it, Lord.'

Q: What were some popular weapons in battle in medieval time?
A: Swords, daggers and lances (long spears), axes, maces (a club tipped with a spiky metal ball), and bows and arrows, including the English crossbow. If a castle was besieged, the enemy might hope to wait until the people inside ran out of food and water and were forced to surrender. Otherwise they might shoot flaming arrows over the walls, or try to tunnel under, or use battering rams and siege machines like the mangonel or trebuchet. These acted like giant catapults, and rocks plus all sorts of other things were sent flying over castle walls: beehives, rotting animal carcasses or even diseased bodies in the hope that they would infect and kill the castle's occupants!

Q: What were the insect repellants of medieval time? How did peasants keep fleas and lice away?
A: They used strong smelling herbs like tansy, as well as lavender, meadow sweet, etc. Dried flowers and herbs were scattered over the rushes which covered the beaten earth floors, both to repel insects and to perfume the air.

Q: How did they keep clean?
A: Most people didn't bathe all that often. There's a record that some Anglo-Saxon monks thought the monks in Europe were really overdoing it because they had five baths a year! 'Soap' was made from boiled mutton fat and wood ash, or they could use the soapy leaves of 'soapwort' (a herb) for washing.

Q: How could you be punished for wrongdoing?
A: You could be hanged, or even hanged, drawn and quartered (where your intestines are cut out, sometimes while you're still alive, and then your body chopped into four quarters.) Heretics (those who went against the church's teaching) could be burned at the stake. For minor crimes, you could be put in a pillory, trapped in a wooden frame with holes for your head and arms. People were allowed to throw rotten eggs, and vegetables at you. You could be put on a rack, and s-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-d! If you were a moneyer and you clipped coins, or mixed lead in with the silver, or if you were caught poaching in the king's royal forest, you could have a hand cut off - or even something else!

Q: What is the true meaning of the nursery rhyme: 'Ring a rosy'?
A: This is a song from the time of plague. Ring a ring a rosy (these refer to the plague sores); A pocket full of posy (people thought that sniffing fresh herbs might keep the disease at bay); Atishoo, atishoo (one of the symptoms of pneumonic plague); We all fall down (dead!)

Q: What caused the 'Black Death', the plague that killed one third of the population of Europe in the 14th century?
A: In medieval time, no-one knew that rats carried the fleas that spread the plague. Some people thought it was because God was punishing them, and flagellants went around whipping themselves in penitence for their sins in the hope of surviving the disease. Some people thought it was because the planets were too close (Mars, Saturn and Jupiter) or that they were spewing out a deadly miasma (noxious fumes).

Q: Did medieval people think the earth was round or flat?
A: It's commonly believed that they thought it was flat - but actually, they did know that the earth was round. Most people never traveled more than a few miles from their homes in their lifetime.