5 Horrifying Realities Of Daily Life Edited Out Of History
Hollywood is good at making the past look like a brutal, violent place -- every medieval adventure features several hundred dudes getting stabbed -- but it also makes it look kind of awesome. The cast of Gladiator and Braveheart appear to live noble, meaningful lives, and there's a reason that nerds like to gather in the park dressed like knights and maidens. It's like the world back then was more real. None of this cubicle bullshit.
But you can actually make yourself feel a whole lot better about your life today merely by reminding yourself of a few key things. For instance, just a few centuries ago ...
Pooping Was A Never-Ending Horror Show
What's the worst thing you've ever found in a toilet? An errant turd on the seat? A giant spider? Open flames?
What, no open flames? Congratulations! You didn't have to endure the horrors of a Roman toilet. They were damp and awful stone closets that opened directly into horrid cloacas that were teeming with the kind of life that enjoys poop-rivers (and is not averse to taking an occasional bite out of a succulent ass cheek, should one position itself conveniently).
The average Roman had three assholes.
Also, your butt might literally catch fire, what with rampant methane fumes that could very well result in flames erupting over your delicate taint. The Romans scribbled magical incantations on the walls of lavatories to keep the ass demons they blamed this all on at bay, and some bathrooms featured the image of Fortuna, the goddess of luck, to reflect the crapshoot nature of ancient crapping. And then the Middle Ages came along, and things got much worse.
As medieval populations grew and people began living in closer and closer quarters, dealing with all the inevitable excrement started to become a huge problem. Because medieval folks were equipped with the same noses as we are and, as such, weren't too fond of spending their lives as Acting Mayors of their personal Poopville, this sometimes led to some fairly inspired tinkering. For instance, people dug cesspits in their backyards, which often spilled over into neighbors' properties and caused a nightmare for the era's court system. An Englishwoman named Alice Wade managed to MacGyver together a wooden pipe system that ran underneath several of her neighbors' houses and dumped her droppings into a street. This was pretty ingenious unless you a) used the street, like, ever, or b) were one of the aforementioned neighbors when the pipe inevitably clogged and started stinking up the entire area.
Say what you will about your neighbors; they never took you to court over taco night.
Of course, there were also those who didn't even bother with cesspits or makeshift plumbing systems. Some people would drop anchor wherever they happened to be standing -- even inside a building. The floors were rarely (if ever) cleaned, so feces, garbage and other delights would accumulate en masse; a scholar described the floors as "harbouring expectoration, vomiting, the leakage of dogs and men, ale droppings, scraps of fish, and other abominations not fit to be mentioned." The solution to get rid of this horror cocktail was to simply add new layers of rushes to cover up the filth on the floor, eventually creating a layered floor material not unlike devil's own lasagna.
On paper, castles fared somewhat better than plebeian bungalows, because they often featured sewers that ran underneath the wooden floorboards of the privy. The only flaw in this design was that wood tends to rot, and a river of liquid bacteria directly underneath the floorboards doesn't exactly stall the process. There are accounts of people plunging through the floor and drowning in the pits of liquid shit underneath.
"Hey, has anyone seen Lars? He was just- oh ... crap."
This was made all the worse by the fact that if you lived in medieval times, you were going to spend a whole lot of time in the toilet. Back in those days, the mechanisms that caused diseases were mostly unknown, and the attempts of keeping waste water and drinkable water separate generally consisted of a quick "Oh God, please don't let there be an actual turd in it this time" before filling the bucket. As such, people tended to have either the runs or massive constipation (brought upon by deliberately avoiding water) a lot of the time. Medieval bowels were so obstructed that there are stories and paintings from the era devoted to describing this peculiar plight.
It was either bribing the poop with sonnets or going to a medieval doctor.
Even A Minor Disfigurement Could Turn You Into An Outcast
Did you have acne as a teenager? Maybe someone in your family has psoriasis? If so, you're just a few centuries away from a life as a deformed outcast, Ephialtes-from-300 style. No matter what Game Of Thrones and Vikings tell you, maintaining healthy-looking skin is something that requires a shitload of modern knowledge. Even today, our organ sacks can develop plenty of spots, blemishes, and other unsightly features, but at least we can treat them fairly well with creams or, if it comes to that, plastic surgery. Not so much back in the day. If our ancestor caught a condition that even temporarily orc-ified them -- boom! Instant social outcast!
"I block and unfriend thee!"
Take psoriasis. It's a relatively simply treated skin condition that we don't give much thought today, but in the past it could be a death sentence. The thick, scaly patches of skin that come with the disease were often misattributed to leprosy. This automatically put you in a world of hurt, as lepers were forcibly isolated from the rest of society and made to live as pariahs, wearing bells around their necks to warn of their arrival ... assuming they let you live at all -- 14th-century France, for instance, was fond of executing people with bad skin.
And then there was syphilis. A particularly nasty disease that rotted the flesh (of the nose in particular) and made you smell like death, syphilis spread so fast over the continents that it must have seemed like a biblical plague. It carried the double-whammy of both contracting through sexual intercourse and sharing certain symptoms with fun diseases such as leprosy, so if you screwed around, there was always a chance you could (again) wind up a total social pariah with a reputation for debauchery, no nose, and severely deformed features. At that point, your only option was to wear a ninja mask or get a 16th-century surgical treatment that involved grafting a new nose with muscle from your arm, and hoping like hell neither the nose or the arm fell off.
Or you could wear this convincing appliance.
Unemployment Ruined Your Life (With Whippings)
Not having a job sucks in any time period -- joblessness has always come with social stigma (on top of, you know, not being able to buy things). But if you decide to time travel back a few centuries without bringing along some period-appropriate job skills? You have no idea what's waiting for your ass. Hint: It involves whippings.
Hope you weren't banking on a job as an ass model.
For instance, in 16th-century England being unemployed was pretty much a criminal offense. Since people without jobs often had to wander from town to town to find work, they were seen as vagrants. The punishment: You would be tied to a cart and whipped until bloody. In 1547, the law was changed so that instead of being whipped you could also ... be branded like cattle and forced into slavery? Shit.
"At least we're being productive now, I guess?"
In the 1600s, new laws were passed that actually handed out rewards for the capture of vagrants. At one point, the reward was roughly equal to a week's worth of wages for an unskilled worker, which we're surprised to find didn't immediately cause the whole society to fall apart into a bunch of Dog the Bounty Hunters tackling random dudes sleeping in alleyways.
In some cases, the government did provide assistance to the poor, which sounds great until you realize that if you took the help, you were forced to wear a badge with the letter "P" embroidered on it. That way, everyone would know what a worthless, lazy piece of shit you were. Refusal to wear the badge could get you fined the equivalent of two weeks' wages.
That is, wages from the job you didn't have, and could never have, because now you'd be working free for two damn weeks.
The "p" stood for "paradox."
Wait a second, that almost sounds like the rich guys holding the whips didn't actually want to motivate the unemployed to start working, but rather just wanted an excuse to kick them around. Eh, we're probably just being paranoid.
Fights At School Became Deadly Pitched Battles
We're all familiar with the drunken hijinks of modern-day college fratbros and other party animals. But no matter how bad their escapades get, at least they don't actively attack people with swords like they used to do in 13th-century Paris. And we're not just talking about individual kids getting rowdy at parties -- we're talking pitched battles that left dozens dead.
But they were "basically good boys," said college officials.
For example, in 1229, groups of students went inn-hopping and, after getting appropriately shitfaced, started arguing with some innkeepers over the price of wine. The disagreement escalated until the students and innkeepers were in a brawl that caused the townspeople to come to the aid of the innkeepers. The students weren't about to be embarrassed by a bunch of uneducated street rabble, so they returned the next day with a bunch of friends ... all armed with swords. After destroying an innkeeper's wine jugs, they took to the streets and attacked whatever random men and women they came across, hacking off limbs left and right. And this is just the sort of shit that happened from time to time.
"Alpha Tau Kappa, bitch!"
At medieval Oxford University (yes, that Oxford), these mini-wars were actually pretty much routine. Factions from the Northern and Southern nations tussled, individual students fought, and sometimes even the faculty got in on the action. Basically, the place was Drunk Hogwarts With Swords. One of the most famous incidents happened in 1355, when a major riot occurred in Oxford a few days before Valentine's Day. Once again, the catalyst was wine, though this time the fight was over its quality instead of price. After an innkeeper swore at them in the way only a 14th-century innkeeper could curse at a bunch of drunk students, the situation cartoonishly escalated until the church bells of the town were ringing to summon the townsmen to arms. Not to be outdone, the church at Oxford rang its own damn bells to rally the student body to the battlefield. After initially forcing the townsmen to retreat, the students were eventually routed when the locals breached the college. When the dust settled, 30 townsmen and 63 students were dead.
Let's, uh, let's just be happy they're channeling their aggression into stupid boat races these days, shall we?
Spices Were Treated Like Narcotics
You know from history class that the ancient world was all about spices -- salt, pepper, and other seasonings were hard to come by, and entire empires were built on controlling their trade (and spices were often used as currency). You may have heard in school that this was because they needed them to preserve meat, but that's not really true, and it really doesn't convey how weird shit got -- these people treated everyday spices like black tar heroin, in a world where everyone was addicted.
Whole nation-states fell to the cinnamon challenge.
They started believing that spices could cure or prevent all sorts of random ailments, and used them in religious rituals. They would burn them and breathe the fumes. Soon, their entire social standing was based largely on the kind and quantity of seasoning they were able to roll out at mealtime. The Middle Ages became a culture-wide game of Pimp My Meal, and it didn't take long before shit got "let's put an aquarium in the trunk"-level crazy. One duke's marriage in 1476 boasted "386 pounds of pepper, 286 of ginger, 207 of saffron, 205 of cinnamon, 105 of cloves, and a mere 85 pounds of nutmeg." If you're thinking, "Damn, that's some really spicy-ass food!" you're missing the point -- these people piled up 1,300 freaking pounds of spices at the ceremony purely to show off how rich they were. There had to have been heaps of it.
"My balls are in a tub of paprika right now!"
Meanwhile, Europeans were scouring the globe for their supply. The natives of the Banda archipelago were ruthlessly slaughtered when the British and the Dutch fought for control over the spices that originated there. It was also the only place where nutmeg could be found, and at the time it was thought that nutmeg could cure the plague. All in all, over 6,000 people were killed in the quest for something we sprinkle on our eggnog today.
And really, we're underselling it by comparing it to hard drugs -- in 3rd-century Rome, a pound of ginger was worth about 18.5 years of a craftsman's wages. That same guy today would only have to save up for like six months to get a whole kilo of cocaine. Oh, and when Visigoths ransacked Rome in the 5th century, they demanded a ransom of 3,000 pounds of peppercorn to release the city.
"We have a lot of bloody marys to fix."
So there's our final time travel tip for the day: If you're heading back more than a few centuries, invest in a couple of cases of Mrs. Dash from Costco. You'll rule the fucking world.
For more reasons you don't want to live in the past, check out The 5 Most Overrated Jobs Of All-Time and 8 Terrifying Instruments Old-Time Doctors Used on Your Junk.
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