5 Unanticipated Facts About the Middle Ages That Prove History Can Be More Exciting Than “Game of Thrones”

The Middle Ages are believed to be one of the darkest times in European history: multiple wars, diseases, and a lack of hygiene — are all things that led to many problems. But the Middle Ages were also a really interesting historical period that we don’t know enough about. For example, do you know why wearing striped clothing was a bad thing or why knights fought with snails? If you don’t, you have to read this article.

We want to dispel the myth that the Middle Ages was a time when nothing interesting happened.

1. Striped clothes were a bad sign.

Wearing striped clothing in the Middle Ages was not safe. In 1310, a shoemaker from Rouen was actually executed for wearing striped clothing. Wearing stripes was only legally allowed for actors, musicians, prostitutes, heretics, jesters, and other people who didn’t have a stable position in society: these clothes were a way to tell them apart from the noble folk.

Modern scientists don’t really know the root of the reason for why stripes were considered bad. Some experts believe it was because striped clothing can hide the shape of the body and could be taken as an attempt to change one’s true appearance.

2. Why was there a beak on the plague doctor mask?

The famous plague doctors wore special masks with a beak. However, the beak wasn’t there to intimidate people: it was used to carry substances with a strong odor: for example, a cloth soaked in vinegar, flowers, herbs, or something like that. It was believed that the plague could be stopped by this type of filter. The only question is when exactly the plague doctor costume was created. Even though a popular opinion is that it was created during the plague outbreak during the 14th century, there is no exact evidence of that. Some experts believe it wasn’t invented until the 17th century.

The first plague pandemic that we know of broke out in the middle of the 6th century and killed more than 125 million people in Europe and Asia. There was also a pandemic in the 14th century: it was brought from China to Europe and reached Russia where it killed the population of several towns. In Europe, more than 25 million people were killed by the plague. At that time, this was 1/3 of the entire population of Europe.

3. Why were there openings in the walls of cathedrals?

During their restoration, experts found small openings in the walls of the cathedrals that were built in the Middle Ages. These openings are called hagioscopes and people could use them to see what was happening inside. They were for people who couldn’t enter the cathedral for some reason, for example, those who had leprosy.

These types of openings were found to be differently shaped depending on the cathedral, some were round, rectangular, and even cross-shaped. The openings faced either cemeteries or sparsely-populated districts. In the 16th century, most of these openings were sealed once the leprosy pandemic was eradicated.

4. Why did spiral staircases always go clockwise?

Spiral staircases in the castles of the Middle Ages were always built to follow a clockwise path. They were built this way in case the castle was under siege: the thing is, a defender coming down the stairs would be able to fight with his right hand, and most people are right-handed. And an attacker, coming up the stairs, would have trouble doing the same.

Spiral staircases had another trick to them too: the stairs were different in height and width. This caused attackers who were unfamiliar with the specifics to trip and fall. And the owners of the castle knew every single step and could move very fast.

Of course, this rule has very rare exceptions, for example, one of the Waldstein castles had counterclockwise staircases because most members of the family were left-handed.

5. Why did knights fight with snails?

At the end of the 13th century, manuscripts that were created in the north of France had pictures of knights fighting with snails. Scientists don’t know exactly why these creatures were not loved by the artists of the Middle Ages, but there are several versions of this story. One of them says that a snail appearing from a shell is a symbol of resurrection and the picture is just a metaphor.

Another version says that a snail is a symbol of cowardice that artists placed in the manuscripts. And the most trustworthy theory is that a snail is a symbol of the Lombards who were at war with the French.

Bonus: Women were not as good-looking as they are on TV-shows.

Of course, women in the Middle Ages were beautiful too. But they didn’t have cosmetics or access to showers and other facilities. So, when you are watching Game of Thrones, remember that this is only a show, the reality was way more harsh. Here are several examples:

  • When women needed fake eyebrows, they used rodent hair.
  • All marks on the skin (like moles and freckles) were believed to have been received from the devil, and all of them had to be hidden. So in order to remove these “stains of witchcraft,” women would use willow tree water, the blood of a rabbit, and other strange substances.
  • It was fashionable to be pale, so women used mercury, acid, and lead to whiten their faces.
  • And about their hygiene: There weren’t any fancy cosmetic products, so women had to use soap that was made of ash and fat. It was the medieval version of a catch-22, either have a dirty face or use this gross substance to wash it.

Did you know any of these facts?


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