Life in the 16th Century

Image by Nilfanion – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

Many of members on our family trees were living in the 16th Century. Following are some interesting facts about living in this period and where some of our modern-day expressions come from.

It’s raining cats and dogs

Houses had thatched roofs (thick straw piled high) with no wood underneath. It was the only place for animals to get warm, so all the dogs, cats and other small animals (mice, bugs) lived in the roof. When it rained it became slippery, and sometimes the animals would slip and fall off the roof. Hence the saying, ‘It’s raining cats and dogs.’

Carrying a bouquet

Most people got married in June because they took their yearly bath in May and still smelled pretty good by June. However, they were starting to smell, so brides carried a bouquet of flowers to hide the body odour. Hence the custom today of ‘carrying a bouquet’ when at a wedding.

Throwing the baby out with the bathwater

Baths consisted of a big tub filled with hot water. The man of the house had the privilege of the nice clean water, followed by all the sons and other men, then the women and children and finally the babies. By then the water was so dirty you could actually lose someone in it. Hence the saying, ‘Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.’

Canopy beds

There was nothing to stop things from falling into the house from the thatched roof. This posed a real problem in the bedroom where bugs and other droppings could really mess up your nice clean bed. Hence, a bed with four big posts and a sheet hung over the top afforded some protection. That’s how ‘canopy beds’ came into existence.

Dirt poor

The floor was made of dirt, and only the wealthy had something other than dirt, hence the saying ‘dirt poor’.

Carrying a bride over the threshold

The wealthy had slate floors that would get slippery in the winter when wet, so they spread thresh (straw) on the floor to help keep their footing. As the winter wore on, they kept adding more thresh until when you opened the door it would all start slipping outside. A piece of wood was placed in the entranceway. Hence the term, ‘threshold’.

Peas porridge hot

In those old days, they cooked in the kitchen with a big kettle that always hung over the fire. Every day they lit the fire and added things to the pot. They ate mostly vegetables and did not get much meat. They would eat the stew for dinner, leaving leftovers in the pot to get cold overnight and then start over the next day. Sometimes the stew had food in it that had been there for quite a while. Hence the rhyme: ‘Peas porridge hot, peas porridge cold, peas porridge in the pot nine days old.’

Holding a wake

People used lead cups to drink ale or whisky, and the combination would sometimes knock them out for a couple of days. Someone walking along the road would take them for dead and prepare them for burial. They would then lay them out on the kitchen table for a couple of days, and the family would gather around and eat and drink and wait to see if they would wake up. Hence the custom of ‘holding a wake’.

The graveyard shift

England is old and small, and the locals started running out of places to bury people. So, they would dig up coffins and would take the bones to a ‘bone-house’ and re-use the grave. When reopening these coffins, one in 25 coffins had scratch marks on the inside. It was only then that they realised that they had been burying people alive. So, they thought they would tie a string on the wrist of the corpse, lead it through the coffin and up through the ground and tie it to a bell. Someone would have to sit out in the graveyard all night to listen for the bell. Hence the term, ‘the graveyard shift’. Thus someone could be ‘saved by the bell’ or was considered a ‘dead ringer’.

Bringing home the bacon

Sometimes they could obtain pork, which made them feel quite special. When visitors came over, they would hang up their bacon to show off, as it was a sign of wealth. Hence the expression, ‘to bring home the bacon’. They would cut off a little to share with guests and would all sit around and ‘chew the fat’.

Upper crust

The bread was divided according to status. Workers got the burnt bottom of the loaf, the family got the middle, and guests got the top. Hence the term ‘upper crust’.

Poisonous tomatoes

Those with money had plates made of pewter. Food with high acid content caused some of the lead to leach onto the food, causing lead poisoning and death. This happened most often with tomatoes, so for the next 400 years or so, tomatoes were considered poisonous.

And that’s the truth, so next time you are washing your hands and complain because the water temperature isn’t just how you like it, think about how things used to be in the 16th Century. Now, whoever said that history was boring?

Educate someone and share these facts with a friend…