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Most people got married in June because they took their annual bath in May and still smelled all right by June. However, they were starting to smell, so brides carried a bouquet of flowers to hide the body odour. Hence the custom today.
Baths consisted of a big tub filled with hot water. The man of the house had the privilege of the nice clean water, then all the sons and other men, then the women and then the 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 out the baby with the bath water”
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 cats and other small animals (mice, bugs) lived in the roof. When it rained, the roof became slippery and sometimes the animals would slip off the roof. Hence the saying “Raining cats and dogs”
There was nothing to stop things from falling into the house. This posed a real problem in the bedroom, where bugs and other droppings could mess up your nice clean bed. Hence a bed with big posts at the corners and a sheet hung over the top afforded some protection. That’s how canopy beds came into existence.
The floor was dirt. Only the wealthy had other than dirt. Hence the saying “dirt poor”. The wealthy had slate floors which 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 added more thresh until, when the door was opened, it would start slipping outside. A piece of wood was placed in the doorway to hold the thresh. Hence the modern word “threshold”.
In those 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. Mostly they ate 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 repeat the process the next day. Sometimes the stew in the pot had been there a long time, hence the rhyme “peas porridge hot, peas porridge cold, peas porridge in the pot, nine days old.”
Sometimes they could obtain pork which made them feel quite special. When visitors came over they would hang up their bacon to show off. It was a sign of wealth that a man could “bring home the bacon”. They would cut off a little to share with their guests and would sit around “chewing the fat”.
Those with money had plates made of pewter (pewter is an alloy of mainly tin and lead). Food with a high acid content caused some of the lead to leach out into the food causing death by lead poisoning. This happened most often with tomatoes, so for the next 400 years or so, tomatoes were considered poisonous.
Bread was divided according to status. Workers got the burnt bottom of the loaf, the family got the middle and the guests got the top or “upper crust”
Lead cups were used to hold ale or whisky. The combination would sometimes knock the imbibers out for a couple of days. Someone walking along the road would take them for dead and prepare them for burial. They were laid 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”.
England is old and small and the local folk started running out of places to bury people. So they would dig up coffins, take the bones to a ‘bone house’ and re-use the grave. When reopening these coffins, 1 out of every 25 were found to have scratch marks on the inside and it was realised that many people had been buried alive. So they would tie a string to the corpse’s wrist, lead it through the coffin and attach it to a bell. Someone would have to sit out in the graveyard all night (the “graveyard shift”) to listen for the bell. Thus someone could be “saved by the bell” or was considered a “dead ringer”.
Gertie Carroll
Elm Rest, Cregmore, Claregalway.