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Life in the Middle Ages had its excitement, hardships and quirks, just like any other era. Here are 10 interesting and sometimes curious facts about medieval life.
1. Eels were sometimes used as currency
A record survives showing someone once rented land in the fenlands for 26,275 eels.
2. Shoes were ridiculous
Long-toed shoes were a sign of high fashion. Credit: Ziko / Commons.
From about the 1330s onwards people began wearing shoes with ridiculously long toes. The longer they could be, the better. They were called Cracow shoes, named after where they originated from: Krakow in Poland.
3. Animals could be tried and convicted for crimes, and if found guilty sentenced to death
In Savigny, France, 1457, a sow was charged with murder, found guilty and hanged.
4. Archery practise was for a time compulsory for every able Englishman
A 15th-century miniature of the Battle of Agincourt. Credit: Antoine Leduc, Sylvie Leluc and Olivier Renaudeau / Commons.
England became a breeding ground for the best archers in the world. Edward III introduced a law which made archery practice compulsory every Sunday to ensure the king always had a steady supply of archers available. The subsequent English victories at Crecy, Poitiers and Agincourt proved the law provided dividends.
5. Football was banned in England on multiple occasions
On 13 April 1314 for instance, King Edward II issued a proclamation that banned football in London. The reason?
“…there is great noise in the city caused by hustling over large balls from which many evils may arise which God forbid; we command and forbid, on behalf of the King, on pain of imprisonment, such game to be used in the city in the future.”
6. The population of London went up 500% between the 12th and 14th centuries
What caused the 30 year period of internecine violence in medieval England? Dan Snow narrates this animated short documentary on the events that led to 22 May 1455 - the First Battle of Saint Albans.Watch Now
By the start of the 14th century, London had grown from 17,000 people to a bustling city of c.100,000. This caused great squalor for the inhabitants, hemmed in between the Roman walls and the River Thames.
7. Trades were usually passed on from generation to generation
Peasants in the Middle Age worked where they lived. Their trade was passed down from father to son and thus it remained in the family business. If your dad was a cobbler, you would most likely be a cobbler.
8. Outside of London, the largest towns in England were cathedral cities
Chichester Cathedral. Credit: Evgeniy Podkopaev / Commons.
These included Lincoln, Canterbury, York and Chichester.
9. Merchants were a class of their own
One of the Medieval Era’s most famous merchants was Marco Polo.
Not only did many travel far and wide to obtain exotic goods, but merchants also had the opportunity to get very rich from imports and exports.
10. If you were Cornish, you weren’t regarded as English
A panorama image from Tintagel Castle in Cornwall. Michal Stehlík / Commons.
When Truro received its crown charter in 1173, it was addressed ‘to the barons of Cornwall, and all men both Cornish and English’.
7 weird and wonderful medieval facts
To modern minds, the Middle Ages might seem full of alien concepts and circumstances. Now, a new book aims to demystify this complex period in English history, and dispel the modern assumptions that surround it.
This competition is now closed
Published: July 16, 2015 at 11:58 am
In The Middle Ages Unlocked: A Guide to Life in Medieval England, 1050–1300, Dr Gillian Polack and Dr Katrin Kania explore a wide range of topics from law, religion and education to landscape, art and magic. The experts also examine aspects of daily life including housing, food, clothing and crafts.
Here, writing for History Extra, Dr Kania and Dr Polack share seven lesser-known facts about the medieval period…
1) Pigs could be a real danger
In medieval times, pigs were kept as meat animals, often in a type of extensive husbandry that included foraging in forests and on common grounds. People thus had much more contact with live pigs than we do today – this could be dangerous, and even deadly.
There were multiple accounts of pigs eating children. From the 13th century, lawsuits could in theory be filed against the porcine perpetrators – this usually resulted in a death sentence for the pig. Such lawsuits were rare in England but were more common in France, especially in the region around Paris.
2) The Middle Ages were not drab and grey
There was an appreciation of colour in the medieval period very similar to modern enjoyment of bright and colourful things. From garments to jewellery, and stained glass windows to painted walls in both secular houses and churches, colourful decoration was everywhere.
While many wall paintings have been lost and most textiles have faded or turned brown in the soil (if they survived at all), illuminations in medieval manuscripts still give us a glimpse of the many colours of life in medieval times.
3) The English were multilingual
The medieval English did not only speak English – they used French, Latin and Hebrew, as well as other languages. People employed different languages in different situations: the language of religion was Latin and Hebrew, but for law it was French. When it came to insulting people, however, this could be done in any language.
4) People did bathe
Hygiene was considered a sign that you were civilised, and cleanliness meant bathing. Most major towns boasted public baths, as did many private houses. Bathtubs were made using similar techniques to those used to craft wine barrels.
One might also be advised on medical grounds to bathe – for example, if you had kidney stones.
5) People knew the world was round
The round Earth was described both scientifically and philosophically, and people knew about the Antipodes (the antipodes of any place on Earth is the point on the Earth’s surface that is diametrically opposite to it). However, as today, a minority believed devoutly in a flat Earth.
6) Not everyone was Christian, or white
There were Jews and Muslims in medieval Europe, and there were also practitioners of other religions, such as Paganism. The percentage of followers of each religion in each region varied according to history and culture. Paganism was for a long time common in the north, for instance, and Islam in the Iberian peninsula.
Race wasn’t defined according to modern terms, so ‘white’ and ‘black’ were far less important than one’s religion: a black bishop from north Africa was considered more civilised and of far higher rank than a white slave from eastern Europe, for example. People were more likely to be discriminated against according to religion than skin colour, with Cathars, Jews and known heretics among those who suffered greatly.
7) Piped water was not unknown
Clean water was important in the medieval period – for hygiene, for food preparation, and for drinking. Establishing a water supply, especially in the cities, was not always easy, though. London was famous for its conduit – a series of cisterns to supply water to its people: the water itself was piped in from outside London.
Some castles also had pipe systems for their water supplies. Dover Castle, for example, used lead pipes to move water from its well through the building.
Dr Gillian Polack and Dr Katrin Kania are the authors of The Middle Ages Unlocked: A Guide to Life in Medieval England, 1050–1300.
41. Feeling Sluggish
During the Crusades, Muslims would sometimes defend themselves with aconite, a kind of poison. The 14th-century physician Guido da Vigevano noticed slugs munching happily on some aconite leaves, and did what any of us would do: He made slug soup. Just as Vigevano had hoped, the sluggy dish made an effective antidote against aconite poisoning.
When Religion Takes Hold
The medieval period was also a time of significant racial and religious discontent. Religion was by far the biggest driving force behind all major happenings in the era, and the source of all wars and suffering. From the earliest middle ages, Christianity spread like wildfire . It consumed the courts of Europe exclusively through political means - Kings accepted Christianity only to increase power and political influence. As the centuries progressed, pagan peoples were oppressed and forcefully converted. The last pagans of Europe were the tribes of Lithuania and the neighboring Finnic Seto tribe.
‘The Taking of Arkona in 1169, King Valdemar and Bishop Absalon’ (19th century) by Laurits Tuxen. ( Public Domain ) Bishop Absalon is depicted toppling the statue of god Svantevit.
Religious warfare was also rampant. Muslim invasions led to immense conflicts and created a rift between Christendom and Islam that lasts to this day. Catholicism wound its way into every court of Western Europe and violently purged anyone who dared to think and act differently. Needless to say - free speech was non-existent in medieval Europe.
And behind all of it was wealth. Wars, murders, massacres, and pogroms - all had the glint of gold behind them. Everyone vied for more and more wealth, and they did it by using the poor classes for their own gain. Gold was highly valued, and poisoned many a mind. The traditional way of life of the classical period was subdued by greed, wars, and riches.
The Jews of Europe established merchant banks in major urban centers and introduced the system of usury - charging interest - and they would loan large sums of money to major rulers in Europe. When they began exploiting the common folk they were often chased away. This system of loans lasts to this day - albeit on a bigger and more modern scale.
Miniature showing the expulsion of Jews following the Edict of Expulsion by Edward I of England (18 July 1290). ( Public Domain )
But life in medieval Europe wasn’t the same for everyone. Orthodox Christians, the Byzantines, influenced Eastern Europe in entirely different ways. Yes, the class differences were still there, and yes, greed and warfare was rampant, but lives were different.
The Eastern European regions largely retained their old pastoral ways of life and urban centers were next to none. Orthodoxy played an important role for the rulers, who raised many monasteries - which became a sort of currency. Clergy was given much more power and played an important role in political developments, but only by the grace of kings.
Still, the poor classes - the villagers and the simple folk - all suffered the same hardships that the rest of Europe did - poverty, mortality, constant war, and no rights.
Villagers were detached from the happenings in the court - a conscripted soldier often had no idea of the latest events of the kingdom. It could have a new name, a new territory, or a new overlord, but news traveled slow. Nonetheless, when a lord appeared the call had to be answered.
Clueless and weary of life, these young and old men would travel far into some unimportant war, to stand in line and suffer a terrible death in a faraway land - all on the whim of a richly-clad Lord who only sought to gain more wealth. But blood money was never able to buy salvation.
Today we cannot fathom just how many European fields are littered with the bones of such poor souls that fell in the field of battle, buried by time and dust alongside their dreams and hopes. Where were their homes and who mourned their expected return that never happened? The answers to such questions are lost forever - inscribed on the ever-blowing Northern winds.
Just how many European fields are littered with the bones of such poor souls that fell in the field of battle? ( Lunstream /Adobe Stock)
Beginning in roughly the 8th-Century, troops from Northern Africa conquered much of the Iberian Peninsula… what is now modern-day Spain and Portugal. Medieval scholars called these people the Moors… although the Encyclopedia Britannica is quick to point out that the term was lazily used to describe a wide variety of groups, including Arabians, Africans, and European-born Muslims. In any case, the “Moors” ruled that part of the world for about 6 centuries. And they were responsible for some of the most impressive societal advancements of the time. Some examples: They introduced Arabic numerals (1, 2, 3, and so on) as well as a whole host of words like “lute,” “magazine,” “Algebra,” “orange,” and “tariff.”Wikimedia Commons, Phirosiberia
50 Amazing Historical Facts You Never Knew
Can you guess which U.S. president is a medaled wrestler?
As the old saying goes, "Those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it." (Or something like that). Yes, it's important to know your history—not just the big names and key dates, but the little details that help us better understand a historic figure or era in which they lived. Maybe it's a surprising fact that makes you rethink conventional wisdom. Maybe it's a wild anecdote that seems too crazy to be true. Whatever the case, it's the little, surprising bits of history are perhaps the most fun bits of history—the type of info that's so wacky and out there it could never be repeated even if someone wanted to. Here are 50 such tidbits, in no particular order.
While the turkey is currently America's favorite part of the Thanksgiving meal, in 300 B.C., these big birds were heralded by the Mayan people as vessels of the gods and were honored as such, so much so that they were domesticated to have roles in religious rites. They were symbols of power and prestige and can be found everywhere in Maya iconography and archaeology.
While everyone knows the story of Revere's famous ride in which he was said to have warned colonial militia of the approaching enemy by yelling "The British are coming!" This is actually false. According to History.com, the operation was meant to be quiet and stealthy, since British troops were hiding out in the Massachusetts countryside. Also, colonial Americans still considered themselves to be British.
From 1912 to 1948, the Olympic Games held competitions in the fine arts. Medals were given for literature, architecture, sculpture, painting, and music. Naturally, the art created was required to be Olympic-themed. According to the founder of the modern Olympics, Pierre de Frédy, the addition of the arts was necessary because the ancient Greeks used to hold art festivals alongside the games. Before the art events were eventually removed, 151 medals were awarded.
Image via Wikimedia Commons
After the French Revolution, eight-year-old Louis XVII was imprisoned and then never seen in public ever again. His parents were executed in 1793 and, afterward, he was horrifically abused, neglected, and left isolated in a prison cell in the Paris Temple. In 1795, he died of Tuberculous at 10-years-old. His body was buried in secret in a mass grave. Years later, dozens of men came forward claiming to be him because a Bourbon restoration was a possibility and a successful claimant could then potentially find himself on the throne of France.
Once upon a time, the famous conqueror Napoleon Bonaparte was attacked by…bunnies. The emperor had requested that a rabbit hunt be arranged for himself and his men. His chief of staff set it up and had men round up reportedly 3,000 rabbits for the occasion. When the rabbits were released from their cages, the hunt was ready to go. At least that was the plan! But the bunnies charged toward Bonaparte and his men in a viscous and unstoppable onslaught. And we were taught that Waterloo was the conqueror's greatest defeat…
Image via Wikimedia Commons
In 1908, New Yorker Katie Mulcahey was arrested for striking a match against a wall and lighting a cigarette with it. Why? Because this was a violation of The Sullivan Ordinance, a city law banning women (and only women!) from smoking in public. During her hearing at the district court, Mulcahey argued about her rights to smoke cigarettes in public. She was fined $5.00. Two weeks later, The Sullivan Ordinance was vetoed by New York City's mayor.
Image via Wikimedia Commons
During Prohibition in the United States, the U.S. government literally poisoned alcohol. When people continued to consume alcohol despite its banning, law officials got frustrated and decided to try a different kind of deterrent—death. They ordered the poisoning of industrial alcohols manufactured in the U.S., which were products regularly stolen bootleggers. By the end of Prohibition in 1933, the federal poisoning program is estimated to have killed at least 10,000 people.
Yes, face of the well-loved rum brand was a totally real guy. He was a Welsh privateer who fought alongside the English against the Spanish in the Caribbean in the 1660s and 1670s. His first name was Henry and was knighted by King Charles II of England. His exact birth date is unknown, but it was sometime around 1635. He died in Jamaica in 1688, apparently very rich.
What the fork? Forks, the widely used eating utensils, were once seen as blasphemous. They were first introduced in Italy in the 11th Century. These spiked spaghetti-twirling instruments were seen as an offense to God. And why, do you ask? Because they were "artificial hands" and as such was considered to be sacrilegious.
Despite what James Cameron's iconic 1997 film may have you believe, the owners never said that it could never sink. Historian Richard Howells said that "the population as a whole were unlikely to have thought of the Titanic as a unique, unsinkable ship before its maiden voyage."
Yes, 600. The Cuban dictator was targeted to be killed by a large range of foes, including political opponents, criminals, and even the United States, among many others. Tactics included everything from an exploding cigar to a poisoned diving suit.
Despite what you may believe, the last queen of Egypt wasn't born in Egypt. As best as Historians can tell, Cleopatra VII (that's her formal name) was Greek. She was a descendant of Alexander the Great's Macedonian general Ptolemy.
Image via Wikimedia Commons
Pope Gregory IV declared war on cats in the 13th Century. He said that black cats were instruments of Satan. Because of this belief, he ordered the extermination of these felines throughout Europe. However, this plan backfired, as it resulted in an increase in the population of plague-carrying rats.
Image via Wikimedia Commons
Everyone knows the nursery rhyme "Mary Had A Little Lamb," but you probably didn't know this was based on true story. Her name was Mary Sawyer. She was an 11-year-old girl and lived in Boston and one day was followed to school by her pet lamb. In the late 1860s, she helped raise money for an old church by selling wool from the lamb.
The 37th president of the United States (and the only president to resign from office) actually was an extremely talented musician. He played five instruments in total: piano, saxophone, clarinet, accordion, and violin.
Image via Wikimedia Commons
This, for lack of a better word, unapologetic president gave interviews while using the toilet. Presidential biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin describes the impetus: "he just didn't want the conversation to stop."
Forget Ibuprofen. In the 1830s, when it came to popular medicine, ketchup was all the rage. In 1834, it was sold as a cure for indigestion by an Ohio physician named John Cook. It wasn't popularized as a condiment until the late 19th century. The more you know.
Before the 16th president took office, Abraham Lincoln was declared a wrestling champion. The 6'4" president had only one loss among his around 300 contests. He earned a reputation for this in New Salem, Illinois, as an elite fighter. Eventually, he earned his county's wrestling championship.
July 4th is not the real American Independence Day. It is actually July 2nd because this is when the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia actually voted to approve a resolution of independence. July 4th, though, is when the Congress adopted the official Declaration of Independence, and most didn't even sign that until August.
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Besides being a wrestling champ, Lincoln was also a licensed bartender. In 1833, the 16th president opened up a bar called Berry and Lincoln with his friend William F. Berry in New Salem, Illinois. The shop was eventually closed when Berry, an alcoholic, consumed most of the shop's supply.
While the White House was under construction during Washington's term, he never lived there. It wasn't until John Adams took office that a president lived there. Interestingly enough, George Washington is the only president to date who has not lived in the White House.
The first president was not the first face of the $1 bill! The first face to appear on this currency was Salmon P. Chase. The first $1 bill was issued during the Civil War in 1862. Chase was the Secretary of Treasury at that time and was also the designer of the country's first bank notes.
Image via Wikimedia Commons
While Edison did have an astonishing 1,093 patents, the majority of these were not of his own invention. He stole most of them. While he did land the patent for the light bulb in 1880, the real inventor was actually Warren de la Rue, a British astronomer and chemist, who actually created the very first light bulb forty years before Edison.
At least the only proof we have of this is from Ross's grandson, William Canby, who claimed in 1870 that his "gam-gam" had the idea. The real creator was more likely to be Francis Hopkinson from New Jersey, who signed the Declaration of Independence and also designed many seals for the U.S. government.
Image via Wikimedia Commons
No, it wasn't Henry Ford's Model T in 1908. The first car actually was created in the 19th Century when European engineers Karl Benz and Emile Levassor were working on automobile inventions. Benz patented the first automobile in 1886.
Image via Wikimedia Commons
Apparently, being the first president of the United States wasn't enough for George Washington in his lifetime. After his term, Washington opened a whiskey distillery. By 1799, Washington's distillery was the largest in the country, producing 11,000 gallons of un-aged whiskey. After the president's death, the business was no more, however.
Yes, Ronald Reagan was deeply interested in astrology. Both he and Nancy were, actually. And if you were curious, Ronald Reagan was an Aquarius—though the cosmos never influenced any policy decisions on his part, he reassured.
There is a myth about a young George Washington that states that the president, when he was a boy, cut down his father's apple tree with a hatchet. When his father confronted him, he said, "I cannot tell a lie." Yeah—never happened. It first appeared in an autobiography of Washington, where the writer later admitted he was just trying to display the president's virtuous nature.
Many myths about Washington exist, but one of the most prevalent stories has to be about his teeth. It's widely believed that Washington wore wooden dentures. This is not the case at all. While Washington did have numerous dental problems and did use dentures, wood, as a material, was never used.
On July 4th, 1826, both U.S. presidents John Adams and Thomas Jefferson passed away—within five hours of each other. Crazy. They were once fellow patriots turned adversaries, and they were also the last surviving members of the original American revolutionaries.
No, this European explorer did not discover America. Columbus was 500 years too late. In fact, it was the Norse explorer Leif Erikson who landed on American shores during the 10th century. Erikson could be considered the first European to discover America.
The witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts, lasted between February 1692 and May 1693. Nearly 200 people were accused of practicing witchcraft, including the homeless, the elderly, and a four-year-old girl. The majority were jailed, and some were hanged. But none of these people ever got burned alive.
While writing to his daughter in 1784, Benjamin Franklin was complaining about the bald eagle being chosen as the United States' national symbol. He said that the bald eagle had "bad moral character." He said the turkey would be a better idea. He was joking. He didn't actually think the national bird should be a turkey.
A version of this quote originally came from the autobiography of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, where it was mentioned a princess said this phrase. It would later be attributed to Antoinette. Though it's highly unlikely she actually said it.
While Walt Disney did have the idea of Mickey Mouse and also provided the voice, the imagery was created by the animator Ub Iwerks he came up with all the iconic features. You won't look at the adorable mouse the same again.
Image via Wikimedia Commons
Start counting those sheep, because sleep is so, so important. So many of history's greatest disasters were the result of a lack of shut-eye, including: Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, the Challenger explosion, and the Exxon Valdez oil spill, to name a few.
Image via Wikimedia Commons
Those big Stetsons that everyone associates with cowboys like John Wayne, Billy the Kid, or Wyatt Earp? Yeah. Cowboys didn't wear those. In fact, the hat of choice for the 19th century cowboys was actually a bowler hat. Go figure.
Image via Wikimedia Commons
You know that happy meal between Native Americans and the Pilgrims where everyone bonded? Well, the real story of Thanksgiving is awful, and actually consisted of plagues and violence and murder. Also, there's no evidence turkey was actually served—or that native people were invited to the meal.
The Protestant "Separatists" left Holland because of too much religious freedom, since the country allowed Judaism and Catholicism and even atheism. Because of this, the Puritans dipped and went to the Mayflower where they embarked across the pond for the new world.
Image via Wikimedia Commons
The folkloric hero was a real person. His real name was John Chapman and his hometown was Leominster, Massachusetts. He also has a street named after him, though the city planners decided it would be more poetic to use his mythical name: Johnny Appleseed Lane.
Image via Wikimedia Commons
Walt Disney died in 1966 and there is a widely spread myth that his body was cryogenically frozen in the hopes that, when technology advances enough, he'd be revived. Well, sorry, but Disney was actually cremated.
On Black Tuesday, October 24th, 1929, the most shocking stock market crash occurred in U.S. history. It is widely believed that this financial crisis caused countless deaths by suicide, but this was not the case. There were two.
Image via Wikimedia Commons
After serving a mere 16 months in office, U.S. president Zachary Taylor passed away after eating far too many cherries and drinking milk at a Fourth of July party in 1850. He died on July 9th from gastroenteritis. The acidic cherries along with the milk is believed to have caused this.
He was a paranoid dude, and Richard Nixon wanted to kill Washington columnist Jack Anderson, according to NBC News. His plot included ideas such as putting poison in Anderson's medicine cabinet or exposing the journalist to large amounts of LSD. Thankfully, the plot was abandoned.
Andrew Jackson taught his parrot, Polly, to curse like a sailor. There is even one legend that the parrot had to be taken out of Jackson's funeral for its proclivity for profanity. And you thought you swore too much.
The former president seriously lost the personal ID number needed to confirm nuclear launches. And not just briefly. For, like, months on end. This is all according to the then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who (understandably) called this misstep a "gargantuan deal."
No, this supposed torture device never actually existed. The widespread medieval use is a classic 18th-century myth, supported because of the perceptions that the Middle Ages were a widely uncivilized era of violence and mayhem. (They were bad, but not that bad.)
Image via Imgur
Former U.S. president Calvin Coolidge had many a pets, ranging from a donkey to a bobcat. Oh, and a pair of lions. They were gifted as cubs from the government of South Africa. Their names? Tax Reduction and Budget Bureau.
The popular brunch beverage and hangover cure didn't actually start off as being called a Bloody Mary. Nope. It was actually called A Bucket Of Blood. Appetizing… After Bucket Of Blood, it transitioned to Red Snapper and, finally, Bloody Mary.
Image via Wikimedia Commons
A woman was elected to the U.S. Congress before women could even vote. Jeanette Rankin joined Congress in 1916, which was four years before women could actually vote. The 19th Amendment which gave women the right to vote wasn't passed until August 18th, 1920. And for more interesting history lessons you may have missed, check out these 30 Crazy Facts That Will Change Your View of History.
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The Life of Medieval Knights
In the Middle Ages, knights were at the top of the social ladder. With the best training, the best clothes, the best weapons and, supposedly, the best manners, they were what everyone else aspired to be. Tales of daring deeds and chivalry were told in poems and popular songs so that lasting fame awaited those knights who rose above their peers. There were legendary knights such as King Arthur and Saint George, patron of all knights, famous tournament winners like Sir William Marshal, and even a few non-Christians were allowed the honorary title of knight such as the great Muslim leader Saladin. In this collection, we look at how exactly one became a knight, what weapons and armour were required and what were the dos and don'ts in order to gain a reputation for perfect chivalry.
According to some legends, Saint George had a mighty sword called Ascalon, made by the Cyclops of ancient Greece, and a shining suit of armour made from Libyan steel.
From Escaped Nuns to a Knight in Disguise, 10 Facts About the Life and Legacy of Martin Luther
Throughout the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church held power across much of Western Europe. With a population that was largely illiterate and a Bible written in Latin, the church and its representatives—priests, bishops and the pope—acted as the sole intermediary between humankind and God. But on October 31, 1517, a monk named Martin Luther inadvertently launched a revolution. Although popular legend holds that he nailed his 95 Theses into the church door at Wittenberg, Luther himself disputed that notion, writes Eric Metaxas in Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World.
Instead, Luther sent a letter to the Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz on that date, writing that he was dismayed at the selling of indulgences (payments parishioners made to the church to be forgiven of their sins). At the same time, Luther had written the 95 Theses in Latin, and in the following days he posted them in Wittenberg to be debated. At the time, he had no idea how quickly his work would be translated and spread across Europe, or what the ultimate outcome of it would be. He merely wanted to better the future of Christianity by tweaking the existing system. But as Metaxas writes, this goal would “entail uprooting the very structure of European reality, one that had been growing and thriving these many centuries.”
While the 95 Theses were revolutionary in their own way, Luther went on to write multiple treatises and essays that overthrew previous notions of Christianity, including the assertions that anyone reading Scripture had the right to interpret it, that humans get to heaven through faith alone (not repenting of sins or buying of indulgences) and that the relationship with God is a personal one. These notions went in direct contradiction to the teachings of the Catholic Church.
Today there are 65 million Lutherans, and Luther’s movement also produced enough fissures in the edifice of the Catholic Church that a number of other Protestant movements sprang from it: Anglicanism, Methodism and Baptist churches are just a few examples. While there are still 1.2 billion Roman Catholics around the world, Luther’s ideas undoubtedly reshaped the world.
To learn more about Luther’s contribution to Christianity and the development of the modern world, peruse these 10 fascinating facts about his life and legacy.
Luther’s fate mirrored the life of the saint he was named for
When baby Luther was baptized on November 11, he was given the name of the saint whose feast day fell on that date—Martin. The resemblance between their two life paths was uncanny. Saint Martin, a 4th-century soldier in the Roman army, declared that killing people contradicted his Christian beliefs and was arrested. Ultimately the battle didn’t happen, and Martin was released and chose to become a monk. As Metaxas writes, “Eleven centuries from when this first Martin took his Christian stand against the Roman empire, the second Martin would take his Christian stand against the Holy Roman Empire—in exactly the same place [the city of Worms].”
A summer thunderstorm sealed Luther’s religious fate
Before he set out on the path of religion, Luther was training to be a lawyer. Yet his life at that time was also fraught with near-death accidents. In 1503, while traveling home for Easter, the sword he was carrying cut his leg and severed a main artery. He nearly bled to death before a doctor could be found to sew up the wound. Then, in 1505 and on the verge of becoming a lawyer, he was caught outside in a terrible thunderstorm. Luther called out to Saint Anne to save him and promised to become a monk if she did. He survived the storm and entered the Augustinian cloister of Erfurt several weeks later, despite his friends’ efforts to convince him not to.
He disguised himself as a knight to avoid persecution by the Catholic Church
After Luther posted his 95 Theses in 1517, he continued writing scandalous tracts against the Catholic Church, and later declared a heretic. In 1521, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, contacted Luther and promised safe passage to attend the 1521 Diet of Worms—a council of religious and political leaders—and stand on trial. Once there, religious leaders asked if he stood by the opinions he had previously espoused. Luther said that he did, knowing it might mean he would be tortured or burned at the stake. To help Luther escape these fates, Frederick III of Saxony staged Luther’s kidnapping and placed him at Wartburg Castle. Luther disguised himself as a knight named Junker Jörg and spent his time translating the New Testament from Greek into German so common people could read it.
The scandal of the century: an ex-monk marrying an ex-nun
Katharina von Bora spent more than a decade of her early life cloistered in convent schools and then as a nun herself. But in early 1523, she and other nuns were smuggled out of their convent by a merchant delivering herring. After making her way to Wittenberg, von Bora married Luther in 1525, scandalizing Catholics and opening up the possibility for married clergy in Reformation churches. But von Bora’s contribution to Luther’s work hardly ended there. She also had six children, managed the household and their finances, and participated in scholarly gatherings Luther held at their home—something unheard of for the time. Luther even named his wife his sole inheritor, something so unusual that judges ruled it illegal after Luther’s death.
A pint of homebrewed beer made Luther’s day
Not only did Luther defy Catholic teachings and get married, he was also a big fan of beer. “Sometimes we must drink more, sport, recreate ourselves, aye, and even sin a little to spite the devil,” Luther wrote. “We are conquered if we try too conscientiously not to sin at all.” He also found it helpful for falling asleep, and in one letter home to his wife said, “I keep thinking what good wine and beer I have at home, as well as a beautiful wife.”
Luther with his lute, becoming a lyricist
In addition to achieving acclaim for his religious writings, Luther was also an accomplished musician. He played the lute and the flute and used his knowledge of music to translate chants from Latin into German. Luther also composed his own original hymns, including “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” and he made communal singing a central element of Lutheran worship practice.
Thanks to pamphlets and the printing press, the Reformation spread like wildfire
The invention of Gutenberg’s printing press in 1440 set the stage for a series of social changes in Europe—and Luther made full use of that technology to spread his new teachings. Instead of writing books, Luther introduced pamphlets, small tracts of eight to 16 pages that could be printed in a day rather than weeks or months. His first German pamphlet from 1518, “Sermon on Indulgences and Grace,” was reprinted 14 times in a single year, with runs of at least 1,000 copies each time, reports The Economist. The first decade of the Reformation saw the printing of around 6 million pamphlets: more than a quarter were written by Luther.
A woodcut worth 1,000 words
Throughout his career, Luther worked closely with famed artist Lucas Cranach. The painter was hired by Frederick III (the same man who kept Luther safe from persecution) and would go on to paint and sketch Luther on multiple occasions. Since Luther was constantly at odds with the Catholic Church, he found creative ways to mock and challenge their authority—including through art. Luther commissioned Cranach to create a woodcut called The True Depiction of the Papacy in 1534, which included images of the devil defecating monks while the pope is suckled by a Medusa-like crone.
The conspiracies of death, before death arrived
The Catholic-bashing Luther indulged in was hardly one-sided in Luther’s last year, Catholic writers repeatedly spread rumors of the monk’s death. One account claimed that the grave into which Luther’s body was placed was later found to be completely empty except for the stench of sulfur, implying he’d been taken straight to hell. In his rejoinder, Luther wrote, “I felt quite tickled on my knee-cap and under my left heel at this evidence how cordially the devil and his minions, the Pope and the papists, hate me.” When Luther did die on February 18, 1546, his last hours were closely recorded by his confessor, Justus Jonas, so that more rumors about Luther’s death could be quashed.
Luther’s legacy lived on, in the form of another famous leader
When Atlanta pastor Michael King traveled to Germany in 1934, he was so inspired by the story of Luther’s Reformation, he decided to change his name. He also changed the name of his then 5-year-old son, Michael Jr. From that day on, Michael Jr. was known as Martin Luther King, Jr.
30 Crazy Facts That Will Change Your View of History
You may not have learned these tidbits in your history class.
A funny thing happens when you take a close look at some of history's more interesting fun facts: You realize very quickly that your basic understanding of several major events and historical figures was either too narrow or totally inaccurate. For instance, did you know that Richard Nixon was a brilliant and mesmerizing musician? Or that the world's first submarine mission launched as early as 1776? Or that officials in Italy once deemed the humble fork as an offensive utensil before the eyes of God? It's all true. And for more trivia on weird history facts, read on—and enjoy living your life from a newly enlightened perspective.
You've heard the story a thousand times. During Paul Revere's famous ride, the patriot shouted "The British are coming!" at the top of his lungs to warn the colonial militia of the approaching enemy. But historians agree that such shouting would have been dangerous and foolish. As History.com explains, "The operation was meant to be conducted as discreetly as possible since scores of British troops were hiding out in the Massachusetts countryside. Furthermore, colonial Americans at that time still considered themselves British if anything, Revere may have told other rebels that the 'Regulars'—a term used to designate British soldiers—were on the move." And when you're ready for more eye-opening trivia, bone up on these 30 Astonishing Facts Guaranteed to Give You Child-like Wonder.
A version of this quote originally came from the autobiography of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who mentioned a princess saying it and which would then be attributed to Antoinette. But at the time Rousseau recalled hearing it, Antoinette would have been just 14 years old and living in Austria, making it highly unlikely she would be the princess to which he referred. And for more myths that became legend (or, at the very least, are definitely not historical facts), don't miss the biggest myths in American history.
That would be Robert G. Heft, who created the design in 1958 as part of a school project when he anticipated Alaska and Hawaii joining the United States. After getting a B- for the assignment—"[At the time my teacher asked,] 'Why you got so many stars? You don't even know how many states we have,'" he told NPR—he wrote the White House 21 times until eventually President Eisenhower gave him a phone call and told him that his design would be made official.
The Exxon Valdez oil spill. The Challenger explosion. The Chernobyl nuclear meltdown. All were caused in one way or another by exhaustion and lack of sleep on the part of the men who were responsible for preventing such disasters. Don't let yourself be part of the problem: Try these 40 Tips for Better Sleep on Summer Nights.
We think of Richard Nixon as a bit of a square—someone obsessed with power and little else. But the man could play five instruments (piano, saxophone, clarinet, accordion, and violin) and did so frequently. He played a piano rendition of "Happy Birthday" at the White House for Duke Ellington and "My Wild Irish Rose" in honor of his wife at Nashville's Grand Ole Opry. For more on his darker nature, however, see the 30 Craziest Things U.S. Presidents Have Done.
Here's an interesting history fact you probably didn't learn in school: Before he became president, Abraham Lincoln was a champion wrestler, taking part in about 300 matches and earning a reputation as a tough fighter (also, being 6 feet, 4 inches tall didn't hurt).
Fortunately none of these very un-peaceful men's nominations went very far, but the fact is that per the Nobel committee's rules, any "professor of social sciences, history, philosophy, law and theology" and any judge or national legislator of any country can nominate someone they believe is deserving…so being a "Nobel nominee" does not actually mean that much. But still!
John James Audubon's pioneering paintings of birds are so stunning that many overlook the fact that to get such detail, the artist would often kill his subjects, posing freshly killed birds into active poses so he could create a realistic painting without worrying they would fly away.
Pope Gregory IV must have been a real dog person. The 13th-century pope stated that black cats were instruments of Satan and ordered that they be exterminated throughout Europe. His followers followed his orders and decimated the population of felines.
But cats may have gotten the last laugh, as the reduction in their population is among the factors that led to a spike in the population of plague-carrying rats. It's just one of the interesting historical facts that changed life as we know it.
In the UK in the 17th century, women who were viewed as having spoken out of turn or said something inappropriate would be forced to wear "branks" or a "scold's bridle"—a metal muzzle that locked around her head and sometimes included a spiked plate that would be placed in her mouth.
The iron maiden is a staple of wax museum torture chambers and medieval tales, but they were actually invented by writers long after the Middle Ages.
As Live Science explains, "The first historical reference to the iron maiden came long after the Middle Ages, in the late 1700s. German philosopher Johann Philipp Siebenkees wrote about the alleged execution of a coin-forger in 1515 by an iron maiden in the city of Nuremberg. Around that time, iron maidens started popping up in museums around Europe and the United States. These included the Iron Maiden of Nuremberg, probably the most famous, which was built in the early 1800s and destroyed in an Allied bombing in 1944."
You thought space travel was a modern concept, but it turns out that English theologian John Wilkins was kicking the idea around in the 1600s. In his books, he suggested that "flying chariots" could take men to the moon—which he believed were inhabited by other beings that could prove to be great trade partners. Though there were a few blind spots in his plan: He believed that astronauts wouldn't need any special equipment to breathe because they would just grow used to the purer air high in the sky. And for more amazing facts, check out these Crazy Facts about Life That May Freak You Out a Little.
Though we always picture pilgrims rocking buckles on their hats and that's how they're portrayed in any depiction of the first Thanksgiving, the truth is quite the opposite. That image of them formed later, in the 1800s.
As best as historians can tell, she was actually Greek—a descendent of Alexander the Great's Macedonian general Ptolemy.
You probably knew that Castro had a target on his back, but you probably didn't know it was quite so large. According to the former director of Cuba's intelligence service, there were more than 600 attempts made to kill the Cuban dictator—by political opponents, criminals, and the United States, among others. These ranged from an exploding cigar, a poisoned diving suit, and psychedelic drugs to make him sound crazy when speaking in public.
The nursery rhyme you probably assumed was fiction was actually about a real person—Mary Sawyer, an 11-year-old girl in Boston who was followed to school one day in 1817 by her pet lamb. In the late 1860s, she helped raise money for an old church by selling pieces of wool from the famous lamb.
Joan of Arc has become a hero of France and canonized as a saint, but few know that she was also a style goddess. Years after she cut her hair short, a decision prompted by the voices in her head, she became a style icon when she became the inspiration for the famous "Bob" haircut. Who knew?
While escalators seem pretty innocuous today, people used to really be frightened of them. When first introducing them on the London Underground, executives for the escalator's manufacturer, Mowlem & Cochrane, tapped the services of a one-legged man named William Harris to demonstrate how safe it was, riding up and down to show that those who took it were unlikely to lose their balance.
Though we can't imagine life without them now, shopping carts did not catch on right away. When their inventor, Sylvan Goldman (who owned the Humpty-Dumpty chain of grocery stores in the South), first rolled out his new invention, nobody wanted to use them. He had to hire "decoy shoppers" to wheel them around his stores and demonstrate their convenience. They soon caught on after that.
A key detail in the telling of the story of the Titanic is the hubris of the ship's owners who claimed it could not be sunk. In fact, the White Star Line never actually used that phrase. As historian Richard Howells explains, "The population as a whole were unlikely to have thought of the Titanic as a unique, unsinkable ship before its maiden voyage." And for more on the Titanic, here are 20 Facts Titanic (the Movie) Gets Wrong.
The popular image of the Salem witch trials involve the unfortunate women being burned at the stake. But, while these women were horrifyingly treated, that is one cruelty they did not suffer. Of the 20 people who were "convicted" of being witches, those who were sentenced to death were hung, not burned.
We think of fax machines are relatively modern technologies with their heyday in the 1980s. But as Paul Tamburro explains, "Scottish inventor Alexander Bain put forward the patent for the first fax machine, then known as the facsimile machine, in 1843 — the same year that the "Great Migration" on the Oregon Trail began.
While we're familiar with Suffragettes and women's fight for the right to vote, less known is women's fight for the right to smoke. The same organization that fought for the ban on alcohol pushed to ban women smoking in public. In 1929, a group of women took to the streets, smoking cigarettes and carrying signs stating that cigarettes were "torches of liberty."
When first introduced (in 11th century Italy), forks alarmed religious leaders who said that using artificial hands was an offense to God.
Jeanette Rankin became the first female member of the U.S. Congress in 1916—four years before women could vote.
The term "Nazi" was originated as an insult—meaning ignorant peasant—and was in use long before Adolf Hitler rose to power. As a Telegraph columnist explains, it was "a shortened version of Ignatius, a common name in Bavaria, the area from which the Nazis emerged. Opponents seized on this and shortened the party's title Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, to the dismissive 'Nazi'."
Not the most appetizing name, but the familiar vodka-and-tomato-juice beverage originally carried that title when it was introduced at Harry's New York Bar. A patron named Roy Barton coined the name and it stuck…until New York City's King Cole Bar, at the St. Regis Hotel, reintroduced the drink and rebranded it first "Red Snapper," then, finally, "Bloody Mary."
Prohibition was a weird time in the country's history, but you probably wouldn't expect that one of the weird history facts on this list would be mass poison. Something often forgotten about Prohibition is that the government did not just try to dissuade drinking through fines and imprisonment, but by actually poisoning the industrial alcohol that was legal.
Sure, this stuff was nasty already and not meant for drinking. But when desperate drinkers made a habit of imbibing rubbing alcohol, officials began to "denature" it, adding iodine, chloroform, and even gasoline and kerosene to make it nauseating and even deadly. People still drank it, and an estimated 10,000 people were killed because of it.
Known as a key ingredient in absinthe, and often reputed (falsely) as the reason for its hallucinogenic properties, wormwood actually began as a medicine, used by Egyptians as far back as 1550 BC and used as remedies by the ancient Greeks.
While U-boats are central to 20th-century war stories, they first made their appearance during the Revolutionary War. Turtle, built by American David Bushnell in 1775, was the first submersible vessel ever used in combat. It was used to attempt an attack on the British ship Eagle on Sept. 6, 1776, but the plan failed when it proved too tough to navigate against the current.
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