A Few Last Bits of Knowledge from Will and Ariel Durrant

Lucky Garvin

In my last two columns I have written about two remarkable Historian’s, Will and Ariel Durrant and some of the interesting findings from their lifetime of work. I will close out my trilogy with the following excerpts. If you’d like to learn more about the life and work of this extraordinary couple please contact me through the article links on NewsRoanoke.com.

There were charlatans in those days of course – what age is free of them? Anton Mesmer [from which we get the word `mesmerize’ – to hypnotize] professed to cure diseases by the laying on of hands. Durant: [Mesmer] announced that an occult force dwelt within him, which could be transmitted to others under financial stimulation.

…Little Jack Horner, remember him? Right. `Put in his thumb; pulled out a plum’ Jack Horner?  Apparently, there really was a Jack Horner.  He was the steward to the Abbott of Glastonbury.  Well, seems that Jack-baby found the deed to the Manor of Mells in a pie where it was being smuggled from the Abbott to Henry 8th. He pulled out this `plum’ and became owner of the manor. His descendants still live there generations later.

…`Drink a toast.’ – Long ago, it was the custom to scraped burned toast into wine to decrease acid and thus improve flavor. To actually `drink a toast’ came in the 18th century.

…`To eat your hat.’ – Hattes was an old and terrible food made of eggs, dates, saffron, salt and veal. The original confirmation of a vow was to promise to do a thing or eat `hattes.’

…To be `In cahoots.’ In medieval Europe, gangs of criminals stayed in make-shifts cabins called `cahutes.’ Anyone thought to be in partnership with these gangs of highwaymen were said to be in cahutes with them.

…Bakers’ Dozen [thirteen of anything].  Long ago, there were serious laws for bakers who short-weighted customers. Bakers threw in an additional one to be sure.

…The laws of ancient Saxony: An `out-law’ [someone who defied the court’s judgment] would have all his property forfeit and could be killed with impunity by anyone. If you inflicted a cut on someone back then you were fined 1-2 shillings per inch. A shilling may not sound like much of a price to pay, but back then, the cost of a sheep was, guess what? One shilling.

…In France, during the reign of Louis XV, it was said, writes Durant, “…that 9/10ths of the populace died of hunger; one tenth of indigestion.”

… Bread was divided according to status. The loaf was cut sideways. Workers got the burnt bottom of the loaf, the family got the middle, and guests got the top, or the “upper crust.”

England is old and small they started running out of places to bury people. So they would dig up coffins, take out the bones, and re-use the graves. In re-opening these coffins, one out of 25 coffins were found to have scratch marks on the inside and they realized they had been burying people alive. So they thought they would tie a string on their wrist and lead it through the coffin and up to 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 on the “graveyard shift” they would know that someone was “saved by the bell” or he was a “dead ringer.”

…It was the accepted practice in Babylon 4,000 years ago that for a month after the wedding, the bride’s father would supply his son-in-law with all the mead he could drink. Mead is a honey beer, and because their calendar was lunar based, this period was called the “honey month” or what we know today as the “honeymoon.”

…Many years ago in England, pub frequenters had a whistle baked into the rim or handle of their ceramic cups. When they needed a refill, they used the whistle to get some service. “Wet your whistle,” is the phrase inspired by this practice.

…Why mount horses from the left? Because swords were worn on the left, most people being right-handed.

…Shaking hands began, apparently, as a means to determine the person you are greeting was not armed. But why shake the hand? To loose weapons from the sleeve.

…In the beginning, barbers cut hair, let blood, performed minor surgery and pulled teeth. Originally the barber’s pole was all red and its intent was for patrons to wrap their arms around to distend their veins for blood-letting, and blood stains didn’t show against the red color. When not in use, the pole was set outside the shop to dry wrapped around with re-usable white cloths.

…The use of beauty marks may have been born in the 1600’s after a severe Smallpox epidemic left the survivors with facial pock-marks. Edward Jenner’s vaccinations [1796] bought an end to the disease’s onslaughts, but the trend continues with our occasional use of cosmetic pencils.

…Marital history: Why does the bride stand to the groom’s left? To prevent attack by the bride’s kinsmen or jealous suitors. Remember, sword worn on the left, keep your fightin’ hand free. The bride’s bouquet? To hide her smell [and his.]

…Durant would be the first to tell you that accurately defining how our customs and sayings came to be is a risky task, but, still, it’s kind of fun to speculate.

Look for Lucky’s ‘The Oath of Hippocrates’ – available locally and on-line.

By Lucky Garvin
[email protected]

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