50 Peculiar and Bizarre Historical Practices

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1Gleaning

Gleaning was a historical practice of collecting leftover crops from farmer’s fields after they had been commercially harvested or if they were not profitable to harvest. It is described in the Hebrew Bible and it became a legally enforced entitlement of the poor in a number of Christian kingdoms.


2. In medieval times “cat-burning” was an accepted practice thought to bring good luck. It was custom to burn a barrel full of live cats over a bonfire as people shrieked with laughter while they were singed and roasted. French Kings often witnessed it and even ceremoniously started the fire.


3. People in Medieval times accused of crimes could opt for a “trial by ordeal” where they would stick their hands in boiling water. If innocent, God would stop them from burning. The priests who administered this would secretly cool the water beforehand if they thought the defendant was innocent.


4. In ancient Ireland, sucking a king’s nipples was a gesture of submission. Failed kings would have their nipples brutally cut to dethrone them and make them incapable of holding kingship.


5. The term scapegoat comes from an old Jewish ritual where a town would place all the sins of the townspeople onto a goat and then banish that goat from town to die, sending the burden of their sins with it.


6Bear

The original word for ‘bear’ has been lost. People in middle ages were so superstitious and afraid of it that they thought just saying the animal’s name would summon it. They called it ‘bear’ which means ‘the brown one’ to avoid saying its actual name. The original word was never recorded, so it remains a mystery.


7. In medieval times, it was a common practice in the battlefield to not kill warriors who wore particularly strong armor. Such warriors were captured instead, and then a ransom was demanded because only ‘well off’ warriors were able to afford such good armor.


8. Whipping boys were a real position in the English court in the middle ages. Since monarchy was appointed by God, no one could punish the Prince for bad behavior. So they would give the prince a friend and this friend would be punished if the prince misbehaved. The prince would normally stay in line to stop his friend from being hurt.


9. In ancient Egypt, under the decree of Ptolemy II, all ships visiting the city were obliged to surrender their books to the library of Alexandria and be copied. The original would be kept in the library and the copy given back to the owner.


10. Adamites were an early Christian sect that worshipped naked. They were prevalent between the 2nd and 4th centuries in the Northern parts of Africa. Some of their beliefs were holy nudism, rejection of marriage, and an endorsement of lawlessness as their actions were “neither good nor evil.” They believed they were embodying the innocence of Adam in Genesis.


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11Self-Mummification

Monks in northern Japan used to practice self-mummification. They would exercise rigorously to rid all body fat from their system, begin drinking a poisonous tea, and remain in a tiny tomb in the lotus position until confirmed dead. The process took over 3000 days.


12. People in the Middle Ages would brew a batch of ale, have a big party to drink it, and collect donations for the needy. They called it “help ale” and this practice preceded charity keggers by 1500 years.


13. Ancient Spartan schools deliberately underfed boys to force them to steal food, but severely punished anyone who was caught. This was thought to toughen them up, especially since it accustomed them to hunger, which was common on the battlefield.


14. In the middle ages, some kings had clothes made from "Salamander fur" which were completely fire-proof and bright white. The name likely comes from the common belief that Salamanders were “born from fire”. The clothes were actually made out of asbestos.


15. Krypteia was a special secret police unit in ancient Sparta, who was given the dubious task of controlling their slave population by annual massacres. Even more messed up was the fact that they had to do the killings in secrecy and were punished by whipping if anyone caught them.


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16Orient

The word “orient” comes from the Latin word “oriens”, meaning East because in the Middle Ages many maps were drawn with East at the top, for religious reasons because the Garden of Eden was supposed to be there.


17. During the middle ages there was a legal category called “enbrotherment” that allowed two men to share living quarters, pool their resources, and effectively live as a married couple. The couple shared “one bread, one wine, one purse.”


18. In 18th-century Denmark, people were afraid to take their own lives because they believed it would send them to hell. Instead, they resorted to killing other people to receive the death penalty and repented before execution, believing that doing so would send them to heaven.


19. The concept of the “rap battle” has existed since the 5th century. Poets often engaged in “flyting,” a spoken word event where poets would insult one another in verse. The Norse god Loki is noted as having insulted other gods in verse. It is said flyting has similarities to slam poetry and rap battles of today.


20. In France in the 1500s, women could charge their husbands with impotence. He would have to become erect and show that he could ejaculate in a courtroom. If he failed, he could demand a trial by Congress and attempt to have sex with his wife in front of the experts.


21Two Sleeps

In medieval times it was common to have “2” sleeps per night. You would fall asleep for 4 to 5 hours, wake up for 2 hours or so and fall back to sleep for another 3 to 4. It’s been suggested that we may have evolved this way to tend to the fire in order to keep us warm and safe.


22. The term “Freelancer” used to refer to a knight in the Middle Ages who was not under any feudal oaths and who sold his services to the highest bidder. Since a knight’s primary weapon was a lance, he was a “free” “lancer.”


23. The word decimation comes from the Roman practice of killing every 10th man as a form of maintaining discipline.


24. January 14th used to be observed as the Feast of the Ass. It was a Catholic feast day that was mostly celebrated in the Middle Ages to honor all the asses in the Bible, especially the one that bore Mary and the baby Jesus into Egypt after the birth.


25. In the middle ages it was an accepted political act for two kings to sleep in the same bed as a symbol of unity between their two countries; much like the modern-day photo-op. There was nothing sexual about it.

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