The Middle Ages weren’t a great time to be alive — we’ll say it now. Besides the smelliness and threats of torture, you’d also be subjected to all kinds of disgusting foods. The fruit pastries would be fine, but they are only a small part of what you’d be served. Good luck keeping any of these meals down.
Back in the day, a sumptuous feast might consist of porpoise pudding. The meat in the dish is the same intelligent aquatic mammal that cavorts in the ocean. They suggested broiling it just before serving. Yum.
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If you’re still hungry from the porpoise pudding, there’s always sheep’s penis. People ate this appendage with milk, eggs, and saffron — not before thoroughly cleaning it first though. It might be good? Maybe?
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If you’re in the need of a treat, there’s always eating cockentrice. This one isn’t as gross as the first two because it involves sewing two different animals together and then cooking it, kind of like an early turducken.
Beaver tails may refer to a type of donut now, but beavers’ tails were literally the tail of woodland creatures during the Middle Ages. It was mainly a Catholic dish since they weren’t allowed to eat meat on Fridays. Because the beaver lived in water, it counted as a fish!
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Another dish that didn’t count as meat for Catholics was rabbit fetuses. We have no idea how this didn’t count — maybe because they were floating in liquid inside of their mother? Let’s not get too deep into it because … ew.
Catholics also enjoying tucking into puffins. Because these lived near the water, they were also considered fish. It seems like the rule is if some kind of liquid is involved, then it’s a fish. Oh well.
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Sea otters love to play in the water and hold hands while they sleep. And back in the day, they were eaten by Catholics on Fridays because they weren’t considered meat. This is just getting ridiculous.
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They could eat beavers, rabbit fetuses, puffins, and sea otters, but they couldn’t eat eggs. Instead, they’d cook up a mock egg. They’d take an eggshell, add almond jelly, and color the thing with herbs. This one is odd.
Ambergris is a lumpy grey substance that a sperm whale makes. Then, they either barf or defecate it out. People back then saw this happening and thought it would make a delicious addition to their baked goods.
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Cock ale has a funny name, but it’s not related to genitalia. It’s actually just beer that was brewed with chicken. So far, this doesn’t sound too bad. We’d take the cock ale over the sheep penis.
This next one is just weird. It’s called singing chicken. After cooking a chicken (or another small animal) you stuff the neck with sulfur and mercury, which would make a singing noise. In case we need to say it, don’t cook with mercury.
Hungry? Let’s cook some umble pie. It’s when you take a deer’s organs, chop them up, add some spices, but the whole thing in a pie crust, and bake it. It’s one of those things that just doesn’t sound at all appetizing.
Another delicacy was snake soup. First, you’d need to catch multiple snakes, then you behead them, cut them into small pieces, and boil them. Compared to the previous dish, this one doesn’t sound too bad.
There’s no easy way to say this, so we’re doing it quickly: they roasted cats and ate them. Cats weren’t respected or treated well at all during this time — so they were considered an appropriate source of food. We heartily disagree.
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Lampreys were also food, and we really don’t know why. These eels are scary to look at with their circular mouths filled with sharp teeth. Fun fact: England’s King Henry I died after eating too many of these.
If you like blackberry pie, you’ll love blackbird pie! Probably not, but who knows. Anyway, these little cute birds were delectable when cooked in a pie, we’ve heard. Sometimes live birds would be released from the top of the pie too.
Star-gazing is good. Pie is great. But stargazy pie is a nightmare. This traditional dish has small fish called pilchards baked into the crust, and the authentic version has their heads poking out!
Unwanted guests have always been a problem — no matter where you are in history. When a European from the Middle Ages wanted a guest to leave, they made a smell-feast, or an extra smelly meal.
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Garbage soup sounds gross, but it’s not literal garbage. It’s just extra bits from the chicken, like their heads, feet, and gizzards that’s boiled with water. Compared to some of the other things on this list, this doesn’t seem as bad.
Roasted swans were a part of the meal. At this point into the research, nothing is surprising anymore. A common way to eat the bird was restuffing the bird with its own feathers, so it sort of looked like it was alive.
One of the strangest meats was badger. They were a popular treat that tasted like pork and were roasted over a fire before being consumed. We’re not sure if you’re a vegetarian at this point, but we definitely are. Granted, food wasn’t the only strange custom in the Middle Ages.
One of the many diseases that ravaged Europeans was the King’s Evil, a kind of tuberculosis that appeared in the form of oozing black sores on someone’s neck. Until the 1700s, it was believed the only cure was the touch of a royal’s hand. That wasn’t an effective treatment.
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Right before the Bubonic plague swept through Europe, a pope had warned that witches were using cats for magic, and so, a bunch of jerks killed all the cats. Because of their cruelty, flea-ridden rats quite effectively spread the illness across the continent.
Pope Stephen VI really hated Pope Formosus. In 897, Stephen dug up Formosus’ body, put it on trial, found it guilty, and then cut off his index and middle finger, reburied him, and then retrieved the body from the fresh grave and threw it in the Tiber river. Can you imagine being there for that? What a wild ride.
Need a break from the pressures of medieval life? Party at the cemetery. These served as early townhalls and hosted events like elections, public trials, and even theatrical groups. Sex workers even frequented the area.
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For about 18 months, King Henry VI was in a catatonic state, and no one knows why. After waking up, he became much more agreeable, though sometimes he had trouble recognizing his staff members. No one’s perfect.
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Besides the plague, there was also a terrible famine in the 14th century. From 1315 – 1317, three excessively wet summers ruined the crops in farmer’s fields, and at least 10% of Europe’s population starved to death.
For some reason, people wanted to be remembered as putrid, decaying corpses. If someone’s family had enough money, they would pay for an effigy of the dead person, which showed them as a rotting body. These medieval aesthetics … just no.
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People thought those suffering from mental health disorders were possessed by demons, immoral, or terrible sinners. They “solved” these problems with exorcisms, whipping, drilling a hole in someone’s head to release the evil energies. No, these didn’t work either.
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Something surprising: medieval Europeans didn’t throw their chamber pot contents into the streets. Instead, they used latrines or local bodies of water. We’re not sure how modern researchers discovered this, but stay out of River Thames.
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Religion and government were heavily mixed at the time, so most Europeans had major hang-ups around sex. Experiencing sexual pleasure was a death sentence, so when Francesca Romana was forced to marry, she burned her genitals with boiling fat to take away any sensation.
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Europeans were fond of cruentation — the idea that a victim’s body would spontaneously reveal who their slayer was. But this wasn’t at all real. Cruentation was ‘used’ until the late 1600s during trials, until medical researchers proved that this was an impossible system for justice.
In 1212, some genius had the idea to do a Children’s Crusade — gathering children to try to convert Muslims to Christians instead. These child warriors made it to Italy before being betrayed by shop owners and sold into slavery.
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During the Battle of Hastings, the Normans were concerned with their field position and sent out a juggler to entice the Saxons to attack them. This worked. The Saxons had the high ground, but lost this advantage and the entire battle, because they attacked the juggler.
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This is something straight out of Game of Thrones: King Edward III needed more soldiers to defeat the French army, so he and his team went around to prisons and sketchy areas to collect fighters. These were some violent people, but they got the job done.
This is one of the nastiest facts out there — fair warning. Saints were supposed to have healing powers. They licked wounds. They. Licked. Wounds. Sometimes they reported swallowing scabs or sucking out maggots. Shudder.
If there’s one thing medieval Europeans loved, it was torture. One method was the Judas Cradle, right, which was a giant triangular spike a prisoner would sit on — the point only had one place to go. The Spanish Donkey used a similar method.
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Another method used for torture was drawing and quartering: dragging the victim behind a horse, hanging them until they were nearly dead, disemboweling the person, and finally cutting or putting them in four.
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And let’s not forget the choke pear. A torturer would insert this into their victim’s orifice (dealer’s choice) and then expand it. We’re guessing the choke pear wasn’t sanitized after being used. People died afterward, so that probably wasn’t the top priority.
There was also the Iron Chair. This is what it sounds like — an iron chair. The chair had sharp metal spikes that a prisoner sat on. They’d live through this, but when they stood up, the spike popped out, and their blood quickly followed.
If you were going to be punished, hope for this. Occasionally, the guilty would have to wear a weird animal mask around town, or sometimes had to wear a special sign with their crime on it for the rest of their life.
Castles were smelly. With a general lack of running water and extreme difficulty in obtaining it, most servants and other lower-class residents couldn’t clean themselves. And the types of toilets they used definitely didn’t help.
Toilets weren’t fancy. When you needed to go, you’d likely have to do it on a wooden bench with a little hole in it. Your waste would fall into a vast poo pit or straight into a moat. Outside the bathroom, life wasn’t much better.
When you were using this gross, dirty toilet, you probably wouldn’t have any privacy either. Castle makers followed the HGTV network’s sage advice and went with an open floor-plan. Unless you were a noble, you probably didn’t have a room to call your own.
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Generally, more than 100 people would live in a castle, meaning you’d never feel alone. There was so much square footage that needed to be maintained, so royalty required an enormous staff for upkeep.
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The high-ranking officials were responsible for managing the politics and land protection and delegated all cleaning and cooking work to their staff. Anyone who lived in the castle had some kind of job, even the royals.
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There were five different types of careers in a medieval establishment: if you were upper-class, you could choose nobility, the clergy, or just being a royal. Lower classes were merchants, craft-makers, and laborers. Who do you think had to rise with the sun?
It was critical that people in castles started their day with the sun because so little of it found its way inside the walls. This meant all the indoor servants had a small window of time to get their work done.
Castle life may have been lousy, but at least there was always liquor around. Water was still teeming with bacteria and other waste, making it dangerous to safely consume. So, people got drunk for their health, in a way.
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A big part of castle life revolved around preparing for feasts and parties. These were a massive to-do and it took the entire staff working diligently to properly prepare for them. The lame part? Servants wouldn’t even get to eat the fancy food they were making.
In the dining hall, people sat based on their royal status. The king and queen would sit at the head, while the rest of their court filed in around them. They were also served the food first, which might have been cold by the time they got to eat it.
Within the filth, you could attend church. Even though your body wasn’t clean, your spirit was, we guess. If religion was your thing, you wouldn’t have to leave the compound to worship. Still, you should probably bring something to cover your nose.
If you have musophobia, stay out of medieval-era castles. They were filled with rats because warmth, food (any kind of food), and open water sources are only a few of the many things that draw rats inside. Castles really are the perfect ratly environment.
And like everything else in a castle, floors were extremely dirty. Cats and dogs were given free reign and used the space as a massive toilet. To cover this smell, servants threw fragrant herbs on the ground. It was a crunchy, poopy mess. Getting clean was tough.
If someone wanted to take a bath, it would be in a portable wooden tub. The tub would be moved from one room to the next for people to use. Was there privacy? No. Was it hygienic? Also no. But, it was available.
Not that there was a ton of opportunity in all that open space, but you weren’t allowed to copulate with your spouse unless you were planning for a child. Even admitting to having sexual thoughts about them was a sin and could be punished.
Torturing prisoners wasn’t just something created to spice up TV shows. Whenever a ruler was feeling feisty, they could order prisoners who were in the dungeons to be terribly punished.
Many prisoners were captured due to conflicting political beliefs, making this treatment even more heinous. One particular method involved capturing rats in a basket, tying it to a helplessly bound person, and then letting the rats eat their way out. Fun!
There’s a reason castles are known for fireplaces — they were dark, cold structures. The windows were high and narrow, to help defend the castle against archers and the stone walls themselves didn’t hold heat. So, bundle up if you’re planning to sleep over in one.
To add to this, kitchens commonly caught on fire. For some reason, they were made of wood and the food was being cooked over huge flames. You do the math. Eventually builders changed to stone.
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Stairways in castles were always clockwise. This helped defend against right-handed swordsmen who would have their blows blocked by the stone walls. Defenders in the castle had the advantage.
Today’s castles might be museums or houses for royalty, but when the original medieval castles were built, they were designed to serve as fortresses during times of war. All of the planning that went into them was about defending the grounds from enemies.
When you think of a castle’s first line of defense, you probably imagine a moat, right? Traditionally, a moat was a large body of water that circled the castle and separated it from the land. But it wasn’t there to keep enemies from crossing…
For people designing most castles, their biggest fear was that their enemies might dig underneath the walls to gain entry. If there was a moat, it ensured that any tunnels would be immediately flooded.
In fact, for some castles, the moat wasn’t even located outside the place at all! Instead, it could be found between the first and second walls of the castle. That way, anyone digging a tunnel would get a truly unpleasant surprise…
Speaking of unpleasant surprises, moats didn’t exist solely to keep invaders from digging tunnels to gain entry, either. The moats served other purposes for those living in the castle. For instance, they made for a great way to dispose of human waste.
When it came to other methods of protecting the castle, one of the oldest traditions in design was the concentric circles of defense. Looking at this castle from above, you can see how the circles were created to make entry very difficult.
Concentric circles of defense were designed to act as a series of obstacles. While the layout of medieval castles might be all too familiar to us when it comes to how we look at castles today, they were a true innovation in the world of design when they were originally built.
The concentric circles of defense meant that invading armies would have to conquer one obstacle after another, slowing them down as they made their assault on the castle. First there was a wall, then there was a moat, then another wall, a keep, and so forth…
The main gate of the castle might look imposing, but to our modern eyes that’s all it is. The truth of the matter is that, during medieval times, the main gate of the castle was more than intimidating; it was downright deadly!
The main gate was often comprised of two barriers. If invaders made it past the first entryway, they could become trapped between the first and the second gate by the castle’s inhabitants. They might think that their siege was going to be successful, but they were wrong.
The invading soldiers would then be trapped in one of the castle courtyards, and this wasn’t pleasant to say the least. There were thin slits in the courtyard walls that allowed the castle inhabitants to fire upon the trapped intruders.
Secret passages were a critical part of the design of any and every castle that was built. These passages could serve many different purposes, including allowing a means of escape for those who lived in the castle.
These secret passages could also lead to rooms where the castle’s inhabitants could take shelter. In the event of a siege, they could also serve as a great way of getting much-needed supplies and other assistance into the castle.
Sometimes the secret passages led to secondary wells for the castle’s inhabitants in case the attackers breached their walls of defense and poisoned their drinking supplies. Castles may be glamorous, but they were also critical war fortresses.