History is a bubbling stew of unpleasantness. It spared no aspect of everyday life, no matter how mundane. Whisper a silent thank you to modernity the next time you find yourself, say . . .
We’ve all walked into a neglected gas station bathroom and found ourselves estimating how much longer we could hold it without doing permanent damage, but that fluorescent horror show’s got nothing on the latrines of old. The toilets of ancient Rome were a true test of one’s fecal fortitude, consisting of a stone bench with a rough hole leading to the city’s primitive sewer system. This direct connection meant all manner of vile critters could sink their teeth into the exposed buttocks of an unfortunate bathroom visitor. Worse yet, the methane buildup meant that it was not uncommon for toilets to spontaneously erupt into flame.
To quell this embarrassing epidemic, Romans would scribble images of Fortuna, the goddess of luck, and incantations meant to ward off evil spirits on bathroom walls. Believing laughter also repelled these demons, caricatures of religious figures were used as well, beginning the noble tradition of inappropriate bathroom stall graffiti.
9Looking For Work
In England in the 1500s, it was illegal to be jobless. The government treated you as a second-class citizen, and punishments for crimes were much harsher. And if an unemployed citizen sought to better himself with gainful employment? He’d better not travel to do so, or he faced being labeled a vagrant, tied down, whipped, and sent back home a bloody and broken mess.
Repeat offenders were even branded with a “V” and forced into slavery, if not outright executed. Sure makes filling out those job applications a less daunting prospect.
8Dealing With Bad Skin
Minor skin conditions like acne or psoriasis can certainly feel like a nightmare, but thanks to the hundreds of creams and pills out there, it’s a manageable one. Not so for our medieval ancestors, for whom a particularly large pimple may have meant the end of life as they knew it.
Due to rampant paranoia over leprosy, many with less severe skin ailments like psoriasis were often accused of carrying the dreaded illness. They received the same alienating treatment as real leprosy sufferers: They were made to wear special clothing, carry a bell to alert the healthy to their presence, and not talk to anyone above a whisper. Most horrifically, 14th-century France even saw many psoriasis patients mistakenly burned at the stake.
7Going To The Theater
Unfortunate shooting incidents aside, a trip to the movie theater today is typically considered a good thing, a treat. But rewind a couple hundred years and you were almost guaranteed to die.
Playhouses and music halls of the 1800s were notorious for being poorly constructed, overcrowded, and really flammable. So, when fires weren’t breaking out and killing people, stampedes caused by false fire alarms were. England was a hotbed of theater tragedy; over 80 people, many children and teenagers, died in music hall disasters in just two decades.
But don’t worry, the US wasn’t left out. The worst theater tragedy in history took place at Chicago’s Iroquois Theatre in 1903, a fiery disaster that claimed the lives of over 600 people. Shortly afterward, regulations were put in place to prevent future accidents.
Okay, so maybe fighting isn’t an everyday activity exactly, but a minor scuffle is something most people will find themselves involved in at some point. But during the Middle Ages, any minor altercation could quickly escalate to a full-on death match.
The Oxford University of the 14th century was a lot less refined than its modern counterpart. For instance, in February 1355, a group of drunken students in a local tavern insulted the quality of the establishment’s wine. The annoyed innkeeper told them—in so many medieval words—where they could place their complaints. This resulted in a thrown pot and, bizarrely, the town militia being summoned to arms. Not to be outdone, the University called its own people to the fight. An epic battle broke out in and around the college as enraged villagers stormed the grounds. By the end of what came to be known as the St. Scholastica’s Day Riot, 62 students had been killed.
Today, the worst you can expect to encounter while casting your vote are annoyingly long lines and the slow realization that your vote makes almost no difference. In the 19th century, however, only the most die-hard fans of democracy dared brave the streets on Election Day. Everyone else barricaded themselves indoors to avoid being “cooped.”
“Cooping” was a practice which involved street gangs in the employ of political parties kidnapping people off the street and forcing them to vote for their candidate. The victims would be confined to a dark basement or backroom, threatened with violence, and force fed alcohol for a few days to make them more compliant before being herded to the polls on the big day. After voting, the captives would be made to change clothes and vote several more times before finally being released.
4Dealing With Police
Though an admittedly nerve-racking experience, a brush with the law today is nothing compared to a couple centuries ago. Londoners of the 18th century had real reason to worry when a cop crossed their path—because a great many of them weren’t actually cops.
Impostors of all sorts were rampant in the London of old, and many chose to exploit the populace’s trust in authority for all manner of nefarious purposes. Some simply used their fake badge to extort a bit of easy money from their mark, but the real scumbags took it further. Targeting young women at night, the false officers would question her “suspicious activity,” and imply that certain “favors” could make the whole thing go away. This led to citizens actively avoiding the real police, which only made them easier prey for criminals.
All right, so you probably don’t use many spices; no one does. But let’s say you decide to whip up a nice meal and desperately need some nutmeg. Fifteen minutes and one trip to the store later, and you’re all set. This is because you don’t live in the Middle Ages, when spices were treated as drugs or currency and routinely killed for.
That nutmeg, for instance, was once only found on the remote Banda Islands, appropriately nicknamed the “Spice Islands.” Over the course of a few centuries the Spice Wars ravaged the native population as various European powers sought control over this motherlode. Over 6,000 people lost their lives for the powder gathering dust in your kitchen cabinet.
Due to this rarity, European nobles were fond of acquiring as much spice as possible as a status symbol. Forget gold and rubies—you knew you had reached the top if you could sprinkle some pepper on your breakfast.
2Going To The Hospital
American hospitals of the 1800s were almost certainly worse than whatever landed patients there in the first place. Left in filthy rooms and often riddled with parasites, these poor souls were poorly fed and regularly forgotten about.
Neglect and incompetence were serious issues among medical staff, primarily because most nurses of the era weren’t nurses at all. Receiving no training of any kind, these people were often ex-patients who had nowhere else to go after their release. Hospitals would even run help-wanted ads in newspapers requesting nursing staff, “experience not required.” This insane practice led to several tragic incidents, such as one drunk nurse killing two patients by overdose. Understandably, many chose to take their chances with polio.
1Taking A Stroll Around Town
Yes, apparently our battered forebears couldn’t even take a leisurely stroll to escape the pit of unending madness that was daily life. Because at some point, when they least expected it, they were probably going to run face first into a hairy naked guy.
Public nudity was all the rage during the 17th and 18th centuries. Somewhat ironically, most followers of this liberal new trend were the religious. Groups like the Ranters and the Quakers argued that, since God is in all things, nothing they do could be considered evil or inappropriate. They reveled in sex and drugs and walked naked through the streets.
Streaking was also a favorite pastime of rebellious London citizens of the 1600s. This went hand in hand with an emerging new attitude valuing freedom over rigid self-control. They were hippies before hippies were a thing, ensuiring that no eye would be spared the horrors of their unshaven medieval genitals.
When not writing, Alex enjoys collecting vintage garden gnomes, breeding jellyfish, and lumberjacking at a professional level.