Every age probably thinks of itself as pretty enlightened. Today, we all seem to be fairly certain that we know how the world works but we can still see examples of people believing some stunningly foolish things all the time. In the future, it’s very likely people will be writing articles about the world of today and all the silly things we believed, just as we can now look at some of the things people in the medieval world believed and wonder how we ever survived as a species.
10. Salamanders Can Live in Fire
For about 1,500 years people believed the humble salamander was somehow fireproof. This is made all the more amazing by the fact that, for those entire 1,500 years, we can safely assume everyone understood what fire did to living things. Nonetheless, this persistent belief actually gave rise to salamanders as a mythical beast.
Pliny the Elder insisted the cool flesh of the salamander could extinguish fire which probably killed a few salamanders who died trying to prove this against their will. He was just trying to prove what he’d heard from Aristotle, mind you.
By the time of Saint Isidor, between 560 and 636, people still believed this fact about salamanders and Isidor confirmed it along with suggesting they poisoned fruit. St. Augustine believed they lived in fire. Leonardo da Vinci insisted the little creatures ate fire instead of food. Paracelsus swapped fire out of the four primal elements and put the salamander in its place.
So where did the belief come from? It’s speculated it may be due to the salamander’s tendency to live in rotten logs. If you were to throw one on a fire, chances are you’d see any living salamanders scuttle free, making it seem like they were indeed living in the flames.
9. Newlyweds Had to Kiss Over Stacked Pastries
Few events in a person’s life are subject to more curious beliefs and rituals than a wedding. Even today people still adhere to things like wanting to include something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue. There’s not a lot of reason for it, it’s just either tradition or superstition, however you want to view it.
In the Middle Ages, one of many wedding traditions involved creating a tower of cakes or spiced buns. Consider it an old-timey version of the multi-tiered cakes of today. But instead of just looking large and in charge, the newlywed couple had to arrange themselves over the top of this tower and kiss one another. If the kiss went off without a hitch, then it was good fortune for the couple. If the stack fell, well, better luck next time.
8. In Medieval Italy They Believed Being Poor Was a Virtue
There’s a lot of talk of entitlement in the modern world but check out the habits of late medieval Italy to see some next level entitlement in action. At that time, the rich looked upon the poor as a means to an end. In this case, the end was Heaven. The means was giving them handouts so that they could pray for the rich and in term get them into Heaven.
The idea of being poor was considered virtuous at the time. Being poor was a hardship and conditioned your soul for good things to come. Along the way, they helped the rich get to Heaven by giving them opportunities to show they own good grace. So the rich saw no reason to do anything to help the poor long term. They didn’t even want the poor to go away. They wanted the poor to be there so they could be nice to them which would grant them eternal salvation.
There’s even a saying that “the rich help the poor in this world but the poor help the rich in the world to come” which reflects this belief that one doesn’t necessarily need to eschew their riches or lift up the poor in this world, because everything will balance out in Heaven.
7. Medieval Scots Believed They Descended from an Egyptian Princess
Every people at one point or another begin to ask where they came from. That’s where origin myths and religions begin to form and while most of that is well established today, it all had to start somewhere. For the people of Scotland, there was once a belief that a woman named Scota helped form both Scotland and Ireland around 1400 BC.
According to the tale, Scota was the daughter of an Egyptian Pharaoh named Cingris. There’s no record of this Pharaoh in Egypt and it seems to be solely from the Irish and Scottish lore. Scota married a Babylonian fellow named Niul and together they had a son named Goidel Glas. It was he who created the Gaelic language, and the people known as the Gaels.
In 1360, John of Fordun published a history of Scotland in which it’s believed he just took the Irish tales of Scota and made them into something he liked the sound of for the history of Scotland. In his version, Goidel Glas, now renamed Gaythelos, marries Scota. They get exiled to Spain from Egypt, have a son, and then he marries another woman named Scota who is the daughter of yet another Pharoah. Two of their sons conquered Ireland by defeating the Tuatha Dé Danann, who you might recognize as fairies, and some of their descendants called themselves Scoti, after Scota, which evolved to Scottish.
6. Fruits and Veggies Need to Be Cooked For Safety
For better or mostly worse, a lot of our modern knowledge of medieval times comes from pop culture. To that end, most people imagine the medieval diet consisting of bread and mead, maybe some hard cheese and meat off the bone, possibly in a stew.
Medieval people ate fruits and vegetables, but they approached them differently than we do in modern times. Most specifically, fruits and vegetables were not eaten raw ever because it was generally believed raw fruits and vegetables caused disease.
Fruits that grew on trees were better than fruits on the ground because treetops were close to heaven. Watermelon and strawberry were lowly fruits better suited for poor folk. Doctors recommended some fruits be eaten at the beginning of a meal and others at the end for various pseudo-medicinal reasons like their ability to either stop you from puking or to help you go to the bathroom.
5. Crocodiles Weep With Remorse When They Eat, Hence Crocodile Tears
When you say someone is shedding crocodile tears, you’re roasting them for their insincerity when they pretend to be concerned but are not. This comes from the widely held belief that serpents, but very specifically crocodiles, shed tears for their prey as they ate them. So while the visual would indicate the beast was somewhat remorseful over the kill, the fact was it was still eating something so there was a marked lack of sincerity.
The Voyage and Travels of Sir John Mandeville used the saying in 1400, and the saying can also be found in a letter from 1569 but is presented there in the context that it was common enough knowledge not to need an explanation. Crocodiles wept in false sadness when they ate.
Ironically, crocodiles do shed tears when they eat but the cause may be related to air being forced through their sinuses when they eat, rather than any kind of dinner-related remorse.
4. A Magnet Could Be Demagnetized with Goat Blood
Magnets are pretty cool even today so you can imagine what people must have thought about them hundreds of years ago. The ability to move metal with unseen forces had to be pretty close to magical.
If something is magical that arguably meant there were magical ways to deal with it. In the case of magnets it was believed you could neutralize their power with things like diamonds or goat’s blood. Garlic was another item put forth by alchemists as a means of demagnetizing them, though a man named William Gilbert had to disprove it all in the year 1600, presumably by showing off bloody yet fully functional magnets.
3. People Believed Witches Stole Men’s Penises
Any beliefs about witches have to clearly be taken with a grain of salt because we’re starting from the standpoint that witches were real. That aside, when it came to fear of witches, some writers went above and beyond to make up reasons to fear them and Heinrich Kramer may have taken the cake.
In his 15th century witch hunting guide Malleus Maleficarum, Kramer warned that witches had the ability to steal a man’s penis. They could even keep it as a pet and feed it grain. He goes on to say such things have been seen by many. He also claims one man, in an effort to regain his stolen penis, was forced to climb a tree and raid a nest in which many penises were being kept to pick the one he liked best.
The idea of penis trees was one that pervaded the mythology around witches and a mural was uncovered in the year 2000 in Massa Marittima in Italy depicting numerous witches under such a tree. Some people still contend it’s just a fertility symbol and not related to witches, but given the history there’s definitely room for debate.
2. It was Long Believed Lynx Urine Solidified Into Precious Stones
When we think of big cats we usually imagine lions, tigers, panthers and maybe the cheetah. Less remembered is their somewhat smaller but still intimidating cousin the lynx. One of the lesser known claims to fame of the lynx is that its urine crystalizes into a precious stone called lyngurium. This came from the philosopher Theophrastus back around 200 BC or so.
By the medieval period, lyngurium was enjoying a fully flesh out life in the hands of lapidary experts concerned with precious stones and their nature. Books were written detailing the physical nature of the stone and even its medicinal properties. Keep in mind, this stone never existed at all and none of these people had seen it or knew anything about it for that reason.
It would not be until the 17th century when new authors finally began to stop writing about the fictional stone.
1. John Mandeville Perpetuated the Belief that Cotton Came From Lambs That Grew on Plants
Medieval art is often perplexing when you see how animals and other natural things are presented, especially when they are tragically off the mark from reality. It makes you wonder how anyone could depict a real thing so wrongly. Unfortunately, at the time, a lot of art was being done by people who had never seen the things they were drawing and was based on second or third hand accounts. And then some of it was just random, made up stuff. That’s where the Vegetable Lamb of Tartary comes in.
Cotton was a new thing for the Western world at the time of John Mandeville. For whatever reason, as he explored (or pretended to explore) a world few people back in England had even heard about, the man insisted on making things up. So when news came of cotton, that was like wool but came from a plant, Mandeville related the story of how it was indeed a small, long-stemmed plant that blossomed a tiny lamb on the top of it. This understanding of cotton lasted from the 13th through the 17th century. Try to imagine that, generations of people believing tiny sheep growing as flowers were producing fabric for them.
The little plant lamb didn’t just look like a lamb, it was one. It would dangle from its stalk and eat everything it could reach around the plant, then it would die when no food was left. You could catch one and eat it and the meat was said to taste like fish while the blood was like honey. So this was no quick misunderstanding. Mandeville, and whoever took up his bizarre tale, was sincere in their efforts to just make up silly things and have people believe things.