Obscure Facts About Europe Everyone Should Know


Europe is made up of around 50 sovereign countries at the moment. It covers nearly 4 million square miles and European society has mostly shaped the modern world thanks to its historical influence over every other region on the planet in the past 500 years or more. To put it bluntly, Europeans have had their fingers in a lot of pies for a long time. And with all that history there have been a lot of things going on that most of us didn’t even realize.

10. There’s a Knighted Penguin

Once upon a time, knights legitimately fought in battles against other knights with swords and shields and the whole medieval aesthetic that we’ve come to know mostly from movies. To this day the Queen of England can still make somebody a knight if they’ve shown some kind of exemplary character and service, though it’s most often reserved for ceremonial purposes and occasionally will be doled out to people like actors and singers.

As it happens, the rules for becoming a knight are not entirely stringent and any king or queen who wants to play a little fast and loose with how they knight someone can go ahead and do so. After all, who’s going to tell their sovereign leader that they can’t knight someone if they want to? And that’s very possibly how Sir Nils Olav ended up getting knighted back in the year 2008 by King Harald V of Norway. 

Nils Olav was a soldier in the Norwegian guard. In 1982 he ranked as a Corporal. He was promoted to sergeant in 1987, regimental sergeant-major in 1993, honorable regimental sergeant-major in 2001, colonel-in-chief back in 2005, and then in 2008 he was knighted. That seems like a pretty impressive rise through the ranks, and is even more impressive when you realize that Sir Nils Olav is a king penguin and not a human.

These days Sir Olav lives in the Edinburgh Zoo and as of 2016 he was promoted to the rank of Brigadier. So he’s actually transcended knighthood. Not bad for a penguin.

In case you’re wondering how a penguin has managed to live this long, it’s worth pointing out that the current Sir Nils Olav is actually the third of his name. The rank, titles, and name just get passed down.

9. Germans Eat 800 million Currywurst a Year

Say what you will about the Germans but those people know how to eat unhealthy food. Two of Germany’s greatest contributions to the culinary world have been beer and sausage. And this isn’t just performative, they take the stuff to heart. For instance, Germans are said to eat in the neighborhood of 800 million currywurst sausages every single year. 

A pork sausage topped with curry powder and ketchup, 70 million of these are consumed by the folks in Berlin alone. Keep in mind that the population of Germany is about 83 million. So essentially everyone in Germany eats close to 10 currywurst sausages per year.

It’s also worth remembering that this is one kind of sausage. In Germany there are about 1,500 different kinds of sausages that you can find. It’s a popular street food and you can find it in nearly every restaurant as well. There’s a restaurant called Bratwurstglocklein im Handwerkerhof that has been cooking bratwurst since the year 1313. Arguably, sausage is in German blood. Maybe literally. 

8. One in Three European Women have Neanderthal Genes

Research in the year 2020 discovered that one in three women have a receptor for progesterone, which is a gene variant associated with increased fertility, less bleeding during early pregnancy, and fewer miscarriages. That’s significant because this particular gene didn’t come from humans. This gene is from Neanderthals which our ancient ancestors interbred with back in the day. 29% of European women have one copy of this Neanderthal receptor and 3% have two.

This isn’t the only Neanderthal gene variant that modern humans have been discovered to carry, but the proportion of women who have inherited this gene is 10 times greater than for most other Neanderthal gene variants. That’s led researchers to conclude it’s been a benefit to us and that’s why it continues to be passed down rather than bred out over time.

7. Europe has a Bison Population

In the 16th Century there were somewhere around 30 million bison in North America. By the late 1800s there were less than a hundred left in the wild. Thanks to conservation efforts there are up to around 31,000 wild bison roaming North America today. And what most people don’t realize is that Europe has had a wild bison population this entire time.

The European bison is a little bit different than its North American cousin and bears more resemblance to domestic cattle. Studies of this animal we’re not super easy to conduct because, by the time anyone cared to look into them, they were just 50 of them left in the wild. Two populations of European bison survived to the 20th century. One was located in the northern Caucasus Mountains in Russia and a larger population was in Poland’s Bialowieza Forest. The Polish bison were protected in a reserve. In the 16th century the Polish King had made it a capital offense to poach bison. Unfortunately a lack of genetic diversity was spelling doom for that population, not to mention that during the First World War Germans occupied the forest and we’re killing the bison for food. The population of 600 was whittled down to 9 bison by the end of the war.

By 1927, the Caucasus population was gone and there were only 12 European bison left in the world. Today, after extensive and well-regulated breeding, the Bialowieza forest is home to a population of about 600 bison once again. Across the continent there are more than 7,500 animals. 

6. Blasphemy is Illegal in 13 European Countries

The pious among us are often reluctant to take the Lord’s name in vain, whatever god it is that they may believe in. Any sort of blasphemy is frowned upon by the most devout but, in general, many states leave that up to the individual. Freedom of religion is abundant in many European nations, so it’s somewhat surprising to learn that blasphemy is still illegal in 13 European nations.

Countries such as Scotland and Northern Ireland have anti-blasphemy laws on the books, as well as Poland, Germany, Greece, Switzerland, and Italy among others. That’s not to say that the laws are frequently rolled out and if you stub your toe and yell at Jesus you’re on your way to the slammer, but they haven’t been hibernating either. A Greek blogger was sentenced to 10 months in prison back in 2012 for committing blasphemy. A Polish sculptor got 6 months community service for making a blasphemous sculpture in 2002, and a German physics teacher got a 500 euro fine in 2016 for his blasphemy, so it still happens now and then.

5. Women Wore High Heels to Emulate European Men

If you were to ask people to make a list of clothes that they think make a woman look sexy there’s no doubt that at some point someone would tell you high heeled shoes. High heels are synonymous with an elegant, sexy look and ironically that comes from a tradition in Europe in which women were trying to look more like men. Go figure.

Once upon a time, high heel shoes were strictly the purview of a fancy man about town. Royalty and high society fellows would wear them. The King of France would wear shoes with red heels and only those in his court were allowed to use that color. At the time, it was both rare and spoke of power. Heels were also useful for soldiers as they help keep your feet in the stirrups when you were riding a horse so that you could more easily stand and fire a bow. 

At some point in the 1600s, women began adopting what were at the time men’s fashions. It was a fashion craze that saw them wearing epaulettes on their shoulders, cutting their hair short, and smoking pipes. Among the other habits they adopted was wearing high heel shoes. As time went on, the high heels were adopted as more of a unisex fashion statement rather than a masculine one. And, eventually, this shifted to being strictly the domain of women. 

4. Europeans Once Considered Forks Sacrilege

In the Western World the idea of trying to eat a meal these days without a fork is perplexing at best. If you have a nice steak on your plate, you need a knife and fork to get through it. But like anything, the fork had to have been invented at some point in time and adopting it as regular cutlery was not a simple transition for some people. In fact, once upon a time, a fork was considered an affront to God himself. Or herself. Believe what you will.

Word is that back in the year 1004 Maria Argyropoulina, Greek niece of Byzantine Emperor Basil II, was going to be married in the city of Venice. When she arrived for what was surely a remarkable State dinner she brought with her a case of golden forks. The Venetians had never seen such a thing before and the local clergy were far from impressed. She was condemned for using them at the wedding feast with the clergy saying “God in his wisdom has provided man with natural forks—his fingers. Therefore it is an insult to him to substitute artificial metal forks for them when eating.” No word on their opinion about spoons.

3. 18th Century Europe Was Plagued by Grave Robbers

No doubt every culture in every generation is plagued by its own set of societal problems. A few years back there were some communities in the United States that banned people from wearing saggy pants. We all have problems to face. And in Europe during the 18th century one of those big problems with grave-robbing. 

Known as Resurrection Men, there were an inordinate number of people who would head out to cemeteries and dig up fresh cadavers so that they could sell them to hospitals and doctors for medical research. Remember, this was a time when anatomy was one of the most fascinating aspects of medical science and the taboo over studying the dead, and particularly any workings of a human body, had faded enough that it was acceptable for medical professionals to do this. Study the bodies, that is, not necessarily steal corpses from graveyards.

In an effort to calm pad this rash of corpse thievery, a cemetery security industry popped up. Things like cemetery guns were installed by the surviving family members of the recently deceased that would shoot anyone who attempted to dig up the body and got close enough to trip the wires that would set the gun off.

2. Dancing Mania

There’s a famous episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in which a musically-inclined demon shows up in Sunnydale and the entire cast is forced to live out a musical. They sing and dance and the conceit of the demon is used to actually explain how this would work in a real-world scenario. Most musicals just take for granted that people break into synchronized dance routines all the time. It’s a fun twist on the idea and it offers up an explanation for why something like that might happen. But if you want an even weirder story, you can go back in time to 1374 Germany when a case of dance mania broke out that caused average people to simply break into dance for no good reason.

According to witness accounts, this plague, known as St. John’s Dance, caused people to leave their houses enjoying each other hand in hand. They would dance and twirl about in the streets literally to the point of exhaustion. And then it spread.

Outbreaks of Dancing Mania occurred over the course of several hundred years and affected thousands of people across Europe. There was never a super accurate explanation for why it happened, or why it went away either. Some have postulated in later years that this was a symptom of ergot poisoning, which is caused by mold in bread. Others have guessed that it wasn’t really an illness at all and it was just kind of a weird social venting of stress that happens spontaneously and everyone went along with it even though they pretended to not know why. Kind of like a mass hysteria thing. 

1. Europeans Ate Mummies 

The history of medicine is not a pretty thing when you look at it across the board. Science is never born fully formed and there’s a lot of trial and error. There’s also a lot of terrible, horrible mistakes and wilful ignorance. There are still people in the world who think taking the horn off of a rhino and grinding it down helps them with their libido. And in that vein, once upon a time in Europe, there were those who felt that their health could be improved if they were to grind up a mummy and consume the dust. 

During the Middle Ages it was believed that Egyptian mummies were prepared with bitumen, which you may know as asphalt. Inexplicably this was thought to cure all manner of diseases. If you had a skin condition you could rub mummy dust on it. If you had a digestive problem you could eat the mummy dust. We’ll probably never know exactly how many mummies were ground up and consumed by Europeans, who were convinced of the health effects but the fact that there was more than one should tell you all you need to know.

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