Timeless (and Terrible) Advice From the Middle Ages

© British Library Board
© British Library Board

As much as we like to think we're so much more advanced than people in the Middle Ages, we’re actually not too different. 

1. Letting Your Boss’s Wife Down Easy

“Sorrye I cannot tryst with thee Sharon, I have byne taken ill.” © Italian School

The Book of the Civilized Man by Daniel of Beccles (13th century) is one of the first English courtesy books, or books of etiquette. It covers faux pas like, say, mounting your horse indoors rather than outdoors or stealing the silverware at a banquet, and delineates who gets to urinate in the dining room (only the host, obviously). Its advice is often timeless, such as in this case:

If the wife of your lord turns her eyes on you too often and
wantonly looses shameful fires against you, letting you
know that she wants to have intercourse with you; if she says,
“The whole household and your lord, my husband,
shall serve you for ever, you alone shall be my darling, you
shall rule everything, everything which belongs to your
lord shall be open to you”... consult me, my son; what I
counsel is planted in your heart; between two evils, choose
the lesser evil; your safer plan is to feign illness, nerve-
racking diseases, to go away sensibly and prudently.

Next time you feign a cough to delay an unwanted suitor, think about Daniel of Beccles and remember that history is full of little white lies.

2. How to Judge a Man by His Feet

A medieval job interview. © Seton Hall University 

Another section of the Secretum Secretorum addresses the pseudoscience of physiognomy, which is based on the idea that a person’s outer appearance directly corresponds to their behavior and personality. The text identifies all variations of a person’s features, from the shape of the eyes to the length of the arms, and pretty much arbitrarily assigns positive or negative traits to each. So exhaustive is the text that even the feet aren’t left out. After all, no king wants to have an advisor with foolish, shameful calves.

Similarly, broad and fleshy feet indicate ignorance and love of oppression, and small and soft feet indicate wickedness. The best feet are those of moderate size and symmetrical of form, with little flesh, sound nails, and symmetrical toes. Thinness of the ankles denotes timidity, and their thickness indicates courage. And fullness of the calves and ankles denotes foolishness and shamelessness. Likewise too full thighs show weakness and softness.

Take this advice to heart when making new friends and you’ll never have to worry about your buddies betraying you because of the wickedness of their tiny, perfidious feet.

3. The Way to a Woman’s Heart is Through Her Ravenous, Shameless Munchies

A woman about to eat a whole cauldron of ramen in bed with her giant scary cat. Courtesy stravaganzastravaganza.

The 12th century text De amore (The Art of Courtly Love) does not have many positive things to say about maidens. In fact, its author, Andreas Capellanus, takes pains to emphasize that women are duplicitous, fickle, and envious. Among his list of the weaknesses of women is one item, though, that sounds familiar:

Woman is also such a slave to her belly that there is nothing she would be ashamed to assent to if she were assured of a fine meal, and no matter how much she has she never has any hope that she can satisfy her appetite when she is hungry; she never invites anybody to eat with her, but when she eats she always seeks out hidden and retired places and she usually likes to eat more than normal.

The similarity this description bears to today’s popular Everywoman characters like Liz Lemon is pretty striking. Although the advice here is that a woman will do anything for a meal, the second part of this statement shows us something timeless. As misleading as Capellanus’s other judgements on women can be, this observation seems to be directly alluding to how, almost a millennium later, a girl’s best friend is often a whole family-sized thing of snacks, eaten alone in bed.

4. Camel’s Froth Will Mess You Up

© British Library Board

Magia Naturalis, or Natural Magic, was one of the most popular books of science in the early Renaissance/late Middle Ages period. Written by Giambattista della Porta in 1588, it covered medicine, cooking, geology, beauty, and chemistry, as well as numerous other disciplines. It was not, however, a particularly accurate resource on most of these topics. Many of the recipes for cosmetics involved poisonous ingredients such as quicksilver, or required the disembowelling of a pretty exorbitant amount of livestock for a facewash.

In the culinary section, Natural Magic contains a perplexing piece of advice on encouraging inebriation:

Make men drunk.
The fruits of the Arbute, and the Lote tree, being eaten, will make men as though they were Drunk. Also dates eaten in too great a quantity, cause Drunkenness, and the pain to the head. Sowbread with Wine, makes a man Drunk. Amber-greese, or Musk, put in Wine, exasperates Drunkenness. The filth of a dogs ear mingled with Wine, makes one Drunk, as Albertus says. But Rhases, out of whom he took it, says, that Wine, wherein the seeds of Ricinus are Infused, if anyone drink it, it will inebriate them. Camel's froth, drunk with water by a drunken man, will make him mad, as possessed with a Devil.

It seems a bit like the wine is doing most of the legwork here, but camel’s froth sounds like the real deal.

5. Vomiting Every Morning: For Your Health!

Edward III, looking healthy and cheerful. © British Library Board

Some advice manuals or books of counsel, called “mirrors for princes,” were specifically geared toward kings and rulers. These included philosophy of governance, tips on who to trust, dietary regimens, and strategies for war and peace. The Secretum Secretorum [PDF], or the Secret of Secrets, is a text on royal conduct from 1326/1327 that was presented to Edward III when he was beginning what would prove to be a long and relatively successful reign. The text is most likely an adaptation of a far older Arabic text. However, it claims to be a letter from Aristotle to Alexander the Great.

The Secretum Secretorum gives an exhaustive catalogue of things that can affect the health of a king, from the seasons to astrology to when wine is consumed during the day. This leads to a curious list of dos and don’ts:

Those things that fatten and cheer and add flesh to the body are: moderation in cohabitation ; eating wheat bread, and the flesh of fat chickens. Vomiting every morning with sweetened vinegar, in summer ; riding on easy-paced cattle and drinking out of new and sweet-smelling vessels. And those that emaciate and weaken the body are : excessive anxiety and sorrow, wakefulness, occupation of the mind, excessive love, sleeping on the ground, sleeping with old women, and looking at disagreeable and unavoidable sights. But the worst of all are evil thoughts and pursuing anxieties.

So, remember: vomit every morning, and avoid doing anything unpleasant. That is, apart from vomiting every morning.

6. Cure Baldness with Onions

A gentleman asking for directions to the onion store. Note: That hairstyle is actually called a “tonsure” and was a sign of religious devotion. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Like many medieval texts that went through multiple rounds of translation, the Regimen Sanitatis Salernitanum is likely derived from an Arabic work. In fact, this same original text, Sirr al-asrar, is the source of the medical material in the Secretum Secretorum.

The Regimen Sanitatis Salernitanum provides a wealth of advice on various herbs, foods, treatments, and household matters. It includes information on the properties of mustard seed, fennel, milk, meats, and wines, as well as this dental care tip: “Likewise take care of your teeth: gather the seeds of the leeks, Burn them with the juice of the henbane, And direct the smoke toward your teeth through a funnel.” The Regimen also has a surprising solution to an age-old problem:

"The doctors do not seem to agree on onions.
Galen says that they are not good for those of choleric humor,
But he teaches that they are quite salubrious for phlegmatics,
And especially good for the stomach and the complexion.
By frequently rubbing your bald spots with ground onions,
You may restore your head of hair."

Say what you like about the smell, but anyone familiar with hair plug malfunctions knows that there are more barbaric ways to combat baldness.

7. This One Easy Weight Loss Trick

“More dung wine, please.”

The Trotula is a collection of three texts, composed by a 12th century female physician known as Trota of Salerno, which dealt mainly with medicine and women's health. It’s a fascinating text, which acknowledges the existence of female desire, but it contains a good deal of what we think of as hocus pocus as well. Take, for example, this weight loss advice:

"If, however, the woman is fat and seemingly dropsical, let us mix cow dung with very good wine and with such a mixture we afterward anoint her. Then let her enter a steambath up to the neck, which steambath should be very hot from a fire made of elder [wood], and in it, while she is covered, let her emit a lot of sweat... We also treat fat men in another way. We make for them a grave next to the shore of the sea in the sand, and in the described manner you will anoint them, and when the heat is very great we place them halfway into the grave, halfway covered with hot sand poured over. And there we make them sweat very much. And afterward we wash them very well with the water of the previous bath."

On the one hand, yes, it sounds stupid. But on the other, an experimental spa could probably get away with charging celebrities $3000 for this.

8. Dirty Dancing

Kissing that bird isn’t going to help your game either.

Early 16th century dance theorist Antonius de Arena really didn’t mince words when it came to the fine points of social etiquette. Although his text The Rules of Dancing is meant to be an instruction in the basse style of dancing, there is a very pointed digression that makes you wonder what kind of crowd de Arena was dealing with.

"Furthermore never fart when you are dancing; grit your teeth and compel your arse to hold back the fart... Do not have a dripping nose and do not dribble at the mouth. No woman desires a man with rabies. And refrain from spitting before the maidens, because that makes one sick and even revolts the stomach.  If you spit or blow your nose or sneeze, remember to turn your head away after the spasm; and remember not to wipe your nose with your fingers; do it properly with a white handkerchief. Do not eat either leeks or onions because they leave an unpleasant odour in the mouth."

Yeah, don’t eat leeks or onions before the dance! You’re going to need them for your bald spot.

When Mississippi Once Banned Sesame Street

Children's Television Workshop/Courtesy of Getty Images
Children's Television Workshop/Courtesy of Getty Images

Since it began airing in the fall of 1969, Sesame Street has become an indelible part of millions of children's formative years. Using a cast of colorful characters like Big Bird, Bert, Ernie, and Oscar the Grouch, along with a curriculum vetted by Sesame Workshop's child psychologists and other experts, the series is able to impart life lessons and illustrate educational tools that a viewer can use throughout their adolescence. You would be hard-pressed to find anyone—even Oscar—who would take issue with the show’s approach or its mission statement.

Yet that’s exactly what happened in early 1970, when a board of educational consultants in Mississippi gathered, polled one another, and decided that Sesame Street was too controversial for television.

The series had only been on the air for a few months when the newly formed Mississippi Authority for Educational Television (also known as the State Commission for Educational Television) held a regularly scheduled meeting in January 1970. The board had been created by the state legislature with appointees named by Governor John Bell Williams to evaluate shows that were set to air on the state’s Educational Television, or ETV, station. The five-member panel consisted of educators and private citizens, including a teacher and a principal, and was headed up by James McKay, a banker in Jackson, Mississippi.

McKay’s presence was notable for the fact that his father-in-law, Allen Thompson, had just retired after spending 20 years as mayor of Jackson. Highly resistant to integration in the city during his tenure in office, Thompson was also the founder of Freedom of Choice in the United States, or FOCUS, an activist group that promoted what they dubbed “freedom of choice” in public schools—a thinly veiled reference to segregation. Mississippi, long the most incendiary state in the nation when it came to civil rights, was still struggling with the racial tension of the 1960s. Systemic racism was an issue.

Entering this climate was Sesame Street, the show pioneered by Joan Ganz Cooney, a former journalist and television producer who became the executive director of the Children’s Television Workshop. On the series, the human cast was integrated, with black performers Matt Robinson and Loretta Long as Gordon and Susan, respectively, appearing alongside white actors Jada Rowland and Bob McGrath. The children of Sesame Street were also ethnically diverse.

Zoe (L) and Cookie Monster (R) are pictured in New York City in November 2009
Astrid Stawiarz, Getty Images

This appeared to be too much for the Authority, which discussed how lawmakers with control over ETV’s budget—which had just been set at $5,367,441—might find the mixed-race assembly offensive. The panel's participants were all white.

The board pushed the discussion aside until April 17, 1970, when they took an informal poll and decided, by a margin of three votes against two, to prohibit ETV from airing Sesame Street—a show that came free of charge to all public television stations. (The decision affected mainly viewers in and around Jackson, as the station had not yet expanded across the state and was not expected to do so until the fall of 1970.)

The members who were outvoted were plainly unhappy with the outcome and leaked the decision to The New York Times, which published a notice of the prohibition days later along with a quote from one of the board members.

“Some of the members of the commission were very much opposed to showing the series because it uses a highly integrated cast of children,” the person, who did not wish to be named, said. “Mainly the commission members felt that Mississippi was not yet ready for it.”

The reaction to such a transparent concession to racism was swift and predictably negative, both in and out of Mississippi. Board members who spoke with press, usually anonymously, claimed the decision was a simple “postponing” of the show, not an outright ban. The fear, they said, was that legislators who viewed ETV as having progressive values might shut down the project before it had a chance to get off the ground. It was still possible for opponents to suffocate it before it became part of the fabric of the state’s television offerings.

The concern was not entirely without merit. State representative Tullius Brady of Brookhaven said that ETV exerted “a subtle influence” on the minds of children and that the Ford Foundation, which funded educational programming, could use its influence for “evil purposes.” Other lawmakers had previously argued against shows that promoted integration.

Grover is pictured at AOL Studios in New York City in May 2015
Slaven Vlasic, Getty Images

Regardless of how the decision was justified, many took issue with it. In an anonymous editorial for the Delta Democrat-Times, a critic wrote:

“But Mississippi’s ETV commission won’t be showing it for the time being because of one fatal defect, as measured by Mississippi’s political leadership. Sesame Street is integrated. Some of its leading cast members are black, including the man who does much of the overt ‘teaching.’ The neighborhood of the ‘street’ is a mixed one. And all that, of course, goes against the Mississippi grain.”

Joan Ganz Cooney called the decision a “tragedy” for young people.

Fortunately, it was a tragedy with a short shelf life. The following month, the board reconvened and reversed its own informal poll result, approving of Sesame Street and agreeing that ETV could air it as soon as they received tapes of the program. Thanks to feeds from Memphis, New Orleans, and Alabama, Sesame Street could already be seen in parts of Mississippi. And thanks to the deluge of negative responses, it seemed pointless to try to placate politicians who still favored segregation.

In the fall of 1970, the Sesame Street cast appeared in person in Jackson and was met by representatives from the board, which helped to sponsor the live performance, though it’s not clear any apology was forthcoming.

Sesame Street would go on to win numerous awards and accolades over the proceeding 50 years, though it would not be the only children’s show to experience censorship on public television. In May 2019, ETV networks in Alabama and Arkansas refused to air an episode of the PBS animated series Arthur in which a rat and aardvark are depicted as a same-sex couple getting married.

10 Facts About Harry Houdini

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Though Harry Houdini passed away more than 90 years ago, his mystique has never faded. The famed magician captured the imagination of the world with his death-defying stunts and performances, many of which still baffle modern magicians. Whether he was escaping from a straitjacket while suspended from a crane above the streets or getting out of his famed “Chinese water torture cell” with just moments of air to spare, Houdini had a habit of leaving everyone in awe. And with performances that spectacular, it shouldn’t come as a shock that his life was just as fascinating. Read on for some interesting facts about Harry Houdini.

1. Harry Houdini's real name was Ehrich Weiss.

He likely took the first part of his stage name from his childhood nickname, "Ehrie," although some sources say that his first name was a tribute to magician Harry Kellar. His last name, however, was definitely a tribute to French illusionist Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin.

2. According to legend, He also named Buster Keaton, although inadvertently.

Along with Houdini, Buster's dad, Joe, was the co-owner of a traveling show called the Mohawk Indian Medicine Company. The story Buster tells (though some believe it's a myth) is that one day, when he was only about 6 months old, he took a tumble down a flight of stairs while he was under his dad's watch, but came out of it completely unscathed. Houdini remarked, "That was a real buster!" In those days, according to Keaton, buster meant a spill or a fall that had the potential to really hurt someone. Joe started calling him Buster, and the nickname stuck. His real name was Joseph Frank Keaton, if you're curious.

3. He introduced his famous milk can trick in 1908.

If you're not familiar with it, Houdini invented an oversized milk can that would be filled with water for his act. Once in the can, he would be handcuffed and sealed inside, then left behind a curtain to make his daring escape. When this became too commonplace, he further encased the milk can in a wooden crate. Perhaps building on this stunt, the folks at Joshua Tetley & Son, the brewers behind Tetley's beer, invited him to escape from a cask of their fine product. Houdini accepted and gave the stunt a go, but the task proved too difficult and he had to be rescued by his assistant, Franz Kokol.

4. Houdini probably didn't die from a sucker punch.

Houdini had long boasted of his physical prowess—and one of his claims was that he could withstand a punch from anyone. After a performance in Montreal on October 20, 1926, a student from McGill University asked him if this was true, and when Harry said it was, the student immediately punched him three times in the gut. Surprised by the blows, Houdini didn't have a chance to tighten his abs, which was part of his secret. He ultimately died of a ruptured appendix days later, which many people said was brought on by the punches. But that's not necessarily true.

Houdini had actually been suffering from appendicitis for a few days beforehand but hadn't done anything about it. In fact, he had continued to travel and do shows afterward. Finally, on October 24, 1926, he gave one last show and was immediately hospitalized. Unfortunately, he had let it go too long: on October 31, 1926, he died of peritonitis from his ruptured appendix.

5. The symbol of the Society of American Magicians is engraved on his tombstone.

Houdini was president of the Society of American Magicians when he died. And members are still invested in making sure the famed magician's gravesite at Machpelah Cemetary in Queens, New York, receives routine maintenance and restoration. Sadly, his beloved wife, Bess, is buried 10 miles away in Westchester; she wasn't allowed to be buried with him because she wasn't Jewish.

6. His wife, Bess, held a séance every year for 10 years on the anniversary of his death to see if he would get in touch.

Before Harry Houdini died, he and Bess made a pact that if there was a way to do it, Harry would contact her from the beyond. They even agreed upon a phrase that he would tell her so she would know it was really him speaking to her and not a ghostly imposter. When he failed to contact her on the 10th anniversary, she gave up, but the Houdini Museum in Scranton, Pennsylvania, still holds the séance every year. So far, no one has gotten Harry to communicate. 

The secret code, by the way, was "Rosabelle- answer- tell- pray, answer- look- tell- answer, answer- tell." "Rosabelle" was the name of a song she sang in her vaudeville act when the two of them met, and the other words corresponded to letters of the alphabet in a language the two concocted for themselves. Combined, they spelled out "Believe."

7. Houdini was an avid aviator.

Though there's some dispute over the claim, Houdini is often recognized as the first person to ever make a controlled flight in a powered plane on Australian soil. The flight took place on March 18, 1910, in Diggers Rest, which is near Melbourne. In June, 1920, it was reported that Houdini was even making plans to embark upon what would have been the first transatlantic flight from Paris to New York. The plans, unfortunately, never materialized.

8. Houdini could also escape from copyright restrictions.

By 1912, Houdini added another act to his routine: the escape from the infamous "Chinese water torture cell," where the magician would be lowered upside-down into a water-filled tank while his feet were locked in stocks. It was a hit with crowds, and despite the overwhelming danger, Houdini repeatedly performed the stunt without a hitch. In fact, he was the only one who could legally perform this death-defying act. That's because Houdini found a way to copyright the cell routine in a pretty ingenious way. Since you couldn't copyright magic tricks, he first performed this escape as part of a one-act play called Houdini Upside Down! Well, you can copyright a play, and by incorporating the cell escape into the script, he was allowed to copyright the effect and would actively sue anyone who tried to imitate the stunt.

9. Although the Chinese Water Torture Cell didn't do him in, one of his performances nearly did.

In 1915, Houdini was buried in a pit with just dirt shoveled right on top of him for a stunt in Santa Ana, California. While trying to dig his way out, he started to panic and use up his precious air. He tried to call for help, but that's not exactly the easiest thing to do while covered in mounds of dirt. Finally, his hand broke the surface, and he was pulled to safety, where he promptly passed out. He later wrote that "The weight of the earth is killing."

10. You can still see one of his most famous stunts.

The straitjacket escape is one of Harry Houdini's most famous acts. For this one, Houdini would be strapped into the jacket and then suspended by his ankles very high in the air, usually from a crane or off a tall building. Once hoisted in the air, he would make a death-defying escape with countless onlookers below. You can still watch it below:

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