Castle Nostalgia – The Plagues of Old

“Ring-a-round the rosie,

A pocket full of posies,

Ashes! Ashes!

We all fall down”

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Photo by Lisa Fotios

You’re having a dream

You find yourself a noble in the European middle ages, living in a castle.

You’re surrounded by servants with walls that keep you safe from barbarians.

Your home is in the main castle, near the west tower — a favourable location offering rapid protection to you and other noble families within the castle from raids or invading armies. Your clothing is finely tailored, made of imported cotton and exotic feather lining, instead of animal hide from the local butcher, making you stand out as an elite.

You have access to the latest advancements in medicine, and miracle potions to treat many diseases.

You have more frequent access to baths than the servants or farmers, and your supply of French imported cosmetics like Bloom of Ninon are nearly endless.

You enjoy preferred seating in the common dining hall, with a fresh, meat-only, meal served with the finest fermented spirits, in the finest metal cups. Before heading out for dinner in the common hall, you always remembered to fill your pockets with the herbs and flowers your servants have to prepare for you.

Your life, by measure, is one of luxury and privilege over those of the common people.

You are the ruling class.

Stay in that place for a moment.

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Photo by Joao Gustavo Rezende

Now wake up

The setting you found yourself dreaming about was roughly the 14th to the 17th century. The time in which we base most of our popular fairytales in the western world.

Described to you is a world that once existed as we wish to remember it. But we fail to consider the rest of the reality.

Castle life was no fairytale, and nostalgia is but a shield against reality.

For those pining on a romantic era of chivalry, silver spoons, knights in shining armour, princesses, pints of mead, clan songs, jousting (typically featuring a blunted, or 3 pointed lance, rendering it a stick more than a weapon to reduce the chance of injury), you would be called nostalgic.

Castles were typically overpopulated walled settlements, that were themselves unsustainable dwellings with no interior agriculture. They were supplied by surrounding farms, which were vulnerable to raids. This made protective walls a potential tomb when under siege.

Reports of people eating one another were not uncommon in such occurrences.

Magic potions cured most diseases

The magic potions that claimed to cure disease, and the imported cosmetics that you would likely have considered a luxury were typically made of arsenic, mercury, lead, bleaching agents and/or animal excrement — typically bird, due to the white pigment which was the fashion of the area.

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There was no plumbing

Even in noble houses, excrement was collected in buckets in your single room home, then discarded on the streets or over the castle walls. Imagine over 100 people per day doing that.

No plumbing also means no uncontaminated water. Nearby rivers and streams were often horribly contaminated with the discarded human and animal excrement and discarded animal and human remains, making water sources toxic. The only way to drink safely was to ferment water using yeasts and fruits, into meads and wines. With this being the only source of hydration, children as young as 2 years old were drunk 24hrs a day, for their entire lives. Making death by violent murder or disease the leading cause of death of any class, by age 30.

Baths were infrequent

Most servants bathed as little as once per week, and nobles nearly as infrequently.

This led to an urgent need to keep herbs and flowers handy to store in one’s clothing. This covered the odours of the excrement-based cosmetics, your rotting flesh (as you were likely to have smallpox or syphilis), the lack of bathing, and the smell of your clothing — which often is made of materials contaminated with parasites. The most common were lice, and the bacteria responsible for Black Death, a disease which likely is the origin for the popular children’s rhyme;

Ring-a-round the rosie,

A pocket full of posies,

Ashes! Ashes!

We all fall down

Breaking down the rhyme, it doesn’t take long to notice the grim story of the everyday lives of children in castle walls. Normalizing events through song is an ancient coping mechanism used culturally for thousands of years. Normalize suffering at a young age, and we can learn to accept almost any reality.

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Photo by Jeswin Thomas

Rats lived in your home, by the dozens

Rats number within castle walls by the thousands, making the spread of disease go unchecked.

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All plants were poison

The disease was everywhere. Sadly, it was believed that most plants we know are medicinal today were poisonous, making herbal and plant medicine treatments almost impossible. Most resorted to bloodletting. This was often performed by lancing larger blood vessels to “bleed infections out” into a bucket placed under a patient. The procedure endured at modern barbershops around the world until the mid-1800s, when a barber was seen as a one-stop health professional, licensed to do just about anything.

These are hardly the conditions of fairy tales, wouldn’t you agree?

Why this disturbing thought experiment?

Nostalgia, particularly misinformed nostalgia, can be a dangerous personal and cultural delusion process.

When times get hard, our minds fool us. We look to the distant past, to memory we think we have or that our society has, and we utter — “If only things could go back to the way they used to be.”

But how many of us have questioned the accuracy of the past we’ve chosen to remember?

Don’t get locked away in Castle Nostalgia. Your fairytale won’t be what you imagined.

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