Folk Lore

Bathing: In the Middle Ages, water was unhealthy because it was used as an open sewer. Plagues were attributed to the water and few bathed. In cold weather, "bad humors" could be caught and one could die from a chill. The Germans, French, Romans, Norse and Turks bathed. The English and Normans did not. Westerners brought the idea of bathing back with them from the Crusades.

Black Cats: In England they are held in awe and considered lucky. A direct survivor of the Witch hunts in the Middle Ages, they were accused of being a Witch's familiar or demon that had assumed the shape of a cat.

Black for Mourning: Throughout the Middle Ages the traditional color was white, reflecting hope. In 1498, when King Charles VIII of France died, the widow Anne of Brittany wore black in his honor, signifying the deprivation of light and joy on account of his loss.

Blessing a Sneezer: In Europe, sneezing is associated with death because sneezing can expel the soul-therefore expelling life from the body. "God Bless You" is a charm against the moment. Neglecting to utter this might mean the sneezer could end up on the next world.

Blue Ribbon: Originated when England's King Edward III in 1348 chose a broad dark-blue ribbon as a badge for his newly-formed Order of the Garter to signify the awe humans feel for the sky.

Body Odor: Each race has its own cuisine, bathing customs and distinct odor. Deodorizing grew out of the practical necessity of making different-smelling people less repugnant to each other and to obscure ethnic distinctions. This allowed everyone to smell clean as well as sweet-smelling like the immature, thus reclaiming our youth and mortality.

Bowing/Curtsying: The act of lowering yourself before a superior to signify respect, service or obedience. The message: "You are greater then I am, please treat me well."

Christening a Ship: Supervised by a priest whose duty it was to offer libation to the gods. It could be either poured over the ship or into the water.

"Cross My Heart": Invoked the savior on the cross as witness that the speaker's pledge was earnest. Breaking the pledge put the speaker's soul in jeopardy.

Crossing Fingers: Served as protection and as a sign of the cross that early Christians could use without attracting the attention of pagan eyes.

Curses: Believed to be accurate, curses were considered dangerous.

Drinking a Toast: Also known as drinking a health, usually to a deity or to a specific mistress. In England the custom was to place pieces of spiced toast in one's wine; if you did not like the liquor but wished to drink a health, you would have the toast.

Earrings: Used for status identification and an attraction for the opposite sex. Often worn as charms to cure poor eyesight or as protection against drowning.

Flag at Half Mast: In earlier times military nautical vessels indicated a death aboard (as well as the death of national leaders) by slacking off their rigging, trailing their lines or tilting the yardarm to present a scandalized appearance. It was the naval version of sackcloth and ashes, in which the sloppiness was a metaphor for sorrow, characterizing mourning.

Flirting: Started with the word "flit", meaning to dart from one thing to another, in the 16th century. Originally indicated an inconstant person (generally a woman), but also is evidence of uncertainly or instability in regarding a potentially dangerous man.

Forks: An indicator of wealth, heightening social distance by using as an individual utensil. Since the 15th century, because of the meat-heavy diet, forks were used to avoid grease, burned fingers and to allow greedy diners to skewer the largest piece.

Four-Leaf Clover: Known as an anti-Witch plant. It was used for cleansing the blood, healing sores and quieting coughs. The shape is similar to a Christian Cross and it was revered with nervous respect because it was unusual (a mutant three-leaf).

Handkerchief: Originally functioned as makeshift headwear as far back as the 13th Century. Gradually they were dropped to the neck and then to the hand. During the Renaissance they served for noses, sweatbands and face mops alike. Only recently they were moved to the pocket for show.

Handshaking: Mostly done with the dominant hand (the right), to demonstrate that neither party was about to use a weapon. To shake a woman's hand was an insult; carrying the implication that she could be dangerous. Handshaking also expresses a pledge of friendship. Loyalty to and trust in another.

Horseshoes: Considered lucky for their healing powers (cures hiccups) and for their protective influence (specifically against witches). It resembles the crescent moon and is thought to protect against the evil eye. Similar-shaped charms were used among the Chaldeans and the Egyptians. Related to animal worship, it approaches the form of a serpent biting its own tail — a universal symbol of eternity. There is a time-honored belief in the magical power of iron. Blacksmiths were often identified as sorcerers and the efficacy of fire as a bane to demons supported this idea.

Knocking on Wood: Reflects an early Christian reverence for the cross, part of the Medieval tradition of sanctuary. In the days when any fugitive could find protection behind the doors of a church, touching the wood of the doors would mean to the one hunted that he was safe.

Mirrors: Used for divination since ancient times and a possible means of knowing the will of the gods. Romans believed mirrors reflected the inner and outer health of the viewer and thus to bread one presaged ill health. They also believed that a person's health changed every seven years, thus it was seven years bad luck to break one. Mirrors were believed to reflect and house a person's soul. Breaking the glass prevented his soul from reuniting with the body and misfortune would result. This belief also lies behind the idea that a crocodile can kill a man by attacking his reflection in water and a vampire, being soulless, cannot reflect any image at all.

Proposing on Bended Knee: Knights in the service of a lady would frequently display their readiness to be commanded by dipping the knee in her presence. Door opening and giving up a seat are also examples of the knight's display.

Rabbit's Foot: Symbols of new life because of their prolificacy, they also were linked with darkness, witches and the devil because they live underground. By owning a rabbit's foot as a talisman, you would have vital connections with many powerful forces.

Red Letter Days: In the Church of England, Red Letter Days were those feast days which the Book of Common Prayer had stipulated. It arose from hand-lettered medieval calendars, prayer books and almanacs in which monks illuminated the names of the feast days in red ink; while all other days, because of their less colorful inking were known as black letter days.

Shaving: Long hair was a sign of social status while shaving gave the appearance of a slave or child. A shaven male dropped down the social scale and enjoyed the protection given to pre-puberty males, also giving the social posture of cooperation. Alexander the Great demanded his troops be shaven so the enemy could not grab them by their beards and lop off their heads.

Ships as She: Ships were designated female because the sailors held the vessel dear to him and depended on it as he would a spouse — his dearest and most cherished friend. The ship embraces and protects its crew as a mother would her children.

Striped Barber Poles: Barbers in the Middle Ages also performed surgery, tooth extraction and bloodletting. The pole was a staff for the patient to grasp so the veins in the arm would stand out. There was a basin to hold leeches and catch blood and a supply of linen bandages. After the operation the bandages would be hung on the pole and sometimes placed outside as an advertisement. Twirled by the wind, they would form a red and white spiral pattern later adopted for painted poles. The earlier poles were surmounted by a leech basin which in time became the ball on top. The red, white and blue stripes originally stood for arterial blood, venous blood and clean linen. Later, blue was added to signify the academic and barber surgeons under King Henry VIII.

Three Meals a Day: Usually in the Middle Ages, only two meals were eaten because of religious fasting. Three meals were only for laborers, the sick and the very young or very old. Now some refer to three meals in association with the Trinity. The number three has had a mystical and comforting significance since the days of Pythagoras.

Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down: Came from the French. Thumbs up implied heaven and thumbs down referred to genitals.

Tipping One's Hat: A covered head symbolized dominance; an uncovered one symbolized submission or subservience to a superior.

Tolling of Bells: Consecrated before rung, they were used throughout the Middle Ages to announce the deaths of parishioners, to drive away storms, and to discourage the meddling of evil spirits. Also used to rally citizens when they were threatened by fire or invaders.

White Flag for Truce: This arose in the 11th century in Europe as an emblem of Peace and Truce of God. This was an attempt on the part of the Medieval church to curtail the blood lust of the nobility by prohibiting private warfare on weekends, and during Advent and Lent. In 1095 Pope Urban II preached the First Crusade, but since he also endorsed the Peace and Truce of God, those who donned broadswords and chain mail also packed the white banner. It was considered an offer of peace and not every enemy was bound to honor it.

"V" Sign: Made behind one's head was the sign of the devil.

"X" for Kiss: In the Middle Ages people who could not sign their names would make an "X" instead and kiss the mark to affirm their sincerity. The "X" is sacred to the memory of St. Andrew who was crucified on that type of cross. Thus the "X" and kiss made a pledge in the martyred Saint's name. The Greek letter "X" also stands for Christ.

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