The following is a Plus Edition article written by and copyright by Dick Eastman.
We all have read history books about the brave and noble heroes who helped shape today’s world. Hearty explorers, brave immigrants, exemplary church-goers and the like did indeed create today’s modern world. Yet these same history books rarely describe the everyday world of those heroes and heroines. Sometimes their lives were not all fame and glory. In fact, their lives were often repulsive by today’s standards. I thought I would focus for a bit on everyday life in the 1600s in Europe, in England, and in the newly-created colonies in North America.
In fact, knowledge was a scarce commodity in the seventeenth century. It is difficult for us to comprehend just how ignorant people were. Most Europeans knew nothing about geography and didn’t know or care what happened on the other side of the horizon. The majority of people never traveled more than five miles from their place of birth although there were a few more adventurous soles in those days.
Only a small number of people could read or write or even count beyond one hundred. Even the kings of the seventeenth century were mostly illiterate. Most common citizens could not tell the time of day, and only a few could read a calendar. Most of our ancestors of those times did not know what year it was, much less when their own birthdays occurred. You will notice that official documents of the day usually refer to a person as being “about 45 years old,” for example. The reason is that few people knew their exact age. Birthdays went unnoticed by a population that could not read a calendar.
Symbols were used to identify status and trades in the days before many people could read or write: eminent people had coats of arms to identify themselves, especially in battle, where it was important that they didn’t get skewered in mistake for someone else.
Tradesmen had more-or-less standardized signs; the barber/surgeon’s red-and-white striped pole, for example, identified his calling.
Pawn shops (very common in those days) displayed three spheres suspended from a bar. A tailor shop/clothier often had a wooden scissors and large needle carved in a wood panel for a sign.
The same people knew nothing about almost everything. They had no idea how their bodies worked – why they breathed, urinated or defecated, felt hungry or sick, or had a temperature. No one understood why they gasped for oxygen after heavy exercise. In fact, no one knew what oxygen was, not even the most learned men of the time.
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