As Halloween approaches, I am seeming more and more of the ubiquitous inflated goblin or ghoul poking their balloon heads out from behind my neighbor’s bushes.1 And of course, because I love history, it has got me thinking about what people feared in the past. What were the boogie men of 16th century Europe? Ghosts may have roamed the graveyards, but what other scary creatures would frighten the kiddies out of their candy corn. Here is my short list of the scariest things of the 16th century:
I had blogged in the past about how dogs ruled royal palaces. Well, while dogs were whooping it up in the 16th century, cats were trying to escape kitty persecution. Unlike dogs, cats were seen as weak and feminine. Scariest of all, they were linked with witchcraft because they were believed to be really witches in disguise called familiars. Cats were so demonized by the Catholic Church that they were even ritually slaughtered on All Saints Day. (The Pope endorsed the past time with religious zeal) And it wasn’t just the Catholics that persecuted cats. At the succession of the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I, an effigy of the Pope made out of a wicker basket was set on fire. Inside the basket were helpless cats. This especially horrid display of kitty cruelty was meant to signify the releasing of demons. It really only released a dead cat smell.
I love the seniors but I have to tell you...old people of the 16th century were downright creepy (especially old women). Little medical care, rampant disease, sketchy hygiene, and death in child birth all added up to an average life span of 35 years in London. Yikes. I would be over the hill by now. But some lucky folks did manage to buck the system and live into their 70s and 80s. It was these wizened octogenarians that scared the daylights out of the Elizabethan kids. We can imagine that someone who made it to 70 might have looked like they were about 100. Some historians have even argued that aged midwives became an easy target for the witch hunts because they not only used herbs and delivered babies, but also typically lived on the outskirts of society with little male protection. Everyone basically thought these ancient midwives must be sippin the witch’s brew and bathing in baby’s blood to live that long. (Most of the witches put to death were over 50) It was this fear of old people (otherwise known as Gerontophobia) that led to many an innocent senior getting hung or burned for witchcraft.
There is a reason why Philip always dressed in black and never smiled in his portraits. The King of Spain was one scary bad ass. Under the regency of Catherine de Medici and the later rule of her sons, France spent most of the 16th century tip toeing around Philip trying not to piss him off and get embroiled in a war they couldn’t win. Elizabeth I had to continuously avoid plots from Spanish assassins trying to off her. And for the rest of the world (especially the Netherlands), there was good reason to fear Philip. Spain was a Catholic superpower whose military might was continuously fed by the pilfered gold and silver from the Americas.2 You would think all this gold might put a smile on Philip’s face, but he was too busy chasing the Protestants out of the country to enjoy his booty. It was rumored that the only time Philip smiled was after he heard of the slaughter of Protestant men, women, and children at the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre. Now there’s a guy that you might not want to take a candied apple from.
As a young boy Henry II of France was held captive in a Spanish prison with his brother. When he was finally released, the constable of Castile gave him two white horses as an apology for his imprisonment. In response to this token of goodwill, Henry promptly turned around and unloaded the only ammunition that he had on his young frame…he farted in the constable’s face. Innocent childhood prank? Hardly. Smells were deadly. The ruling medical theory from the 16th to the 19th century was that bad air carried diseases. For this reason, women wore pomanders filled with sweet scents close to their body. And to avoid plague infections, doctors wore long beaks filled with sweet smelling incense to mask the smell of death and disease. Looking like a parrot may have saved their noses, but hardly their immune systems.
(1)I personally find inflatable Halloween props much scarier then anything on this list.
(2) Elizabeth’s Pirates stole a good chunk of it.