Monday, June 17, 2013

8 Things that were very different in the year 1700

This blog describes the Golden Age of Piracy (1690-1730). When enjoying a pirate story or movie, we know that the world was a different place so long ago. A very different world indeed. Most of the things we take for granted didn’t exist yet. Many modern discoveries had not yet been made. Here is a list of some of the differences between that world and this one.

1. There were only six planets

Neptune, Uranus and Pluto had not yet been discovered.

2. Kings and slaves were born to their positions by Divine Will.

The concept of the “self-made man” was considered crude and improper. Common belief held that Kings ruled countries because God wanted them to.  People of hereditary wealth or social position were believed to be better people, somehow, than poorer folks, because if they weren’t, why would God have chosen them to be rich?

This showed up in some odd ways. For instance, it was perfectly legal for an upper-class man to force a poorer woman to have sex with him. It could not be “rape” because the chance that he might impregnate her with an upper-class child was supposed to be an honor.

Similarly, slavery was considered to be okay. Nearly every European nation not only imported African slaves, but enslaved members of their own lower classes. Slavery was in the Bible, after all, so it must be okay. The first wide-spread protests against slavery didn’t begin until the middle of the 18th century.

3. Germ theory had not yet been proposed.

No one knew what germs or viruses were. No one, not even doctors, understood the importance of keeping wounds clean. Diseases were believed to be caused by “bad air,” or because of an imbalance in body fluids.

Also because of this, people drank whatever water was available, and made no effort to filter it, boil it or treat it in any way to reduce germs.  Naturally, water was considered to be dangerous. People seldom washed, because keeping your own dirt around you was safer than taking it off and then acquiring new dirt, which might cause sickness.

Because people did not know about germs or how to kill them, it was much harder to preserve food. Canned food – either in jars or actual cans, did not exist. Chemical preservatives did not exist. Milk wasn’t pasteurized, and was usually sold directly from the cow. Someone would lead a cow up to the house and milk it in front of you. People bought meat from a butcher within hours of the time it was killed. In the winter and early spring fruits and vegetables were nearly impossible to get.

4. There were no brands, no logos, and no fashion designers

People grew their own food, or bought locally. If you bought flour, you bought it from the local mill, and there was no packaging or brand name involved. A maker of guns, carriages, or furniture might be locally famous, but since products were made individually by craftsmen the names of manufacturers were not selling points the way they are today.

Ready-made clothing was rare. People bought cloth and hired someone to sew it, or did  the work themselves. There were no commercially made patterns. The concept of “designer” clothing did not exist. A well-dressed person took credit for having the good taste to choose quality materials, matching ribbons or trims, and put together their own “look.”

This extended even to the realm of animals. “Breeds” of dogs were virtually unheard of. There were types of dog – spaniels, shepherds, hounds, terriers. You might buy a dog because the mother was good at catching rats, but not because she had a pedigree.

5. Social protection laws did not exist.

Drinking was legal at any age. Any child old enough to make a purchase could buy liquor. There were no illegal drugs (although most modern recreational drugs hadn’t been invented yet.) Prostitution was legal in most places.

There were no laws protecting women, children or animals. “Disciplining” a wife or child with beatings was considered part of a family man’s duty. Children could be chained or starved by their parents, and had no legal protection.

There were no laws protecting animals from abuse. The bodies of horses killed by their owners were left in the street. Cock fighting, dog fighting and bull baiting (a “sport” where a chained bear was killed by trained dogs) were legal and popular.

Divorce was nearly impossible, but there existed a law by which a man might “sell” his wife to another man. Women were property, with few if any legal rights. Women could not own property, vote, hold office, go to college or enter into contracts.

6. The death penalty was used for some pretty odd stuff.

Prostitution was legal, but being homosexual was punishable by death. Counterfeiting was punishable by death. (A male counterfeiter was hanged, a female was burned at the stake.) Stealing an object worth more than 40 shillings from a house, or five shilling from a shop was punishable by death. Cutting down a tree was punishable by death. If a child between the ages of 7 and 14 had “a bad character” and this was testified to by both his parents, he could be hanged.

“Mayhem” was punishable by death in some of the American colonies. Theft was considered more serious if the criminal wore a mask to conceal his identity. Just wearing a mask, with intent to commit a crime, was punishable with death in some places, even if no crime was actually committed.

7. Geology was not a science.

Rocks were believed to be eternal and unchanging. No one had yet discovered that land masses moved.

8. No one knew that sugar caused tooth decay.

Cavities were rare among working-class people, because sugar was expensive and rare. Upper class people, who could afford sweets, had terrible teeth. Dentistry was pretty much limited to pulling teeth that were too terribly rotten, and occasionally making dentures. For the very rich, lead fillings were available. (Yes, lead.  The stuff that gives you lead poisoning.)

The divergence between rich and poor was so pronounced that modern archaeologists estimate the social class of 18th century cadavers by examining the teeth. (In Pirates of the Caribbean Elizabeth Swan should have teeth that looked like Jack Sparrow’s, and Jack should have had perfect teeth. )

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