Our Five Part Series on Merrie Olde England
Blighty's history reporter, Morris Bell, has dug up some fascinating facts about the Elizabethans this week. In a five part series Blighty's Blog presents a vignette of life in Merrie England half a millenium ago.
Legends of Old England - Part Four: The Undead
A combination of physical exhaustion from labouring in the fields, lead poisoning from eating and drinking from pewter vessels and an excess of cheap and plentiful ale sometimes led Elizabethan peasants to collapse into an apparently comatose state.
Without the benefit of anything but the most basic of medical knowledge, the common folk had no way of knowing whether a person had drunk themselves comatose, or was dead. The life expectancy of the average man or woman was much shorter than it is today. There was no concept of "premature death". People became sick and popped their clogs at any age.
Awake and Arise
There was nobody to take away a dead person and prepare them for burial. Final preparations were left entirely to the family. A person who appeared to be deceased was laid out on a table inside the family cottage. The body would be watched for a couple of days in case it woke up. This is how the tradition of a "wake" was born.
Saved by the Bell
But, despite this caution, there was still considerable concern about burying people alive. So, the Elizabethans adopted the custom of tying a string around the wrist of the deceased. The string led to a bell above the grave. Family members would take it in turns to take the "graveyard shift" to listen out for the "dead ringer" who would be "saved by the bell". Believe it or not.
"Comedy always works best when it is mean-spirited" - John Cleese
Author John Corby also writes as "Bulldogge" for the British Canadian newspaper.
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