WTF Fun Fact 12886 – Forks Used To Be Seen As Sacrilegious

Who knew a fork could be seen as offensive (unless you’re using it to poke someone)? But it turns out that while forks are ancient tools, using forks used to be seen as sacrilegious by the Church.

Ancient forks

Forks have been around for millennia, but they weren’t used as dining utensils until the Middle Ages. Then, only wealthy families owned such tools.

For much of human history, people have eaten with their fingers. Depending on the time period and part of the world you were in, it was appropriate to eat with all five fingers (spoons existed and were totally acceptable for soup lovers). Later on, it was seen as polite to eat with three fingers.

Touching your food was touching God’s creation (they didn’t have Twinkies back then, which are most decidedly not God’s creation). By using a technically unnecessary utensil, it was seen as blasphemous not to touch the food you were about to ingest.

Smithsonian Magazine (cited below) found old references to the inappropriateness of forks in the Middle Ages. For example:

“In 1004, the Greek niece of the Byzantine emperor used a golden fork at her wedding feast in Venice, where she married the doge’s son. At the time most Europeans still ate with their fingers and knives, so the Greek bride’s newfangled implement was seen as sinfully decadent by local clergy. ‘God in his wisdom has provided man with natural forks—his fingers,” one of the disdainful Venetians said. “Therefore it is an insult to him to substitute artificial metal forks for them when eating.’ When the bride died of the plague a few years later, Saint Peter Damian opined that it was God’s punishment for her hateful vanity.”


From blasphemous to ridiculous

Eventually, forks became less of a religious matter and simply socially unacceptable. Royalty and nobility – particularly in Italy – often had forks. but their use of the utensils was often used to mock them.

At this time, people were still using two-pronged forks. It would take at least a hundred more years for the third and fourth prongs to be added.

It wasn’t until the early 18th century that forks became acceptable and available in England (and a few decades after that in America).

As one 1887 book of manners noted, “The fork has now become the favorite and fashionable utensil for conveying food to the mouth. First it crowded out the knife, and now in its pride it has invaded the domain of the once powerful spoon. The spoon is now pretty well subdued also, and the fork, insolent and triumphant, has become a sumptuary tyrant. The true devotee of fashion does not dare to use a spoon except to stir his tea or to eat his soup with, and meekly eats his ice-cream with a fork and pretends to like it.”

Who knew forks had such a long and sordid history?!  WTF fun facts

Source: “A History of Western Eating Utensils, From the Scandalous Fork to the Incredible Spork” — Smithsonian Magazine

WTF Fun Fact 12759 – The Bayeux Tapestry

No one knows the exact origins of the Bayeux Tapestry. Our best guess is that it was commissioned in the 1070s, even though the first written reference to it wasn’t until 1476.

Hundreds of years later, this famous piece of medieval art was described in a cathedral treasury as “a very long and narrow hanging on which are embroidered figures and inscriptions comprising a representation of the conquest of England.”

And that’s precisely what it is. And when they say “very long,” they mean it’s over 200 feet long. That’s a lot of embroidering.

The Bayeux Tapestry

Historians believe the tapestry was commissioned by Bishop Odo of Bayeux, who was the half-brother of William the Conqueror. Some say it was created in Kent, England even though it eventually made its way to Bayeux, which is in Normandy, France. That’s where you can still find it today (though there’s a painstakingly-made replica at the British Museum.)

Britannica (cited below) describes the scenes: “The story begins with a prelude to Harold’s visit to Bosham on his way to Normandy (1064?) and ends with the flight of Harold’s English forces from Hastings (October 1066); originally, the story may have been taken further, but the end of the strip has perished. Along the top and the bottom run decorative borders with figures of animals, scenes from the fables of Aesop and Phaedrus, scenes from husbandry and the chase, and occasionally scenes related to the main pictorial narrative.”

Tapestry as history

The tapestry is considered a historical document. And we should be glad it’s safe – it has escaped destruction many times. According to Britannica:

“When first referred to (1476), the tapestry was used once a year to decorate the nave of the cathedral in Bayeux, France. There it was “discovered” by the French antiquarian and scholar Bernard de Montfaucon, who published the earliest complete reproduction of it in 1730. Having twice narrowly escaped destruction during the French Revolution, it was exhibited in Paris at Napoleon’s wish in 1803–04 and thereafter was in civil custody at Bayeux, except in 1871 (during the Franco-German War) and from September 1939 to March 1945 (during World War II).”

The Bayeux Tapestry is also the first depiction of Halley’s comet as well, which we know appeared in 1066 during the Norman Conquest. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, as William the Conqueror left for England, “a portent such as men had never seen before was seen in the heavens.”

It was considered bad luck at the time for the English King Harold II, who was defeated at the Battle of Hastings.  WTF fun facts

Source: “The Bayeux Tapestry” — Britannica

WTF Fun Fact 12696 – Uranus’ Original Name

Uranus – everyone’s favorite planet. Or maybe when you hear the name, you instantly roll your eyes knowing that someone’s about to make a terrible joke.

Either way, many of us know that Uranus is the ancient Greek version of the god of the sky and heavens (and it’s technically pronounced ou-ra-nos, though some people even insist it’s urine-us rather than u-anus). But whatever. The point here is that the planet was originally named George.

And not just George, the Georgium Sidus (or Georgian moon/moon of George).

Until English astronomer William Herschel discovered the bright light was a planet in 1781, everyone assumed it was just another star, or perhaps a comet. The object had been seen before and was recorded in John Flamsteed’s catalog of stars (as “34 Tauri, the 34th star of Taurus the Bull”).

The Herschels were an incredible family of amateur astronomers. William’s sister, Caroline, may have been even more talented, and people knew it! In fact, Maskelyne wrote about the important role played by amateur astronomers right after Caroline discovered her first comet. (Caroline even got a job updating Flamsteed’s catalog of stars, the Historia Coelestis Britannica.)

Another fun fact? In the 1800s (and long before and shortly after), science could hardly be done without a rich person’s funding. Herschel wasn’t even considered to be a professional astronomer at the time – he also fell into the ranks of an “amateur.” In fact, the official Royal Astronomer, Nevil Maskelyne, still had to confirm it was a planet before it could be declared one. Even then, it was until astronomer Johann Elert Bode double confirmed it that the object was accepted by a planet by the scientific community (which is how you make it really official, not just “royal official”).

According to NASA, its mistaken identity as a star is understandable. The planet is extremely far from the sun and moves incredibly slowly (so much that half of it is plunged into ice-covered darkness for 21 years at a time). So you’d have to watch the object for decades to notice it even acts like a planet – that’s the kind of dedication required! It’s pretty much invisible to us now because of the light pollution the Earth emits.

But back to the George – Uranus thing.

William Herschel really wanted royal patronage (aka money) to fund his endeavors. So in order to gain favor with King George III, he used his fame as the person who discovered the first new planet since antiquity to advocate for the name George.

But George didn’t exactly fit with the naming scheme astronomers had going on at the time, which was all mythology-based. So in the end, it was Bode who got his way, naming the planet Uranus.

Of course, Herschel got the credit and the benefits that followed. And now we all get to tell Uranus jokes until the end of time (but it’s Bode we have to thank for that). – WTF fun facts

Source: “Venus Meets a Planet Named George” — NASA

WTF Fun Fact 12576 – We’re Fools About April Fools’ Day

With all the pranks and accompanying joy (and trauma!), you’d think we’d have a solid way of tracing the origins of April Fools’ Day back to its source. But it’s unclear who the original “fools” were.

It seems safe to say that the holiday is in some way tied to the Spring equinox, a time of celebration and merriment for many. But what’s with all the pranks? Are we still celebrating the ancient Roman festival of Hilaria with a 21st-century twist? Or perhaps something closer to India’s Holi festival?

Or did something else happy on April 1 in the distant past spark interest in celebrating this day with hijinx?

Some believe its roots lay in France in 1582 when some were deemed foolish for not knowing about the switch from the Gregorian calendar to the Julian calendar and therefore celebrated the new year on April 1 instead of January 1.

What’s interesting is that different parts of the world have other stories about the day and its tradition, providing a clue that it goes back quite far and spread around the world before people began writing about it.

So if anyone tries telling you they know the origins of April Fools’ Day, just remember that no one really knows. – WTF fun facts

Source: “Who Were the First Pranksters? No Jokes Here—All About the Origin of April Fools’ Day!” — Parade Magazine

WTF Fun Fact 12560 – The First Fingerprint Conviction

In 1910, Clarence Hiller confronted an intruder in his home, tackling him as both men fell down the stairs. Hiller was then shot, and the suspect ran away.

Paroled 6 weeks prior, Thomas Jennings was convicted of the crime. He was stopped by police when they saw he was wearing a bloody coat. But that wasn’t what got him convicted.

While investigating the scene of the break-in, police noticed that the intruder had grabbed a freshly-painted railing while boosting himself into the Hiller family’s window. They cut off the piece of the railing as evidence and presented it in court, comparing it to Jennings’ fingerprint.

Criminal justice scholars have proved that the way we use fingerprint evidence is not always in the best interests of justice, nor are fingerprints always accurately interpreted. In fact, our fingerprints even change over the course of our lifetimes, so an old fingerprint may rule out an actual criminal caught decades later.

But in 1910, this type of evidence was a first for a criminal case and the jury needed to be convinced that each person’s fingerprints are unique. Unfortunately for Jennings, that proof came from his defense attorney.

W.G Anderson rightly questioned the use of such poorly-understood evidence to convict a person, but it was his own fingerprint that would convince the jury of his client’s guilt.

Anderson challenged the forensic experts to lift his fingerprint from a piece of paper. They did. But his big plan was to solicit fingerprints from the general public to show just how shoddy the science of fingerprinting was. Alas, we do all have unique fingerprints and while there are often problems in our interpretations, this little experiment did nothing but convince the jury that fingerprint evidence was solid.

Of all the fingerprints collected, none looked like Anderson’s. The jury voted unanimously to convict Jennings, who was sentenced to hang.

In their coverage, The Decatur Herald noted that “the murderer of Hiller wrote his signature when he rested his hand upon the freshly painted railing at the Hiller home.” –  WTF fun fact

Source: “The First Criminal Trial That Used Fingerprints as Evidence” — Smithsonian Magazine

WTF Fun Fact 12551 – The Six-Sided Book

A 16th-century book with a single binding is constructed so that it can be read in 6 different ways and contains six different texts. All six books are religious and were first printed in Germany in the 1550s and 1570s. Each book has its own tiny clasp closure.

Erik Kwakkel, a medieval book historian at The University of British Columbia, Vancouver, first discovered a type of book he dubbed a “Siamese twin” about eight years ago.

“The binding is called “dos-à-dos” (back to back), a type almost exclusively produced in the 16th and 17th centuries. They are like Siamese twins in that they present two different entities joint at their backs: each part has one board for itself, while a third is shared between the two. Their contents show why this was done: you will often find two complementary devotional works in them, such as a prayerbook and a Psalter, or the Bible’s Old and New Testament. Reading the one text you can flip the “book” to consult the other,” he wrote.

Check it out:

From the Folger Library

But when he posted about the 6-sided book, the oddity was picked up by a wide range of news sources. It’s an incredible piece of technology (a word we now reserve mainly for electronic capabilities).

It’s incredible what you can find in library archives!

The book was discovered in the National Library of Sweden. It is also referred to as a dos-à-dos, and Kwakkel states:

“Not only is it a rather old one (it was bound in the late 16th century), but it contains not two but six books, all neatly hidden inside a single binding (see this motionless pic to admire it). They are all devotional texts printed in Germany during the 1550s and 1570s (including Martin Luther, Der kleine Catechismus) and each one is closed with its own tiny clasp. While it may have been difficult to keep track of a particular text’s location, a book you can open in six different ways is quite the display of craftsmanship.” –  WTF fun fact

Source: “A Medieval Book That Opens Six Different Ways, Revealing Six Different Books in One” — Open Culture

WTF Fun Fact 12550 – Magical Gladiator Blood

It’s not hard to find references to the drinking of gladiator blood in ancient sources. However, it was most often used to treat what ancient medical writers called “The Sacred Disease,” which we now believe is epilepsy. Some thought it was brought on by the gods, while others argued for a more natural cause.

Of course, there’s no truth to the claim, but epilepsy held an important place in ancient medicine because it stumped doctors for centuries. It could come on suddenly, making it even more mysterious.

And when diseases are misunderstood, their potential cures are likely to get pretty interesting.

In their 2003 article, “Between horror and hope: gladiator’s blood as a cure for epileptics in ancient medicine,” scholars Ferdinand Peter Moog and Axel Karenberg state that not only was gladiator blood a potential cure for this disease but a gladiator’s liver would be consumed as well. AND that the tradition may have continued in some places up into recent times!

“Between the first and the sixth century a single theological and several medical authors reported on the consumption of gladiator’s blood or liver to cure epileptics…
…the magical use of gladiators’ blood continued for centuries. After the prohibition of gladiatorial combat in about 400 AD, an executed individual (particularly had he been beheaded) became the “legitimate” successor to the gladiator.
Occasional indications in early modern textbooks on medicine as well as reports in the popular literature of the 19th and early 20th century document the existence of this ancient magical practice until modern times. Spontaneous recovery of some forms of epilepsy may be responsible for the illusion of therapeutic effectiveness and for the confirming statements by physicians who have commented on this cure.”

As the authors state, the condition we now know as epilepsy got better on its own in some people. But if they had the “gladiator treatment” and did get better, it simply strengthened doctors’ resolve to keep using it.

But why gladiator blood? According to Dr. Lydia Kang, MD, author of the book, Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything:

“They stemmed from this magical idea that young, healthy males had energy. If you could harness that energy right at the point of death, you could ingest some of this healthfulness. In other words: you are what you eat.” –  WTF fun fact

Source: “Gladiator Blood and Liquid Gold: Good for What Ails You?” — MedPage Today

WTF Fun Fact 12433 – Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus

The city of Cincinnati, Ohio, is named after the Roman statesman and general Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus.

After serving as Roman consul (the highest elected position) in the 5th century BCE, he retired to his farm.

In 458 BCE, the Aequi people broke a treaty with Rome and launched an invasion in the city of Tusculum. Rome raised two armies to fight them off, but the consuls at the time were unable to get an advantage over the invaders. The Roman army was surrounded.

In times like this, the Roman Senate was entitled to appoint a “dictator” for a 6-month term. This man would have ultimate power over political affairs and the armies. Remembering that Cincinnatus was a great general and consul, a group of senators traveled to his farm and asked him to become dictator until the crisis was over.

As the historian Livy describes it, Cincinnatus called for his toga (the proper attire to meet with Roman leadership), wiped off the sweat and dirt, put down his plow, and finally agreed to the request – but it took some convincing. He eventually agreed for the good of Rome.

Cincinnatus took over the army and led to Romans to a swift victory. He returned to the city as a hero and could have lived a life of luxury and power. However, immediately afterward, he relinquished the title of dictator, returned to his farm, and picked up his plow in the very same place he left it.

He was in power for 15 full days, retiring on the 16th day.

Cincinnatus is held up as a paragon of civic virtue. US President George Washington, who also could have maintained absolute power but put it aside in favor of the new Constitution, is referred to as The American Cincinnatus. – WTF fun facts 

Source: “Our history: Who was Cincinnatus, inspiration for city’s name?” —

WTF Fun Fact #12394

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt became friends with “First Lady of the Air” Amelia Earhart 1932. That was the same year of Earhart’s famous nonstop trans-Atlantic flight.

On April 20, 1933, they attended a formal dinner at the White House when Earhart got a little restless and suggested they go on an adventure. The feminist trailblazers grabbed some friends and slipped out of the event in their ballgowns. Then they hopped on a plane to spice up the evening at Earhart’s suggestion.

The plan was to travel to Baltimore and back before dessert, and they headed to the air hangar at Hoover Field and hopped aboard one of Eastern Air Transport’s twin-engine Curtiss Condor planes.

Two of the airplane company’s pilots had to operate the plane, but the women managed to nudge them aside at some point and took over the cockpit, acting as pilot and co-pilot for at least part of the flight.

After the short trip, the Secret Service ushered everyone back to the dinner.

Of course, Earhart would eventually go on her ill-fated trip around the world in 1937, from which she never returned. Roosevelt continued her humanitarian deeds until her death in 1962.

When speaking about their adventurous evening, Roosevelt told The Baltimore Sun: “It does mark an epoch, doesn’t it, when a girl in an evening dress and slippers can pilot a plane at night.” – WTF Fun Facts

Source: Pilots in Evening Gowns: When Amelia Earhart and Eleanor Roosevelt Took to the Skies — A Mighty Girl