Our scientific understanding has come a long way in the past few centuries – I mean, it really wasn’t all that long ago that blood-letting was a popular medical treatment for a variety of ailments. And don’t even get me started on the bodily humors!
Here are some of the wildest things that we used to believe:
1. High-speed travel could cause insanity
Changes in technology can be frightening (as we well know). Though a far cry from the worries of today, when railroads were introduced, they caused a bit of a stir. It became much faster and easier to travel long distances, and Victorians thought this high-speed travel could cause insanity by injuring the brain. There were reports in the 1860s and 1870s of people on trains acting strangely, including one man who stripped off his clothes. Eventually, these concerns faded out.
2. Tiny demons lived in lettuce
In some countries, people cut crosses into Brussels sprouts before they cook them. This isn’t to help them cook; it actually stems from a medieval belief that tiny demons lived in the leaves of leafy vegetables like lettuce, Brussels sprouts, and cabbage. If you swallowed a spirit, you might become ill, so people began cutting crosses into the vegetables to drive out the demons.
3. Lobotomies could cure depression
This is a much more recent phenomenon, stemming from the middle of the 20th century. Doctors performed lobotomies to cure “melancholy” in patients, using a tool that resembled an ice pick. This procedure cut the frontal lobes away from the rest of the brain, often leaving the patient mute and docile. The practice was phased out as our understanding of brain function and medical ethics improved.
4. We see because of fire beams
In 400 BCE, a very early neuroscientist thought we saw because of fire that existed in the eye. Plato also thought that our eyes expelled fire, and that’s what allowed us to see.
5. Witches kept penises as pets
Some medieval folks believed that witches could steal penises, which they would then keep as pets. This “practice” is described in the Malleus Maleficarum, a witch-hunting guide penned in the 1400s by Heinrich Kramer.
6. There was a bull that pooped fire
Called the “bonnacon,” this bull was thought to shoot dung really far (like, up to 2 acres) in order to defend itself. The poop would burn anything it came in contact with.
7. California was an island
In the 1500s and 1600s, explorers thought that California was an island. Several maps show California floating in the ocean, disconnected from the rest of the U.S.
Many would argue California is still disconnected today…
8. Tobacco smoke enemas were a cure-all
Enemas are still surprisingly popular today, but in the 18th century, people turned to tobacco smoke enemas to cure a variety of ailments, including colds, headaches, hernias, and cramps.
9. Gladiator blood could cure epilepsy
Gladiators blood was thought to have medical properties, including curing epilepsy. It was used from the first until the sixth century.
10. Children were kidnapped by fairies
In medieval Britain, people believed that children were sometimes kidnapped by fairies and replaced by a changeling. The changelings were maybe deformed or ill or much more poorly behaved. It’s thought that this was one way people coped with the high infant mortality rates at the time. To test whether their baby was a changeling, you could put a shoe in a bowl of soup in front of the baby. If the baby laughed, it was a fairy.
Some fun old stuff, right?