Hanging at the Gemäldegalerie Art Museum in Berlin, Germany, is an unusual painting. Measuring 64 inches by 46 inches, this oil-on-oak-panel painting from the 1500s has an unusual subject. The crowd of people are all doing frankly weird things: two men are defecating out of a window, a man is biting into a wooden pillar, another man is banging his head against a wall, a man is burying a calf, a man is attempting to scoop up spilled porridge, and a woman is tying into a bundle what appears to be the devil. This odd artwork was made by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, who was one of the most significant Dutch artist of the Renaissance. Titled "Netherlandish Proverbs," the painting is actually a literal illustration of more than one hundred Dutch language proverbs and idioms.

The full inventory of Shakespeare's possessions, which would have listed his books and other important information that modern historians would kill for, was probably sent to London. Important records were kept at the time in the capital. Unfortunately, that means the inventory was most likely destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666.

Dirty People, Not Rats and Fleas, May Have Been Why The Black Death Spread

A new study suggests that we should stop blaming rats for spreading the Black Plague. Instead, the findings suggest, we should look at ourselves. Dirty humans, not dirty rats, were the likely culprits in spreading the bubonic plague. Specifically, “ectoparasites,” such as body lice and fleas carried by people, are more likely to be the guilty party.

Using mortality data from nine plague outbreaks in Europe between the 1300s and 1800s, the teams in Norway and Italy tracked how pandemics developed. In seven of the cases there was a closer resemblance to the human model for outbreak spread compared with the alternatives. Which means that if humans were just a little cleaner, the plague would not have spread so easily, or killed so many.

Horrific Aztec Plague Identified Using Modern DNA Analyses

DNA analyses from a mass grave, dating to the end of the Aztec Empire, shows they died of an epidemic of salmonella. Salmonella enterica Paratyphi C, a pathogen that causes enteric fever, is the likely culprit. This is the first time science has been used to identify the epidemic which the Spanish at the time called "full bloodiness." Its indigenous name was the cocoliztli epidemic. It hit regions of Mexico and Guatemala from 1545-1550, and symptoms included intense fever, pain, vomiting and bleeding from eyes and nose. The death toll is estimated to be between 5 and 15 million Native Americans -- that's up to 80% of a population which had no resistance to this, or a host of other diseases, which had suddenly arrived on their continent.

The Cheesiest Bank In The World

In Italy there’s a special tier of Parmesan cheese called Parmigianino Reggiano that is considered to be so valuable that it has its own (privately-owned) bank. The bank, in one form or another, has been around since the Medici Era. Here's how things work: it can take more than 3 years for the cheese to cure. And during that time, cheesemakers still need to be paid, cheesemaking buildings still need their heating bills paid, et cetera. So while the cheese is curing, this special bank will hold it in a special, air-conditioned vault and the cheese’s owner can take out a loan against it. The loan can keep the cheese making going while the  Parmigianino Reggiano gets perfectly aged and ready for the big time. When the loan is paid off, the owner gets the cheese back and can sell it for a premium.

The cheese contained in the Parmesan vault is valued in excess of $100 million. Although there is top-notch security, the bank has been robbed three times in the past, because c’mon, their vault is both valuable and delicious!

A jug with an inscription around its middle, covered in gold and silver inlay, with a dragon for a handle. The inscription invokes the name of 'Ali, the son-in-law of the prophet Muhammad. Because 'Ali is so highly regarded by Shi'a Muslims, the inscription suggests the jug was made for a Shi'a follower of the Shi'a Safavid Dynasty. The writing itself is special: it is an example of Naskh, a specialized style of the Arabic alphabet, which allows for faster writing. Although that's not something to be concerned about on a jug since inlay is going to take a long time no matter the style.

Safavid Dynasty, Iran, circa late 1400s to early 1500s CE. Courtesy of the Met Museum.

A Riddle In Time

William Shakespeare, renowned English playwrite and poet, and Miguel de Cervantes, famous Spanish novelist, both died on the 23rd of April in 1616. But they did not die on the same day. What the heck, you are thinking, when is dead not dead? This riddle has a simple answer: de Cervantes lived in Spain, and Shakespeare lived in England. The two countries followed two different calendars.

The Gregorian calendar had been instituted in Spain in the late 1500s, some thirty years before our protagonists died, because Pope Gregory XIII was displeased with the Julian calendar. It had had been in place since, well, Julius Caesar, and all of Europe used it. The Romans were extremely advanced time-keepers for their time but they were not perfect. The Julian calendar is slightly too long for a solar year, and over the centuries, it had gotten out of sync with the natural seasons. Most troubling to Gregory XIII, though, was that Easter no longer fell where it should. Easter was the ultimate Catholic holiday! Something must be done! So all good Catholic nations, including Spain, switched to the newfangled Gregorian calendar in the late 1500s at the urging of the pope. Ten days were added to the date in order to line up the new Gregorian calendar -- because of course Gregory XIII had the new calendar named after himself.

Shakespeare, however, lived in England. A good Protestant country. They were hardly going to let the pope tell them what to do. In fact, they were so anti-pope that they didn't make the switch for another two hundred years! That meant that England continued to follow the Julian calendar, and never lost those ten days. So when de Cervantes died in Spain on the 23rd of April, 1616, in England it was only the 13th of April, 1616. Shakespeare lived for exactly 10 more days, then died on HIS 23rd of April. And that is how two famous writers could die on the same calendar day, but not the same physical day.

New Analyses Show Child Mummy From 1500s Had Hepatitis B -- Contradicting Earlier Studies

When the small girl was first removed from her tomb in the Basilica of Saint Domenico Maggiore in Naples, Italy in 1985, scientists were very excited. With pockmark-type scars on her face, arms, and palms, she seemed a clear case of smallpox. Electron microscopic images also showed egg-shaped, virus-like particles that looked like Variola virus, or smallpox, suggesting the child died of a severe form of the disease.

A paper published in The Lancet in 1986 trumpeted the new findings. She was the earliest example of smallpox yet found. She had both physical symptoms and microscopic evidence of smallpox. Records indicated the mummy had been left undisturbed from 1594, so her disease had to have been present when she died, not introduced later via contamination. In short, she was perfect, if well-preserved forms of historic deadly viruses is your thing.

But a recent DNA analysis of the girl contradicts the earlier findings. She kept coming back negative for smallpox -- but positive for Hepatitis B. Instead of smallpox, the girl had likely had a syndrome called Gianotti-Crosti, where children with severe HBV infections develop a rash on the face and trunk. While one historic discovery has been debunked, the new study provides critical evidence for the origin of a disease that is carried by 350 million people globally, and kills almost one million each year. We still do not know when exactly Hepatitis B migrated from wild mammals to humans. But by sequencing what is now the earliest known example in humans, and examining the differences between its 1500s form and its modern form, scientists can better understand this still-deadly disease.

The Astronomer's Sister

Tycho Brahe became a famous astronomer in the 1500s-1600s, but his sister Sophie is typically forgotten for her own scientific merit. When she was 17-years-old, Sophie began working as an assistant for Tycho, who was 27 at the time. In 1573, she helped her brother record a Lunar Eclipse. He had theorized the timing of it for years, and his findings went down in history. Aside from learning astronomy from Tycho, Sophie studied classic literature, mathematics, medicine, and alchemy. And she was a horticulturist to boot, something her brother never did, and was famous for her gardens. She was, in short, one of the most scientifically well-educated women in Europe in the late 1500s and early 1600s.

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    By Lillian Audette

    This blog is a collection of the interesting, the weird, and sometimes the need-to-know about history, culled from around the internet. It has pictures, it has quotes, it occasionally has my own opinions on things. If you want to know more about anything posted, follow the link at the "source" on the bottom of each post. And if you really like my work, buy me a coffee or become a patron!

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