Most youngsters secretly believe that their parents have no idea of what is going on.
Most parents remember believing that as youngsters – and yet still fondly believe that their own parents went to their graves never figuring out half the things that they got up to as kids, even as they believe that THEY aren’t letting their own kids get away with anything.
Doublethink is a wonderful thing. It lets you believe that your generation is uniquely clever – and that both your ancestors were, and your descendents will be, toddling through life in blissful ignorance. It makes it easy to think that most people throughout history were basically ignorant – and, by extension, rather stupid.
It isn’t true. A medieval peasant might not know where to find India and various other countries on a map, but he or she would be intimately familiar with where to find a wide variety of berries, herbs, and other natural resources around his or her village – and guess which skill set will be more useful in most people’s lives?
A new Master Mason in the medieval period would have spent a lot more hours listening to older masons, and studying what theory there was, and (especially!) in practical hands-on practice, than anyone of similar age with a modern architectural degree. Did you start at age seven and spend twelve hours a day until your mid-twenties practicing in your field? No? Then don’t sneer at that Master Mason. We could plunk him down in a forest and reasonably expect him to do much of the work of feeding himself AND to build himself a fine stone house from scratch.
For a practical example, many people think that “forensics” is a modern discipline – something you have to go to college to study.
Lets take a look around… a medieval kitchen, and see what we can learn about forensics at a quick glance.
Behold a slab of raw meat! The cook wants some, so it’s time to take a knife to it!
Hm… the fork leaves small holes, a saw leaves ground-up edges, a sharp knife leaves a clean cut, a dull knife tears, and a hammer pounds meat out flat so that it cooks through quickly! Behold! Different implements leave different kinds of injuries! If you look at the damage left behind, you can tell quite a lot about what caused that damage. You can see where the dog bit and worried off a chunk, where the arrow that brought down the animal let a lot of blood leak into the tissue to cause massive bruising (and change the flavor), and where someone has been trimming the slab.
Oh, wait, the Chief Cook is getting impatient.
Hurriedly hacking off a few slices is the work of a few moments, offering little to observe save the slow oozing of blood from the meat. Funny though; when you – in your hurry – accidentally gash a finger, the blood comes welling out, almost as if something was pushing it! Evidently when you poke holes in live things, they bleed a lot – but when you poke holes in dead things, not so much. Something… is pushing the blood out of living things!
No time for that, the cook wants a fresh chicken! That’s an easy one though; you grab a chicken, hold it down, and chop off it’s head…
There’s that blood spurting again! No worries; it will stop in a few moments! All you need to do is hang on until it does.
Hm. It stops spurting when… the heartbeat stops. At the traditional moment of death. There won’t be a formal medical description of the function of the heart and the mechanics of the circulation of the blood until Realdo Colombo (1516-1559) – but formal scholarship often does lag a long ways behind practical experience. That’s one of the ways that the people doing the autopsy on Julius Caesar were able to tell that it was the second knife wound that had killed him…
Now everyone knows that bodies decompose, but surely you can’t learn anything about that in a well-run kitchen!
Oh wait. The cook is calling for that partridge that’s been hanging!
Yes, that does mean letting raw meat – or entire animals – spend days or even several weeks starting to decompose a bit before you eat them. Of course, if you forgot to drain off most of the blood first, rot would set in a lot faster. In warmer climates it’s a good idea to drain the blood at once, even if you intend to cook the animal immediately. Throwing out a few things which wound up being over-aged will ensure a basic familiarity with the processes – and very rough timetable – of decay.
It will also ensure that you’re aware that things keep longer when kept cool, keep almost indefinitely when frozen (a boon to winter larders), and can be preserved in a variety of ways.
Now that the main meal is prepared – and that we’re past the stinky part – lets rejoin our young kitchen apprentice as he learns to… gut game. The hunters have brought in some fresh carcasses again!
They’re cooling and stiffening of course. You’ll soon get used to how fast they cool, and how quickly they stiffen up and unstiffen, and pick up a decent working knowledge anatomy, of as you work in this job though!
Oops! Nicked the gut!
OK, so we’re not done with the stinky part yet!
Still, all that glop spilling out… we can see what this creature was eating before it wound up on the menu itself.
We can also see the liver flukes, the worms in the intestines, and the swollen and discolored liver that indicates poison or some really serious sickness…
If you’re working in a Jewish household the Talmud calls for seventy different traditional “forensic” checks for irregularities and growths. For example, the lungs are checked for scars which might have been caused by an inflammation – which would render the animal unfit to eat under Jewish dietary laws.
Yes, preparing kosher food calls for a fairly detailed autopsy on each and every carcass.
Wiping the blood off your hands will reveal – at least if you look closely – the individuality of hand and fingerprints – but that’s no news; hand and fingerprints were widely accepted as signatures as early as 2000 BC in Babylonia – and the roman attorney Quintilian won his client’s acquittal for murder by showing that the suspect’s hand did not match a bloody palm print at the murder site in the first century BC.
People “back then” were not stupid. They had plenty of practical experience and minds that were every bit as sharp and observant as people today. (Possibly even sharper and more observant on the average. “Died of stupidity” was a lot more prevalent back then).
Don’t assume that you’re going to get away with things in a game just because the local guards don’t have a forensics degree. They may not have a formal education, but they’re usually not at ALL stupid.