If you wanted to build a castle in medieval England, you needed permission from the king. They’re supposed to be for the defence of the realm, but sometimes you just want to fake out the neighbours.
Princess Alexandra of Bavaria was a noted author and translator in the mid-19th century. She also firmly believed that as a young child she had swallowed a grand piano made of glass.
Europe has a long tradition of puzzle and prank cups and jugs: to drink out of these vessels you must first solve a mechanical challenge.
When the air is just right, a large ring appears around the moon. A similar effect makes it look like three suns are rising at once; this may have helped the English king Edward IV win the Battle of Mortimer’s Cross in 1461.
July 15 is Saint Swithun’s Day. Legend has it that, if it rains today, we’re in for forty more days of bad weather. It’s like Groundhog Day, but instead of a whistlepig there’s a saint who was buried outdoors.
Batman lives in Gotham City. Where did the name come from? Its history follows a circuitous route via the 19th century equivalent of Mad magazine, smart idiots who hated public infrastructure, goats, and Robin Hood’s King John.
For three years in the middle of the 12th century, the Tu’i Tonga Empire was ruled by a piece of wood.
A tiny yolkless egg shows up in your henhouse. Today, we know this to be a chicken’s first training egg. In the 12th century? It came from a rooster, and you better throw it over your house or it will be born a monster.
Most people know that smallpox was the first disease that we have completely eradicated in the wild. But what was the second, and what does it have to do with Egyptian plagues, measles, and cattle?
Geoffrey Chaucer is best known as the author of The Canterbury Tales, one of the most important works of early English literature. I guess that didn’t pay the bills, because he also wrote one of the first English technical manuals.
Around 1311 CE, the mansa (sultan) of the Mali Empire sent hundreds of ships to find the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. They were lost at sea, so on the next expedition he sailed into the Atlantic himself. He was never seen again.
We think of rocket launchers as a modern invention, but the Koreans were using them four hundred years ago. The hwacha could fire two hundred rockets at once, blowing up enemies more than a hundred metres away.
In 1492, the Columbus expedition sighted and visited land. We’re still not sure which island in the Caribbean he landed on, but did he see a UFO the night before?
The hand is a flexible and convenient mnemonic device. The knuckle mnemonic tells us the number of days in a month, but a musical mnemomic called the Guidonian hand has been around for eight hundred years.
For most Westerners, stone circles begin and end with Stonehenge. But there are examples around the world, in Australia, Asia, and Africa too. In Senegal and The Gambia, there are around two thousand of these megalithic monuments.