4 Impressively Weird Pranks From Centuries Ago
Modern people have a weird conception of history being nothing but a bunch of boring prudes whose entire lives consisted of church, famine, and shame. But one thing has always been true: Where you find bored people, you'll find people who are inventing diabolical ways to keep themselves entertained. And I'm telling you, some of the pranks of the distant past were intense.
A Famous Renaissance Architect Convinced His Friend He'd Switched Bodies
In fiction, geniuses either enrich humanity or get all supervillainy, but in real life, they usually do a bit of both. Filippo Brunelleschi (a prominent 14th-century architect in Florence) was a good example. His most famous work is the dome on the Cathedral of Santa Maria de Fiore, known locally as "that bigass dome." But he also supposedly pulled off what might be one of the greatest practical jokes ever.
If accounts are to be believed, the victim was a carpenter known locally as "Il Grasso" -- which means "The Fat," because nickname technology was still rudimentary back then. Il Grasso did ... something to piss off Filippo, possibly missing a dinner party. Filippo decided that this unforgivable faux pas warranted driving Il Grasso to the brink of madness. He did this by convincing Il Grasso that he had switched bodies with Matteo, a local rich guy. That's right, he was going to force the guy to live an '80s body-swap comedy.
One fine day in 1409, as Il Grasso was walking home from his carpentry store, Filippo got to his house first, picked the lock, then locked the door behind him. When Il Grasso tried to get into his own home, Filippo impersonated Il Grasso's voice, telling him to go away. It seems Filippo was really good at doing voices, because Il Grasso was so confused that he wandered off to the town square, where he bumped into famous sculptor Donatello (who, unbeknownst to the victim, was in on the prank). Then Donatello was like, "Hey Matteo, what's up?"
At this point, Il Grasso was kind of freaking out, and it probably didn't help when a cop arrested him, saying that he, "Matteo," was wanted for a gambling debt. The cop hauled Il Grasso's ass to jail, where, despite his protests, they wrote his name down as Matteo. All of the prisoners greeted him as Matteo, because of course all of these people were on Filippo's payroll, since he had that sweet sweet dome money.
Il Grasso ended up spending a night in jail, and if Filippo had any sense of morality, he'd have ended it there. But he didn't, because of course the guy who may have invented the alarm clock was a sadistic dick. So the next morning, Il Grasso woke up to Matteo's brothers paying off his debt and taking him to Matteo's house, insisting that they were his brothers all day until they slipped him a potion that Filippo gave them. The, uh, "potion" made Il Grasso fall asleep.
Matteo's brothers carried him to his own home and put him in his bed. Before they left, they messed with all of Il Grasso's carpentry tools, as if someone had been using them and didn't know where they should be put away. The next morning, Il Grasso woke up in his own bed to find his house was a mess. Later that day, the real Matteo showed up and told Il Grasso that he had the strangest dream -- that he was a carpenter!
And since apparently everyone in Florence was willing to go along with the prank, Il Grasso pulled up stakes, left his successful business, and ran away to Hungary to get away from those Italian maniacs.
A 14th-Century Book Teaches You How To Set Your Friend's Face On Fire
If I told you there was a book written in the first half of the 1300s called the Secretum Philosophorum, what would you think it's about? It sounds like an object in an Elder Scrolls quest, so if you guessed "magic," you'd be right. If you guessed "math," "grammar," "astronomy," "philosophy," "music," or "recipes for ink," you would have also been right. Look, it was the 1300s; books were hard to make, so they tried to cover as many bases as possible. Including "How to make your friends look like fools and/or have a terror-induced heart attack."
Now, the book does indeed contain magic, in both senses of the word. It has instructions on how to pull do real spells, like making someone love you using a blue jay's tongue. Even in the 14th century, doing crazy shit like trying to grab a bird and rip its tongue out was considered a better way to improve your love life than just being a less awful person.
But then you have the cruel tricks. One prank suggestion is to use the stalk of an oat plant and a ball of wax to make a cross seem to magically rotate by itself, which the author then suggests you pretend can tell whether your friend is a virgin. Haha, that dude who will probably die from plague in the next few months hasn't gotten laid!
The best pranks in the book, though, are the ones that take things to an extreme. Like adding coiled wired to your friend's steak so that it seems to be full of maggots. Or my personal favorite: a recipe for making a flammable powder. You then throw that powder through a candle into your buddy's face so that, and I'm quoting here, "his whole face will catch on fire and he will be thought to be burning, although the fire will not hurt him at all." Hahaha, fool! Thinkest that thou were aflame, but 'twas not so! Twas a prank, bro! Twas a prank!
Monks Drew Memes, Fart Jokes, And Dicks
In Europe in the Middle Ages, it could around 20 years to complete a single copy of a complicated manuscript, which honestly makes me feel a lot better about my output as a writer. And in that amount of time, the monks who copied books by hand occasionally got bored. And when they got bored, they drew the medieval version of memes.
While many manuscripts have illustrations that are pertinent to the text, there's an entire subgenre of marginalia broadly called "drolleries" that are very, very loosely related to what's going on in the text. The context of some of these have been lost to history. Knights fighting snails is a recurring theme, as are cute lil' bunnies engaged in heinous acts of violence. These are cultural in-jokes without any particular meaning besides the fact that rabbits with wild PCP eyes beating a naked dude to death with a stick and then skinning him alive is so absurd that it's funny.
Not everything is so weird to our modern sensibilities, though. It turns out that comedy hasn't really evolved all that much in a thousand-odd years. These monks and nuns were writing down holy words all day long, but they slipped in a fart joke here and there.
Of course, it wasn't just weird stuff and toilet humor. There was also sexual humor!
I like that last one because it doesn't have any context. It's just an erect dick in a basket. Classic.
A Roman Emperor Pranked Guests With Large Predators
Elagabalus was a Roman child-emperor, and while it's tempting to compare him to Joffrey Baratheon, it's probably more apt to say it's like if Logan Paul was president. He had a reputation for cruelty, narcissism, and excess, but he was also known to play pranks on his dinner guests. In fact, Elgabulus may have invented a prototypical whoopee cushion, which is perfect for making someone think they did a Brown Pompeii in their subligaculums.
And while that might seem like a bit of silly mischief that any teenage boy might do, Elagabulus' pranks had a darker side. No pubescent god-king's palace is complete without a passel of tamed leopards, lions, and bears, and Elagabalus' was no exception. And one of his favorite pranks was to get his dinner guests so drunk that they had to sleep over at his palace, since it's dangerous to drink and chariot. Once they were asleep, he'd have his servants sneak a leopard, bear, or lion into their chamber so they'd wake up to a variety pack of man-eating predators.
Now, these animals were trained not to hurt the guests (a fact that was only known to Elagabalus), so hypothetically, the only scars the guests would leave with were emotional. However, he also "let [serpents] loose ... and many people were injured by their fangs as well as in the general panic." Understandably, the Bag Full O' Dangerous Snakes Prank wasn't quite the classic the Whoopee Cushion was.
Eventually, the Romans got so sick of Elagabalus that they cut off his fucking head and pronounced damnatio memoriae on him -- that is, all references to him were eliminated in an attempt to erase him from history. Most of his statues had their faces altered so they depicted Alex, Elagabalus' less-obnoxious cousin. That sounds like I'm making a dumb joke, but I'm not. Either all of this actually happened, or the guys who wrote it down thought it'd be funny to fuck with future generations. Which is a pretty funny prank in itself, really.
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