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5 Surprising Uses for Stilts

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Most people think of stilts as something for circuses and kiddie parties, but they’ve been used in a number of strange ways since ancient times. In fact, stilts have a long, proud history of weirdness that continues today.

1. A Town Of Stilt Walkers

In the 19th century, Landes, France was a brushy wasteland that turned swampy whenever it rained. Locals dealt with this harsh environment by walking on stilts—everyone, from housewives to the mailman, had a pair.

Landes shepherds used these tchangues, or “big legs,” to direct their flocks. Wearing sleeveless fur jackets and berets, they maneuvered over the landscape with ease, using their walking sticks as a crook. When they rested, they sat on a tripod of the stilts and walking stick so they could watch their sheep from on high. To pass the time, they knitted.

Not surprisingly, Landesians were adept at stilt walking, able to pick up pebbles from the ground and run at fast speeds. When Empress Josephine passed through Landes in 1808, stilt walkers kept up with her carriage even though the horses were at full trot. With the 20th century, the region was transformed by forestation and better infrastructure and the need for stilts passed away, although Landes stilt dancing is still known in France.

2. Stilt Marathons

In 1891, a Landes shepherd named Sylvain Dornon stilt walked from Paris to Moscow in 58 days. It was the first of many stilt marathons. Others include 12-year-old Emma Disley scaling Wales' highest mountain on stilts in 1977, Saimaiti Yiming in China stilt walking 49 miles in one day in 2003, and Neil Sauter crossing Michigan to raise money for cerebral palsy in 2013.

The record for the longest stilt walk goes to Joe Bowen, who walked 3008 miles from LA to Kentucky in 1980. But he wasn’t the first person to stilt walk the country. In 1914, the Harrisburg Telegraph sent FE Wilvert from Pennsylvania to San Francisco on stilts. Wearing waterproof pants, a top hat, and a banner, Wilvert sent missives from cities on his route for the newspaper to publish. “You can bet your bottom dollar to a toothpick I’ll make it,” he told the Telegraph—and he did.

3. Stilt Jousting

For 600 years, Namur, Belgium has held a stilt jousting tournament called the Golden Stilt. Teams of jousters in red-and-white costumes try to take each other down by shoving, shoulder butting, poking, kicking, and knocking out their opponent’s stilts. The person still standing at the end wins.

Namur’s stilt jousting is all in fun, but there’s evidence it started out violently. In the Middle Ages, locals took to using stilts whenever the rivers flooded. At some point, stilt fighting became so common that the city banned it in 1411. Apparently, the ban didn’t stick and stilt jousting became an event, with stories of thousands of people competing in the town square. It’s a long tradition that Namur continues today.

4. Working on Stilts

Hop pickers, fruit pickers, window washers, and drywallers all use stilts to avoid messing with a ladder. And then there are the stilt fishermen of Sri Lanka.

For decades, these fishermen have climbed on stilts sticking up in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Suspended above the coral reef on a thin perch attached to the stilt, they use rods to catch herring and mackerel. This practice started after World War II, when fishermen began hanging on discarded iron pipes from the war to avoid disturbing the fish.

Although stilt fishing is attracting tourists to the region, the fishermen only make pennies per fish. That’s low pay by any standard, and many say stilt fishing is disappearing as the men find more lucrative work in other industries, like, say, tourism.

5. An Extreme Sport

Powerbocking is a sport that has popped up around spring-loaded stilts. Invented by German engineer Alexander Boeck in the 1990s, jumping stilts have fiberglass leaf springs that are attached to a curved aluminum frame that tapers to a footplate called the hoof. They let you jump 3 to 5 feet, take 9-foot kangaroo-like strides, and run 20 miles per hour. It’s like a trampoline is attached to your feet.

Jumping stilts were used in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and the U.S. Air Force is rumored to have tested them for military use. It's unclear whether bocking will catch on, but if so, we could be looking at a stilt renaissance in the future. Think of it as the Pogo Stick on steroids.

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History
A Very Brief History of Chamber Pots

Some of the oldest chamber pots found by archeologists have been discovered in ancient Greece, but portable toilets have come a long way since then. Whether referred to as "the Jordan" (possibly a reference to the river), "Oliver's Skull" (maybe a nod to Oliver Cromwell's perambulating cranium), or "the Looking Glass" (because doctors would examine urine for diagnosis), they were an essential fact of life in houses and on the road for centuries. In this video from the Wellcome Collection, Visitor Experience Assistant Rob Bidder discusses two 19th century chamber pots in the museum while offering a brief survey of the use of chamber pots in Britain (including why they were particularly useful in wartime).

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Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
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History
Tomb Raider: The Story of Saint Nicholas's Stolen Bones
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock

Throughout history, corpses have been bought and sold, studied, collected, stolen, and dissected. In Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses, Mental Floss editor Bess Lovejoy looked into the afterlife of numerous famous corpses, including Saint Nicholas, one of the many canonized bodies whose parts were highly prized by churches, thieves, and the faithful.

Don't tell the kids, but Santa Claus has been dead for more than sixteen hundred years. No, his body is not at the North Pole, and he's not buried with Mrs. Claus. In fact, his remains are thousands of miles away, on Italy's sunny Adriatic coast. And while Santa might be enjoying his Mediterranean vacation, he's probably not too happy about what happened to his remains. They were stolen in the eleventh century, and people have been fighting over them ever since.

Of course, the Santa Claus of folklore doesn't have a skeleton. But his inspiration, Saint Nicholas, does. That's about all we can say for sure about Nicholas: he was a bishop who lived and died in what is now Turkey in the first half of the fourth century. Legend tells us that he was born into a rich family and delighted in giving gifts. Once, he threw three bags of gold into the window of a poor family's house, saving the three daughters who lived there from a life of prostitution. Another time, he raised three children from the dead after a butcher carved them up and stored them in a vat of brine. He also protected sailors, who were said to cry out his name in rough seas, then watch the waves mysteriously smooth.

The sailors spread Nicholas's cult around the world. Within a century of his death, the bishop was worshipped as a saint, lending his name to hundreds of ports, islands, and inlets, and thousands of baby boys. He became one of the best-loved saints in all of Christendom, adopted by both the Eastern and Western traditions. Christmas probably owes something to his December 6 feast day, while Santa Claus’s red outfit may come from his red bishop’s robes. "Santa Claus" is derived from "Sinterklaas," which was how Dutch immigrants to New Amsterdam pronounced his name.

As one of the most popular saints in the Christian world, Nicholas had a particularly powerful corpse. The bodies of saints and martyrs had been important to Christianity since its beginning: the earliest churches were built on the tombs of saints. It was thought that the bodily bits of saints functioned like spiritual walkie-talkies: you could communicate with higher powers through them, and they, in turn, could manifest holy forces on Earth. They could heal you, protect you, and even perform miracles.

Sometimes, the miracles concerned the saints' own bodies. Their corpses would refuse to decay, exude an inexplicable ooze, or start to drip blood that mysteriously solidified and then reliquefied. So it was with Nicholas: at some point after his death, his bones began to secrete a liquid called manna or myrrh, which was said to smell like roses and possess potent healing powers.

The appearance of the manna was taken as a sign that Nicholas’s corpse was especially holy, and pilgrims began flocking by the thousands to his tomb in the port city of Myra (now called Demre). By the eleventh century, other cities started getting jealous. At the time, cities and churches often competed for relics, which brought power and prestige to their hometowns the way a successful sports team might today. Originally, the relics trade had been nourished by the catacombs in Rome, but when demand outstripped supply, merchants—and even monks—weren't above sneaking down into the crypts of churches to steal some holy bones. Such thefts weren't seen as a sin; the sanctity of the remains trumped any ethical concerns. The relics were also thought to have their own personalities—if they didn't want to be stolen, they wouldn't allow it. Like King Arthur's sword in the stone, they could only be removed by the right person.

That was how Myra lost Saint Nicholas. The culprits were a group of merchants and sailors from the town of Bari, located on the heel of Italy's boot. Like other relic thefts, this one came at a time of crisis for the town where the thieves lived, which in this case had recently been invaded by a horde of rapacious Normans. The conquerors wanted to compete with the Venetians, their trading rivals to the north, who were known for stealing the bones of Saint Mark (disguised in a basket of pork) from Alexandria in 827. And when the Normans heard that Myra had recently fallen to the Turks, leaving Nicholas’s tomb vulnerable, they decided to try stealing a saint for themselves.

According to an account written shortly after the theft by a Barian clerk, three ships sailed from Bari into Myra's harbor in the spring of 1087. Forty-seven well armed Barians disembarked and strode into the church of Saint Nicholas, where they asked to see the saint’s tomb. The monks, who weren't idiots, got suspicious and asked why they wanted to know. The Barians then dropped any pretense of politeness, tied the monks up, and smashed their way into Nicholas's sarcophagus. They found his skeleton submerged in its manna and smelled a heavenly perfume wafting up from the bones, which "licked at the venerable priests as if in insatiable embrace."

And so Nicholas of Myra became Nicholas of Bari. The relics made the town, and the men who stole them. The thieves became famous in the area, and for centuries their descendants received a percentage of the offerings given on the saint’s feast day. The townspeople built a new basilica to hold the remains, which drew thousands of pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages. Even today, Bari remains a major pilgrimage site in southern Italy, visited by both Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Every May an elaborate festival, the Feast of the Translation, celebrates the arrival of Nicholas’s relics. As one of the highlights, the rector of the basilica bends over Nicholas’s sarcophagus and draws off some of the manna in a crystal vial. The fluid is mixed with holy water and poured into decorated bottles sold in Bari's shops; it is thought to be a curative drink.

But Bari is not the only place that boasts of the bones of Saint Nicholas. If you ask the Venetians, they will say their own sailors visited Myra during the First Crusade and stole Nicholas’s remains, which have been in Venice ever since. For centuries, both Bari and Venice have claimed the saint's skeleton.

In the twentieth century, scientists waded into the dispute. During renovations to the basilica of Bari in 1953, church officials allowed University of Bari anatomy professor Luigi Martino to examine the remains— the first time the tomb had been opened in more than eight hundred years. Martino found the bones wet, fragile, and fragmented, with many of them missing. He concluded that they had belonged to a man who died in his seventies, although because Martino was given only a short time with the bones, he could say little more.

Four decades later, Martino and other scientists also studied the Venetian bones. They concluded that those relics and the ones in Bari had come from the same skeleton, and theorized that the Venetian sailors had stolen what was left in Myra after the Barians had done all their smashing.

As for Demre, all they have is an empty tomb. And they want their bones back. In 2009, the Turkish government said it was considering a formal request to Rome for the return of Nicholas's remains. Though the bones have little religious significance in a nation that’s 99 percent Muslim, there’s still a sense in Turkey that the centuries-old theft was a cultural violation. Its restitution would certainly be an economic benefit: according to local officials, tourists in Demre frequently complain about the barren tomb, and they weren't satisfied by the giant plastic sculpture of Santa Claus that once stood outside Nicholas’s church. Even though Santa has become an international cultural icon, his myth is still rooted in a set of bones far from home.

From REST IN PIECES: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses by Bess Lovejoy. Copyright © 2013 by Bess Lovejoy. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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