COMMON MYTHS ABOUT HISTORY
By Tim Lambert
There are many myths about history! Most of us have grown up with them. This article looks at some of the most common historical myths.
General myths about the past
In the past 9 out of 10 people died before the age of 40
We do not know exactly what average life expectancy at birth was in the past but historians think it was about 35 years in the Middle Ages. (So 50% of the people born reached that age). However that does not mean that people dropped dead when they reached 35! Average life expectancy at birth was around 35 but a great many of the people born died in childhood. We don't know exactly what percentage died but if we say about 25% of people died before they were 5 years old we are probably not wide of the mark. Perhaps as many as 40% died before they reached adulthood. However if you could survive childhood and your teenage years you had a good chance of living to your 50s or your early 60s and even in the Middle Ages there were some people who lived to 70 or 80.
A History of Life Expectancy in England
People in the past were much smaller than we are
In reality people were slightly smaller. Skeletons from the Mary Rose show the sailors were, on average, between 5 foot 7 inches and 5 foot 8 inches tall. Burial grounds from the Middle Ages and other periods also show that people were, on average, a little bit shorter than modern day people but they were not much smaller.
People in the past were very dirty and rarely washed themselves
In fact there is considerable evidence that most people tried to keep themselves clean. The evidence also suggests that most people washed and changed their clothes quite frequently. They also tried to keep their houses clean. The idea that people were filthy and stunk is a myth.
The myth may have arisen because people rarely took baths. Before the 19th century it was difficult to heat a large amount of water in one go Suppose you heated a cauldron of water and poured it into a tub. By the time you had heated a second lot of water the first lot would already be cold. The Romans solved this problem by having public baths, which could be heated from underneath.
However, after the fall of Rome it was much easier to have a strip wash. In hot weather people bathed in rivers. There is also evidence that people washed their clothes quite often.
A history of Washing
In the past a man had a right to beat his wife provided he did not use a stick thicker than his thumb
There has never been a rule or law in England that a man is entitled to beat his wife provided he uses a stick no thicker than his thumb. William Blackstone (1723-80) wrote Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765-1769). He made no mention of a supposed rule that a stick could be used to hit your wife if it was not thicker than a thumb. So it was never a part of English common law.
We are not certain how the phrase 'rule of thumb' arose but it may come from the days when brewers used to test the temperature of liquid by dipping their thumb in it or from carpenters using their thumbs to measure wood.
Cave people were brutes and morons
Evidence shows that the Neanderthals were caring. One Neanderthal survived despite having a withered arm and deformed feet who was blind in one eye. He could only have survived with the help of the other members of the group. So clearly Neanderthals cared for the disabled. Neanderthals also buried their dead. Anyway the Neanderthals must have been resourceful to survive in a harsh environment.
The later Cro-Magnon people made necklaces of stones and shells (like us they liked wearing jewellery). Cro-Magnon people also created art. They made highly skilled cave paintings and made musical instruments like bone flutes.
Myths about the Ancient World
Boudicca or Boadicea had scythes on the wheels of her chariot
Boudicca was a Celtic woman from eastern England. She led her people in a rebellion against the Romans c. 60 AD. The rebellion ultimately failed. There is no evidence she had scythes attached to the wheels of her chariot.
The Druids built Stonehenge
In reality Stonehenge is much older than the Druids. About 650 BC a people called the Celts arrived in England and their priests were called Druids. However Stonehenge is much older. It is believed it was built in stages between about 3,100 BC and 1,500 BC.
The Druids Practiced Human Sacrifice
This is probably a myth. The 'evidence' that Druids sacrificed people is, to say the least unreliable. See The Druids We can't be certain but its probably a myth.
The Halloween custom of trick or treat is based on a Druid custom
In reality modern Halloween customs evolved from the late 18th century onwards. There is no evidence that trick or treat has anything to do with the Druids.
Julius Caesar was a caesarean birth
Almost certainly this is untrue as his mother lived for many years after his birth (it would normally be fatal for the mother). However the myth that Julius Caesar was born that way may be why this operation is called a caesarean birth.
Slaves built the pyramids
In fact they were built by free men. Most of the men who worked on the pyramids did so when the summer when the Nile flooded and farm work was impossible. During this time they were supplied with food and shelter by the pharaoh.
Everyday life in ancient Egypt
Pythagoras discovered Pythagoras's theorem
No doubt Pythagoras was a brilliant man but the famous theorem was known to the Egyptians and the Babylonians long before he was born.
Everyday life in Ancient Greece
The Philistines were uncultured
Today if you call somebody a Philistine it means they are ignorant, unrefined and tasteless. That is very unfair as the Philistines were actually a highly civilised and cultured people.
In Rome a 'thumb up' signal meant let a defeated gladiator live but a 'thumb down' signal meant kill him
In reality 'thumb up' meant kill him! If the thumb was concealed in a fist it meant let him live. There was no 'thumb down' signal.
Roman Galleys were rowed by slaves
In fact the men who rowed Roman galleys were, usually, free men who joined the navy of their own accord. In reality rowing a galley was highly skilled work.
Life in Rome
Caligula made his horse a senator
In fact there is no record of Caligula actually making his horse a senator.
Nero played the fiddle while Rome burned
The fiddle was not invented till centuries after his death. It is sometimes said that Nero actually played the lyre while Rome burned. He did not do that either. In reality Nero was staying some distance from Rome when the fire began in 64 AD. Nero rushed to the city and did everything he could to help.
Myths about the Middle Ages
The Arabs burned the library of Alexandria
This is very unlikely to be true. In ancient times there was a great library at Alexandria in Egypt. According to the story when the Arabs conquered Egypt in 640 AD Caliph Omar ordered all the books in the library to be burned. They supplied fuel for the saunas for 6 months (a quite fantastic figure). However the story was not written down till the late 12th century more than 500 years late. If it is true why did nobody at the time write about it?.
It is now believed that the library of Alexandria expired long before the Arab conquest.
There was once a female Pope called Pope Joan
This is almost certainly a myth. According to the story a female Pope reigned for more than 2 years from 855 to 858. (In reality Leo IV reigned from 847 to 855 and Benedict III reigned from 855 to 888. There was a gap of only a few weeks between them).
However the first mention of a female Pope was 200 years after she is supposed to have reigned. If the story is true why did nobody write about it at the time? It would have caused a sensation throughout Europe so why did nobody mention it at the time?
King John signed the Magna Carta
King John sealed the Magna Carta by pressing a seal into hot wax but he did not sign it.
In the Middle Ages scholars spent hours debating how many angels could stand on the head of a pin
There is no evidence that anybody in the Middle Ages asked this ridiculous question.
In the Middle Ages some armour was so heavy knights sometimes had to be lifted onto their horses with ropes
This is quite untrue. Armour was heavy but certainly not that heavy.
Life in the Middle Ages
As The Year 1000 AD approached people across Europe panicked. They feared that Jesus Christ was about to return and the World would end
There is no evidence that any such panic occurred. No writer of the time mentioned anything unusual. It was not till hundreds of years later that writers claimed that people panicked as the year 1000 approached.
Vikings wore helmets with horns on
There is no evidence that Vikings ever wore horned helmets when they went into battle. There is no evidence either that Vikings wore helmets with wings on.
Joan of Arc was burned as a witch
This is not true. She was burned for heresy (because she dressed as a man).
Before Columbus people thought the world was flat
This is a myth! In the Middle Ages people were well aware that the world is round. The ancient Greeks were well aware of it and they invented the globe. Ironically the oldest surviving globe was made in 1492 the same year Columbus made his first voyage.
Columbus Was The First European to Discover America
He was not. Obviously the ancestors of today's Native Americans entered North America thousands of years before Columbus. Furthermore Columbus was not even the first European to discover America. The first European to sight the continent was Bjarni Herjolfsson about 985 AD. About 15 years later a man named Leif Ericsson led an expedition to the new land. However the Vikings failed to establish a permanent colony.
Blackheath in London got its name because victims of the Black Death from London were buried there
This is definitely a myth. It was called Blackheath at the time of the Domesday Book (1086) nearly 300 years before the Black Death of 1348-49. We do not know for sure were its name came from. Perhaps the area had dark soil? At any rate it had nothing to do with the Black Death.
Golf is an acronym of 'gentlemen only ladies forbidden'
The word golf is derived from an old Dutch word 'kolf' which meant club. (In the Middle Ages the Dutch played games with clubs but golf proper began in Scotland). The Scots changed the word slightly to 'golve' or 'Goff' and in time it became our word golf.
A history of games
Archers carried their arrows on their backs
They only did so if they were riding horses. Normally, when on foot archers would carry arrows in containers attached to their belts. (It is much easier to retrieve a longbow arrow from your belt than from over your shoulder).
Most churchyards in England have a yew tree so men could use the yew's wood to make bows
This is almost certainly a myth. Records show that bowyers preferred to use yew from Southern or Eastern Europe to make bows. (English yew was not particularly good for that purpose).
The two finger gesture was invented because the French threatened to cut 2 fingers off captured English archers. The English archers waved 2 fingers as a symbol of defiance
Nobody really knows where the two finger gesture comes from but there is no evidence that it has anything to do with Medieval archery. Nor is there any evidence that the French ever threatened to cut the fingers off captured archers. The gesture was first recorded in 1901.
In the Middle Ages spices were used to disguise the taste of tainted meat
This is not true for a simple reason - spices were very expensive and only the rich could afford them. The rich, of course did not eat tainted meat. They only ate the best quality meat! In reality spices were used to enhance the taste of meat.
A history of herbs and spices
In Europe in the Middle Ages a Lord had the right to sleep with a bride on her wedding night. It was called Droit de Seigneur.
There is no documentary evidence from the Middle Ages that such a law or custom ever existed so its almost certainly a myth.
Myths about the Modern Era
Henry VIII had syphilis
This is unlikely to be true. In the 16th century the standard treatment for syphilis was mercury. Lists of money spent on medicines for Henry VIII exist but mercury is not listed. Therefore it is unlikely he had syphilis.
A brief biography of Henry VIII
Anne Boleyn had six fingers
This is almost certainly a myth. She may have had a small extra fingernail growing at the side of one of her fingers. If the story is true that may be the basis of the rumour.
However nobody who lived at the same time as Anne or shortly afterwards said anything about six fingers. It was not till almost 50 years later that the story that Anne Boleyn had six fingers appeared.
Moreover it is very unlikely that any Tudor king would marry a woman with such an obvious physical deformity.
Sirloin got its name because an English king once knighted a piece of meat and called it 'Sir loin'
In reality sirloin is a corruption of the French sur (above or on top of) loin.
The Mary Rose sank on her maiden voyage
The Mary Rose was built in Portsmouth in 1509-1511. She did not sink till 1545, by which time she was quite an old warship.
The Mary Rose
In Tudor times if you had an operation the barber-surgeon hit you on the head with a wooden mallet to knock you unconscious
This is not true. You could kill or seriously injure somebody if you hit him or her with a wooden mallet. There is no evidence that a barber-surgeon hit people over the head with a mallet. Detailed instructions for barber-surgeons survive but there is no mention of such a procedure.
A history of medicine
Walter Raleigh introduced smoking into England
The Spanish learnt to smoke tobacco from indigenous people. It is believed that English sailors adopted the habit about 1564 (Walter Raleigh was born in 1552). At any rate smoking tobacco in clay pipes was already quite common in England by the time Walter Raleigh was an adult.
When the Tudors ate meat at feasts they threw the bones onto the floor for dogs to eat
In the 16th century such behaviour was unacceptable. In the 16th century dogs were not allowed at feasts and when you ate meat you placed the bones in a special dish.
A History of Food
Witches were burned
This is partly true. In England and its colonies in North America witches were normally hanged. However they were burned in Scotland and the rest of Europe.
Matthew Hopkins the 'Witch Finder General' was accused of being a witch, tried and executed
This is unlikely to be true. In 1645-46 Matthew Hopkins was paid to 'discover' witches in East Anglia and was undoubtedly responsible for the deaths of many innocent people. However he fell from favour in 1646 when a clergymen called John Gaule wrote about him and denounced him. Hopkins is believed to have died in 1647.
However nobody in the 17th century wrote that Hopkins was tried and executed or that he was lynched. That story arose much later. Instead in the middle of the 17th century, somebody who actually knew Hopkins, wrote that he died of natural causes. That is much more likely.
Only women were executed for witchcraft
The majority of people executed for witchcraft in Europe and North America in the 16th and 17th centuries were female but by no means all. A significant minority of the people executed were male.
The witch trials in Europe
The Puritans only wore black clothes
They did sometimes wear black but black clothes. However in reality the Puritans wore many other colours (red, green etc).
Life in the 17th century
A History of Clothes
Four Poster Beds had canopies to catch mice falling from thatched roofs
Four-poster beds had canopies and curtains to keep out drafts. (Old houses had many drafts). There is no evidence that the canopy was designed to catch falling rodents. In any case a four-poster bed was very expensive. If you were wealthy enough to afford one you would normally have a roof of tiles not thatch. Even if you did have a thatched roof in a wealthy home all bedrooms had proper ceilings. So there was a ceiling between the bed and the roof.
Dick Turpin rode his horse Black Bess from London to York in 12 Hours
Dick Turpin 1705-1739 did not own a horse called Black Bess nor did he make the famous ride. Far from being a heroic figure Turpin was actually a brutal robber.
A History of Highwaymen
When Britain adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1752 and 2 September was followed by 14 September there were riots and demands of 'give us back our 11 days!' because people thought their lives were being shortened by 11 days
It is doubtful if these riots really took place although changing the calendar was certainly unpopular and some people continued to celebrate Christmas Day using the old calendar for long afterwards.
A History of Clocks and Calendars
Dr. Guillotin invented the Guillotine
This is not true. In fact mechanical devices for beheading people had been used in various parts of Europe for centuries before the French Revolution. (One was recorded in Ireland as early as 1307).
Joseph-Ignace Guillotin (1738-1814) was elected a member of the French National Assembly in 1789. He proposed that there should be a swift and humane method of executing people in France. (And compared to many gruesome methods of executing people in 18th century Europe the guillotine certainly was humane). The Assembly finally agreed to his idea in 1791 and the first decapitating device was built by a man named Tobias Schmidt, with advice from a surgeon named Antoine Louis.
A History of Punishments
Marie-Antoinette said 'Let them eat cake'
When told that the peasants had no bread to eat the French Queen Marie-Antoinette is supposed to have said 'let them eat cake! (or brioche). In reality there is no evidence that she ever said that.
Captain Cook discovered Australia
Of course human beings lived in Australia for 40,000 years before Europeans discovered it. In reality Australia was known to Europeans long before Captain Cook sailed there. The first European to land in Australia was Dutchman Willem Janszoon in 1606. He was followed by many other Europeans in the 17th century and the 18th century. Captain Cook charted the east coast of Australia in 1770. He claimed it for Britain and named it New South Wales.
A History of Australia
Nelson wore a patch over one eye
In fact, although Nelson was blind in one eye there is no evidence he wore a patch.
Thomas Crapper invented the flushing toilet
The flushing toilet was known in the ancient world e.g. to the Minoans of ancient Crete. Furthermore the flushing toilet was reinvented in the late 16th century by John Harrington. However the idea did not catch on.
The flushing toilet was reinvented again in the late 18th century, by Joseph Bramah, before Thomas Crapper (1836-1910) was born.
A History of Toilets
Jack the Ripper was upper class
This is unlikely to be true. In films Jack the Ripper is sometimes shown as a gentleman with a top hat and cape. In reality there were several possible sightings of Jack. None of the people who may have seen him described him as well dressed. (Anyone who was well dressed would have stuck out like a sore thumb in a very poor district of London in 1888). Jack was probably a local man as he seems to have known the streets and alleys of Whitechapel well. Furthermore in 1988 the FBI made a psychological profile of Jack the Ripper. According to them Jack was probably working class and lived in the area where the murders were carried out.
In the 19th Century people covered table legs
This is a persistent myth. There is no evidence for it.
In 1899 the Head of the American Patent Office said that the patent office should be closed because everything that could be invented had been invented
There is no evidence whatsoever that the Head of the Patent Office ever said that.
In England the law still requires men to practice with the longbow on Sundays
In reality this old law was repealed by the Betting and Gaming Act 1960.
More articles about history
The dark side of history