COMMON MYTHS ABOUT THE MIDDLE AGES

By Tim Lambert

There are many myths about people in the Middle Ages! Here are a few of them.

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?

In the Middle Ages 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 Middle Ages 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

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 armor 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.

The Vikings

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.

Daily Life in the Middle Ages

Myths about the Ancient World

Myths about the Tudors

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