The Middle Ages don’t have a very good reputation. From rampant beheading and ignorance to disease and war, Hollywood has helped propagate some ideas that aren’t true, or at least not entirely. These are 25 myths about the Middle Ages you probably thought were true.
People were ignorant
Not really. Although Hollywood has definitely propagated this belief, many of history’s most influential universities (Cambridge, Oxford) and thinkers (Machiavelli, Dante) were all products of the Middle Ages.
After the fall of Rome there was vast cultural and economic deterioration in Europe up until the Italian Renaissance. This is why the Middle Ages are also called the Dark Ages.
Originally, because there had in fact been a shortage of written material concerning some parts of Europe, historians had actually used the term “dark ages” to refer to the obscurity of the time period. While this belief is still prevalent in popular culture, recent understanding and discoveries have changed the scholarly perspective of the Middle Ages. Therefore, the term “dark ages” is not used in scholarly literature as often anymore.
The term Dark Ages was created by modern man to describe the darkness of the Middle Ages
Didn’t you get what we just said? No, no it wasn’t. The first person to use the term “dark ages” was actually Petrarch in the 1330s. He used the term as a sweeping criticism of Late Latin literature. And yes, he lived during what we would today call the “dark ages”.
Everyone believed the Earth was flat
Actually they didn’t. Although science and education was largely a church funded venture, there was scarcely a scientist who didn’t believe the Earth was round. In fact, they had already estimated its circumference. So no, we can’t say everyone believed it.
Well, then they definitely believe the Earth was the center of the universe
Nope, they didn’t believe that either (at least not everybody). Copernicus killed that notion well before Galileo got punished by the church for his theories.
Women were constantly brutalized
Once again, there is truth to this, but as with the other items on this list, not nearly as much as you would think. It largely depended on the exact part of Europe because the continent wasn’t as homogenous as it is today.
The Middle Ages were extremely violent
While the Middle Ages were not exempt from violence there is no evidence that this particular time period was any more or less violent than other periods in history.
All peasants ever did was back breaking work
It wasn’t easy being a peasant. That’s for sure. But they knew how to have fun too. Both chess and checkers came to us from this time period.
And they never took a bath
Enough with these sweeping generalizations. There are plenty of people today who don’t shower either. But seriously, they were more into bathing than we give them credit for. There was even a French phrase – “Venari, ludere, lavari, bibere; Hoc est vivere!” (To hunt, to play, to wash, to drink, – This is to live!)
Everybody had a thatched roof
Props to you. This one could almost pass for true. In fact, even castles had thatched roofs. Come to think of it, some houses in England still have thatched roofs today! Why? Because they worked. Thatched roofs weren’t the leaky pile of straw you think they were.
There was no food and everybody was starving
Of course there were famines, droughts, etc. but once again, we have those today. In fact, one could argue that more people die of hunger today than did back then thanks to the simple fact that there are more of us. Hunger has always been with us, but so has prosperity and injustice.
The Death Penalty was common
Looks like not much has changed. Between the United States, China, North Korea, and Iran the death penalty is still employed quite often today. Okay, so it is true that most of the world has abolished it but to think that the Middle Ages were unique in their application of executions would be wrong. Now, the method of execution was typically far less humane, no myth there.
The Church stamped out all knowledge
Not really. Remember all of those institutions of higher learning that we mentioned earlier? Well, they were almost exclusively started by the Church.
Knights were super chivalrous and valiant
While not all knights were created equal, as a whole they definitely didn’t live up to their chivalrous legacy. Nobles even had to enact an actual “code of chivalry” in the 13th century to keep their knights from acting like drunken college kids when they weren’t out fighting.
People died when they were 35
It is certainly true that life expectancy was lower. But remember that 30-35 was only an average. High infant mortality skewed things a bit and if someone could reach their 20th birthday they actually had a pretty good chance of reaching 50.
Vikings wore horned helmets
Sorry to burst your bubble but they didn’t. The horns were the product of 19th century Scandinavian artists just adding some flair to their masterpieces.
Primae Noctis is the idea that lords would have the right to sleep with any peasant wife on the first night after her wedding (like in Braveheart). Incidentally, however, there is not a single solid piece of evidence documenting the historicity of this idea.
The Middle Ages were full of crazy torture devices
While people have always been creative with the ways they found to make others suffer, most of the torture devices that are popping into your head actually came after the middle ages (iron maiden, pear of anguish, etc)
People drank wine and beer because water was polluted
This may have some truth in it, but people also added water to wine in order to dilute it. And besides, if the water really was polluted then people typically would drink it anyway and get sick. It still happens today.
People thought tomatoes were poisonous
Tomatoes weren’t even imported into Europe until the 16th century. Argument over.
People ate with their hands
Sometimes, yes. But wooden cutlery was also relatively common ever since forks were introduced to Italy in the 11th century.
People never traveled
They certainly didn’t fly Delta but that doesn’t mean they didn’t go anywhere. Migrations, silk roads, and general movement of people was pretty common.
There were torches everywhere
Torches definitely had their place but it was nothing like what Hollywood would have you believe. Given that an average torch only burns for about an hour, that pretty much eliminates the whole walls-romantically-lined-with-burning-torches idea.
Everybody ate turkey legs all the time
Once again, turkey is native to the Americas and wasn’t introduced until after the Middle Ages. Take that Hollywood.
Peasants were a single class of people
It’s not that simple. Depending on the region, there was definitely a hierarchy.