Fantasy novels, films, and TV shows set in pseudo-medieval times don’t have to be historically accurate. That’s part of the fun: shows like Game of Thrones mix together different time periods to make a unique world that viewers want to spend time in (especially when you toss in dragons and killer smoke babies). But shows like GoT have helped to spread plenty of medieval myths that need debunking. The actual Middle Ages spanned the years from around 500 to 1500 AD. That is a huge stretch of time! Common Middle Ages myths (such as the idea that there was rampant witch hunting) are typically born because people confuse the Middle Ages with later time periods (and Hollywood doing the same doesn’t help matters). There are also myths born from botched translations (Vikings drinking from skulls) and myths that were spread in order to slander religion (the Church thinking the world was flat). But most of these myths also have one thing in common: they help make the real Middle Ages sound as cool and dangerous as GoT’s fictional Westeros. Happily, the real historical period is still fascinating even after you debunk the many misconceptions people have about it. Enjoy this list of some of the coolest things – that simply aren’t true – about the Middle Ages.
MYTH: Everyone Was Fighting With These Wicked One-Handed Flails
REALITY: While there may have been some of these bad boys laying around for decorative or ceremonial purposes, the reality is that historians think one-handed flails were extraordinarily rare and basically useless on battlefields in the Middle Ages. Two-handed flails based on similar agricultural tools were in play, but these guys? Not likely. Just look at it: (1) it’s obviously hard to control; (2) it’s super easy to get wrapped around the swords of your enemies; and (3) it’s easy to imagine these ending up as “friendly fire” in the skulls of fellow soldiers.
WHY THE MYTH?: They look really, really cool, so they pop up in movies and novels a lot, invariably as the weapon of choice for some hulking psychopath. These weapons show up in art from the Middle Ages as well, but only in art that depicts the exotic or fantastical.
MYTH: Everyone Was Absolutely Filthy
REALITY: Until the Black Death of the late Middle Ages made some people worry that baths made them more susceptible to disease (something about “miasmas” and the dangers of open pores), people in the Middle Ages were bathing freaks. Art and documents from the time prominently featured bathing (with soap, herbs, and oils) as a social, sexual, and celebratory activity. They weren’t as clean as we are today, but they also weren’t a bunch of Pig-Pens.
WHY THE MYTH?: Pre-social media, a popular email made the rounds that claimed to describe a “day in the life” of someone living in the 1500s. The prank email was full of real-sounding but false “facts” mixed with some half-truths. One of the “facts” was that people got married in June because they took their “yearly bath” in May. Besides the fake facts email, people may also assume the attitude people took toward bathing during the Black Death (1346–53 AD) was one people had during the entire Middle Ages (500-1500 AD).
MYTH: Water Was So Nasty That Everyone Drank Wine and Beer Instead
REALITY: People totally drank water in the Middle Ages. In fact, cities spent a ton of money on ensuring reliable water supply sources and medical texts from the period recommend drinking it, too. Clean water was also free and easy to come by (rain, rivers, melted snow, etc.).
WHY THE MYTH?: People in the Middle Ages didn’t write that much about drinking water, chronicling instead their adventures making, selling, transporting, and consuming ale, mead, and wine. There are also some texts from the period that warn against drinking too much water, or drinking it at the “wrong” times. But no one was recommending avoiding water entirely, or just drinking alcohol instead.
MYTH: Men Made Women Wear Metal Chastity Belts
REALITY: The idea of a metal chastity belt with a lock and key for a woman to wear to protect her virtue was a joke or part of an allegory, but not a real thing in the Middle Ages.
WHY THE MYTH?: There are actual fake medieval-looking chastity belts in museums, but they were created in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as “curiosities.” There are also depictions of chastity belts in prints from the Middle Ages, confusing things a bit (the joke is lost on modern people).
MYTH: People Ate Rotten Meat (but Disguised the Taste With Spices)
REALITY: People in the Middle Ages were just as averse to eating rotten meat as we are today. Spices also happened to be stupid-expensive, too, so it’s not likely that peasants were dropping whole paychecks just to make rotten meat taste less rotten.
WHY THE MYTH?: It’s true that there’s evidence of using spices to conceal less-than-awesome meat, but this was the exception, not the rule. Most food in the Middle Ages was likely fresher than food today, especially since so many people lived on or near farms or hunting grounds. People didn’t have to choke down rotten food slathered in pricey spices just to live.
MYTH: People Were Tortured in Iron Maidens
REALITY: Iron maidens – caskets with spikes inside meant to impale you – were a fake concept dreamed up by two guys in the 19th century.
WHY THE MYTH?: This guy named Matthew Peacock created an iron maiden in the 1800s by cobbling together parts from the torture devices he collected (charming!). He gifted it to a museum, sparking the legends about its medieval use. Before Peacock, a philosopher and archaeologist named Johann Siebenkees wrote in 1793 about an alleged torture session in the 1500s featuring a similar device, but historians have since determined that it was just a hoax. People took the story literally at the time, however, which later helped make Peacock’s invention seem more historically plausible.
MYTH: Vikings Wore These Cool Horned Helmets
REALITY: Art from the period depicts Vikings wearing simple iron or leather helmets. The only complete Viking helmet ever discovered by archaeologists has a rounded iron cap and a guard around the eyes and nose, but no Hägar the Horrible-style horns.
WHY THE MYTH?: The ubiquitous horned “Viking” helmet was created in the 1870s by a costume designer designing Viking costumes for Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen opera cycle.
MYTH: People Were So Backward They Thought the Earth Was Flat
REALITY: All educated people in the western world knew the world was spherical since around the third century BC.
WHY THE MYTH?: Two guys are largely to blame for this one: Frenchman Antoine-Jean Letronne (1787–1848) and American Washington Irving (1783–1859). Letronne ran a smear campaign on medieval Christians in On the Cosmographical Ideas of the Church Fathers in 1834, deliberately misrepresenting them as scientifically ignorant folk who thought the earth was flat.
Irving was the guy that made up the story about Christopher Columbus trying to convince a board of flat-earther scientists that the earth was round so he could get funding (this whopper showed up in textbooks across the globe).
MYTH: Vikings Drank from the Skulls of Their Enemies
REALITY: Vikings in the Middle Ages drank from vessels made out of animal horns, like gentlemen.
WHY THE MYTH?: A translation error. The 1636 Latin version of a Norse poem from around 1400mistakenly translated the line “from the curved branches of skulls” (animal horns) as “out of the skulls of those whom they killed,” leading people to believe for hundreds of years that this was a common Viking practice. Oops!
MYTH: Knights On Horseback Totally Dominated the Battlefield
REALITY: Ground forces were far more useful against trained foreign infantries than mounted knights. English warfare – especially in the 14th century – also focused way more on archery than Renn Faire-ready knights on horses.
WHY THE MYTH?: The image of the mounted knight was popular (and still is), and mounted forces were, in fact, devastatingly effective against untrained rebels, so put those two ideas together and you get the myth of the mounted-knight-as-super-soldier.
MYTH: Armor Was So Heavy, Knights Had to Be Hoisted onto Their Horses
REALITY: Field armor during the Middle Ages actually weighed between 45 and 55 lbs., which is lighter than a modern firefighter’s suit plus oxygen gear.
WHY THE MYTH?: A few reasons: (1) the armor from the Middle Ages on display in museums today is especially high-quality and heavy-looking; (2) special “tournament armor” actually was very heavy and “locked” the wearer in place on his horse, but it wasn’t used in combat; and (3) Sir Laurence Olivier included the myth in his film of Henry V in 1944 (even though his historical advisors said he shouldn’t).
MYTH: Basically Everyone Died Young
REALITY: Average lifespan was shorter in the Middle Ages – 31.3 years for men born between 1276 and 1300, for example – but that’s just an average. If men survived early childhood and women survived childbirth, they tended to live significantly longer.
WHY THE MYTH?: There were no antibiotics or vaccines in the Middle Ages, so people did die young all the time. But that doesn’t mean most people kicked the bucket at 31. Life expectancy doesn’t mean “the age that most people died.” Instead, its an average of the ages when people in that society died. High infant mortality rates during the Middle Ages skewed this average quite a bit down, leading to the misconception.
MYTH: Maps Had “Here Be Dragons” on Them
REALITY: Only one known map in the Middle Ages even had the Latin phrase “HIC SUNT DRACONES” (“HERE ARE DRAGONS”) on it. One.
WHY THE MYTH?: There were maps in the Middle Ages that warned of elephants, lions, walruses, etc. in unexplored (or under-explored) territories, including the Borgia Map from 1430 that had the following warning above a dragon-like creature: “Here also are huge men having horns four feet long, and there are serpents also of such magnitude that they can eat an ox whole.”
So these warnings were very much a thing, but dragon warnings as a regular map motif in the Middle Ages is just a myth.
MYTH: “Witches” Were Hunted Down and Burned
REALITY: Intense persecution of so-called witches didn’t happen until the late 16th and 17th centuries, and even then, the preferred method of witch murder was hanging. During most of the Middle Ages, people thought witches weren’t real and those that thought they were witches were just fooling themselves. The Catholic Church decided witches were actually a threat around 1484, near the end of the Middle Ages (500-1500 A.D.).
WHY THE MYTH?: Blame Hollywood. Plenty of medieval movies feature witches, witchcraft, and witch hunts, despite it mainly being a post-Middle Ages craze.
MYTH: Doctors Didn’t Know What They Were Doing
REALITY: Doctors in the Middle Ages were doing the best they could with the knowledge they had. Their practices weren’t barbaric nonsense: they led to the discoveries that laid the foundations of modern medicine.
WHY THE MYTH?: Where do we begin? The leeches, the bloodletting, no antibiotics, no vaccines – it’s true, things were much less advanced than they are today. It was a scary time to be sick, and modern stomachs turn at just the thought of some of the things people did to get well.