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.

In the past 9 out of 10 people died before the age of 40

This is not true. 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. However, that does not mean that people dropped dead when they reached 35! The 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, some people lived to 70 or 80.

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

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.

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 a 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 probably came from craftsmen using their thumbs to measure.

Cave people were brutes and morons

Evidence shows that the Neanderthals were caring. One Neanderthal survived despite having a withered arm and deformed feet and 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 jewelry). Cro-Magnon people also created art. They made highly skilled cave paintings and made musical instruments like bone flutes.

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 it’s probably a myth.

Julius Caesar was a cesarean 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 cesarean birth.

Slaves built the pyramids

They were built by free men. Pharoah provided them with food and shelter.

In Rome, a ‘thumb up’ signal meant to let a defeated gladiator live but a ‘thumb down’ signal meant to 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

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.

Caligula made his horse a senator

There is no record of Caligula 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 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.

The Arabs burned the library of Alexandria

This is very unlikely to be true. In ancient times there was a great library in 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 later. 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 was 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 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.

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. Joan of Arc 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 was 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. 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.

Golf is an acronym for ‘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.

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 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 of meat! In reality, spices were used to enhance the taste of meat.

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.

Anne Boleyn had six fingers

This is almost certainly a myth. This claim was first recorded after her time and King Henry VIII would never have married a woman with such an obvious deformity.

However, nobody who lived at the same time as Anne or shortly afterward said anything about six fingers. It was not till almost 50 years later that the story that Anne Boleyn had six fingers appeared. Also, 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.

Walter Raleigh introduced smoking and potatoes into England

The Spanish learned to smoke tobacco from indigenous people. It is believed that English sailors adopted the habit in 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. There is also no evidence that Raleigh introduced potatoes into England. Potatoes are native to South America. The Spanish took them to Europe. From Spain, potatoes spread to England and Ireland.

When the Tudors ate meat at feasts they threw the bones onto the floor for dogs to eat

In the 16th century, such behavior 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.

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 ‘Witchfinder 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 favor in 1646 when a clergyman 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 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 Western 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 Puritans only wore black clothes

They sometimes wore black clothes. However in reality the Puritans wore many other colors (red, green, etc).

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 a brutal robber.

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 afterward.

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 the 18th century 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.

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 18th centuries. Captain Cook charted the east coast of Australia in 1770. He claimed it for Britain and named it New South Wales.

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 re-invented 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.

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 that the Head of the US Patent Office ever said that.

Last revised 2024

Categorised as Articles