Myths About The Middle Ages

Thanks to “Game of Thrones” and other depictions of the Middle Ages on TV and in movies, we’re increasingly familiar with what medieval times may have looked like. But is what we know based on myth or reality?

The time between the fifth and 15th centuries (about 476-1450) in Europe is known as the Middle Ages, medieval times or the Dark Ages. That era, which began with the fall of the Greek and Roman empires and ended with the rise of the Ottoman Empire and the beginning of the Renaissance, has been documented in countless ways on the page and the screen.

But it turns out that a lot of the things we think we know about the Middle Ages are only partly true and sometimes completely false. Take a look at these medieval myths that have been debunked.

Myth: Medieval Europeans Were White

Yes, there were people of color in the Middle Ages in Europe. Just look at the @medievalpoc Tumblr account for evidence. Particularly in the 1500s, after black Africans were expelled from Spain, there was an influx of people of color further throughout Europe. The idea of medieval Europeans being all-white came about around the 18th and 19th centuries, as race was defined as a social construct and people of color were erased from narratives about the era.

Myth: The Water Was Undrinkable

It’s untrue that the water was so polluted in the Middle Ages that people resorted to drinking alcohol instead because it was more hygienic. There’s plenty of documentation of people regularly consuming water. However, beer was considered to be healthier! And they probably liked the taste a bit more.

Myth: It Was A Time Of Little Learning Or Progress

Turns out the Dark Ages weren’t so dark! Renaissance scholars looking back at this middle period just decided that everything must have been backward after the fall of the Roman empire. Certain types of technical progress did slow or retreat a bit in the earlier Middle Ages, but picked up well before the Renaissance. The predominance of Christianity and the rise of monasticism didn’t mean that all learning was suppressed; Christian monasteries and monks were hubs of reading, writing, learning and the arts. Agriculture expanded particularly with the invention of the heavy plow, the widespread use of horses wearing horseshoes to pull said plows and the use of watermills and windmills. And there were still advances in science and math (though more in the Islamic world) and other innovations, despite what Renaissance folks wanted people to believe.

Myth: People Believed The World Was Flat Until Columbus

People had known the earth was spherical as early as the sixth century BCE. This knowledge did not die out with the fall of the Roman empire and the start of the early Middle Ages.

“Scientists discussed the rotation of the Earth and the other planets, and while they did believe that the Earth was the center of the universe, they believed the universe itself was spherical,” the Public Medievalist notes.

A renewed belief in a flat earth didn’t come about until the 1800s-1900s. But don’t blame it on the Middle Ages.

Myth: No One Bathed Regularly

The idea that medieval people rarely took baths is not rooted in the documentation of the time. While wealthier people could take private baths and bathe more frequently, public bathhouses were common and popular in the Middle Ages. People might not have been as clean as we are today, but they weren’t covered in dirt, wafting a stinky cloud behind them, as depicted in the movies. Personal hygiene existed and ridding your body of dirt and grime was recommended by health manuals from the time.

Myth: Women Wore Chastity Belts

The chastity belt was never actually a thing. Since wearing a metal brace around your lower half would actually be unhygienic and harmful, it’s hard to imagine these ever being practical let alone accepted by women. As Atlas Obscura puts it, “any literary reference to a chastity belt is likely either allegorical or satirical.” Existing “examples” of chastity belts are more likely to have been made in the Victorian era as objects of curiosity.

Myth: Knights Were Always Chivalrous

The code of chivalry that set down rules for the proper behavior of knights was established because knights had been behaving so badly in the 10th and 11th centuries. And some historians aren’t sure to what extent knights actually followed that code. It’s likely that in many knights’ minds, the behavior code applied mostly to those in the upper class.

Myth: Vikings Drank From The Skulls Of Their Victims

A view of the Vikings as bloodthirsty heathens persists today. But even the fierce Vikings, who were at their apex from the late 8th to early 11th century, didn’t drink from the skulls of their victims. Rather, they would have consumed beverages from animal horns, as well as, glass, wood and metal vessels. The confusion seems to have stemmed from an Old Norse poetic kenning or compound phrase, which had Vikings drinking from the “curved branches of skulls” — otherwise known as horns.

Myth: Vikings Wore Horned Helmets

Speaking of Viking misconceptions — revise your Halloween costume, because many Vikings probably didn’t wear helmets with horns. As historians and archaeologists can best tell, these Scandinavian warrior-adventurers probably wore metal or leather helmets if they wore anything on their heads at all. Horned helmets may have been used by certain warriors, such as berserkers, or for display. The popular depiction of Vikings with the horned hats likely dates to depictions of Vikings by Scandinavian artists from the 1800s, who influenced the look of Wagner’s popular 1870s opera series “Der Ring des Nibelungen.”

Myth: People Didn’t Live Far Past Their 30s And 40s

The myth that people were “old” in their 30s and 40s is understandable. After all, the Middle Ages were a time period of high infant and childbirth mortality rates, large numbers of young men off dying in battles, and the Black Death or plague, which killed tens of millions in Europe. But that didn’t mean there were no elderly people. Medieval records show that many lived into their 60s and beyond and those people were the ones considered old — but in an era where no pensions or senior discounts existed, age mattered less than independent functionality.

Myth: All Peasants Were Enslaved To A Manor In The Feudal System

The popular medieval depiction of commoners is that of serfs toiling on the lord’s land, enslaved by nobles their whole lives. But among the “peasants” there were freemen and women who had more freedom with the type of farming they did and some who participated in trades.

Myth: Witches Were Burned At The Stake On The Regular During This Time Period

The persecution of witches didn’t reach its peak until the early Renaissance to “Enlightenment” periods (15th to 18th century) in Europe. And if a supposed witch was put to death in the Middle Ages, it was more likely to be done by hanging. Burning at the stake was the more common punishment for heretics (like Joan of Arc).

Myth: Knights Were Weighed Down By Their Heavy, Plated, Full-body Armor

Knights did not have to be hoisted onto their horses with a crane because their armor weighed so much, as some believe. Swords were far lighter than we think (many were less than 4 lbs.) and a fully-outfitted knight wore about the same weight as a well-equipped firefighter today. There was also a difference between tournament armor worn for shorter periods of time and battle armor made for action.

Myth: People Battled It Out On Horses

Speaking of knights, the popular imagery would have us believe that battles were fought on horseback. While some warriors were mounted, battles were often fought on foot. It’s not as easy to use a bow on horseback as Legolas makes it look in the “The Lord of the Rings” films.

Myth: The Crusades Were A Failure For Christians

There were eight major Crusade expeditions between 1096 and 1291. The goal: Christians fought to win back “holy lands” that had fallen under Islamic rule and fight enemies of Christianity. Overall, Muslims won out over the crusading Christians. But the Crusades also had the effect of spreading the influence of the Roman Catholic Church. Trade, transportation and an interest in travel all increased in the wake of the Crusades. So they were not entirely a failure for Western Europe, when taken in that light.

Myth: ‘Game of Thrones’ Was Based On Middle Ages History

Medieval studies have come quite a ways since George R.R. Martin began writing his “Game of Thrones” books in the early 1990s. And while Martin took time to research Middle Ages history, he probably didn’t seek out original sources. Instead, he seems to be referencing the perspectives of secondary historical sources rooted in the dominant 20th-century culture, which are no longer considered as accurate or current today. Maybe future “Game of Thrones” spinoffs will expand the stories’ universe to include new, more diverse knowledge and ideas?

Myth: Iron Maidens And The Rack Were Common Torture Methods

Many of the medieval torture and capital punishment methods you’ve heard about weren’t used or didn’t exist during this time frame. Putting someone on a rack to be stretched slowly wasn’t likely used much in the Middle Ages. In the case of the Iron Maiden, a torture device where someone was put in a spiked box for a slow and painful death, scholars now believe it was only a product of literary fantasy. The Rack was probably invented in ancient times, but there are no real references to their use during the Middle Ages. If you ever visit a museum that displays torture devices, most of the items actually originate from the 17th-19th centuries — and we may not actually know what their intended use was.

Myth: Christopher Columbus Discovered America

Not only did Christopher Columbus not determine that the world was round but he also didn’t “discover” America. First, of course, is the fact that indigenous people were already living in the Americas. And second, the Vikings came to North America starting in the early 1000s and we have archaeological evidence of their settlements. Actually, historians believe that other civilizations visited America over many generations.

Myth: Medieval People Believed In The Fire-breathing, Flying Dragon

While dragons appear throughout medieval literature and art, the medieval perception of a dragon varied and is likely different than how we see them depicted today à la “Game of Thrones.” The medieval dragon was tied closely to sin and Satan but some depictions showed dragons that more closely resembled snakes and others had wings. It’s very possible that when people of the Middle Ages came across dinosaur bones or saw whales, they connected them with dragons.

Myth: People In The Middle Ages Didn’t Have Guns—Just Swords, Bows And Arrows, And The Like

Gunpowder was introduced to Europe from the east in the 13th century but not commonly used in warfare until closer to the mid-14th century. This puts the use of guns and cannons in battles squarely within the medieval time period. An array of medieval weapons that didn’t involve gunpowder is still better known for that time period. Because who doesn’t like a good lance?