The Middle Ages, also known as the Medieval Era, is generally denoted as the period of human history between the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the starts of the Renaissance, the Age of Discovery, and the Early Modern Era in general. Roughly speaking, this period encapsulates European history between the 5th and 15th centuries and is typically itself divided into three sections: Early (the 5th-10th centuries), High (the 11th-13th centuries), and Late (the 13th-15th centuries). These years saw the rise and fall of kingdoms, the gradual spread of Christianity throughout Europe, as well as the early splintering of the Roman Catholic Church preceding the Reformation in the 1500s, and is characterized by the existence of feudal societies and polities. Despite understanding much about our ancestors and their society, there are also aspects, both significant and minor, which have become conflated, manipulated, or misunderstood to the detriment of historical truth.
Here are 20 facts about the Middle Ages that you wrongly thought were true:
20. Medieval archers did not draw their arrows from a quiver on their backs and would often not wear shoes whilst shooting.
Despite the frequent appearance of archers in modern media – from Hawkeye in The Avengers to Legolas in The Lord of the Rings – the commonplace positioning of the quiver is widely incorrect. Contrary to popular belief, archers on foot rarely, if ever, drew arrows from their back. The movement was clumsy, only suitable for shooting from horseback, with medieval archers instead preferring to draw from a quiver attached to their belts. Medieval archers were also known to often fire barefoot. Without the rubber grip afforded by modern shoes, the approximately 100 lbs draw weight of a longbow required the active use of one’s toes to ensure a firm, stable footing.
Another Middle Age myth stemming from archery is the origin of the “V” sign, with the so-called “two-fingered salute” widely believed to originate from French practice of removing the index and middle fingers of captured English archers to prevent them from using longbows. There is no evidence to support this claim whatsoever, whilst operating a medieval longbow actually only demands three fingers hence making the removal of two inconsequential and counterproductive. In fact, captured common soldiers were typically executed, possessing no ransom value, and the first recorded use of the sign dates to just 1901.
19. Knights did not strictly adhere to a code of chivalry, which was in fact introduced to stem the savage violence caused by the mounted warriors in the first place.
Chivalry, derived from the French term for knight: “chevalier”, originated as a concept around the early 10th century CE. However, rather than an order of high-minded and honorable warriors, the notion was created by the Church in an attempt to regulate and forestall the rampant violence tearing throughout the Frankish state. Most knights were young men, trained in combat and well equipped in a world full of untrained, poorly equipped peasants and commoners. It is perhaps unsurprising that these individuals, with a lust for power and wealth, were inclined to using their positions to wreak havoc and torment upon the vulnerable in order to benefit themselves.
There is even some evidence that Pope Urban II’s call for the First Crusade was actually a response to the internal violence caused by knights, finding a solution by sending these violent young men away to foreign lands. Whilst there, among the chivalrous deeds of these knights was the massacre of tens of thousands of civilians during the capture of Jerusalem in 1099. Although some knights did indeed live up to lofty expectations, the overwhelming majority did not nor tried to. It was not until the late-Middle Ages, with the passing of knights from practical use, that they were subsequently romanticized in literature and culture and the myth propagated.
18. Medieval armor was not anywhere near as heavy as is popularly believed today, nor that rare.
Despite looking weighty, medieval plate armor was not a cumbersome impediment to combat. Designed to protect but not prevent fighting, covering the entire body from neck to toe, a suit of steel plate armor weighed between 15-25 kilograms – far less than a modern firefighter’s equipment and comparable to a modern soldier’s gear. Furthermore, by the late-middle ages plate was not an exceptionally rare accessory for a soldier to use in battle. In fact, an estimated 60-70% of French armies during the 15th century fought on foot wearing full plate armor, as did the English engaged in the War of the Roses.
The reasons for this misconception proliferating in modern culture is threefold. First, suits of armor which have survived in good enough condition to be preserved in museums are those that were of particularly high-quality. Secondly, the 1944 cinematic masterpiece “Henry V” by Laurence Olivier espoused this myth against the advice of the film’s historical advisers, cementing the notion in our imaginations. And finally, “tournament armor” was indeed exceptionally heavy and highly ornate; consequently, it is tournament armor which is commonly displayed in museums rather than combat armor. These suits weighed in excess of 50 kilograms and had to be locked into place to prevent the rider from collapsing under the mass.
An Iron Maiden on display at the Torture Museum in Zielona GÃ³ra, Poland. Wikimedia Commons.
17. The Iron Maiden was not a real torture device and much of what we believe about Medieval executions and punishments is untrue
The Iron Maiden – a human-sized box containing an array of interior spikes – is an infamous torture device. Sealing a victim inside, the spikes pierce the individual in non-vital places leading to a slow, agonizing death. Yet despite appearing in several museums around the world, the history of the device is almost certainly fictitious. The first reference to the contraption originated from German philosopher Johann Philipp Siebenkees in the late-18th century, detailing a fake account regarding the execution of a coin forger in 1515 at Nuremberg. Following this hoax story, Matthew Peacock created a working iron maiden in the early 1800s and sold his invention to a museum.
More broadly, much of what we imagine about medieval torture and punishment is highly inaccurate. The rack, using ropes to stretch an individual’s body in opposite directions, was not widespread until the religious persecutions of late-16th century Elizabethan England. Public beheadings were not a common spectacle, with execution by the ax regarded as a privileged method reserved for members of the nobility and conducted in private. Whilst capital punishment was not itself uncommon, those so sentenced often merely faced the hangman’s noose, whilst parole or banishment served as a far more common punishment.
16. Maps in the Middle Ages did not commonly display “here are dragons” on unexplored regions, nor did the inhabitants of the day believe in such fantastical creatures
A popular assumption today is that medieval maps frequently included references to dragons, sea monsters, and other creatures in the farthest reaches of unexplored territory. In actuality, just one map dating from this period included the phrase “here are dragons” or a depiction of said animal. Appearing on the Hunt-Lenox Globe (c. 1503), the location correlates with the position of Indonesia and the east coast of Asia, leading to suggestions that the cartographer was literally referring to the existence of Komodo dragons. Whilst a handful of other surviving contextual documents make reference to mysterious creatures, including “serpents so large that they could eat an ox whole”, this trend is not anywhere near as common as often portrayed.
Instead, this practice supposedly stemmed from the ancient Roman cartography tradition of including the phrase “Hic Svnt Leones” – translated roughly as “here are lions” – when depicting an unknown territory on maps. Rather than suggesting that lions literally inhabited those lands, however, this phrase merely suggested that it had not been pacified and was a savage region. Concurrently, maps frequently warned of the natural habitats of any dangerous animals. Medieval maps make reference to elephants, walruses, and even scorpions, as a courtesy to those traveling to those areas. Think of these images more as pictorial Middle Age travel guides than genuine representations of belief.
15. People in the Middle Ages did not always eat with their hands, many consumed their meals using cutlery akin to our own.
Although we commonly imagine our ancestors barbarically ripping meat from bone by hand, the truth of Middle Age dining is more civilized. Spoons are among the oldest utensils fashioned by humans. Archaeological evidence from as early as 1000 BCE in Ancient Egypt suggests the existence of ivory, wood, and slate spoons, whilst spoons made from bronze and silver have been discovered in the territories of the Greek and Roman Empires. First documented in the Middle Ages in 1259, listed in an itinerary of Edward I’s possessions, the use of the instrument had become sufficiently widespread that by the Tudor period it was customary to present a christened infant with the gift of an Apostle Spoon.
Likewise, the earliest known forks originated from Ancient Egypt, but also appear in China who would proliferate the device along the Silk Road into the Western world. Recorded during the 11th century in Venice, a debate raged in the Italian city regarding the question of whether using cutlery was an act of defiance against God, for “God in his wisdom has provided man with natural forks – his fingers.” Despite this brief religious turmoil by the 14th-century modern cutlery was commonplace within European households, evidenced by the alteration in dental remains as the overbite developed to compensate for the use of table forks.
14. Despite their prevalence in modern popular culture, flails were so infrequently used as weapons that some historians believe they are entirely fictitious as weapons of war.
A flail is a weapon, either long-handled and requiring two hands to wield or, as more commonly depicted in modern culture, a short-handled striking weapon. Both forms of the flail utilize a spiked head attached to the handle by a chain, allowing the user to strike around an opponent’s shield or sword parry. However, despite becoming ubiquitous in modern depictions of medieval life, appearing, for example, repeatedly throughout the television series “Game of Thrones”, there is limited evidence flails were used as weapons. Tactically, the flail was ineffective, unable to achieve precision in strikes, impossible to use in the close battle formations of the time, and exposed users to a counter-riposte.
In fact, some historians have claimed that the flail is an entirely fictional creation of later generations that was never used in medieval warfare. Many of the flails on display in museums have, in fact, been revealed as forgeries. Furthermore, modern testing has discovered that using a flail in combat would likely be more lethal to the user than their opponent. The spike would maintain momentum, hence a missed swing would strike its master; even if it did not, then the user would be thrown so horrendously off balance that they would be killed before they could recover.
13. Contrary to popular belief the burning of witches was not a common activity during the Middle Ages, with the notorious witch hunts occurring much later during the Early Modern Period.
In contrast to frequent popular depictions of the subject, the Middle Ages did not see the widespread burning of women at the stake for the alleged crime of witchcraft. In fact, during the Middle Ages the Catholic Church actively opposed the very notion of witchcraft. The Lombard legal code of 643 explicitly stated “let nobody presume to kill a foreign serving maid or female servant as a witch, for it is not possible, nor ought to be believed by Christian minds”, whilst the Council of Paderborn (785) went so far as to outlaw the condemnation and execution of those accused of witchcraft.
When crops failed in Denmark, Pope Gregory VII wrote to King Harald II in 1080 commanding him not to allow women to be put to death in the nonsense belief they were responsible for the weather. It was not until the Early Modern Period, particularly during the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), that a belief in witchcraft consumed Europe, whereupon the witch hunts of popular imagination begun in earnest. Moreover, in the rare event of a witch trial during the Middle Ages, these persons were not burned at the stake for their supposed crimes. Burning as a method of execution was reserved for heresy – hence the use of such against Joan of Arc in 1431 – whilst witchcraft merely warranted hanging.
12. Although it is widely believed that Islam and Christianity existed in a condition of permanent conflict throughout the Middle Ages, the reality was that the relationship was the same as any other: there was war and there was peace.
Despite the common modern perception, especially in the 21st century, that Islam and Christianity have long been incompatible and in conflict, this was not true for much of the Middle Ages. Whilst it has been claimed that after the Caliph Umar captured Jerusalem in 638 CE from the Byzantine Empire that “Islam and Christianity were locked in a brutal conflict” that lasted “for centuries”, the reality is far from it. Whilst the Crusades occurred, among other instances of sustained and horrific violence justified on the grounds of religion, both societies also coexisted for prolonged periods of time in peace.
Christian kings would hire the services of Muslims, and vice-versa, referenced famously in Shakespeare’s Othello, Islamic merchants from the Levant traded freely with the city-states of Italy even as the Third Crusade raged, and during the 16th century France allied itself with the Ottoman Empire against the Holy Roman Empire. Ultimately, whilst religious violence occurred, it was merely one factor among many as the cause of conflict in a world filled with strife. As with any neighbor during the Middle Ages, Christian or Muslim, there was war, there was commerce, and there were alliances; Islam and Christianity was no exception to this, nor any special case.
11. There is no evidence that substantial proportions of the population of Europe during the Middle Ages expected the world to end in the year 1000 CE.
Apocalyptic predictions are nothing new, with 22% of Americans in 2012 believing that the end of days will occur during their own lifetimes. According to several historians, this practice was present during the Middle Ages, with January 1, 1000, widely proclaimed as the ultimate Day of Judgement throughout Europe. Claiming that in anticipation of the return of Jesus Christ vast quantities of people abandoned their jobs, dispersed their possessions, and journeyed to the Holy Lands for the fateful day, these historians paint a picture of widespread hysteria and fear regarding the start of the new millennium.
Unfortunately for these historians, there is very little evidence any of this actually happened. Whilst Pope Sylvester II did predict the end of the millennium as the end of days, with some presumably believing him, there is no substantiating evidence of riots, mass pilgrimages, or terror in Europe. Accounts in support of these events only emerged centuries after the fact, akin to the misleading ancient histories of Herodotus. Furthermore, despite claims that people in the Middle Ages “would believe what they were told against the evidence of their own eyes”, much of Europe did not strictly adhere or follow the word of the Church, instead exercising, rightly, a degree of common sense.
10. Contrary to their fearsome and savage image, Vikings did not use the skulls of their defeated enemies as drinking receptacles.
Many myths exist regarding the lifestyles of the Vikings during the Middle Ages, due in part to the frenzied writings of terrified Christians. One of the more prominent, and disturbing, regards the use of human skulls as cups from which Vikings allegedly drank. Despite widespread regurgitation continuing to this day, there is no evidence to support this claim whatsoever. In fact, the belief that Vikings used the skulls of their defeated enemies originates entirely from a 1651 mistranslation of a Norse poem, which included the line: “the heroes hoped to drink in Odin’s hall from the skulls of those they had killed”.
Instead, the line was actually “‘drink beer at once from the curved branches of skulls”. Within the Viking poetic tradition, “curved branches of skulls” was a common reference not to human skulls but animal horns. Whilst only a few such drinking horns have survived, it is clear the horns of goats and cattle were frequently used by Vikings. Outfitted with metal decorations, these horns often included religious iconography, such as Valkyries. Vikings also used cups made from glass, wood, and metal, akin to the rest of Europe. The only recorded instance of a skull being employed in this fashion during the Middle Ages was when Tsar Kaloyan of Bulgaria used Baldwin I of Constantinople’s in 1205.
9. People during the Middle Ages were not forced to drink wine and beer because of the lack of available clean water.
One of the most enduring myths regarding the Middle Ages is that the people who inhabited it were forced to drink alcoholic beverages due to the lack of clean water. Due to the infrequent inclusion of water as a subject in historic texts, some medieval historians inexplicably determined that because chroniclers in the Middle Ages didn’t constantly talk about water that they can’t have regularly consumed it. This conclusion, stimulating a lasting belief, could not be farther from the truth. Water was, in fact, habitually consumed throughout the Middle Ages, with a 7th-century Byzantine physician recording “water is of most use in every mode of regimen” and that “one cannot find a better drink”.
Even more contradictory, communities in the Middle Ages went to great lengths and paid enormous costs to ensure there was access to clean drinking water. Aware of the dangers of tainted water, in the mid-13th century the city of London constructed “The Great Conduit”: a system of lead pipes to bring fresh water into the settlement from outside the walls. People were granted free access, with the system replicated throughout Europe. Whilst there might have been a preference for alcoholic substances, with Ãlfric’s Colloquy noting “ale if I have any, or water, if I have no ale”, a preference does not denote regularity or exclusivity.
8. Mounted knights were not anywhere near as crucial to the outcome of battles as portrayed in popular media.
Whilst early mounted warriors were undeniably effective in combat, the use of cavalry during the Middle Ages has been grossly exaggerated in popular imagination in the centuries since. Knights were never the backbone of armies, proving far too expensive to field in great numbers, and the armies of the European Middle Age were predominantly comprised of foot soldiers. With the development of more advanced forms of archery, in particular the English longbow, archers, not cavalry, came to define medieval warfare. By the time of The Hundred Years War and the War of the Roses, even knights partaking in these events electing to so from the ground rather than horseback.
The Battle of Agincourt in 1415, one of the most famed engagements of the Middle Ages featured approximately 6,000-9,000 English soldiers. Of these, an estimated 5 in 6 were longbowmen, with the remainder dismounted knights and men-at-arms in heavy armor. Moreover, Knights were never a ubiquitous feature of medieval life. During the High Middle Ages (1000-1250), throughout the entirety of England there were likely no more than 1,200 fighting knights at any one time. By the Late Middle Ages (1250-1500), this relatively limited number had decreased further to as few as 50.
7. Christopher Columbus was not the first European man to “discover” the Americas, beaten to that title by approximately 500 years by the Vikings.
Naturally, the very idea of being the first to discover a continent inhabited by millions is an outdated racialist and highly patronizing interpretation of history. Nonetheless, unverified instances of contact between native inhabitants of the Americas and peoples from Polynesia and East Asia throughout the early history of humanity remain questions of considerable debate within academic circles. Despite these uncertainties, historical opinion is conclusive that, preceding Columbus by half a millennia, Norse Vikings reached the Americas by the late-10th century. Arriving in roughly 980 CE, Erik the Red, having been banished for a period of three years from Iceland for manslaughter, named the territory “Greenland” to encourage migration.
Gathering followers, a Viking colony is believed to have ultimately consisted of two main settlements, an East and a West, with a combined population of between 2,000-3,000. At least 400 farms have been identified by archaeologists, thriving before the site declined into abandonment during the mid-15th century. Although L’Anse aux Meadows remains the only confirmed site of Viking settlement in North America, the Icelandic Sagas make reference to the exploration of lands to the west of Greenland. Leif Erikson is believed to have led an expedition to these regions, known to the Vikings as Vinland, as did his brother, Thorvald, in 1004, and Thorfinn Karlsefni in 1009.
6. Not everybody died young, with many people during the Middle Ages able to live well into old age.
One of the most frequent perceptions of the Middle Ages is that everybody died young, with a common figure claiming that 9 in 10 people died before the age of 40. Whilst this is arguably true, to an extent, with men born, for instance, between 1276 and 1300, living just an average of 31.3 years, this statistic is also highly misleading. Medicine was notably limited in effectiveness, childbirth routinely proved fatal for women, and everyday illnesses today were terminal to our ancestors. However, it is important to recognize that these figures are simply an average life expectancy during the Middle Ages and are skewed by catastrophically poor infant mortality rates.
Consequently, whilst average life expectancy at birth was merely around 35, this includes those that lived immensely short lives. As many as 25% of children did not reach their fifth birthdays, with an estimated 40% dying before adulthood. As a result, those that did survive until the ages of 18-21 typically lived far longer than their 30s. A male member of the English aristocracy, having reached 21, could reasonably expect to see his late 60s or early 70s between 1200-1550, whilst even peasants could feasibly survive into their 50s and even 60s. The high rate of early childhood deaths manipulates the data to induce a far lower representation of life expectancy than that enjoyed by those who lived in the Middle Ages.
5. Despite their frequent representation as wearing horned helmets, Viking warriors did not wear such armaments at all.
Throughout popular representations of Vikings, one consistent theme is ubiquitous: horned helmets. From television and film to the Minnesota Vikings American football team, the Nordic peoples are depicted as wearing horned headgear. However, there is no evidence whatsoever that Vikings did ever wear such attire. Vikings rarely wore helmets, with just one Viking helmet ever discovered; on the rare occasions they did, it is believed they commonly wore helmets made from iron or leather. The dangers of heavy armor whilst traveling across open bodies of water are apparent, and thus the lightening of the person in case of sinking was vital for survival.
The origin of this myth is far more recent that one might imagine, beginning in the 19th century. Horned helmets did exist during the Middle Ages, appearing in ancient Germanic culture and becoming popular features in tournament armor. Drawing inspiration from these German traditions, when Carl Emil Doepler designed the costumes for a performance at the Bayreuth Festival of Wagner’s legendary opera “Der Ring des Nibelungen” in 1876, he decided to include horned helmets for the Viking characters. The success of the opera was enduring, with the influential representation of Vikings becoming an indelible, if erroneous part of popular imagination.
4. Although often depicted as a filthy, unhygienic period of history, people in the Middle Ages were much cleaner than we often give them credit for.
Among the common assumptions made about our medieval ancestors, it is widely believed that they were disgustingly unhygienic. From claims that people preferred to marry in June because of the “yearly bath” occurring in May, to the exaggeration of the brief hysteria during the Black Plague that bathing opened the pores and exposed the body to dangerous miasmas, these beliefs have become entrenched in our popular understandings. Although failing to adhere to the standards of the Modern Age, inhabitants of the Middle Ages were, in fact, surprisingly conscious of their bodily hygiene. Smells were regarded as a commentary on a person’s moral condition, with bad odors associated with sin and good smells holiness.
As a result, public saunas and bathhouses were common occurrences during the Middle Ages, whilst London brothels required patrons to bathe prior to entering. The average wealthy person would enjoy regular baths in heated tubs of water, whilst even the poorer peasantry were able to take regular spit baths. Medical manuals frequently include reference to the importance of individual cleanliness as a precursor to good health, with the Secreta Secretorum imparting an entire section on bathing. Bathhouses also served an important social function, with Charlemagne reputedly inviting his sons, nobles, friends, and even attendants to bathe with him. Westminster Abbey, for a time, even employed a “bath-attendent” with a salary of two loaves of bread per day.
3. Women in the Middle Ages were not forced to wear chastity belts to maintain their virtue, with their invention actually a joke by Middle Age satirists.
Part of the aforementioned romanticizing of chivalry and knights, recent centuries have seen the inclusion of chastity belts in historical stories as a means to induce sexual abstinence among women. A product of woeful misunderstanding, the earliest references to these devices were, in fact, not genuine recommendations of their usage but a means of satirizing the obsession of the day with purity and virginity. First appearing in Konrad Kyeser von EichstÃ¤tt’s Bellifortis (c. 1405), it detailed how Florentine women wore “hard iron breeches” that “are closed at the front”, including an accompanying illustration.
However, subsequent generations centuries later failed to grasp that EichstÃ¤tt was not being literal in his account but rather satirical. It was not until the 18th century that the first “real” chastity belts were created and used for the intended purpose. This was due to the emerging medical belief in the 1700s that masturbation was harmful to the human body, demanding a mechanism to prevent action upon primal urges. The U.S. Patent Office filed many requests for anti-masturbation designs throughout its existence, until, in the 1930s, it was eventually proven that engaging in solo sexual pleasure was not a cause of serious mental health problems.
2. People in the Middle Ages did not believe the world was flat, having been determined centuries earlier it was, in fact, spherical in nature.
A common misconception repeated still today is the belief that people in the Middle Ages thought that the Earth was flat. Even in 2012, President Obama compared “Flat Earthers” in the time of Columbus to climate change deniers in the 21st century. In contrast to this modern understanding, there is no serious recorded belief in a flat Earth during the Middle Ages. As early as the 6th century BCE, Greek scientists had successfully determined the shape of our planet, as well as almost exactly calculating the circumference of the Earth long before the start of the Common Era. By the Middle Ages, this was common knowledge, with even the Church teaching that the Earth was round.
The myth of Middle Age belief in a flat Earth, originating during the 19th century, has two individuals to blame, acting almost concurrently yet independently. Frenchman Antoine-Jean Letronne sought to disparage the Catholic Church in his 1834 study “On the Cosmographical Ideas of the Church Fathers“, seeking to depict the clergy as anti-science and ignorant. Meanwhile, American essayist Washington Irving, in an effort to embolden the myth of Columbus, introduced to the United States the erroneous concept that Europeans thought the folk figure was acting in defiance of popular opinion; Irving’s work has become a staple of the American education system, even after it has been widely debunked as incorrect.
1. Despite common representations in media, Europe was not homogeneously white but was surprisingly ethnically diverse during the Middle Ages.
When author George R.R. Martin was criticized for depicting his fantasy reproduction of Medieval Europe as overwhelmingly white, the author replied that his creation “fantasy analogue of the British Isles in its world” and was historically accurate. Despite being a widely held idea of Europe, regarded as only diversifying in recent decades, Europe has, in fact, always been a melting pot of demographic diversity. Race was not viewed conceptually in the same manner that much of humanity does today, with racial slavery not yet introduced, and whilst tensions and discrimination existed communities co-existed relatively peacefully.
Large portions of Iberia remained under Islamic, namely Arabic and Berber, control for much of the Middle Ages, only ending in 1492. Throughout this period Jews, Muslims, and Christians co-existed throughout Spain. When Jews were expelled from Christian Spain after the Reconquista, they migrated throughout Europe and North Africa. Meanwhile, migrants from Central Asia, fleeing the Mongol hordes, entered Eastern Europe, forming communities in modern-day Russia, Ukraine, and the Caucuses. Shakespeare’s Othello, among other works, makes notable reference to the existence of non-whites throughout European society, with individuals like Saint Maurice celebrated in spite of their physical diversity.
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