20 Things Everybody Gets Wrong About the Middle Ages
20 Things Everybody Gets Wrong About the Middle Ages

20 Things Everybody Gets Wrong About the Middle Ages

Steve - January 11, 2019

20 Things Everybody Gets Wrong About the Middle Ages
“The Last Judgment” by Stefan Lochner, (c. 1435). Wikimedia Commons.

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.

20 Things Everybody Gets Wrong About the Middle Ages
An ancient Icelandic drinking horn; author and date unknown.

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.

20 Things Everybody Gets Wrong About the Middle Ages
“Monks in a cellar”, by Joseph Haier (c. 1816-1891). Wikimedia Commons.

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 Ælfric’s Colloquy noting “ale if I have any, or water, if I have no ale”, a preference does not denote regularity or exclusivity.

20 Things Everybody Gets Wrong About the Middle Ages
A fictitious cavalry charge during the Siege of Kerak (1184), as depicted in the 2005 film Kingdom of Heaven. Wikimedia Commons.

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.

20 Things Everybody Gets Wrong About the Middle Ages
Posthumous portrait of the man believed to have been Christopher Columbus, by Sebastiano del Piombo (c. 1519). No image of Columbus from his life is known to exist. Wikimedia Commons.

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.

20 Things Everybody Gets Wrong About the Middle Ages
The Death of Edward the Confessor, as depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry (c. 11th century). Wikimedia Commons.

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.

20 Things Everybody Gets Wrong About the Middle Ages
Legendary Viking explorer Leif Ericson landing at Vinland, by Mary McGregor (c. 1908). Public Domain.

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.

20 Things Everybody Gets Wrong About the Middle Ages
A medieval illumination of a nobleman bathing; author and date unknown. Wikimedia Commons.

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.

20 Things Everybody Gets Wrong About the Middle Ages
A 16th-century satirical German woodcut depicting a chastity belt. Wikimedia Commons.

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 Eichstätt’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 Eichstätt 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.

20 Things Everybody Gets Wrong About the Middle Ages
An illustration of the spherical planet, from “On the Sphere of the World”: an influential astronomy textbook of 13th-century Europe (c. 1550 reprinted edition). Wikimedia Commons.

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.

20 Things Everybody Gets Wrong About the Middle Ages
“Othello’s Lamentation”, by William Salter (c. 1857). Wikimedia Commons.

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.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“World Myths: Debunking Linguistic Urban Legends”, David Wilton, Oxford University Press (2008)

“Chivalry in Medieval England”, Nigel Saul, Harvard University Press (2011)

“European Weapons and Armour: From the Renaissance to the Industrial Revolution”, R.E. Oakeshott, Boydell Press (1980)

“Are Iron Maidens Really Torture Devices?”, Stephanie Pappas, Live Science (September 6, 2016)

“The Enchanting Sea Monsters on Medieval Maps”, Hannah Waters, The Smithsonian Institution (October 15, 2013)

“Sea Monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps”, Chet Van Duzer, British Library Publishing (2013)

“Where Be “Here Be Dragons”?”, Erin C. Blake, Map Historical Discussion Group (1999)

“The History of Spoons, Forks, and Knives”, Tegan Jones, Today I Found Out (October 3, 2013)

“The Cutlery Trades: A Historical Essay in the Economics of Small Scale Production”, G.I.H. Lloyd, Moulton Press (2009)

“The Curious Case of the Weapon that didn’t exist”, Dr. Paul B. Sturtevant, The Public Medievalist (May 12, 2016)

“Witchcraft in the Middle Ages, Jeffrey Burton Russell, Cornell University Press (1972)

“Not Peace But A Sword: The Great Chasm Between Christianity and Islam”, Robert Spencer, Catholic Answers (March 25, 2013)

“Are You Rapture Ready?”, Todd Strandberg and Terry James, Dutton Publishing (2003)

“Pocket Guide to the Apocalypse: The Official Field Manual for the End of the World”, Jason Boyett, Relevant Media Group (2005)

“Did Vikings drink from the skulls of their enemies”, The World Tree Project.

“Did People Drink Water in the Middle Ages”, Medievalists Magazine (2017)

“Warfare in the Medieval World”, Brian Todd Carey, Joshua Allfree, and John Cairns, Pen & Sword Military (June 2006)

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“The Vikings and America”, Erik Wahlgren, Thames and Hudson (2000)

“The Biology of Life Span: A Quantitative Approach”, Leonid Gavrilov and Natalia Gavrilova, Harwood Academic Publisher (1991)

“Did Vikings Really Wear Horned Helmets”, Elizabeth Nix, History Channel (March 20, 2013)

“Daily Life in the Middle Ages”, Paul Newman, McFarland and Company (2001)

“Clean: A History of Personal Hygiene and Purity”, Virginia Smith, Oxford University Press (2007)

“The Myth of Chastity Belts”, Massimo Polidoro, Skeptical Inquirer (September/October 2011)

“The Medieval Chastity Belt: A Myth-Making Process (New Middle Ages)”, Albrecht Classen, Palgrave Macmillan Books (2007)

“Flat Earth: The History of an Infamous Idea”, Christine Garwood, Pan Books (2008)

“Europe: A History”, N. Davies, Oxford University Press (1996)