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
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)

“The Medieval Knight at War”, Brooks Robards, Tiger Books (1998)

“The Vikings: Conquering the Wind and Waves”, Robert Wernick, Time-Life Books (1979)

“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)