Getting Medieval on 6 of Biggest Lies of the Middle Ages

Getting Medieval on 6 of Biggest Lies of the Middle Ages

Patrick Lynch - October 30, 2016

The Medieval Period is said to have lasted from approximately the 5th to the 15th centuries. It is generally said to have began with the fall of the Roman Empire and came to an end with the Age of Discovery and the Renaissance. The era itself is also divided into different periods and each has its own associated myths.

Life was unquestionably tough with famines, plagues and wars but amongst those who haven’t dug any deeper, it almost appears as if the entire Middle Ages was one long period of pain, misery and premature death. That everyone was a filthy, uneducated, diseased peasant is simply not true. It was also an age of preposterous myths and we explore 6 of them below.

Getting Medieval on 6 of Biggest Lies of the Middle Ages
Wikipedia (19th century depiction of Magna Carta signing)

1 – King John & Magna Carta

History hasn’t been kind to King John; he is often portrayed as being a weak and spiteful monarch and in some quarters he has even been called ‘the worst King of England’. He is unquestionably best known for signing Magna Carta at Runnymede on 15 June 1215. It was an agreement between John and rebellious barons who were fed up with years of high taxations and generally poor rule.

The thing is, John may not have ‘signed’ the Great Charter at all. The British Royal Mint was criticized for its depiction of Magna Carta which was featured on a £2 coin designed to commemorate the 800th anniversary of the historic event. It showed King John holding a large quill in one hand and Magna Carta in the other. One theory suggests this is a false depiction because the king was possibly illiterate so he would have used a wax seal to ‘sign’ the document. This has been disputed by other historians who claim that King John had a vast library that he treasured.

Whether this is true or not, there are other myths surrounding the legendary document which is viewed as one of the most important legal scripts in the history of mankind. For a start, the 1215 version of Magna Carta wasn’t actually used. Living up to his reputation as a tyrant, John successfully appealed to the Pope in order to have the document annulled.

Part of Magna Carta stated that John could no longer throw people into prison whenever he felt like it. Clearly, he enjoyed this privilege which may be one of the reasons why he had the charter annulled. He died within a matter of months which presumably led to much rejoicing in England. An abridged version was released in 1225 during the reign of Henry III. The 1215 version had 69 clauses but the one unveiled a decade later had just 27.

Magna Carta was important because it laid the foundations for legal concepts such as trial by a jury of your peers and a ban on cruel and unusual punishments. There were also a few less than important issues addressed in the charter including details on how wide the bolts of cloth should be when making monk’s clothes! The clauses within the Charter were whittled away over the centuries and by the middle of the 20th century, there were only three of the original clauses left in British law.

Getting Medieval on 6 of Biggest Lies of the Middle Ages
Live Science (Richard III)

2 – Richard III the Tyrant

This is a fairly controversial topic as a number of historians remain convinced that the infamous ‘hunchback’ king was a monster. Once he had been killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, a new dynasty emerged. Henry VII’s reign was the beginning of the Tudor era and he undoubtedly tried his utmost to ensure Richard’s name was destroyed. The Tudors looked to remove any association with good deeds that could be attributed to Richard and then Shakespeare came along and demonized the fallen monarch.

For centuries, the idea that Richard was a deformed tyrant was taken as fact. Things have taken a turn in recent years; aided by the discovery of the king’s body under a car park in Leicester, UK in 2013. Various assumptions surrounding the last English monarch to die on the battlefield have been investigated and the results are fascinating.

Shakespeare depicted him as a hunchback with a deformed and withered arm. While it was discovered that he had scoliosis, his spine wasn’t curved to hunchback level. Indeed, he would probably have appeared ‘normal’ on a battlefield as his suit of armor would have made the medical condition hard to spot.

Richard was also accused of murdering Edward Prince of Wales but it’s more likely that the Lancastrian died during the battle of Tewkesbury in 1471. Shakespeare’s play suggested that Richard had Henry VI killed but historical evidence shows the most likely culprit was Edward IV.

Perhaps the most chilling accusation leveled at the king was ordering the death of the Princes in the Tower. The two boys, Edward V (the 12 year old monarch) and his brother Richard, Duke of York, were locked in the Tower of London and were murdered. While it remains possible that Richard ordered the deaths of his nephews, there is no concrete evidence. Certainly, it wouldn’t have made sense for him to have killed the two boys because doing so gave legitimacy to Henry Tudor’s claim to the throne. As long as the boys lived, Henry wouldn’t have been able to raise an army because he wouldn’t have been seen as the rightful heir.

It is widely believed that Richard was a poor ruler who inflicted great cruelty on his people. This assertion also appears to be wide of the mark. His very first act as king was to summon the country’s judges and order them to dispense justice fairly to all members of society. He also decreed that everyone had a right to a lawyer regardless of their ability to pay. On top of that, he was known to be a lover of literature, music, architecture and education. In summation, the more you read about Richard III, the less tyrannical he becomes.

Getting Medieval on 6 of Biggest Lies of the Middle Ages
ITALY Magazine (Pope Joan Movie ‘A Papisa Joana’ in 2009)

3 – Pope Joan

This myth suggests that a woman managed to hide her gender and rule as pope. The ‘reign’ of Pope Joan was said to have began in 855 and her secret only became known because she gave birth to a child on the side of a road. Even if the last preposterous piece of the legend wasn’t included, there is no evidence that such a person ever existed.

Those who believe in the myth of Pope Joan claim she was probably born in England and concealed her gender from an early age as a means of pursuing scholarly ambitions; at that time, women were not permitted this opportunity. She called herself John Anglicus and gained a reputation for her knowledge of the sciences while studying in Athens.

Her fame grew as she lectured at Rome’s Trivium and then she became a cardinal. Finally, she became pope when Leo IV died. She ruled until her gender became known and as punishment, her feet were tied together and she was dragged across the ground by a horse. Finally, a crowd stoned her to death and the Catholic Church did all they could to completely bury evidence of her existence.

As well as being a generally unbelievable tale, the veracity of the account isn’t helped by the fact there was no mention of Pope Joan until the 13th century. An account of Joan was written by Jean de Mailly but the events were initially set in 1099. Another 13th century text went further and said she was known as John Anglicus or John of Mainz. Furthermore, the pope’s reign was changed to the 9th century where she ruled between Leo IV and Benedict III in the 850s.

A quick look at the history of the papacy suggests the alleged timing of Pope Joan’s reign is all wrong since there is evidence to suggest the dates of Leo IV’s death and Benedict III’s first day as Pope are accurate. There isn’t enough time between these dates to ‘fit in’ another pope let alone a female one that was executed. The papacy had plenty of enemies in the 9th century yet there isn’t a single account of a female people from any of them. Photios I of Constantinople hated the papacy and especially Pope Nicholas I who deposed him as Patriarch in 863. If there was any evidence of such a scandal, Photios would certainly have seized upon it.

Getting Medieval on 6 of Biggest Lies of the Middle Ages

4 – Lady Godiva’s Naked Ride

Lady Godiva was an English noblewoman who lived in the 11th century. There is a legend which says she rode a horse naked through the streets of Coventry as a protest against her husband Leofric’s high taxation on tenants. She apparently implored him to lower his rates but when he refused to listen, she decided the best way to get his attention was to appear before the residents of Coventry in her birthday suit! After her ride, she once again asked her husband to lower his taxes and he finally relented.

There is no truth to this tale whatsoever. The legend began when a man called Roger of Wendover wrote about the naked ride in the 13th century and claims it happened in 1057. This immediately casts doubt on the veracity of the tale. Since Coventry was only founded 14 years earlier, the small town would definitely have recorded such a strange event. Certainly, the historians of Lady Godiva’s day didn’t mention anything about the incident even though there are writings which speak of her good deeds.

For instance, she was well known for her generosity to the church, and along with her husband, she helped found a Benedictine monastery in Coventry. Contemporary accounts refer to her as ‘Godgifu’ and note that she was one of the few female landowners in England during the 11th century. There is also evidence that Leofric played an important role as mediator between angry nobles after the death of King Canute in 1035 thus preventing a Civil War.

The tale has been embellished over the years as different versions have been written. For example, the Peeping Tom element was only added in the 17th century. This version said that the people of Coventry respectfully looked away barring one man known as ‘Peeping Tom’ who leered at her body. He either died or was struck blind as his voyeurism came back to haunt him. The myth gained further attention thanks to Tennyson’s poem called ‘Godiva’ which he wrote in 1840.

Getting Medieval on 6 of Biggest Lies of the Middle Ages
Quotesgram (Clive Owen as Arthur)

5 – King Arthur

I’m assuming that no one actually believes King Arthur is real but we’ll look at this myth just in case. The legend of King Arthur is actually a collection of various tales created by different writers. The majority of them suggest that Arthur lived in the 5th or 6th century and fought against Anglo-Saxon tribes to ensure Britain remained safe from invasion.

A writer called Nennius is accredited with the first Arthur stories which he wrote in 830 in History of the Britons. Two centuries later, Geoffrey of Monmouth created a more detailed story which included information on Arthur’s life from birth to death. The figures of Merlin and Guinevere also saw the light of day for the first time. Further stories about the mythical king were published throughout the Middles Ages and in the modern era, television programs and movies have been made about the gallant leader and warrior.

It seems as if the legend is probably based on several real people although historians can’t agree on the identity of these individuals. For instance, some believe Arthur is based on a warrior of Roman affiliation who helped the British defeat Anglo-Saxon forces in the 6th century. Yet in The Ruin and Conquest of Britain, a contemporary work outlining the Saxon invasion, there is no mention of any warrior named Arthur.

Yet another theory claims that Arthur was actually a Roman centurion called Lucius Artorius Castus who fought against the Picts in Britain. The trouble is, Lucius lived in the 3rd century which is at least 300 years before the age of Arthur. It is even claimed that Camelot was located on the site of Cadbury Castle in Somerset.

Whether the life of Arthur is loosely based on one person or several, the entirety of his legend is utter fiction. It is hard to say how many people ever believed in the myth of Arthur. What we do know is that today, everyone sees it for what it is; an entertaining fairy tale.

Getting Medieval on 6 of Biggest Lies of the Middle Ages
Science – National Geographic (Depiction of Plague)

6 – Life in the Middle Ages Was Horrible For Almost Everyone

You may have heard the old saying about life in the Medieval era which suggests it was nasty, brutal and short. Basically, people in the Middle Ages typically died young because of rampant diseases and if they made it beyond puberty they would die from poverty or get worked to death. The streets of Medieval Europe were filthy and with all the wars that occurred, villagers could expect to die horribly from a rampaging horde of invaders if they somehow survived all of the other problems!

It is true that the average life expectancy of approximately 35 years is incredibly short by today’s standards. However, a lot of this has to do with the huge level of infant mortality in the era. Remember, medicine was still at a primitive stage compared to the modern age and there were no vaccinations for children. Yet if males reached the age of 21 (at the end of the 15th century), they could reasonably expect to live into their sixties or even their seventies.

This is because conditions in the Middles Ages were nowhere near as bad as the myth suggests. Believe it or not, peasants didn’t often work beyond 8 hours a day and they typically had Sundays off. In Christian countries, there was also time off for Christmas, Easter, midsummer and a number of other religious celebration days. While peasants were by no means comfortably off, a reasonable amount of them fared okay. That is, they could afford half decent food and a considerable amount of ale.

You’ll also be surprised to learn that people in the Middle Ages were relatively clean as well. Due to the various plagues that spread through Europe during this period, it is assumed that Medieval people were disgusting wretches that seldom washed. In reality, it was customary to wash your hands before and after eating and once you have entered someone’s home. Soap was in huge demand even by the 13th century but when the Black Death arrived, scholars began telling people that bathing opened the pores up to diseases.