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Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Top 10 Medieval Myths

Knights of the Round table, damsels in distress locked away in a tall tower, fire-breathing dragons of doom, witches and their enchanted spells, magical magicians with their secret potions, Holy Grail legends.  When it comes to Medieval mythology, the list is as long as Merlin's magical staff.

Like most historical eras, the Medieval world is immersed in stories that are, shall we say, less-than-accurate.  In fact, for most who haven't studies this fascinating period of history, it can be difficult to separate fact from fiction.

Historical myths are nothing new.  We are all familiar with the tale of George Washington and the cherry tree or the brave warrior Achilles whose bravery gripped entire armies with fear. These tales often tell us more about how people CHOOSE to interpret history as opposed to the history itself.

And when it comes to the Medieval world, the mythology is almost overwhelming. The stories have taken on a life of their own and many have survived even to this day. It is amazing to see just how many people actually embrace the myths even today. Most people today have a very distorted view on the realities of the Medieval world.  For example, here is a small list of just a few of the more common myths that most people today have taken to be true:

1.) Medieval People Believed in a Flat Earth

No they did not! For centuries, scholars had accepted the reality that the world was spherical in shape.  In fact, the ancients of Classical Grease (Socrates, Aristotle, etc.) accepted the fact that the world was round.  Though many of the ideas of antiquity were lost during the "Dark Ages" (the dumbest term ever in history), Medieval thinkers of all stripes accepted that the world was not flat.  Oh, and side note, so did Christopher Columbus!

2.) The Right of Primae Noctis

This is a myth made popular by the Oscar winning film "Braveheart."  In the movie, Medieval Scottish lords are granted the right to have sexual relations with a newly married bride on the first night of her marriage.  The practice, which is more commonly known as Droit du Seigneur, was practiced to a small degree in ancient China (and possibly ancient Babylon) but there is absolutely no evidence that it ever happened in Medieval Europe.  In fact, the myth was created in 19th century France to serve as an example of how backward the period was believed to be.

3.) Vikings Wore Horned Helmets

Sorry, Minnesota Vikings fans (and History Channel actors), but Vikings from the Medieval period did not wear horned helmets.  This is complete nonsense. In fact, Viking helmets were quite crude and round.  There were no decorations to speak of.  The idea of horns was born out of 19th century Romanticism and Scandinavian artists who began depicting their Viking ancestors as wearing horns.

4.) The Medieval World Loved Torture

Yes, torture existed in the Medieval world.  Torture also exists today.  Every era has seen some shade of it.  But the Medieval world was NOT obsessed with torture and/or torture devices like we are led to believe.  In fact, the Iron Maiden (which is regularly associated with the Medieval era) was created much later, probably in the 17th century.  There are no mentions of it  being used earlier than 1793!  In reality, most torture devices were created AFTER the Medieval era.

5.) Chastity Belts

There is absolutely zero evidence that chastity belts were ever used in the Medieval era.  In fact, the only reference we have of chastity belts being used in Europe date back to the 19th century, when people became fascinated (for whatever reason) in alleged Medieval torture devices (that were never actually Medieval to begin with).

6.) Water Was Terrible...Just TERRIBLE

Another complete B.S. belief.  Yes, it is certainly true that the Medieval world did not enjoy the sanitation practices of the modern world but this doesn't mean that they had no source of clean water. Simple common sense disposes this myth completely.  Homo Sapiens need water or we...um...DIE! The Medieval World (as well as the ancients) were well aware of this fact.  This is why we are able to find plenty of relics of Medieval (and ancient) wells that provided clean water.  And let's not forget that the Romans built massive aqueducts to transport clean water.  The Medieval world did not somehow forget how important water was.  They were well versed in the process of purifying water for human consumption. In reality, every civilization made (and continues to make) water a priority.  If this weren't the case we simply would not have survived as a specie.  In addition, the notion that Medieval (or ancient) people satisfied their water intake by drinking beer, wine, etc. is completely bogus.  In fact, water was often added to DILUTE the potency of those drinks.

7.) Medieval People Did not Live Long.  30 or 40 Years of Age Was Considered Old

It is true that mortality rates were significantly higher for people living in the Medieval world, but this does not mean that a 30 or 40-year-old person was considered to be old or near death.  In fact, most data shows that if a person lived into adulthood they could likely expect to live into their 60s or 70s.  Life expectancy rates are lower for the Medieval world because there was a far greater infant mortality rate.  Infants were the most at risk group of the Medieval population.  It wasn't uncommon for a given couple to lose several young children due to illness, childbirth, etc.  But if a child could reach the age of sixteen or so, he/she was likely to expect a fairly long life.

8.) Medieval People Did Not Have Good Hygiene

If we judge Medieval hygiene by today's 21st century standards then yes, the Medieval world had terrible hygiene.  But the myth that Medieval society rarely bathed or practiced cleanliness is not true. There are several surviving Medieval sermons in which priests admonish their congregation to ensure that cleanliness standards were being met.  Some cities, lords, etc. created laws to ensure cleanliness. Though they knew little in terms of medical practices, the Medieval world was well aware that disease was less likely to spread if cleanliness was maintained.  Baths were common (though not daily) and several items (to include combs and recipes for Medieval deodorant) have been preserved even today.

9.) Medieval Women Had No Rights

They certainly didn't enjoy the same freedoms as men, but this is something we could say for the majority of human history, not just the Medieval world.  With that being said, Medieval women could inherit land, money, etc. and were allowed to own and operate businesses.  Women were free to travel, buy goods, and do most of the things men could do (aside from responsibilities to be had in the church and military).  In fact, women would experience a LOSS of rights with the dawn of the Renaissance and Early Modern period.

10.) Medieval People Were Religiously Devout in All Ways and Feared the Church

While it is certainly true that the Catholic church was the single greatest influence on the Medieval world, the modern belief that Medieval people were staunchly devout and feared the church is a myth. There is literally tons of surviving literature from priests in all parts of Medieval Europe who complained about the lack of devotion they found in their parishioners.  Priests complained that people were indifferent to the teachings and did not take religious practices seriously enough. They rebuked those who used religious holidays and festivals as nothing more than an excuse to get drunk.

As can be seen, the myths of the Medieval world, which are oftentimes embraced by today's world as being fact, are nothing more than blissful ignorance.  They reveal more about us than they do about the actual Medieval world.  We of the modern era like to suppose that our ancestors of old were crude, dirty, biased and uninformed but the reality is we are the ones who come off looking crude, dirty, biased and uninformed in our understanding of the Medieval world.  It may not be to our liking when we discover that people of the past were not as foolish as we think, but facts are facts.

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