Pop Quiz: Myths of the Middle Ages
The Middle Ages — that period from about the year 500 to 1500 — are the source of so much Western culture, everything from great works of fiction to popular traditions to Monty Python jokes. It's painted in our heads an image of what we think the average medieval person looked like and did all day, and when we examine that image, we find that it is informed at least as much by fiction as it is by fact. Today we're going to do one of our famous pop quizzes, this time on myths of the Middle Ages. And, just to make it a little more fast and fun, this one's a simple true or false quiz. Are you ready to test your knowledge of popular Middle Ages myths? Let's go.
(And, just so I don't get hate emails later accusing me of being unaware that people other than Westerners exist, I'm telling you up front that this quiz focuses on medieval Europe.)
Myth #1: The Flat Earth
It is said that prior to Columbus proving the Earth was round by reaching the East by sailing West, it was generally believed by Europeans that the world was flat. (Experienced Skeptoid listeners should know this one, so it should be an easy start for most of you.) True or false?
False! People didn't think the Earth was flat. Columbus thought he reached the East by sailing West; believing the islands of the Caribbean to be the East Indies is why indigenous Americans came to be called Indians. But he never would have set off on such a journey — nor would expensive ships have been provided to him — if people thought the Earth was flat. But as discussed in episode #338, prior to Western Biblical literalists devising the concept of a flat Earth in the 1800s, no educated class of people anywhere in the world thought the Earth was flat — though a sort of pop-culture belief that ancient people thought that had existed for some time. This includes Columbus and nearly everyone before him, going back more than 2000 years to ancient Greek measurements.
Myth #2: London Bridge Fell Down
"London Bridge is falling down" is not just the lyric to the familiar nursery rhyme, it's also a reference to an actual case from the Middle Ages when London Bridge did fall down. True or false?
True! Although the origin of the nursery is too old to know who wrote or what they had in mind, there were several times when London Bridge did actually fall down and had to be replaced. The bridge is traditionally believed to have been destroyed by Vikings in about the year 1000. Within the next couple centuries the bridge was destroyed at least twice more: once by a tornado in 1091, and once by fire in 1136. There were various other major fires on the bridge and its buildings for the next 500 years, requiring multiple repairs.
Myth #3: Prima Nocta
The doctrine of prima nocta (aka jus primae noctis, aka droit du seigneur) gave titled nobles the right to sleep with any peasant women subordinate to them, especially on their wedding nights — as seen in Mel Gibson's Braveheart. True or false?
False! Prima nocta is broadly agreed among historians to be purely a literary myth. There is no evidence that such a practice ever existed. Whatever isolated incidents did take place would have been regarded no differently than any other rape. There is a minority of scholarly opinion that the right may have existed somewhere in some form, but that is a fringe view. Nobles making such demands of their subordinates have often appeared in fiction, so it's unclear when the first references appeared.
Myth #4: There Was No Medieval Science
Under the Church, science and technological innovation ground to a virtual halt during the Middle Ages, which is why we also refer to the period as the Dark Ages. True or false?
False! The growth of innovation continued its upward curve throughout the Middle Ages, stretching from Rome to the Industrial Revolution. The Middle Ages were rife with innovation, particular in agricultural technologies. Windmills and water mills appeared, bringing us the first industry and mass production of grain. Plows of all types appeared. Mechanical clocks were invented and saw constant improvement. Great universities popped up everywhere throughout the Middle Ages. Eyeglasses were invented. Sailing technology allowed Europeans to reach the entire world. And the universally acknowledged most important invention of all time — the printing press — appeared in the medieval workshop of Johannes Gutenberg; and even that stood on the shoulders of people around the world who had been developing woodblocks and moveable type for centuries.
Myth #5: Goofy Curly Shoes
We've all seen medieval caricatures where men wore jester-like shoes with long points that curled up, as much as half a meter. Is it true or false that these were an actual fashion?
True! Long toed shoes were indeed a real thing, reaching the height of style in the 1400s. They were called Crakows, as it was believed they originated in Poland. What's not clear is whether people ever tied the long tips up to their legs, as is often claimed, a practice supported by only very scant documentation. Those long points on the shoes even have a name. Want to guess what they're called? No? They're called poulaines, meaning polish style.
Myth #6: Horned Helmets
As those Vikings were torching London Bridge, at least some of them may have worn horned helmets, much as we see when we go to a Wagner opera today. Is it true or false that this was indeed a real Viking helmet style?
False! No marauding Viking ever wore a horned helmet, and certainly not during the Middle Ages. We have tons of evidence of what Vikings wore, and zero of it suggests horned helmets. This famous belief probably stems from other civilizations that did have horned helmets, although they were generally rare oddities and usually only ceremonial. There is even a pair of horned helmets from Scandinavia, though they predate the Vikings by thousands of years. They are called the Veksø helmets, are made of bronze, are believed to have been purely ceremonial votives that were likely never worn by anyone, and date from the Nordic bronze age. Also, the horns are long, uniformly thin, and curved with round tips, not at all like the bull-type horns usually depicted.
Myth #7: Chastity Belts
Women were sometimes obliged to wear chastity belts to prevent any sexual activity (voluntary or otherwise), usually when their husbands were away. True or false?
False! Chastity belts did become a bit of a thing later, during the Early Modern period, and mainly as an entertainment device or political statement. But there's no evidence they were ever used during the Middle Ages. The few written references to them are regarded as ironic humor. The chastity belts that exist today and are said to be from the Middle Ages are modern hoaxes, often constructed in support of kitschy museum displays meant to exaggerate the horrors of medieval Europe.
Myth #8: Life Expectancy of 30
People usually only lived to about the age of 30, and someone as old as 40 would have been considered very aged indeed. True or false?
False! Statistically, it's true that average life expectancy was only around 30 or so during the Middle Ages, but this is because the average is thrown so far off by the high infant mortality. Prenatal care was not yet really a thing, and there were many childhood diseases that killed a huge number of infants and children. But if you survived your early years, you could expect to live to nearly as ripe an old age as we do today. Medievals in their 60s or 70s were not at all uncommon.
Myth #9: Bad Habits and Hygiene
Although we often hear of medieval people eating with their hands or knives and never bathing, people actually took about as much care with their personal habits and hygiene as we do today. True or false?
True! Museums are filled with medieval eating utensils and personal toiletry items, and not just from nobles. The average person certainly washed themselves and their clothes to the extent they were able and ate with place settings very similar to today's. The idea that medievals were disgusting and stinky comes mainly from fiction about rogues and highwaymen and thuggery.
Myth #10: Women's Rights
Women had the right to own property and do business in medieval Europe. True or false?
True! Although women were clearly subordinate to men, women's rights actually increased over the duration of the Middle Ages. One unexpected factor in this was the Black Death, which killed so many people that women were allowed to step into virtually any role vacated by a male victim of the plague, due simply to necessity. Women's rights reached a historical high at the end of the Middle Ages, at which point restrictions began to be implemented by men whose positions were threatened. This decline continued essentially until suffrage movements began to see some success in the 20th century.
Myth #11: Burning Witches
Many women were burned as witches in the Middle Ages. True or false?
False! Although at least 40,000 people (about 80% of them women) were executed in Europe for witchcraft (estimates vary widely), this didn't start until the Middle Ages were ending. The prevailing view among medievals was that witchcraft did not exist. It was considered superstitious nonsense. Witch hunting was even illegal in many places; in fact, it was belief in witchcraft that was treated as heretical by the Church. There were exceptions, of course; but by and large, hunting and executing witches was an aspect of the Early Modern period, not of the Middle Ages.
Myth #12: Small Doors = Small People
Medieval door frames look very small to us, and the reason is that people were shorter back then. True or false?
False! It was common back then to simply make doors no bigger than they needed to be, because they were sources of drafts, and they lacked our technology for heating. However it is true that people were shorter then, but not by nearly so much as we see in the change in door sizes. Generally throughout history — but by no means universally — changes in average height have corresponded to industrialization and economic status. People in industrialized nations today are up to 10 cm (4 in) taller than they were at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution; but prior to that, there had been no real changes since the First Agricultural Revolution.
Myth #13: The Iron Maiden
The famous iron maiden torture device was largely fictional. True or false?
True! Iron maidens first appeared in 19th century fiction. They are part of a sort of gothic genre called neo-Medievalism which depicts Middle Ages imagery as brutal and uncivilized. But, clearly, you can tell they're not a practical torture device; being enclosed in one would obviously cause a rapid and unpleasant death, very little torture actually involved.
So that's it. How did you do? If you got all thirteen right, I dub thee King Arthur, which is one medieval myth we didn't include (though he did get a question dedicated to him in another quiz episode #138 on people who were either real or fictional — go check that one out next). Until next time, keep your skeptical radar turned on, and always be ready to tell fact from fiction.
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