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Pop Quiz: Myths of the Middle Ages

Donate How well do you know the Middle Ages? Can you tell what's fact and what's fiction?  

by Brian Dunning

Filed under History & Pseudohistory

Skeptoid Podcast #751
October 27, 2020
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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?

Reveal the answer

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?

Reveal the answer

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?

Reveal the answer

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?

Reveal the answer

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?

Reveal the answer

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?

Reveal the answer

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?

Reveal the answer

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?

Reveal the answer

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?

Reveal the answer

Myth #10: Women's Rights

Women had the right to own property and do business in medieval Europe. True or false?

Reveal the answer

Myth #11: Burning Witches

Many women were burned as witches in the Middle Ages. True or false?

Reveal the answer

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?

Reveal the answer

Myth #13: The Iron Maiden

The famous iron maiden torture device was largely fictional. True or false?

Reveal the answer

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.

This episode is dedicated to the memory of James "The Amazing" Randi, 1928-2020.

By Brian Dunning

Please contact us with any corrections or feedback.


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Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Pop Quiz: Myths of the Middle Ages." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, 27 Oct 2020. Web. 24 Apr 2024. <>


References & Further Reading

Baring-Gould, S. Curious Myths of the Middle Ages. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1894.

Classen, A. The Medieval Chastity Belt: A Myth-Making Process. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

Hannam, J. God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science. London: Icon, 2009.

Newman, P. Daily Life in the Middle Ages. Jefferson: McFarland & Co., 2001.

Pernoud, R. Those Terrible Middle Ages: Debunking the Myths. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000.

Rank, S. The Age of Illumination: Science, Technology, and Reason in the Middle Ages. New York: Five Minute Books, 2019.


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