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Medieval Myth Busting

Updated on December 4, 2014
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Jeff Johnston is a medieval reenactor and avid history fan. He is also the publisher at Living History Publications.

Medieval History Facts that Simply Are Not True

When discussing medieval history there are certain commonly known facts about this time period that most people know to be true that are quite simply wrong. The reasons these myths stick around is partly due to the fact that the knowledge we do have is spotty at best, and somewhat to do with hollywood altering history to make it more silver screen friendly, but mostly its simply due to underestimating the average medieval man.

The era known as the medieval times was between 5th century and 16th century C.E.. It is a time that conjures up images of gallant knights riding out on quests to save damsels in distress, of great brutish men eating huge hunks of meat with their bare hands, of great stinking masses of unwashed illiterate peasants.

all images sourced from sxc.hu unless otherwise stated

Knights Armour was Awkward and Heavy

There has been a long held belief that a knights full plate mail was so heavy he couldn't mount a horse on his own. In 1944 Sir Laurence Olivier in his portrayal of King Henry V was shown mounting a horse using a crane. This wasn't the origin of the myth of the crane used to hoist knights onto their horses, but it went a long way to giving it credibility. Mark Twain is partially credited with starting this rumour.

There is also the belief that full armour was difficult to move it due to the weight and the way it fit. If you've ever seen an actor in armour you see their movements are rocky and robotic like, not fluid at all.

The fact is a full suit of armour weighs about 55lbs, a modern soldier caries on average 150lbs. Kind of puts the weight of a medieval knights armour into perspective doesn't it? This isn't to say medieval armour isn't heavy and awkward, it is, but with practice you can have pretty much full range of movement.

Below is a video demonstrating the range of motion and speed possible in full armour. It is not in English, but the words aren't important, only what the fighters are able to do in armour.

The Flat Earth Society - The Myth of the Flat Earth

It's a commonly held belief that when Columbus set sail he got objections from Europe due to his belief that the world was round and not flat. In point of fact Spain's main objection was not the flat nature of the earth, but rather the size of the globe and the position of Asia on it. Columbus miscalculated the size of the earth by quite a bit and the Spanish court knew it. You see Columbus did not discover America and prove the earth was round but rather he stumbled onto America proving that he couldn't do math. The size and shape of the earth had long been known, Eratosthenes made an accurate estimate of the Earth's diameter in approximately 240 BCE.

By Follower of Hans Holbein the Younger (philipmould.com) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By Follower of Hans Holbein the Younger (philipmould.com) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Strange and Uncomfortable Clothing

One common re-occurring myth about Medieval Europe is that they wore strange and uncomfortable clothing. And if you look an extant paintings you can see how this belief arose, for once this is not simply a construct of Hollywood.

Much of the clothing does appear uncomfortable and difficult to wear, you must remember however that much of this was the formal dress of the extremely powerful and rich. Its like saying modern clothing is uncomfortable because a tuxedo complete with tails, top-hat, cane, and cape is uncomfortable and difficult to wear. Formal clothing of the ridiculously wealthy is always silly and impractical, that's usually the point. Watch a high end fashion show if you doubt me.

The average person throughout most of the middle ages wore rather simple and quite comfortable clothing on a day to day basis, after all they had to live and work wearing the clothing. A blacksmith wouldn't wear a flowing cape with fur lining he'd be likely to catch fire. A simple tunic (shirt) with pants served as the attire for most men, and a relatively simple dress served for women. Both the tunic and dress usually had very similar designs varying primarily only in lengths.

Bathing
Bathing

The Unwashed Masses

Medieval Personal Hygiene

Its a commonly held belief that the medieval peoples did not bath often. This is patently untrue. Although there were times at which the church put various restrictions on bathing including such ludicrous demands as to state that no one should bath naked, at no point was it ever encouraged not to bath at all. There were certain orders of monks that did restrict how often a monk could bath but this did not apply to the average man.

Bath houses were common throughout Europe, and while attending public bath houses for pleasure was condemned by the church it was common to bath at least once a day. In certain parts of the world (particularly Persian influenced areas) bathing was extremely encouraged to the extent that four or five baths a day would be the norm.

The prevalence of soap speaks a lot to busting this myth. Soap was extremely common, and specialized soaps for various uses also existed. Soaps for washing cloths, soaps for bathing, as many variants as exist today.

The Dark Ages - Scientific Progress in The Medieval Age

After the fall of the Roman Empire the European world fell into what became known as the Dark Ages. During this time science and technology was set back centuries and no progress was made until the dawn of the Age of Enlightenment, or at least so most people believe.

A lot of scientific technology and knowledge was lost when Rome was sacked and the legions pulled back to protect the eternal city, however scientific advancement did not halt. Particularly in the field of warfare the medieval peoples continued to make great strides forward.

Knight's Shield
Knight's Shield

Be Valiant And True Good Sir Knight

The Code of Chivalry

The Chivalric code is one of the most pervasive bits of history most people know about. It was a code of conduct for knights that was said to ensure that they would be gallant, valiant, honest, and protect the weak. It was what made the knights the shining examples of morality and honour.

The problem with the code of chivalry is it never existed. Well, ok, that might be going to far. The code existed on paper, plenty of people wrote about it, but that being said it was an ideal not something that was actually believed to have been followed.

Knights were soldiers, mounted on horse back, usually of noble bearing. They varied in temperament same as any other, they were not likely to adhere to some romanticized version of what poets thought they should behave like then any other soldier from any other time period. They could be brutal when brutality was called for. They were beholden to their liege lord but only as far as they felt necessary. As for rescuing damsels in distress, probably didn't happen all that often.

Rancid Meat, And Other Treats - Medieval Food

Myths about the food of the medieval ages are perhaps some of the most commonly repeated falsehoods. Some believe that food was heavily spiced and sauced to disguise the rancidness of the meat. Others claim that medieval food was mainly protein and that fruit and vegitables were a rarity. Visions of great feasts where the men grabbed giant helpings of meat and tossing the remains over their shoulders for the dogs running free.

The fact is medieval etiquette was quite often considerably more complex than ours. Table manners varied from place to place and time period to time period within the medieval age, but at all times table manners were well respected and enforced.

As for the food itself, medieval man had various ways to preserve meat, they would never eat rancid meat. Sauces and spices were expensive commodities, and using them showed wealth and power so many recipes written down for use at formal feasts did indeed use spices and sauces they were not used as heavily as we do today, and they were used as a show of wealth and NOT a way to disguise bad food.

© 2013 Jeff Johnston

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    • CuAllaidh profile image
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      Jeff Johnston 3 years ago from Alberta Canada

      @carrie-andersen-18: I would agree with your professor, The Holy Grail by Monty Python is quite possibly one of the most accurate portrayals of medieval life, satirized and exaggerated but it holds up to scrutiny.

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      carrie-andersen-18 3 years ago

      About 12 years ago, I took a class at UCSB titled "Modern Images of the Middle Ages through Film and Text" in which we saw many stereotypical Medieval movies mostly exploring themes of the Authurian legend, courtly love and holy/unholy women (this class was in the French department). I had seen the movie Excalibur before, however I had not seen Monty Python's The Holy Grail. After we watched the latter, our professor Cynthia Brown said that The Holy Frail by Monty Python was probably the most accurate of the movies we had seen of portraying that time period for the reason that we really don't know much about it, when it comes down to it. Awesome, mind blown!

    • Rhonda Lytle profile image

      Rhonda Lytle 4 years ago from Deep in the heart of Dixie

      Thank you for a most delightful read. I've always been fascinated by the superstitions and witch hunts of the time. I would love to hear anything about those. I was really glad to hear hygiene was better than commonly held. It never really made a lot of sense.

    • Board-Game-Brooke profile image

      C A Chancellor 4 years ago from US/TN

      Really interesting! I definitely had the wrong impression about the armor. Thanks for sharing!

    • CuAllaidh profile image
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      Jeff Johnston 4 years ago from Alberta Canada

      @ChrisRulton: Most of my garb is custom made either by myself or my spouse. Of course I usually play real early (5th century Irish) so the clothing is much more comfortable than the court attire of the later periods :D

      And yes there is a large degree of comfort in the clothing, just as there is today ;)

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      ChrisRulton 4 years ago

      @elizabethfox6: Is the clothing you wear custom made for you by a specialised tailor or off the peg? Also, how expensive a material have you gone for? I've got different sets of C15th English that encompass both and there's a huge difference in the degree of comfort that you can get

    • CuAllaidh profile image
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      Jeff Johnston 4 years ago from Alberta Canada

      @Gypzeerose: Ya I am a bit of a medieval geek :D SCA turned me from a fan of the medieval times to a fanatic :D

    • Gypzeerose profile image

      Rose Jones 4 years ago

      You make it sound really great! I know you are an affectionado of the Medieval times. This is the kind of lens I love to visit: interesting (I read every word) and obviously well researched. Pinned to my history board and out by digg.

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      anonymous 4 years ago

      What, no code of chivalry....another bubble burst for me! I didn't know the clothes of the day were supposed to be uncomfortable but I fell for all the others with the masses....you are a myth buster for sure! I had never heard that one shouldn't bathe naked, guess that's doing double duty, getting some of your clotes clean at the same time, maybe we should consider that, lol! Delightful and loved on FB.

    • JeffGilbert profile image

      JeffGilbert 4 years ago

      Yeah, hollywood has done a lot to create confusion as to what was real back in the day. Great lens!!

    • Michelllle profile image

      Michelllle 4 years ago

      Wow. I had thought all these "myths" were true. Sheesh. -A great read.

    • CuAllaidh profile image
      Author

      Jeff Johnston 4 years ago from Alberta Canada

      @Schmusse katze: Hadn't heard that, will have to look into it.

    • Schmusse katze profile image

      Schmusse katze 4 years ago

      Did you know that the little "lock picks" thieves use were invented because of the Chastity-belt?

    • Elyn MacInnis profile image

      Elyn MacInnis 4 years ago from Shanghai, China

      This is fun - you wrote about Medieval times in Europe and Asia Minor, I took it from the China side - see the last one in the highlight reel. I am not so good at medieval history in Europe - so I really enjoyed this lens. Thanks!

    • JackNimble profile image

      JackNimble 4 years ago

      Nicely done! I enjoyed reading this as Medieval times is a great interest of mine.

    • Fit And Fab profile image

      Fit And Fab 4 years ago

      Interesting lens. I thought that the reason they did not bathe back in medieval times was due to the belief that they would catch a cold and their death. Very true about Hollywood 'making good' for the big screen. I enjoyed the read...now...I better get back on my gallant horse...hehe

    • CuAllaidh profile image
      Author

      Jeff Johnston 4 years ago from Alberta Canada

      @elizabethfox6: Oh, thanks, you just brought up another point, the clothing being uncomfortable. There were times that they were uncomfortable, but for the most part this is a myth, I will be adding a bit about this soon.

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      elizabethfox6 4 years ago

      Great Lens! I really liked the Medieval Ages and found it interesting that our civilization lived through it. Glad they did though. I always found the clothing very strange and uncomfortable, when they wore clothing. Looking at the past makes us appreciate the present.

    • AnnaMKB profile image

      AnnaMKB 4 years ago

      Excellent lens! Just wanted to add a bit about the nudity and bathing; it was most likely in response to the bath feasts that were sometimes held at the time. Some of the artist renditions showed rows of bathtubs with boards across them to hold the food while the attendees sat in the tubs and ate, with naked men and women wandering around the room. These were rather decadent affairs! Definitely not something to encourage when modesty was the goal, and baths were usually public.

    • CuAllaidh profile image
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      Jeff Johnston 4 years ago from Alberta Canada

      @kathysart: I've always been fascinated with Medieval history.

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      getmoreinfo 4 years ago

      Thanks for sharing the real facts about the Medieval Myths

    • kathysart profile image

      kathysart 4 years ago

      Darn interesting! You know a LOT young man.

    • CuAllaidh profile image
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      Jeff Johnston 4 years ago from Alberta Canada

      @Deborah Swain: LOL... ya Game of Thrones and similar portrayals are partly to blame, but at least Game of Thrones makes no claim of being historically accurate in any way, it doesn't even happen in our universe luckily.

    • Deborah Swain profile image

      Deborah Swain 4 years ago from Rome, Italy

      Great lens! I blame "Game of Thrones"...!

    • LiteraryMind profile image

      Ellen Gregory 4 years ago from Connecticut, USA

      This was so enlightening. I held most of these beliefs about Medieval Europe. Thanks for the info, well done.

    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 4 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      No longer will I call people medieval. Visiting medieval villages always fascinates me.

    • CuAllaidh profile image
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      Jeff Johnston 4 years ago from Alberta Canada

      @Rosetta Slone: Haven't seen that, will have to look for it.

    • Rosetta Slone profile image

      Rosetta Slone 4 years ago from Under a coconut tree

      There's a wonderful series available on youtube about Medieval food, where modern chefs recreate medieval meals from old cookbooks. If I hadn't watched it, I would still believe some of these myths.

    • CuAllaidh profile image
      Author

      Jeff Johnston 4 years ago from Alberta Canada

      @Margot_C: yes Hollywierd loves to perpetuate the savage medieval king ripping apart meat with his bare hands eating a few bites then throwing the rest to the dogs. Quite a ridiculous thought if you think about it. While scraps would have been fed to the dogs imagine how difficult to keep your hall clean would be if you acted like that. And cleanliness was important.

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      Margot_C 4 years ago

      Very interesting... I thought all these things were true, particularly the part about bathing. I believe the myth about eating lots of meat and tossing remnants to the dogs is perpetuated by movies.

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      Aunt-Mollie 4 years ago

      This is a fascinating time in history. I would like to know more about manuscripts from this period.