Historians Set The Story Straight About Ridiculous Historical Misconceptions

Rachel Seigel

History is a tricky subject, and sometimes, despite our best efforts, we get the facts wrong. Think of teaching history like playing the childhood game broken telephone. In the game, the phrase is repeated person to person until it reaches the last person in the chain who says the phrase out loud with often comical results. The originator of the phrase is absolutely certain of what they repeated, but somewhere along the chain, after multiple repetitions, it gets distorted from being misheard or misremembered.

History is the same way. The people involved may remember it one way, but then after the story is told and retold potentially for centuries, it gets twisted, changed, exaggerated, etc… The more time that passes between the actual event and the current version of events, the harder it is to verify what actually happened, and the more we come to accept facts that are simply wrong.

Below are examples of common historical misconceptions that many of us have, kindly corrected by the historians of Reddit.

30. Not So Rotten Renaissance

That people during the Middle Ages / Renaissance were always dirty and smelly. Disease and sickness was linked to bad smells in their mind, so nobody wanted to smell bad if they could afford not to, including the poor. They wore linen if they could, and most people cleaned their clothes at least weekly. Also teeth whitening was a thing during the Tudor era! And nobody ate rotten meat.



29. Can You Spare a Few Bucks?

Not a historian, but I just finished reading a 900 pg biography of George Washington and he was quite a remarkable man.

The misconception, however, is that Washington was the richest man in America. Yes, he was very wealthy in terms of land, but he actually had major financial problems after the Revolutionary War. In fact Washington, who had never borrowed money in his entire life, had to take out a loan to attend his own inauguration.


28. Hiding in Plain Sight

The #1 misconception about the British red coat seems to be “Oh, it was red so blood wouldn’t show” Absolute bollocks. Blood will show as a black stain. It was red #1 because that was one of the national colors of England. #2) Red is a really difficult color to distinguish at a distance. You’ll know that men are marching towards you, but it will just look like a heap of men, making it difficult to know now many are actually coming.


27.  Medieval Misconceptions

Being a huge medieval nerd myself there are a few things that always irked me.

Swords cut many things just fine, but not armor. That’s what more blunt weapons like maces, flails and war hammers were for (or axes, if you prefer keeping a blade).

You couldn’t pick up a longsword and know how to use it, just like if you were trained in swordsmanship you couldn’t just pick up a flail or halberd and magically know how to use it instantly. Learning how to use the weapons took a long, long time.

A properly fitting suit of plate armor did not make the knight or soldier some clunky, immobile tank. You could still break it, and under certain circumstances, pierce it. But they could still move all the same as well.


26. Missing the Big Picture

People tend to ignore the bigger factors that drive history and instead focus on the actions of one or two smaller events as the sole movers of history. Things like warming and cooling periods, plagues, famines, societal collapses and so forth are the reasons events, and choices by individual people and society, are made. Yes people have agency but often the choices they have are limited by the times they exist.

The Reformation wasn’t created in a vacuum when some guy nailed stuff to a door. WWI wasn’t simply an escalation resulting, purely, from when a guy got shot in Sarajevo. Understanding the larger agents of change means we can understand how humanity functions and how much we are a product of the world in which we live. Dates of things and the “great men” of history are nice, but they should accentuate the bigger picture, not be the picture in and of themselves.


25. Remember the Cavalry!

Basically, the deciding factor in most battles was the cavalry. The cavalry was highly effective against unorganized infantry but it was useless against organized and disciplined infantry. Both armies would deploy their infantry in dense lines to deter the use of enemy cavalry.

In order to make their own cavalry useful they would attempt to disrupt the enemy infantry formation by shooting them apart and disrupting their formation enough to bring the cavalry in. There was some more complexity to it but this is the general overview. Until technology advanced on a large scale these tactics were sound.


24. Primitive Tactics

People forget about how every single one of those soldiers had to march for days in order to reach a battlefield, and still maintain their unit cohesion. That’s a big argument for regimented lines of infantry; the other argument being that it’s important that the commanders be able to order units AS A UNIT, and that volley and fusillade fire are way more effective than pot shots.

Artillery changes things too; cannons are heavy and expensive, and so much of the infantry’s job was to protect the artillery, and much of the way to win a battle was to establish the better artillery position to be able to either engage the enemy artillery or come right at the enemy infantry.


23. Unintended Results

Martin Luther didn’t set out trying to destroy the Catholic Church. His 95 Theses were meant to start a discussion to end corruption in the church, and it kind of snowballed.


22. Middle-Aged in the Middle Ages

The average age people lived to in the Middle Ages was about 30, due to people having way more kids than nowadays ( many of them already dying during birth), and many of them dying at a young age due to diseases that later became easily treatable, once a basic understanding of hygiene started existing. When you survived your childhood there was a “good chance” you’d live till at least 45.


21. Embellished and Exaggerated

The problem with many accounts of emperors’ lives is that more juicy stuff like making a horse a consul, or waging war on the sea, are usually described in the writings of political opponents, or the Roman equivalent of gossip magazines. And even seemingly ridiculous stuff like waging war on the sea sometimes has a plausible alternative meaning, like punishing unwilling soldiers.


20. Classical Education

On the topic of Puritanism in the colonies:

Popular belief in a “Bible or nothing” education for Puritan children. A simple glance through the libraries and catalogs of even common people shows this to be an outright fabrication; even the ministers (who had theological training) were well-schooled in the classical scholars of Greece and Rome.


19. An Act of Worship

It is a misconception that the pyramids of Egypt were built by slaves. Most of the pyramids were built during the Old and Middle kingdoms, and there is no evidence of slavery at that time. The pyramids were built by free citizens who believed their pharaohs were incarnations of Horus the sky God. Being a builder of a pyramid was actually an honor and a spiritual experience. They would even have feasts and party during the building too.


18. Not Quite a Majority

That a majority of Germans voted for Hitler. The most he got in a free election was around 1/3rd share of the vote.


17. Party Like It’s 1787!

The delegates who attended the Constitutional Convention spent much of their time drinking. One surviving document from the time is a bill for a party on September 15, 1787, two days before the signing of the Constitution.

Items on the bill were: 54 bottles of Madeira, 60 bottles of Claret, 8 bottles of whiskey, 8 bottles of cider, 12 bottles of beer and 7 bowls of alcoholic punch—all of this for 55 people.


16. Worth Their Weight in Salt

There’s not a single primary source that can corroborate the notion that Romans were paid in salt. There aren’t primary sources on the subject; just people citing blogs or mistranslating untrustworthy ancient historians.


15. Artistic Liberties

The film The Patriot. For most of the war, every American soldier did not have a proper uniform. The British weren’t burning civilians alive in their churches. And the colonial militias spent a good deal of time fighting loyalist militias in the south, instead of always taking on the British.


14.  Putting Words in Her Mouth

Marie Antoinette never said “Let them eat cake” when she was told French peasants didn’t have any bread. That was 100% Revolutionary propaganda. Contrary to popular belief, she did care about her people.


13. Cut Down to Size

Napoleon wasn’t short. It was English propaganda, picturing him as a short man to make him unimpressive. I read he would have been around 1m70 in height. This isn’t tall, but it’s certainly not short either. For that period, that was even “above average.” 

Edit: as /u/combat_wombat1 correctly points out, this was also due to a difference in English inches and French inches, which the English were more than happy to forget as to portray him as a short man. 


12.  Changing at a Rapid Pace

That the time we live in now is “normal” and “stable” as opposed to back in the day when everything changed every few thousand years. We’re living in one of the most fast-paced revolutions in the history of mankind. People have been born before television and grow up with an established internet. Historical breakthroughs are happening on a regular basis. We’re sending people into space for the first time, almost all the people who “invented” things like the internet, video games, computers—things that are going to stick around with us for the rest of humanity—are still alive. It’s insane.


11.  Charge!

That in World War II, Polish cavalry charged German tanks with sabers and lances only to be mowed down. Didn’t happen.

Poland used cavalry, but mainly as a form of mobile infantry. They did, in fact, use the charge tactic, but only against enemy infantry, and that with success. The rumor that they charged against tanks came from a battle where Polish cavalry charged German infantry, dispersed them, only to be ambushed by Armor cars and retreat.

An Italian reporter, brought in to see the aftermath, saw the dead horses and made up a story where the cavalry charged tanks with sabers and lances. There weren’t even any tanks involved at all.


10.  Child Brides

Marriage ages! Especially very young girls marrying much older men in the past being a super common thing.

With regards to medieval Western Europe, I find that the public greatly underestimates average marriage ages and overestimates the average age difference between the bride and the groom. The stereotype of a 14-year-old bride getting married off to an older man is more associated with the upper classes (a very small percentage of the population) and southern Europe in the Middle Ages.

For your average gal in, say, a 14th-century farming village in England for example, getting married at 14 would be super weirdly young and your husband was usually about your age. Because the church kept very good records, marriage patterns are actually something that we can document fairly well for the Middle Ages, so this is a misconception that can easily be corrected with concrete data. Depending on which century and where exactly in Europe you lived, average ages ranged from late teens/early 20s to even mid/late 20s in some areas!


9. I’m No Dunce!

Einstein never failed math. In fact, when he was shown a clipping from Ripley’s Believe It or Not where it claimed that, he responded, “I never failed in mathematics. Before I was 15 I had mastered differential and integral calculus.”


8. He’ll Never Make It

What’s really interesting is that Columbus had trouble getting financial backing not because they thought he’d fall off the end of a flat earth, but because they rightly calculated that he’d never have enough food/water to make it all the way around the earth to India.


7. Not as Dumb As You Think

What always bothers me the most is the idea that people in pre-history were somehow dumber than we are today.  The truth is, their physiology and their brains are exactly the same as ours today and they were capable of the same complex thoughts and accomplishments that we are. It pisses me off when “documentaries” claim aliens built ancient structures. People are capable today and they were capable then. They found a way.


6. Political Genius

Cleopatra wasn’t some promiscuous ruler who slept with literally anyone, she was an incredibly cunning political genius who really only slept with two men as far as we know. The portrayal of her in the new Assassin’s Creed game is incredibly incorrect and the only reason people view her as this promiscuous person is because of a decent slander campaign from certain Roman leaders against her after her death.


5. Behind Every Great Man are… More Great Men!

There’s something called the “Great Man Theory.” It’s an idea from Thomas Carlyle, and it’s mostly bunk. It’s the idea that history is mostly advanced by only a handful of “Great men,” e.g. historical figures that we associate with history, like Napoleon or Winston Churchill or Alexander the Great or Leonardo da Vinci, and that everyone else just sat on the sidelines.

Really though history is much more messy. Napoleon was one guy, for example, but he had a ton of staff, a ton of soldiers working for him, the backing of several newly rich Republicans, and so on. He was a smart guy who worked hard, but he also was in the right place at the right moment in history.

The Great Man Theory opens the door to hero worship, and it’s also pure elitism. History is made of ordinary people working their butts off day after day. Some just happen to get written about.


4. Not Such a Coincidence!

Gavrilo Princip did not “just happen to be having a sandwich” when the Archduke [Franz Ferdinand] drove by. Gavrilo chose that deli to wait for another chance specifically because it was along the original parade path that the Archduke was meant to take through Sarajevo that day. Unbeknownst to Princip, the Archduke changed his plans and decided to head to the hospital to visit the civilians injured in the initial assassination attempts. The Archduke’s driver was some Austrian guy who didn’t know Sarajevo, and ended up following the original parade route by mistake. Gavrilo was waiting along the parade route, hoping for this exact situation. Yes the whole thing was still highly coincidental, but Gavrilo wasn’t there for just a sandwich.


3. What it Even a Sandwich?

Another detail—it’s highly unlikely that Gavrilo was buying a sandwich. It simply isn’t a traditional snack for common folk in Sarajevo, then or now. It’s more likely he bought something like burek (meat pie), siruša (chease pie) or ćevapi / pljeskavica (~Balkan hamburgers).


2. The Critical Elite

Nero didn’t play the fiddle/harp/whatever when Rome was burning down. He wasn’t even in the city when it started. He returned to Rome and helped organize relief and firefighting efforts.

Most of what we know about Nero nowadays is questioned. There’s evidence that he was actually quite popular among the lower classes; it was the elite that hated him (many of the writings critical of him came from the wealthy), and several people in the late empire claimed to be descended from him or a reincarnation of him to gather support from the masses.


1. Don’t Smile!

There are a lot of myths about photography that people perpetuate. Not every weird looking photo from the 19th century is a Memento Mori (i.e. post-mortem). A lot of photos floating around on the internet labeled as such are actually living subjects. And only in the earliest days did photographs take a long time to produce. By the Civil War, exposure times were rapidly becoming comparable to modern cameras. People didn’t smile for photos because they thought it made them look foolish. Portraits were supposed to be serious and formal.



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