One of the biggest things which I love…and perhaps sometimes hate…about studying history is that you get to clarify, learn and debunk all the rubbish about history that you thought you knew as a child. Once you’ve done that, everything else that you’ve learned either makes a whole heap more sense, or makes you start questioning everything else. Not everything that we’d like to imagine about history is actually true.
Here are ten really common historical myths, and why, or why they aren’t, rubbish!
1). People wrote with big fluffy feathers!
This is a really common one, thanks to Hollywood, and big-time historical dramas. I’m thinking stuff like The Tudors, The Borgias, Master and Commander, and so-on. But did people really write with big white (or other-coloured) feathers, back in the old days?
Yes…with a ‘but’.
YES. People did write with feathers – they’re called ‘quills’, by the way – but NO, people did not write with feathers which still had all the frilly, fluffy bits (‘barbs’) still on them. During the Middle Ages, right up to the early 1800s, writing with a quill was the most common way of writing anything that had to be done with ink. The feathers used were typically large flight-feathers from big birds like geese or swans. They were large, long and thick enough to be worthwhile turning into quills.
The first step was to remove all the barbs. Barbs got in the way of writing – they were big, frilly and unnecessary. They also added a lot of weight to the pen, which isn’t exactly comfortable when you could be writing for hours at a time!
Once the barbs – the frilly pretty bits – had been cut off, the naked feather-shaft was buried and filled with hot sand. This dries out any moisture in the shaft and hardens the material (which is the same stuff which your fingernails are made of, by the way), so that it’s ready for the next step: Carving.
The point of the quill was then cut with sharp, short-bladed knife – a pen-knife. At least four cuts were required to turn the shaft from a quill into a pen. Shaping the pen-point would determine how the pen would write.
Of course, as you wrote, the pen-point would soften. Eventually, the point would be come so soft, it’d be like writing with cooked spaghetti, and it’d be pretty useless. So you cut off the point you made, and then you started cutting another one. And then you went back to writing…and then eventually that point would wear out, and you’d cut another one…after some time, the quill would get shorter, and shorter, and shorter, with your hand slowly creeping up the shaft, until it finally became too short to be practically used.
This is why the barbs on quills were often removed – to make them easier to use, and last longer as writing instruments. The notion in the Middle Ages, that you’d write with a feather that still had the barbs growing out of the sides would’ve been as ridiculous then as trying to write today with the cap still on the pen!
2). Loads of things about Knights!
Forget the U.S. Marines or the SAS, SWAT teams or the Royal Navy – knights will always be the ultimate battlefield heroes! And like any other hero, there are loads of ridiculous rumors that have come to surround knights in the centuries after their dominance. What are they?
Knights in Shining Armour!
Sorry to upset you, but knights in shining armour were not always a thing. In fact, for much of the Middle Ages, most knights did not wear the classic depiction of ‘shining armour’ – what is properly called ‘plate armour’ today. Most knights would’ve worn a tunic, hose, a thick, padded, quilted overjacket called a gambeson, and over the top of that – a shirt or jacket of mail (NOT ‘chainmail’, just ‘mail’), which was composed of thousands of steel rings linked through each other and riveted together with tiny steel rivets. This was basically the medieval equivalent of your bulletproof vest.
Last but not least, there’s no evidence that the military salute comes from a knight raising his helmet-visor, or removing his helmet altogether. A knight only removed (or even opened) his helmet when it was absolutely necessary – since it’s kinda important to protecting his head and all – so the likelihood that this is the origin of the salute is flimsy. It’s much more likely that the salute came from the time after knights, when it was common practice to sweep off one’s hat as a gesture of greeting and respect. The modern military salute is simply a much-simplified version of this.
Knights are Chivalrous!
As Mr. Gibbs says in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, ‘they’re more like guidelines, than actual rules’!
And that is the truth. The idea of knights being all romantic and noble, chivalrous and dashing is…honestly not as true as you’d like it to be. Sorry folks. Knights are humans just like the rest of us, and just like the rest of us, they followed these guidelines when it was convenient to them, and not because they had to.
Chivalry actually came into play after knights had been around for a while. Without wars to fight, knights became restless and would often just go off raiding to find something to do. To keep knights in line, the Catholic Church decreed that from then on, knights were religious warriors, bound to a certain ‘code of conduct’, although there is no proof that all knights followed this code. The chivalrous knight might sound extremely noble and romantic, but it has little to do with the actuality of knighthood.
An Armoured Knight Could Not Move!
On the surface, you can kind of see how this thing plays out – a knight typically wore three to four different layers, at least two of them made from heavy steel mesh or plate, and at least one from heavy fabric. How on earth did they move around!?
Actually, armour was not as heavy as you might think. The modern soldier on the battlefield carries more crap with him than the knights of old! Although they’re typically thought of as being horse-mounted warriors, knights did have to be able to fight effectively on foot, so mobility and flexibility were extremely important. A knight which couldn’t move was of no use to anybody!
Knights were Older Men
Training for knights started very, very young, and typically had two or three stages. A boy becoming a knight started at the age of seven. He would be sent away to the home of a nobleman-knight, who would oversee his education. This included things like swordsmanship, horse-riding, reading, writing, serving, and other important skills.
At the age of fourteen, the boy (then called a ‘page’) would step up to the rank of ‘Squire’. A squire was an apprentice-knight. He had to learn to wear, clean, and repair armour, he had to know how to fight, he had to know how to attack someone while riding on horseback, and had to physically assist the knight who was training him, in any number of ways, so as to fully understand what he was getting himself into.
Finally, at the age of anywhere from 18-24, usually at 21, a squire became a fully-fledged knight.
As a result, the average knight was probably no older when he started, than your typical raw military recruit these days, something which really hasn’t changed much throughout history.
Despite the Armour, Knights could be Killed on the Battlefield.
Well, yeah. Sure, they could. But in actuality, it was more common for a knight to be captured on a battlefield, rather than killed. Knights were the military elite of their day, and as such, typically earned great sums of money, land, titles and courtly positions. This made them far more useful to the enemy, alive, rather than dead.
It was common practice for knights to be captured and then ransomed back to their family, or whichever person was their immediate superior (such as a king or higher noble). Because of this, it was far more important to keep a knight not only alive, but also comfortable during his imprisonment.
3). Spices were used to disguise the taste of rotten meat
Food during Medieval times could be scarce. Effective farming and knowledge of cattle-rearing and breeding had not yet become a thing, and because of this, the availability of food could vary significantly from season to season, and year to year.
Because of this inability to reliably produce or store food year-round, absolutely nothing would’ve been wasted. Every part of an animal would be eaten, and every part of a plant or vegetable which was not otherwise dangerous or inedible, would be consumed.
This possibly led to the myth that medieval cooks would even go so far as to mask the taste of rotten meat by lacing it liberally with spices in an effort to waste absolutely nothing at all.
Now, I’m not sure exactly why this myth is so common, but…I can tell you that it isn’t true.
The fact is that spices were hideously expensive in the medieval world. They came from places like China, India, Madagascar, and Indonesia in long, long voyages and treks which could take months to complete. The price-hikes that were paid on spices at each exchange from merchant to merchant were huge, so much so that by the time they reached Europe, spices were so expensive that only the wealthy could afford them – and they certainly weren’t going to waste something which came halfway around the world, and which cost so much – on meat which wasn’t worth flavouring!
4). Chinese Emperors ate with silver chopsticks, to detect poison!
On the surface, this sounds really sensible. You eat your food with a metal which changes colour when it comes in contact with poison – that way, you prevent assassination! Real smart, yeah?
Well, it would be – if it worked.
Chopsticks have been made out of all kinds of things over the years, bone, ivory, rare woods, porcelain, and yes, even silver, so silver chopsticks certainly did exist – but there’s no proof that they were ever used to detect poison. And that’s for one very good reason: loads of things turn silver black!
The myth goes that when the silver chopsticks come into contact with the poisoned food, the silver tarnishes and turns black, and this warns the diner that he’s about to be poisoned. But actually – loads of foods, poisoned or not – turn silver black. Especially things with sulphur in them. That means anything flavoured with, or cooked with – eggs, garlic, onions, and various types of meats and vegetables, would all sooner, or later, turn a set of gleaming silver chopsticks – black. For this reason – poison-detecting silver chopsticks just simply wouldn’t work; they’d be too unreliable.
5). Columbus Found America, and Proved the World Was Round
Actually, neither of those things is true. Through geometry and sheer looking-aroundedness, mankind has known that the earth was round for centuries before Columbus. Knowing that Earth was round goes back to the Ancient Babylonians and Ancient Greeks. By the time Columbus showed up in the 15th century, it was a widely-accepted fact.
Along with this, neither was Columbus the first to discover America. In fact, he never did discover it! Vikings got there first, via Greenland, and Columbus only ever landed in the Caribbean, although he did eventually end up in what is today, Florida, on future voyages.
6). Loads of things about the Titanic
The most famous ocean-liner in the world. And with fame comes rumor and scandal, and the Titanic has loads of that! Here are some of the more persistent Titanic rumors, and why they are, or aren’t, garbage!
The Titanic and its Lifeboats
The Titanic has constantly been criticised for its chronic lack of lifeboats. But how many was the ship actually supposed to hold?
On the fatal night in question, it had twenty lifeboats of varying capacities, eighteen of which were successfully loaded and launched, with the last two being floated off the sides as the ship went down.
The Titanic was designed with Welin Double-Acting davits. These davits (winches or cranes, basically), had the ability to swivel both out (over the side of the ship) or in (over the deck). They were designed to lower multiple lifeboats. Had the Titanic been stocked the way that some in the White Star Line had desired, she would’ve carried approximately thirty-six lifeboats, which, if they’d been fully-loaded, would’ve been enough for everyone on board.
The Titanic was going too fast!
Actually the Titanic was not going ‘too fast’, the Titanic was going at its cruising speed. Which was absolutely normal. It was nothing which any other ship of the time would’ve been doing – it’s still standard practice today! The only reason for a ship to slow down was if it was departing, arriving, or if there was any imminent danger.
If the lookouts had had binoculars, the Titanic would’ve been saved!
Um…no. And for one very simple reason – the whole point of binoculars (or telescopes or any other such distance-viewing equipment), is to sight a specific item, object or location in the distance. This is tricky enough to do during the daytime, never mind at night. And on top of that, the lookouts on the Titanic were not sighting a known object.
You can’t look for something which you’re not even sure exists. Binoculars would only have been of use to them if they know that something is definitely out there and they have some sort of reference-point with their eyes, with which to find it. Since they didn’t know there was an iceberg out there, they didn’t know where to look to find it with a pair of binoculars, which means even if they had them, they would’ve been useless, up until the time they’d spotted the iceberg with their eyes, which as we know, was already too late.
The Titanic was trying to win the Blue Riband
Another common (and completely pointless) myth is that the Titanic was trying to win the Blue Riband, which at the time, was the unofficial speed-record for ships steaming between the United States and Europe across the Atlantic Ocean.
While the Blue Riband certainly did exist, and was competed for, the Titanic did not, and could not, have won it. For one very simple reason: It simply didn’t have the speed to do so. The Titanic was built first and foremost for luxury and comfort, and to have the latest, and greatest technology available at sea during the early 20th century: Electric lights, elevators, telephones, radio, electric heaters, a photography darkroom, and the latest in safety innovations, but the one thing the Titanic did not have, was record-breaking speed, and this was part of her design. Even if she had wanted to, the Titanic would never have won the Blue Riband.
7). Loads of things about the Wild West!
Aaah, the Wild West. Where men were men, and where gun-toting outlaws shot it out in the streets and stuck up steam trains, stagecoaches and riders, relieving them of their gold, silver, watches and jewels. But how much of all this is actually real?
Everybody and their momma was packin’ heat!
Actually, despite the depictions shown by Hollywood and big-name Western films…everybody and their momma was more than likely, NOT packing heat. Believe it or not, but a lot of Western cities and frontier towns during the days of the ‘Old West’ (ca. 1865-1920), actually had extremely strict gun-control laws.
It was not illegal to own a gun. It was not illegal to own ammunition. It was not even illegal to fire a gun! But it was, in many towns, illegal to carry a gun openly in town. It was seen as threatening, hostile, and inviting danger. Because of this, town sheriffs actually enforced strict no-carry laws, regardless of open, or concealed.
The murder rates were super-high!
Actually…no. While murders certainly did happen, since people were not allowed to carry loaded guns in public, they were not nearly as common as Hollywood would have us believe. Most towns had less than five deaths a year!
Cowboys and outlaws were hot-blooded, white Americans.
Sure. Some were. But actually, there were also a lot of other ethnicities. Mexican, African-American and other, lesser ethnicities and nationalities were all represented in the Wild West – even gay cowboys were apparently a thing!
Remember that a lot of these people lived very rugged lifestyles. Towns were days apart by horse and cart, and trains were not always as frequent as you’d like them to be – sometimes they didn’t run at all! Because of this, long cattle-drives and long journeys between towns relied on competent, reliable, sober men, if the stock (and the men driving it) were going to reach their destination alive.
This meant that they didn’t have time to piss around with things like racism or homophobia. That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen – sure it did – but in such a harsh environment, most people didn’t have the luxury of complaining about it. What was far more important was whether this guy on your team could do his job, more than anything else!
8). Loads of things about Pirates!
Just like with knights, pirates are also drenched in myth. But which ones are actually true?
Pirates buried treasure, and drew maps to it!
Nope. Instances of pirates burying treasure are phenomenally rare – there’s maybe one or two recorded instances of buried treasure in all of classical pirating history (ca. 1600-1800), and even those are contested. It’s certainly true that pirate ships sank, loaded with treasure, and that some of this treasure has been located, recovered, and put in museums, but that’s not the same thing.
Pirates walked the plank!
Nope. Pure fiction, and an invention of Hollywood.
There was a Pirates’ Code!
Actually…yes, there was! Well, yes, and no. At no time in history was there ever ONE specific pirates’ code. Such a thing never existed. But individual pirate captains did have codes of conduct on their ships which they expected to be obeyed. Articles listed in these codes mentioned everything from health insurance, bedtime, dividing the spoils of victory, a strict no-rape policy, and that every pirate was responsible for keeping their weapons in working order.
Pirates were marooned on desert islands.
Yes, this really did happen, and there are recorded instances of this happening throughout history. Admittedly not often, but it was a recognised pirate punishment. As is the bottle of water (or rum) and the pistol with one charge of powder and one shot.
Pirates spoke like they do in the movies! Yarrr!!
Sure they did!…Buuuut…only in the movies. A lot of that comes down to early Hollywood ‘talkies’ from the 1930s, 40s and 50s.
Pirates were obsessed with ‘Pieces of Eight’.
Probably, yeah. The ‘Piece of Eight’ is the slang term for the Spanish 8 Reales coin, millions of which were minted in South America, and shipped back to Spain by the galleon-load. They certainly did exist, and you can certainly go and buy one, if you look hard enough. Spanish treasure-galleons loaded to bursting with gold and silver coins like these were often targeted by Dutch, English and French pirates and privateers.
Pirates wore eyepatches, had peg-legs and hook-hands.
Again, probably yes. While some of this has certainly been dressed up by Hollywood, it’s also true that pirates (and seasoned seafarers in general) did have eyepatches, peg-legs and hook-hands. Losing a limb during naval battles was extremely common, and crude prosthetic limbs would’ve been made out of whatever materials would’ve been available on the ship at the time.
Pirates wore eyepatches so that they could retain night-vision in one eye, and day-vision in the other. This was to make sight clearer when going above, or below decks, and switching between the darkness of the ship’s interior, and the brightness of the open decks.
9). Stuff about the Model T Ford
The most legendary car in history, there have been quite a few myths and misconceptions about the old ‘Tin Lizzie’. What are they?
‘The customer may have any colour he desires so long as it’s black!’
Actually, the Model T was available in a wide array of colours. While black was certainly one of them, it was also available in blue, red, green, grey and maroon. Ironically, black was NOT the first colour which Ts came in!
Model Ts were rickety, unreliable, fiddly machines.
While they were certainly fiddly to operate (the controls are NOTHING like those of a modern car), Model Ts were actually manufactured to be amazingly robust and long-lasting! Their engines were simple, their controls were…not exactly straightforward, but at least not dangerous to operate…and they were designed to cross open country! Remember that in the 1910s when most Ts were made, roads were often little more than dirt tracks. As a result, cars had to be built extremely tough to drive over them safely.
Model Ts could run you over when you started them.
Yes they could, if you didn’t follow the correct starting procedure. The handbrake had to be engaged (pulled all the way back) before the engine started (if you cranked it), or else the car could very well run you over!
10). The British Government once had a Window Tax!
Actually…yes! During the 1700s, with the British fighting an increasingly large number of very expensive wars, all kinds of taxes were introduced. One of them was a window tax, whereby every house which had more than a specific number of windows had to pay a tax for the privilege of having them. Some people got around this ridiculous law by simply employing the services of a competent bricklayer, and blocking up the extra windows!
Other taxes from the 1700s included ones on candles, watches and clocks, soap, newspapers, wigs and wig-powder, personal income, and the employment of male servants!…this final one lasted until the 1850s! During this time, candles, soap and newspapers became so expensive that they were virtually luxury items until the mid-Victorian era.