The Middle Ages is full of historical myths. Many historians blame this on the rise of humanism and the Renaissance movement. Both of these cultural shifts encouraged society to look back at medieval times in disgust. Gothic architecture from the Middle Ages was abandoned in the beginning of the Modern era, and replaced by classic Greek and Roman architecture. In other words, anything pertaining to the Middle Ages was seen as vulgar, tasteless, and old-fashioned.
Here are some of the most absurd myths and misconceptions about the Middle Ages, which a lot of people still believe to this day.
Everyone Smelled Really Bad
The Myth: People did not care much for bathing. Peasants were completely filthy and smelled like dead carcasses. The upper class only bathed once or twice a year.
The Truth: Public saunas and baths were quite common during the Middle Ages. They gave people an opportunity to socialize and freshen up. The city of Bath in England was a holy place because of its natural hot springs. Crowds came from all parts of the country to warm up and get clean.
Most brothels in London required guests to wash themselves before getting down to business. It was also considered good manners to wash your hands before having a meal. Rich people immersed themselves in tubs of heated water, while the lower class took regular spit baths. Smelling good was considered holy, while bad odors were associated with sin, so people in the Middle Ages definitely did what they could to stay fresh.
Many experts believe that this myth sprouted because of the Black Death, which struck Europe in the 14th century. Some doctors believed that bathing would open up your body’s pores, and invite in bad germs, so they started advising against it.
People Believed that the Earth was Flat
The Myth: Everyone in the Middle Ages believed that the Earth was flat, and the Church taught it as a strict doctrine.
The Truth: There are absolutely no records showing Church teachings of a flat Earth during the Middle Ages. It was a well-known fact that the world was a sphere, and widely accepted by the majority of scholars.
Even the poor and uneducated knew what the shape of the Earth was round. Kings used an orb as a symbol of their earthly power, which they held in their left hand while sitting on their thrones. This symbolism would not make sense unless they believed the world was round.
The romanticized idea that Christopher Columbus discovered a round Earth on a brave voyage opposed by the Church is nothing more than a myth. It was created in 1827 by a novelist named Washington Irving. He was commissioned to write a novel about the life of Columbus, but quickly found that the explorer had been wrong about the size of the Earth. In an attempt to make a more heroic story, Irving made up the whole idea that the medieval church preached a flat Earth.
Beheadings and Burnings for All
The Myth: The medieval Church burned thousands of women for being “witches,” and beheadings were a common way to deal with common criminals.
The Truth: The “Witch Fad” did not happen during the Middle Ages. The craze took its peak during the 16th and 17th centuries, so it belongs to the early Modern era. From the 5th to 15th centuries, the Church taught against the existence of witches, and scolded people who believed in them. The Church was caught up in the Witch Craze after the end of the Black Plague. And even then, witches were usually hanged, not burned. Burning was reserved for popular cases.
As far as beheadings go, only the French Revolution witnessed such common beheadings. In the Middle Ages, beheading was reserved for the worst criminals. It wasn’t a neat or efficient way to get the deed done, so the common criminals were typically exempt from it.
Knights Were the Most Honorable and Chivalrous of Men
The Myth: Knights were brave and courteous warriors. They stood up for the innocent and killed the wicked.
The Truth: Most knights were young men with high testosterone levels, and when they were not fighting in a war, they were wreaking havoc on the local population. In fact, towards the end of the 11th century, local lords used these knights to fight over land, which resulted in the slaughtering of entire villages. When the church grew tired of these conflicts, they commanded the First Crusade to compel these young men towards the Middle East, where they massacred the entire population of Jerusalem.
The Myth: Knights would encase their wives in chastity belts as they went off to war.
The Truth: This is nothing more than a myth meant to “romanticize” the notion of chivalry. Actually, the chastity belt is not even a medieval invention –chastity belts were first produced during the Renaissance.