7 History Myths Busted

Not everything you’ve read about in the history books is entirely true…

1. “KNIGHTS HAD TO BE HOISTED ONTO THEIR HORSES”

Although they look incredibly heavy, 15th-century suits of armour weigh in at around 14–23 kilograms. Despite this, they were not difficult to move about in or mount a horse while wearing. Knights had to remain as agile as possible in order to stay combat effective or even just survive a melee. If armour really had been so heavy that a fallen knight could not have stood up again on his own, or been able to re-mount his horse, the smallest trip in battle would have been a death sentence. While the metal plates had to be tough enough for ample protection, they also had to be light enough for prolonged action and a range of movement. A suit of plate armour could be comprised of around 18 main separate pieces, each protecting a different limb or vital organ. Importantly, each piece had to move flexibly with the wearer, and without restricting any movement such as a sword swing or even some light running. One of the origins of the impossibly heavy armour is found in the 1944 film Henry V, produced by Laurence Olivier. This depicts knights being hoisted onto their mounts using cranes — a bizarre fiction with no historical evidence. By contrast, there are historical accounts of armoured soldiers performing almost acrobatic feats, including Bertrand du Guesclin, who is recorded leaping to and from his horse. Modern-day soldiers, by comparison, regularly take more than 50 kilograms of armour, weaponry and equipment into combat, the majority of which is carried in their backpacks. With a suit of armour, the weight is spread mostly evenly over the wearer’s entire body, making it much easier to bear and balance while wearing. This means that far from being restricted by impossibly heavy armour, knights fighting centuries ago were arguably more light and agile than their 21st-century counterparts.

2.  “MARIE ANTOINETTE SAID ‘LET THEM EAT CAKE’”

When the wife of King Louis XVI was told her French subjects had no bread to eat, she retorted, “Let them eat cake.” Or did she? It was 1789, crop failures had left the starving population deeply resentful of the monarchy, and the Austrian-born queen became their target. However, the phrase ‘let them eat cake’ had been used for years. More than a century earlier, Marie-Thérèse – the Spanish bride of King Louis XIV – supposedly said the French people should eat “the crust of the pâté”. The infamous remark stuck though, and Marie Antoinette’s reputation for decadence was blamed for causing the country’s economic downturn. While it’s true that she embraced life at Versailles, her love of palace parties, fashion and gambling wasn’t the cause of the French Revolution. Nevertheless, the misunderstood monarch was sentenced to death along with the rest of the royal family, but the myth survived her.

3. “ VOMITORIUMS WERE USED FOR THROWING UP IN”

The Romans were fond of a feast. They would gorge on delicacies like wild boar, pheasant, lobsters and songbirds until they couldn’t eat any more. That’s when they would take a trip to the vomitorium – a room where the diner could expel their previous courses and return to eat some more. Or so pop culture would have us believe. In ancient Rome, vomitoriums were actually the entrance and exit passages of amphitheatres. The 5th-century writer Macrobius chose this charming Latin word because of the way people ‘spewed forth’ into their seats at these open-air venues. It seems people may have got confused over time, which isn’t surprising given the infamous gluttony of Rome’s emperors. Claudius was said to always finish a meal bloated and confined to bed, while Vitellius allegedly ate the sacrificial meat from an altar! But even emperors didn’t have a special chunder chamber.

4.  “ANNE BOLEYN HAD AN EXTRA FINGER”

Famous for being the doomed second wife of Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn was charged with adultery, incest and high treason. She had faced many accusations, but having an extra finger wasn’t one of them. In fact, the claim wasn’t even made during her lifetime. Decades after Boleyn’s death, a Catholic propagandist called Nicholas Sander wrote that she had “a projecting tooth under the upper lip, and on her right hand, six fingers”. He added that she had a large wart under her chin. In Tudor England, physical imperfections were thought to be a sign of evil, and Sander had portrayed Boleyn as a witch who had seduced the king. But would such an unsightly woman have captured the heart of the Tudor tyrant? It seems very unlikely, for so determined was Henry to marry her that he broke away from the Catholic Church and established his own – the Church of England. Nicholas Sander never actually met Boleyn in person and was only a boy when she was beheaded in 1536. It’s likely Anne’s rumoured disfigurements were a way of discrediting her daughter, Queen Elizabeth I. It was her religious policies that forced Sander into exile, and he wasn’t alone in attacking the Protestant monarch’s parentage in a vengeful bid to sully her name. What’s more, Anne’s first biographer, George Wyatt, had spoken to those who knew her and admitted that while she did have several moles and an extra nail on her little finger, there was no sixth digit. And when a body believed to have been Boleyn was exhumed at the Tower of London in the 19th century, there was no evidence to support Sander’s slander.

5.  “NAPOLEON WAS SHORT”

Despite conquering much of Europe single-handedly, Napoleon Bonaparte is almost as well known for his short stature. But, in reality, the emperor of France was around five foot, 6.5 inches (1.69 metres) tall, making him above average height for men in both France and England at that time. When he died in 1821, Napoleon was measured to be five foot, 2 inches(1.57 metres) tall. Unfortunately for the deceased, this was taken in French feet and inches, which were slightly larger than English measurements. In the early 19th century the metric system was not yet used universally, meaning there was no standarised measurement. When interpreted as English feet, Napoleon’s height was therefore mistakenly recorded as being over four inches shorter. However, even before his death the emperor had been mocked for his supposed tiny size. Another source of this myth is found in the British press of the period. Newspaper columns roundly criticised Napoleon, printing caricatures depicting him as a tiny child throwing temper tantrums. This impression was aided by his nickname Le Petit Caporal’ (the little corporal) among his troops, and the fact his personal bodyguard, the Old Guard, had a minimum height requirement of six feet (1.8 metres), towering above him by comparison. This myth has proven so persuasive that a theoretical condition was named after the emperor’s supposedly short stature. The ‘Napoleon complex’suggests that shorter-than-average men become more aggressive, seek more attention in social gatherings and possess greater ambition than average-height or tall men. Experts still question the accuracy of this, but what’s certain is that Napoleon was by no means vertically challenged.

6.  “300 SPARTANS ALONE FOUGHT THE PERSIAN ARMY AT THERMOPYLAE”

In 480 BCE King Leonidas made a brave last stand against a horde of enemies at the head of only 300 of his ferocious hoplite warriors. It is one of the most compelling stories of ancient Greece, but is it entirely true? In reality, between 6,000–7,000fellow Greeks joined the Spartans at the Battle of Thermopylae, travelling from across Greece to defend against the Persian invasion led by King Xerxes I. Among those fighting with the 300 Spartans, Herodotus lists 700 Thespians, 400 Thebans, 1,120 Arcadians, 1,000 Phocians, and more. Nonetheless, the Greeks were still greatly outnumbered against up to 100,000 Persian soldiers. The Greek army was deployed in a narrow coastal pass, nicknamed the Hot Gate, where the overwhelming numbers of attacking Persians could not be affected. According to Herodotus, the crucial turning point in the battle came when the Persian army was led to a secret mountain pass, enabling them to overcome the Phocian guards. In the 2006 film 300, it is at this point that the Spartans’ allies abandon them out of fear, while Leonidas declares he and his men will stay and fight to the death. However, even this scene is inaccurate, as several of the Greek allies remained fighting to the bitter end, including those forces from Thespiae and Thebes. While the Thespians reportedly stayed willingly with Leonidas, Herodotus writes that the king kept the Theban troops against their will. Regardless, the Persian army eventually crushed their Greek opponents, who had fought their way into legend.

7.  “VIKINGS WORE HORNED HELMETS”

Vikings were seafaring Scandinavians that raided, traded and garnered a bloodthirsty reputation between the 8th to 11th centuries. The famous beastly horned helmets seem to fit the stereotype, but there’s actually no evidence to suggest they ever wore them. This myth was popularised after writers and artists used the headgear in their portrayals of Vikings. In the 1870s, German costume designer Carl Emil Doepler, created horned helmets for Wagner’s Norse-inspired opera, and is often credited with cementing this stereotype. Perhaps these creators were inspired by 19th-century archaeological discoveries of horned helmets — but these were later found to predate the Vikings. The only shred of evidence that can be called ‘Viking’ was discovered at a Gjermundbu burial mound, but this 10th-century artefact does not have any horns. It’s possible such helmets were used for ceremonial purposes, but it’s very unlikely they were worn aboard warships — the space would have been too limited — and they wouldn’t be practical in battle either. Instead, it’s thought that Norsemen wore leather skullcaps or domed metal helmets with brow ridges, fragments of which have been discovered. It could also be possible that some Vikings didn’t wear any headgear at all, which would explain why only a small number of helmets have been found. That’s not the only myth surrounding the Vikings though. Portrayed as beardy, illiterate savages, we’ve since discovered they groomed themselves with combs and razors; they developed a complex alphabet of runes; and while some spilt a lot of blood in their bid to conquer foreign lands, others earned a peaceful living through farming and trading.


This article was originally published in How It Works issue 108, written by Tim Williamson/Jodie Tyley


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