Many historical events that have been passed down as truth through the ages have actually be proven false. History is a mix of facts, exaggerations and lies told and retold by people over and over, until they ended up in our school history books.
In this article. historians share which misconceptions about history drive them absolutely nuts!
[Source can be found at the end of the article]
There are a lot of myths about photography that bug me 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 labelled 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.
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.
Amateur historian but 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 makes me mad when some “documentaries” claim aliens built ancient structures. People are capable today and they were capable then. They found a way.
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.
This is a bit specific, but the notion that 18th century European warfare was waged the way it was because people didn’t know any better. You know, lining up in a field and shooting each other from 100 yards or less.
The military minds of the day weren’t mouth-breathing simpletons who were incapable of coming up with anything better. These tactics were well thought out and highly effective when done correctly.
Napoleon wasn’t short. It was an English propaganda, picturing him as a short man to make him unimpressive.
I read he would be around 1.70 meters in height. This isn’t tall, but it’s certainly not short either. For that period, that was even “above average.”
I’m a historian whose area of expertise is the American Revolution. It drives me up a wall that so many people justify their current day political views by “quoting” false quotes by founding fathers. The problem is that hundreds of fake quotes exist from them, most written in the mid 19th century, so people think, “see, it’s old, so it’s real.” It’s not. If you don’t have a source, it’s likely fake. What’s more annoying is that the National Archives actually has a website that features tens of thousands of original documents by the founders and they are keyword searchable. This includes journals, letters, and official writings. While it doesn’t have all their work, it has a ton of it, and if you can’t find a quote on there, there’s a strong possibility that it’s fake.
Fortunately, professional museums, especially ones dedicated to preserving the history of individual figures (like George Washington’s Mount Vernon or Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello) have dedicated parts of their websites to debunking some myths, but unfortunately people like the fake quotes better.
The delegates who attended the Constitutional Convention spent much of their time drinking.
One surviving document 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.
As I’ve started to look more into my local history (Nebraska), it’s mindblowing just how brutal the Plains were. You had Sioux and Pawnee slaughtering each other, white settlers and cattlemen from Texas slaughtering each other, and of course all the interracial violence.
Also, pretty frustrating how shallow our study of local history was in elementary through high school. There was so much cool stuff that happened that I didn’t learn about until I took a history course to fill out my hours this fall.
Swords weren’t giant steel clubs. Most longswords weighed around 3-4 pounds. One handed arming swords can’t cut through armor or even chainmail. In every movie I’ve seen, swords chop through armor like it’s nothing, and it’s really weird.
I’m Scottish and I have a degree in history, and what really grinds my gears is the reverence some people have for William Wallace.
He WASN’T a hero. He was a criminal, a murderer, an outlaw and a thief. He didn’t lead an army, he led a rag-tag group of fellow thieves and such that gathered infamy and popularity. Yes, he won at Bannockburn, but that was rather down to English stupidity rather than good strategy on the Scottish side. He didn’t really care about Scottish freedom, he was simply looking out for his own interests, as he had upset some Englishman or other and he was in trouble.
Robert the Bruce was a MUCH better leader and fighter and actually won independence for Scotland.
But no. Everyone believes the trash pile that is Braveheart. I’m bitter.
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.
That in World War II Polish cavalry charged German tanks with sabers and lances only to be mowed down. Nope. It 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 Armour 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.
It is a misconception that the pyramids of Egypt were built by slaves. Most of the pyramids were build during the Old and Middle kingdoms which 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 a honor and a spiritual experience. They would even have feasts and party during the building too.
The 1621 Pilgrim Thanksgiving date (Nov 23rd) was set and campaigned by (over 20 years) the same lady that created the nursery ryme “Mary had a little lamb” (Sarah Josepha Hale, 1830). She even made most of it up. For example, things like the tradition of eating turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving were all popularized by Hale; it is extremely unlikely that the Pilgrims actually ate any of those things.
Furthermore, it wasn’t even the first “Thanksgiving” in North America. The particular Pilgrim event that is often cited as the first Thanksgiving wasnt even the Pilgrims’ first Thanksgiving—they had several before then, at various times, and none of them were an annual occurrence.
There also were A LOT of bad things that happened between the pilgrims and Native Americans during the time period (1620 to 1622 especially). Including the Indian Massacre of 1622, where many of the settlers were killed and most of the rest fled to Jamestown.
That paintings can be interpreted literally.
Paintings – just like today – take quite a lot of effort and time. This in turn means money.
So no one made paintings of stuff that someone didn’t want to set up on a pedestal for some reason. If you’re posing for a portrait, you’re always wearing your very best clothes.
And paintings of events – there was a lot of artistic license. Sometimes this is obvious, but other times it’s as simple as “painter couldn’t be bothered to paint guy lines on tents”.
But no one really bothered to paint “peasant-in-field” because … well, why would you? Canvas, oils and time are expensive, and if you’re anything like half decent, you can get paid to be doing portraits instead.
That people way back when were terrible because they didn’t follow modern day morality. When I talk to people (not a historian, just love history) they often knee-jerk to “how could people be so awful!”
Well, that was how people thought back then. For example, with slavery (in antiquity), it was an institution that existed for hundreds/thousands of years before the person was born. They were raised in an environment where owning people (not always on the idea of racial superiority) was normal. You cannot expect people to be “better” than the situation they were raised in, and at the time followed what was morally permissible. That being said there were still jerks that went above and beyond the call of jerkness (Congo Free State, etc.)
Lenin hated Stalin with a deep passion and warned the entire party about his ascension to power. He even wrote in his biography that Stalin should never be allowed the path to the leader of the party — that there were many other qualified, less dangerous, candidates such as Trotsky.
Stalin used some of the first ever state-sponsored ‘photoshopped’ images of all time to help avoid this fate. He cropped himself on to a bench, arm around Lenin… both men smiling looking at the camera. Faked.
Next, he doctored a photo of Trotsky next to Lenin by removing Trotsky almost entirely from the image and again superimposing himself.
After that, he decided to make Lenin’s death into a spectacle. A martyr. Lenin absolutely did NOT want this to happen. He did not want his body on display for the entire state indefinitely, but Stalin yet again utilized his position to further his grip on power. He preserved Lenin’s body and displayed it overtly to the state.
Lenin hated Stalin, and never wanted him to ascend to power.
The idea that every ancient army was flinging around FIRE ARROWS, they are:
A. Barely effective (On the small chance it hits a building, it’s a simple matter of patting it out).
B. On the small chance it hits someone, what have you actually achieved other than literally cauterizing their wound.
C. Finally, how are you going to actually keep an active and dangerous fire on the arrow? the idea that an oil soaked cloth wrapped around an arrow is ridiculous because the moment you release it’ll go out, and even if you came up with a clever arrow design you’ve just made it bulky and incredibly ineffective on the tip.
Finally to finish my point, how are you going to supply 1000 archers with running active fires and all these wonder fire arrows? In conclusion, it’s just not a reality.
That George Washington was a proud slave owner who was pro-slavery.
He hated the fact that he had inherited slaves and he also wanted to abolish slavery, but due to the constraints of forming a new nation, he was forced to keep them, and compromise with the south, allowing slavery, to keep the union together.
He would never sell his slaves, and actually kept them when he could have made a profit by selling them to the southern slave owners, because he did not wish for them to have a terrible life in the south. George Washingtons entire estate was left to his slaves, to be used for their education and well being. He had no sons or daughters.
On his way back from (I think) Virginia, he secretly let a few of his slaves free.
George Washington hated slavery. But had he not allowed slavery, the union would have fell apart, and the south could have formed its own nation, and without the pressure from northern states, as in the history of our country, the south could very well have kept slavery alive for much longer than it did in America.
Marriage ages! Specially 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 fourteen 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 girl in, say, a fourteenth-century farming village in England for example, getting married at fourteen would be super weirdly young and your husband was usually about your age. Because the church kept very good records, marriage patterns is 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 twenties to even mid/late twenties in some areas!
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.” For example, 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.
That the United States came in and “saved the world” in the second World War.
I’m an American myself, and I don’t want to discount my countrymen who fought in that war, but our main contribution was economic! The second front in Europe was important, and the destruction of the Japanese fleet helped win the war in the Pacific. Also, the strategic bombing campaign did disrupt the German and Japanese economies. But as someone who studies history, I know that the Russians and the Chinese truly carried the brunt of the fighting. I had a professor say to me once the war may not have been won without America, but it would have been lost without Russia. Cold war propaganda really got in the way of the parts that they played. I’m proud of the part my country played, but it bugs me when people think we won it ourselves.
I constantly have to explain 19th century uniforms to people. 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 because:
1. 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.
Secondly, but on the same subject. Why bright colors? Didn’t they know about camouflage? They absolutely knew about camouflage. That’s why the British Rifleman wore green (among other reasons). The bright colors were so that you knew who was on your side, and who was on the enemy side, so you didn’t fire a volley into your own troops. Also, if you’ve ever fired a black powder firearm you’ll know it makes a lot of smoke. So when you have 1000’s firing on a battle field at a time, with field guns, you’ll shortly end up with a smoky mess. Better to be able to see where your men are.
Also, how did they constantly have guns going off near their heads and not end up with hearing loss? Well, they often did. But also if you ever fire black powder you learn that it’s report is a very low frequency. I’ve fired many rounds from my flintlock without hearing protection and never hurt at all.
That women were either completely helpless little dolls that had to rely 100% on men to take care of them, or were working on street corners. You never learn in school how much women actually did in major world events, particularly when they did things typically done by men. Sure, you know who Joan of Arc was, and a few others like Queen Elizabeth, but what about all the women who disguised themselves as men to be able to enlist numerous wars with their husbands, or even to go look for their husbands who were missing? What about the women of the American frontier who often ran messages between encampments and regularly had to take up arms to defend their homes from enemy attackers? What about England’s first female doctor, Margaret Bulkley, who pretended to be a man for most of her life, until her death, so that she could go to medical school and become a military doctor? Or the first female to circle the globe, Jeanne Baret, disguised as a man?
Swords were almost never used as battlefield weapons, they were used for self-defense and dueling. Swords were useless against any form of armor and everybody on a battlefield wore some form of it, so people primarily fought with weapons that could counter armor in some way. Typically this means bashing your opponent with something heavy until they’re too bruised to keep fighting you and they surrender.
A more recent misconception that people seem to have is that the Middle Ages were dark and bland, everything being various shades of brown and grey. People in the Middle Ages adored dyed clothing and everything was incredibly bright and vibrant. Even poorer people could usually afford to dye their clothing.
The “Life expectancy” was 30 years because of INFANT MORTALITY.
If you made it to age 10 you had a good chance of living well into adulthood (50-ish). The problem is when you have a large percentage of humans dying within their first year of life it tends to skew the average lifespan to the short side.
If you remove infant mortality, life expectancy jumps up at least 10 years. It’s still not the 70’s we see today, but it’s not the 20’s-30’s.
Indigenous people’s society. Pop culture likes to paint it as either some noble savage type of thing or some sacrificing to the sun god type of thing while neither are really correct. Trying to generalize their society and culture is like trying to generalize European or Asian or African culture. The fact of the matter is that they did, in fact, have plenty of technological pursuits and innovations. They built cities into the sides of goddamn mountains. It’s pretty disingenuous to try to paint them up as some kind of nature-loving savages. They loved learning from and trading with settlers once they had arrived, and the settlers learned things from them too, they weren’t necessarily stuck in their ways. They weren’t stuck in the past of some ancient culture like we like to believe.