Myth Busting the “Facts” About Medieval People
Most of our ideas about what life was like during medieval times have been distorted — or even completely falsified — by movies and TV shows. Producers and entertainment companies have taken a lot of creative freedoms to make stories more dramatic and more entertaining. If you ignore actual historians and rely on Hollywood for details, you can trust that a lot of what you believe to be true isn’t true at all.
From how people dressed and what they ate to the degree of control exerted by the church, many so-called facts about medieval people are nothing more than fiction. Let’s take a look at some common myths that have been busted wide open.
People Only Drank Alcohol
It has often been said that medieval people only drank alcohol because the water was so polluted. The myth implies that to avoid diseases, people stuck to beer and wine, but as fun as that might sound, it simply isn’t true.
Bathing Was Unimportant
One popular misconception about those living in medieval times is that they never bathed. The idea stems from the fact that bathrooms weren't installed in homes yet. Because they had to drag in tubs and fill them with water, it was assumed the average person probably only bathed a few times a year.
Human Waste Was Dumped into the Streets
Some unsavory people during medieval times may have dumped their excrement into the streets, sparking this ugly myth, but it wasn’t a common practice. For starters, people living in rural areas — as most did — had no reason to do this, as there was no shortage of fields or gardens for emptying these pots.
Clothing Was Bland
TV shows and movies that take place in medieval times often show people dressed in bland colors such as brown or dirty and tattered clothing with dull coloring. In actuality, the style of clothing at the time included particularly bright colors.
Table Manners Were Nonexistent
Movies and TV shows have reinforced the idea that medieval feasts involved guests who lacked any manners or etiquette at all. On screen, they often toss bones and food at one another, and mealtime brawls are common. Although some dinner guests during this rather rugged time in history may have behaved this way, it would be wrong to assume this was how everyone dined in the Middle Ages.
They Slept Like Modern People
People in medieval times didn’t sleep in the same way we sleep today. The general process for modern society is to fall asleep at night and wake up in the morning after 6 to 8 hours of sleep. People in medieval times often woke up in the middle of the night and stayed awake for about an hour or two during a period called "the wake."
People Never Traveled Outside Their Villages
Peasants were bound to the land they worked for their lords. Each one was given a particular piece of land, and he was expected to manage it well. This led to the belief that peasants never left their homes and traveled outside their own villages. This so-called fact isn’t true at all.
Food Was Bland
It's commonly believed that food during medieval times was bland and flavorless, but that isn’t true. During this period in history, even the poor had access to a wide array of spices they could use to make their food taste better.
Everyone Believed the Earth Was Flat
People have known the world is round for thousands of years. The belief that those in the Middle Ages thought the world was flat goes back to the Victorian age. People during that time were convinced that the Middle Ages were a time of such barbarism and anti-intellectualism that somehow the knowledge the world was round was lost.
Laws Didn’t Exist
It’s a commonly held misconception that medieval times were a lawless period of anarchy and extremely dangerous people, but that simply isn't the case. There were laws governing everything from trade to what people from different classes could wear. You could even be fined for doing something simple, like knocking off a person's hat.
People Were Ignorant
A common representation depicted by Hollywood movies and TV shows is that people during medieval times weren't very smart or educated. In fact, the Middle Ages are notable for producing some of the world's best thinkers and some of the top academic institutions that exist in the world.
Period Was Like the Dark Ages
The idea that the period following the fall of the Roman Empire should be known as the Dark Ages largely came from scholars with a heavy bias toward ancient Rome. There is some truth to the idea that certain parts of society regressed during this period. Literacy rates dropped, and innovations like Roman cement — amazing stuff! — were lost.
Earth Was at the Center of the Universe
In addition to the misconception that people in the Middle Ages thought the world was flat, many also think they thought the Earth was the center of the Universe. Copernicus had already proven the Earth wasn’t the center of the universe well before Galileo was punished by the church for expressing his opinions on the matter.
Medicine Was Based on Superstition
You have probably heard stories of medieval medical practices that involved attaching leeches to a sick person to suck out tainted blood. Well, that happened, unfortunately, but medicine during the Middle Ages wasn’t based solely on superstition. Practitioners at the time actually referred to the best information about the human body that was available at the time.
People Were Violent
Medieval history is often characterized as a period of immense violence and unspeakable cruelty. In actuality, there is no evidence to support the theory that the Middle Ages were any more or less violent than other eras in human history.
Peasant Life Was Harsh and Brutal
Being a peasant during medieval times is often characterized as a tough and brutal existence. While it’s true that peasants were bound to the authority of the lords who owned the lands they lived on, the lives of peasants include time for rest, relaxation and even recreational games.
The Roofs Were All Thatched
It’s a commonly held belief that all people during the Middle Ages lived in small dwellings with thatched roofs. These roofs were essentially made of straw, and even castles often had thatched roofs during this time. Today, thatched roofs still exist in some parts of Europe.
Hunger and Starvation Regularly Killed People
Certainly, there were famines, droughts, food shortages and bouts of starvation during the Middle Ages, but there is no evidence to support the theory that they occurred any more or less often than they do today. Contrary to popular belief, the average person living during this period had enough to eat.
Chastity Belts Prevented Women from Having Sex
A commonly held misconception about the Middle Ages is that men forced women to wear chastity belts to prevent them from having sex. There is no evidence to support the theory that chastity belts existed before the 15th century, and they were rarely used after that either.
The Church Controlled All Knowledge
Many people give the church in the Middle Ages more power than it actually held. The truth is the church did not control all knowledge. It actually spearheaded the creation of several academic institutions, such as the previously mentioned Oxford and Cambridge universities. These institutions were designed to study observable facts rather than religious doctrine.
Knights Were Always Chivalrous and Valiant
Movies and TV shows that depict the Middle Ages often portray knights as chivalrous and valiant. They are portrayed as always doing the right thing, rescuing princesses and watching over the innocent.
People Only Lived to Their Mid-30s
On average, people only lived until their mid-30s during this period, but that number is misleading. The average lifespan calculation in the Middle Ages was heavily impacted by high infant mortality rates that dramatically brought the overall average lifespan way down.
Vikings Wore Horned Helmets
Many movie fans naturally believe that when the Vikings invaded medieval castles and villages to plunder during the Middle Ages, they wore horned helmets as they did so. Not only is this a misconception, but it’s a myth that’s not even rooted in a tiny bit of truth.
Lords Could Sleep with Any Peasant
The term jus primae noctis refers to a mythical law during the Middle Ages that supposedly stated any nobleman had the right to deflower a virgin bride on her wedding night before her newlywed husband. Some people believe this practice was common during the Middle Ages.
Torture Was Common
It goes without saying that more torture occurred during the Middle Ages than what we would ever see today, but it wasn't as widespread as people sometimes think. Torture devices, such as the rack, commonly shown in movies and TV shows set in the Middle Ages didn’t actually exist until the 1500s.
Tomatoes Were Believed to Be Poisonous
Rumor has it people were afraid of tomatoes during the Middle Ages, believing they were poisonous. In fact, the tomato does have a strange history of people fearing it. In the late 1700s, many people did believe tomatoes were poisonous because some wealthy Europeans died after eating them.
People Ate with Their Hands
Eating with your hands was more common in the Middle Ages than it is today, but it wasn’t as common as people think. Contrary to popular belief, people had access to wooden cutlery during this period, and they used it often. Wooden forks and spoons were first used in Italy during the 11th century.
Torches Were Used Everywhere
Movies and TV shows depicting the Middle Ages always seem to involve a lot of burning torches. If characters walk down a long hallway, you can bet that hallway will be illuminated with a series of torches. This wouldn’t have been possible, however.
Peasants Were a Single Class of People
When you think of the various social classes during the Middle Ages, you probably think of peasants as a single class of people ranking lower than nobility or military. Depending on the region and village, however, there was a great degree of variability in class among the peasants. A hierarchy existed that ranked some peasants above others.
Everyone Was Religious
While it’s true that the church and Christianity were major authorities during the Middle Ages, it’s not accurate to say that all people during this period were religious. In fact, some of the earliest expressed beliefs of atheism were made during the Middle Ages.