People have some very wrong ideas about the Middle Ages. Here is a list of fifteen of the strangest misconceptions about the medieval period – they often portray the people as being ignorant, cruel and unsophisticated.
1. That medieval people thought the earth was flat
Virtually every medieval scholar believed the world was round. However, in the 19th century it was widely reported that people in the Middle Ages thought the earth was flat, because it made for a good example of how backward the period was believed to be.
2. That Primae Noctis actually happened
In 19th century France, it became a popular belief that lords had several long-standing ‘rights’ over their peasants, including the right to sleep with any bride the ‘first night’ after her wedding. There are no recorded instances of this happening in the Middle Ages.
3. That Vikings wore Horned Helmets
Vikings and other medieval warriors never wore horned helmets – they would not be very useful in battle. In the 19th century Scandinavian artists began adding the imagery to their depictions of the Vikings.
4.That there were elaborate torture devices in the Middle Ages
There are many different gruesome torture devices – for example the Iron Maiden, the Pear of Anguish, and the Breast Ripper. However, while many are said to be ‘medieval torture devices’, they were actually invented centuries later.
5. That medieval thinkers argued over how many angels could dance on the head of a pin
In more modern times, scholars who ridiculed medieval theology would say that they argued over silly notions, such as “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” However, there is no example of a medieval scholar actually writing about this subject.
6. That Chastity Belts were used to prevent women from having sex
The story goes that when medieval lords went on crusade, they would make sure their wives would not have sex by enclosing their waists in a locked belt. The truth is that chastity belts were never used in the Middle Ages, and that they first became popular in the 19th-century as part of that period’s fascination with instruments of torture from medieval times.
7. That medieval people drank wine and beer because water was so polluted
While people would avoid polluted water in the Middle Ages, there were many sources of clean water which would be used for drinking. It was also common for water to be added to wine in order to make it less potent.
8. That Neuschwanstein Castle is a medieval castle
Neuschwanstein Castle has been described as one of the great medieval castles of Europe. However, Ludwig II of Bavaria began building this castle in 1869 – like many others in Europe, this castle was based on romantic ideas of what a castle would look like, but actually has little in common with a real medieval fortress.
9. That people thought tomatoes were poisonous
Tomatoes were not even around in Europe during the Middle Ages. The food was imported from South America in the 16th century and soon became widely used in most of Europe.
10. That people did not live past 30 years old in the Middle Ages
It has long been stated the life-expectancy for a medieval person was about 30 years old. This does not mean that a person was considered old or about to die when they turned 30. If a medieval person survived to adulthood, he would likely live into his 60s or 70s, and they would not be considered to be old until at least the age of 50. Life-expectancy rates were lower in the Middle Ages because there was a much greater chance that an infant or child would die because of illness or disease than in modern times.
11. Medieval people did not use cutlery
Medieval people did not have to eat everything with their hands. Knives and spoons were common throughout the Middle Ages, and the fork was introduced to the Byzantine Empire by the 6th century, and into Italy by the 11th century.
12. That medieval people never traveled
The idea that medieval people would be born, grow up and die without ever leaving their village is very unlikely. Many different records show that people were traveling around and even moving to different parts of a country. Even peasants would go on pilgrimages and visit churches and monasteries, in their country and overseas.
13. That medieval people were always dirty and had terrible personal hygiene
People in the Middle Ages did take baths, and would try to keep clean. Combs and other personal grooming devices were also widely used.
14. That medieval women had no rights
Women in the Middle Ages could inherit, buy and sell property, run a business, and had many legal rights (in fact some of these rights would diminish in the Early Modern Period). The idea that they were virtual slaves to their husbands is also false.
15. That all medieval people were extremely pious and obeyed the church
While many people in the Middle Ages were pious and even extremely devout, we can find that church officials were often complaining that many other people were indifferent to following religious practices. We can also find that even peasants had their own ideas about religion, which diverged from official church teachings, and that among theologians there was a lot of debate over many issues.
Here are some articles to learn more about these medieval myths:
See also our interview with Stephen Harris and Bryon L. Grigsby, who are the editors of Misconceptions About the Middle Ages