By Danièle Cybulskie
Call me masochistic, but I like to go see ‘medieval’ movies at the cinema. I fully expect there to be a lot of historical inaccuracies, but what can I say? I like good, clean silliness as much as the next girl.
Thinking about the type of inaccuracy we often see in movies made me decide to do some myth-busting in this latest post. While I tackle some of the big myths (like Robin Hood) in other posts, here are five of the most common myths about the Middle Ages, busted.
1. Prima Nocte
Speaking of movies, didn’t it just make you so angry when you watched Braveheart and the evil King Longshanks (Edward I) and his nobles imposed prima nocte (that is, the right of the lord to sleep with any peasant woman on the first night of her marriage) on the poor, defenceless peasants? It was the catalyst for William Wallace’s rebellion, and drove the whole plot of the movie.
The thing is, prima nocte never existed, and the reason why is spelled out in Braveheart: the peasants were more numerous than the nobility, and the peasants would not have stood for such a thing. This is not to say that nobility never stooped to rape, but it was not legal, nor was it acceptable. Alain Boureau has written an entire book on the subject called The Lord’s First Night: The Myth of the Droit de Cuissage.
2. Medieval people had no table manners
While food was eaten with hands, spoons, and knives (forks weren’t popular in most of Europe until the seventeenth century – they were considered “too Italian” and effete), then, as now, eating was a communal activity, and (since people most often shared plates and cups) was not enjoyable if your companion had no manners. Entire treatises were written on correct etiquette, and encouraged things such as offering the best of the food on your plate to the lady, wiping your fingers on cloth, and wiping your mouth before taking a sip from your shared cup, so that you did not leave a slick of oil on top of the wine.
3. Open warfare was a daily occurrence, and consisted of two armies battling it out on a big field
Warfare was very common in the Middle Ages (as in pretty much every other age), but medieval strategists were too sensible to frequently attempt the type of battle we often see in the movies. Having two big armies charge each other in the field was a little too risky – the outcome could go either way. Because of this, the most common type of warfare was siege warfare: an army would attack a stronghold, and their opponents would try to withstand the attack. For some entertaining views of siege tactics, check out The Lord of the Rings trilogy (you’ll find sieges in The Two Towers and The Return of the King). While there weren’t a lot of orcs and goblins running around medieval Europe, J.R.R. Tolkien was a medievalist, so some of the tactics are borrowed from history.
4. People used spices to cover up the taste of rotten food
I suppose this might have been useful when there was very little food to be had (although, in that case, why would you have expensive spices hanging around?), but it was by no means the norm. Most people at this time were involved in agriculture – they knew when food was good and when it wasn’t. There was little point in eating food that had gone bad, since it was risking making yourself dangerously sick, or worse. It is much more likely that spices, if used for camouflage, were used to make staple foods more interesting (much like ketchup).
5. Chastity Belts
I saved this one for last because I know it may blow a couple of minds, but there is no real evidence that chastity belts were ever made or used in the Middle Ages. Really.
While I think this type of trivia is fascinating, you may find that it has either enhanced or detracted from your enjoyment of historical fiction. All I can hope for is that you find yourself feeling just that little bit superior to the person sitting next to you at the movies, because you are a five-minute medievalist.
Danièle Cybulskie is the lead columnist of Medievalists.net and the host of The Medieval Podcast. She studied Cultural Studies and English at Trent University, earning her MA at the University of Toronto, where she specialized in medieval literature and Renaissance drama. You can follow her on Twitter @5MinMedievalist or visit her website, danielecybulskie.com.