20 Myths about the Middle Ages

People have some very wrong ideas about the Middle Ages. Here is a list of twenty of the strangest misconceptions about the medieval period – they often came about to 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. In fact, they assumed that the Earth was perfectly round (in reality it is slightly elliptical), and one scholar named Abu Rayhan Biruni (973–1048) was able to figure out the radius of the Earth using mathematics – his estimate of it being 6,339 kilometres was only off by 31 kilometres.


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. A lot of the blame should go to Washington Irving, an American writer. In 1828, he wrote A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, which reads like a biography of the explorer but was in part highly fictionalized. One of the made-up sections has so-called experts claiming the world is flat. Because Irving’s book was so popular, his fictitious claim about this idea became widely accepted.

Click here to read more about the Myth of the Flat Earth

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 have sex with any bride the ‘first night’ after her wedding. There are no recorded instances of this happening in the Middle Ages. When people wrote about the Primae Noctis in later centuries, they would say that it once happened in the Middle Ages, but that it vaguely took place a long time ago and in places that were very remote.


3. That Vikings wore horned helmets

A drawing of the Norse god Odin by Carl Emil Doepler around 1880.

Vikings and other medieval warriors never wore horned helmets. It would have been a very dumb idea for a Viking to use something like that in battle, as such a helmet could easily be knocked off. It was until the 19th century that some artists started to imagine that things like this existed. One key person in this development was Carl Emil Doepler (1824–1905), a costume designer who started including horned helmets in famous operas. His headgear even had feathers! His depictions soon became very popular, and others copied him.

4. That there were elaborate torture devices in the Middle Ages

An ‘Iron Maiden’ on display at the Medieval Crime Museum in Rothenburg. Photo by Holger Uwe Schmitt / Wikimedia Commons

There are many different gruesome torture devices, including 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, sometimes as a kind of tourist attraction. Some objects had much more mundane uses – the so-called Pear of Anguish may actually have been a sock-stretcher.

Also, if you think medieval people got tortured in dungeons, then you might want to read this.

5. That medieval thinkers argued over how many angels could dance on the head of a pin

There is the claim that medieval thinkers argued over silly and useless 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. The question was actually invented in the 17th century as a way to mock medieval theologians.


6. That chastity belts were used to prevent women from having sex

A drawing by Conrad Kyeser

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, but we do have a depiction of something that looks like a chastity belt in the works of a military engineer named Conrad Kyeser. He writes about it: “This is the girdle of Florentine ladies, iron and hard, that is closed from the front.” Historians have judged this to be a joke by Kyeser, directed at Florentine men. After the Middle Ages, we do get stories and urban legends about chastity belts, and by the 19th century people were making fake versions that they claimed were from the medieval period.

7. That medieval people drank wine and beer because the water was so polluted

While people avoided polluted water in the Middle Ages, there were many sources of clean water which would be used for drinking. They also understood that it was healthy to drink water, although it was not as tasty as beer or wine.

Click here to read more about drinking water

8. That Neuschwanstein Castle is a medieval castle

Neuschwanstein Castle – photo courtesy / Shutterstock

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, Neuschwanstein 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 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.

10. That 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, while the fork goes back to the 4th century in the Byzantine Empire. Its use spread to the Middle East and Persia. By the 11th century, it was common in Italy, and gradually other parts of Europe adopted it as part of their tableware too.

11. That medieval people never travelled

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 travelling around and even moving to different parts of a country. European peasants would go on pilgrimages and visit churches and monasteries, in their country and overseas. Within the Islamic world, the religious requirement of doing a pilgrimage to the city of Mecca ensured that many medieval Muslims undertook long trips. We have many accounts of their travels.

Beyond this, there were many other reasons for medieval people to travel, including for business or as soldiers. It was not uncommon for people to emigrate to different countries.


12. That medieval people were always dirty and had terrible personal hygiene

Calling someone dirty or unclean is a longstanding insult, and it is one that has been used against many peoples in the past. So it is not surprising that people in the 19th century, who saw themselves as superior to their medieval ancestors, would make this claim too. As one historian called it, the Middle Ages were “a thousand years without a bath.”

However, we have a lot of evidence that medieval people took baths and tried to keep themselves clean. Taking baths was widely viewed as a way to keep healthy, and one could find public bathhouses in practically every town – 13th-century Paris, for instance, had 32 bathhouses, while one 11th-century writer claimed that Baghdad had 60,000 (he was probably exaggerating).

Medieval people also made use of many other grooming devices – combs were particularly popular. While toothbrushes did exist in medieval China, you could not find them in Europe a this time. Instead, people cleaned their teeth with a cloth and sometimes used natural remedies to make sure their teeth remained white and their breath fresh.

Click here to read more about bathing in the Middle Ages

13. That witch trials were common in the Middle Ages

There is a bit of truth to this one, but it is wildly exaggerated. Up to the 14th century the idea of witches and witchcraft was pretty much unknown in the medieval world. However, as the medieval period came to an end, the idea began to emerge that people were using dark magic and working with demons. We do have records of witch trials taking place and even books like Malleus Maleficarum being written that spoke of the dangers of witchcraft. However, it was between the 16th to 18th centuries that European and North American societies became absorbed in the witchcraft craze, and it was during this time that tens of thousands of people were killed as suspected witches.

Fear of witches and witchcraft remains with us today. It is likely that more people have been condemned and killed for witchcraft in the 21st century than there were in the entire Middle Ages.

14. 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. Like today, some medieval people had strong beliefs, while others were less so.

Listen to this talk about simple believers in the Byzantine world

15. That medieval people ate rotten meat

This particular myth is not that old – it started in 1939 with the publication of The Englishman’s Food: Five Centuries of English Diet. The authors were not experts in medieval food, but had read that in 14th century London there were laws against selling rotten meat. For some reason, they saw this as proof that people were eating lots of rotten meat. They also misunderstood a recipe from 1594, and that was all the evidence they needed to claim that people were using spices as a way to mask the smell of rotten meat.

Spices, which included very expensive items imported from across the medieval world, were widely used for the same reason people use them today: they added to the flavour. If medieval people, especially the wealthy, can be blamed for one thing, it was that they liked to create very elaborate recipes. In other words, they liked to cook.

16. That a medieval battle was just a big brawl

Battle of Bevershoutsveld in Froissart’s Chronicles

It seems that every movie about the Middle Ages will feature a big battle scene, and invariably it will have the two sides charge at each other and have a massive fight. It becomes a free-for-all, where every individual pairs off against another person, and even the leaders will somehow manage to do battle with each other.

In reality, medieval warfare had a lot of strategy and tactics, and armies fought as groups with coordination. Moreover, large-scale battles were somewhat rare in the Middle Ages, and armies were more accustomed to sieges and raiding.

17. That each medieval society was homogeneous and people did not mix

There is the idea that if you went to one country in the Middle Ages, the only people you would meet were from that place. In other words, only English people lived in England, or only Egyptians lived in Egypt. A closer look at the sources, as well as genetic evidence, paints a different picture.

Throughout the Middle Ages people moved around, sometimes as individuals and sometimes as entire groups. While often this happened because of war and slavery, it also could happen because of people looking for better opportunities. Large cities in the medieval world were often very diverse, with people regularly arriving from distant lands.

18. That medieval knights followed a set of rules called chivalry

From British Library MS Yates Thompson 19 f. 65

One of the most popular images of the Middle Ages is that of the knight on horseback, wielding his lance or sword. It was said that they practiced something called ‘Chivalry’ which meant they served their lord, protected women and fought bravely. While there was such a thing as chivalry, it was an evolving term that meant different things at different times. Some knights wrote about striving toward certain ideals, but it is best to view them as military men who fought because that was their profession.

Click here to read more about Chivalry

19. That the medieval church was evil

It is very fashionable these days to see politicians, especially those who don’t share your political beliefs, as corrupt and even evil. While having a healthy skepticism of those who wield power is generally a good thing, it can be taken too far. This seems to be the case when it comes to depictions of the medieval Catholic Church. In movies and video games, a character who is a Pope, Bishop or even a Priest is almost always depicted negatively – often the main villain. Part of this stems from the view that the Church was anti-science, anti-progress, and generally just seeking to enrich themselves.

It is true that we can find many cases where medieval religious officials were corrupt and criminals, but that does not mean everyone was. Overall, people within the church were sincere believers in their faith and strove to improve society.

20. That medieval doctors wore a strange outfit

Among the costumes being offered at Halloween is ‘Medieval Plague Doctor‘. It is a weird and somewhat scary-looking outfit, with thick leather covering the body and a mask that has a large beak. The descriptions for it say that during the Middle Ages, doctors would wear this when the Black Death struck Europe in the mid-14th century. It was supposed to be their protection from the plague.

No one ever wore such a thing in the Middle Ages. This outfit was first written about and drawn in the 17th century – it may have been used by some doctors in northern Italy and France for a short time, but it soon became something mocked and derided. However, its weirdness has kept it popular as a costume, and gradually people began associating it with the Middle Ages.

When looking at our myths about the Middle Ages, one big theme emerges: that our modern society really wants to see ourselves as different and better than previous generations. We want to believe that we are smarter and more ‘civilized’ than medieval people, so it makes it easy for us to accept information that depicts them as dumb, dirty and cruel. One hopes that after reading this, you will not believe everything you read about the Middle Ages.

Further Readings:

Winston Black, The Middle Ages: Facts and Fictions (ABC-CLIO, 2019)

Danièle Cybulskie, Chivalry and Courtesy: Medieval Manners for a Modern World (Abbeville Press, 2023)

Stephen Harris and Bryon L. Grigsby (eds.), Misconceptions About the Middle Ages (Routledge, 2007)

Kirsten Wolf and Tristan Mueller-Vollmer, The Vikings: Facts and Fictions (ABC-CLIO, 2018)