HISTORY, n. An account mostly false, of events mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers mostly knaves, and soldiers mostly fools. —Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary
I had someone ask me what it felt like, since I’d turned 30, to know that I’ve officially lived longer than the majority of people from the middle ages. I this struck me as funny since technically I did that when I turned two years old. The statistic that 30 was the average age prior to the Renaissance is probably the most misrepresented stat ever. Technically speaking, the statistic is true, but what it doesn’t take into account is the massive infant mortality rate during ancient times through the middle ages. When as much as two-thirds of a population dies before they get to be even two years old, it tends to skew the bell curve significantly. Just do a quick Google search on any number of medieval or ancient historical figures. Charlemagne and Augustus Caesar lived into their seventies, Alexander the Great died in his thirties, and every text ever written about him assures us that he died young.
A lot of people don’t seem to catch on to that discrepancy.
A better example is the belief that vikings had horns on their helmets. (Because that was such a practical accessory.) I’m not sure where the misrepresentation originated, but I know that it was popularized by Wagnerian operas. (Not that I place any of the blame on Wagner.) And movie producers of the twentieth century grabbed onto this idea and ran with it. I recall one god-awful b/w movie where the viking men get captured by some sorcerer and the viking women have to go rescue them. Not only did the vikes have the lame, horned helms, they were played by a bunch of pretty boys with no facial or chest hair. (I want to say that I saw the Mystery Science Theater 3000 guys riff on it.) The trouble was that horns, antlers, wings, etc were a stupid addition to a helmet—useless accessories that would have given their foe leverage to knock off or pull off their helmet. I once made the argument that the most aesthetically accurate portrayal of the vikings might actually be the Riders of Rohan in Two Towers. (A friend of mine argued 13th Warrior, but I haven’t seen it to know if he was being sarcastic or not.)
Another historical misrepresentation that bugs me here in the States is the assumption that the way the Redcoats fought during the American Revolution was obsolete way to fight, that the Brits essentially lost due to incompetence and tactical sterility. The example I think of is Bill Cosby’s standup bit about the coin toss at the beginning of every war, where the colonials win the toss and tell the Brits that they have to “wear bright red and march in a straight line.” What our history courses in this country don’t seem to cover is the fact that the British took over almost half the world using these same tactics, and continued to do so long after their defeat by the colonies. Their formations and command structure were based directly on those perfected by the Romans and then applied to mass-fire situations. And it worked amazingly well, turning battalions of men into walls of concentrated musket fire.
Or the myth that Christopher Columbus had to convince the King and Queen of Spain that the world was round in order to get funding for his expedition to the new world. I remember in grade school being taught that prior to Columbus’s day, pretty much everyone believed the world was flat. This is really kind of a stupid belief because the Earth’s spherical nature gets proven every time a ship sails over the horizon. Ancient and Medieval people may not have been as advanced in some ways as those of Columbus’s time, but they weren’t so stupid as to have not noticed. The discrepancy was actually over how big the world was, not over how it was shaped. The model Columbus was going off of actually measured the world at significantly smaller than it’s actual size. I’ve done research on peoples from many eras of history from many parts of the world; the only ones who I know for certain actually believed the world was flat was Medieval Christian Europe.
One of the things that interests me most about historical studies is how fluid our understanding of it is. New discoveries are constantly being made that change our perceptions of the past. New evidence pops up to discredit long-held beliefs—or to revive beliefs that had long been considered disproven.
Anyway, here is a Youtube video someone showed me while I was working on this that covers a couple of these pet peeves and then some:
Patriots: the Men who Started the American Revolution by A.J. Langguth