Weird History
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The Dumbest Things We Believe About Medieval Times Thanks To Movies

Updated October 26, 2020 7.9k votes 1.5k voters 340.8k views12 items

List RulesVote up the medieval movie tropes that don't make much historical sense.

For the average person, the Middle Ages are one of the most misunderstood and overlooked time periods. They're also called "The Dark Ages," and they have a reputation to match. According to the stereotypes, during the medieval period scientific progress completely stopped, the working class lived in squalor and had no rights, and life was cheap, just to name a few. In addition, there are many things about the medieval era that would otherwise sound completely fictitious - but actually happened.

This attitude about the Middle Ages is mainly thanks to the rise of Humanism in the Renaissance, when revolutions in society and culture led people to glorify the Roman Empire and disdain everything that happened since then. But it's persisted ever since, and movies and TV shows set in medieval times have reinforced it, bringing us to where we are today. Contrary to popular belief, the Middle Ages weren't a time of backward thinking and repression. Here are some of the dumbest things we believe about medieval times, thanks to the movies.

  • 1

    Suits Of Armor Could Be Easily Punctured

    Photo: Game of Thrones / HBO

    In lots of medieval battle scenes, movies and TV shows will often make a suit armor look about as tough as Swiss cheese. In these scenes, like the one above from Game of Thrones, swords or arrows can easily punch through steel plate armor. This might have led you to wonder why knights wore armor if it was so easily penetrated. 

    But real armor was much more durable than Hollywood makes it look. Swords and arrows didn't effectively punch through high-quality armor, and soldiers sometimes carried smaller daggers that could be used to stab an enemy through the gaps in their armor. The biggest danger to an armored combatant wasn't piercing damage, but bludgeoning damage. Even if a knight was wearing a suit of armor, a heavy blow from a mace or club would still provide enough force to incapacitate them - and make them easier to capture and ransom.

    Overdone trope?
  • 2

    Commanders Yelled ‘Fire’ To Command Archers To Release Their Arrows

    Photo: Braveheart / Paramount Pictures

    If you think about it, a commander telling their archers to shoot arrows by yelling "fire" makes no sense. Fire wasn't involved in the process at all, unless they were shooting fire arrows (which were rarely used on the battlefield, and usually only deployed against flammable villages). "Fire" has been the signal to shoot since the advent of gunpowder weapons, which use combustion to launch their projectiles. It sounds correct to a filmmaker who grew up in a world with gunpowder, but in a medieval movie it's an anachronism.

    On an actual medieval battlefield, if commanders wanted their archers to shoot, they would yell, "Loose!" Which makes way more sense - to fire a bow, an archer first pulls the bowstring taught, then lets it "loose" to launch the arrow. And when commanders wanted to tell their archers to stop shooting, they would yell "fast," which originally meant "safe." This is also the origin of the phrase "playing fast and loose" to describe someone behaving recklessly.

    Overdone trope?
  • 3

    Common Folk Were Always Dirty And Wore Drab-Colored Clothing

    Photo: Monty Python and the Holy Grail / Cinema 5

    These stereotypes definitely come from our modern perspective. Medieval people didn't have access to running water, so we think they had no idea how to clean themselves. They also didn't live in a world with a global garment-manufacturing industry. Clothing had to be made from locally available materials by hand, so that means clothes were as simple and utilitarian as possible unless you were among society's wealthiest. 

    In reality, hygiene and clothing were both a lot more sophisticated than we think. Even though running water wasn't available, most towns were located near a freshwater source like a lake or river, making water accessible. Daily baths in a full bathtub were a luxury, but most people could bathe often by standing in a tub and pouring water on themselves, or by swimming. While bathing, medieval people could use soap or other alkaline substances to wash themselves. It was also common practice for people to wash their hands and faces first thing in the morning. 

    As for clothes, while most peasant clothing was made from coarse wool fabric, it wasn't always brown or gray. Clothing dyes were common. Blue was the most popular color for women's tunics, and other colors like pale yellow, green, and a red-orange were also available.

    Overdone trope?
  • 4

    Heavy Cavalry Would Charge Full Speed Into A Line Of Spears

    Photo: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King / New Line Cinema

    In The Return of the King, the Riders of Rohan memorably charge headlong into a wall of orc spears. The scene is a lot of things - dramatic, exciting, heroic, suicidal - but it's not exactly accurate. Charging a several-hundred-pound horse into a sharpened weapon is going to end predictably, and most medieval commanders had much more sophisticated tactics. 

    The role of cavalry evolved throughout the Middle Ages. When it was first introduced during the fifth century, well-armored and equipped knights could effectively smash into a wall of poorly trained and armed peasants and rout them. But over time, infantry developed techniques to counter a frontal charge. Foot soldiers would group in tight formations and use spears or the newly invented pike to impale an oncoming cavalry charge. (Braveheart's depiction of the Battle of Stirling, and William Wallace's use of sharpened sticks to counter the English cavalry, is one of the rare details that movie got right.)

    In return, mounted knights altered their tactics in several ways, like dismounting and engaging infantry on foot, using ranged weapons, or encircling the enemy and engaging at close range.

    Overdone trope?