• Weird History

The Biggest Historical Myths That People Think Are Fact

List RulesVote for the mythbuster that surprised you the most

Did Edison actually invent the light bulb? Did Vikings really wear those silly hats? Did Catherine the Great truly die in a compromising position with a horse? These questions, and others like them, have haunted all of us from time to time. Fueled by artistic licenses taken by historical TV shows or just often repeated public misconceptions, there's a surprising amount about history everyone seems to get dead wrong. 

History is a vast, complicated, and confusing subject, composed of lots of really weird stories and characters. Some of these stories are true, some are exaggerated, and some are just blatant, shameless lies. Which silly historical myths have you been buying into all this time? Prepare for your preconceptions to be brutally shattered.

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    Vincent Van Gogh Cut Off His Entire Ear

    Photo: Vincent van Gogh / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Known as one of the greatest Dutch painters of all time, Vincent van Gogh is also famous for his struggle with mental illness. And according to one myth, van Gogh cut off his own ear after the end of a troubled love affair.

    In reality, van Gogh fell in love with a sex worker named Clasina Maria Hoornik, who eventually went back to her trade, driving the artist further into despair. It was years later, however, when an unwell van Gogh was thought to cut off only the lower portion of his earlobe and gave it to an entirely different brothel worker - one he'd just met.

    Long thought of as entirely a myth, since some sources indicated that van Gogh only took off a small part of his ear, new evidence came to light in 2016. A drawing of the dissected ear, drawn by a doctor who treated van Gogh, shows the ear was almost entirely severed, save for a small part of the lower lobe. 

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    Feminists Burned Their Bras

    Photo: Warren K. Leffler / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    During the 1960s, the women's rights movement demanded equity with men, promoting equal pay and access to contraceptives. But the myth that hippie feminists burned their bras in protest actually comes from the media, not from the protestors.

    The bra burner myth traces back to protests against the 1968 Miss America Pageant. During the protest, women threw their bras, corsets, mops, and cookware into a garbage can, declaring the items "instruments of female torture." A New York Post article took liberties with the truth and invented the "bra burners" to link the women with war protesters who burned their draft cards.

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    Medieval Torture Was All About The Iron Maiden

    Photo: Unknown/Wolfgang Sauber / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Medieval torture was gruesome, bloody, and painful. Executioners sawed people in half, used the notorious "head crusher," and broke people on the wheel. But one of the torture devices most identified with the medieval period may have been invented much later. The notorious iron maiden, a coffin lined with spikes to impale victims, was actually invented in the 18th century. After a late-18th century German philosopher described a gruesome medieval execution with an iron maiden, the device suddenly started appearing in museums across Europe, but those versions largely date to the early 1800s.

    Medievalist Peter Konieczny points out that many mythical tales of brutal medieval torture began appearing during the Enlightenment, as a way of contrasting the "savage" medieval period with the sophistication of the 18th century. In fact, Konieczny reports the most common medieval torture method was simply tying people up with ropes. 

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    Napoleon Bonaparte Was Inordinately Short

    Photo: Jacques-Louis David / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Napoleon Bonaparte was a military genius who rose from humble beginnings to become emperor of much of Europe. But today, most people remember Napoleon for his short stature. Napoleon was actually around 5'7", however. So why do so many believe the myth of Napoleon's tiny height?

    While conquering much of Europe, Napoleon racked up an impressive list of enemies, who may have perpetrated the myth to attack and undermine Napoleon's success. It's also likely there was confusion between British and French units of measurement, as Napoleon was 5'2" in the latter.

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