Did Edison really invent the lightbulb? Did Catherine the Great really die in a compromising position with a horse? Did Vikings really wear those silly hats? 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 below.
Medieval Torture Was All About The Iron Maiden
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.
Walt Disney Invented Mickey Mouse
Mickey Mouse may be one of the most recognizable cartoon characters in history, and he helped turn Walt Disney into a major force in Hollywood. But most origin stories gloss over the fact that Walt Disney didn't create Mickey Mouse at all. In fact, Mickey was inspired by one of Disney's creations, Oswald the Rabbit, after Disney lost animation rights to Universal. Looking for a new star, Disney turned to his animator Ub Iwerks to transform Oswald into a mouse. Iwerks drew Mickey, but Disney took the credit, even winning a 1932 Oscar for creating Mickey.
Gladiators Were All Slaves
Popular films like Gladiator and Spartacus popularized the myth that ancient Roman gladiators were slaves, forced to fight to the death for the enjoyment of spoiled aristocrats. But that myth is more Hollywood than history. In fact, many gladiators volunteered to fight, signing up to join gladiator schools for glory and wealth. Some were former soldiers, knights, or even upper-class Romans who wanted to show off their strength. Many trained to wound, not kill, their opponents. And for several centuries, women also fought as gladiators.
Witches Were Burned At the Stake In Salem
The Salem Witch Trials were the most brutal witch hunts in American history, as young Puritan girls condemned older women to death by accusing them of witchcraft. In Salem, twenty people lost their lives during the 1692 trials. But the Salem trials were miniscule compared with the much larger European Witch Trials, when historians say as many as 100,000 people were executed as witches. And other myths still surround Salem. In fact, Salem's accused witches were not burned to death, as was common in French and German trials. At Salem, 19 witches were hanged, while one man who refused to plead in his trial, Giles Corey, was pressed to death.
Why hanging? Salem, as an English colony, followed English law, and the punishment for witchcraft in England was hanging.