Weird History

The Coolest Things You Wish Were True About The Middle Ages

Fantasy novels, films, and TV shows set in pseudo-medieval times don't have to be historically accurate. That's part of the fun: shows like Game of Thrones mix together different time periods to make a unique world that viewers want to spend time in (especially when you toss in dragons and killer smoke babies). But shows like GoT have helped to spread plenty of medieval myths that need debunking.

The actual Middle Ages spanned the years from around 500 to 1500 AD. That is a huge stretch of time! Common Middle Ages myths (such as the idea that there was rampant witch hunting) are typically born because people confuse the Middle Ages with later time periods (and Hollywood doing the same doesn't help matters). There are also myths born from botched translations (Vikings drinking from skulls), myths that overemphasized the proliferation of booze, and myths that were spread in order to slander religion (the Church thinking the world was flat).

But most of these myths also have one thing in common: they help make the real Middle Ages sound as cool and dangerous as GoT's fictional Westeros. Happily, the real historical period is still fascinating even after you debunk the many misconceptions people have about it.

Enjoy this list of some of the coolest things - that simply aren't true - about the Middle Ages.

  • MYTH: Everyone Was Fighting With These Wicked One-Handed Flails

    MYTH: Everyone Was Fighting With These Wicked One-Handed Flails
    Photo: *bri* / flickr / CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

    REALITY: While there may have been some of these bad boys laying around for decorative or ceremonial purposes, the reality is that historians think one-handed flails were extraordinarily rare and basically useless on battlefields in the Middle Ages. Two-handed flails based on similar agricultural tools were in play, but these guys? Not likely. Just look at it: (1) it's obviously hard to control; (2) it's super easy to get wrapped around the swords of your enemies; and (3) it's easy to imagine these ending up as "friendly fire" in the skulls of fellow soldiers.

    WHY THE MYTH?: They look really, really cool, so they pop up in movies and novels a lot, invariably as the weapon of choice for some hulking psychopath. These weapons show up in art from the Middle Ages as well, but only in art that depicts the exotic or fantastical.
  • MYTH: Everyone Was Absolutely Filthy

    MYTH: Everyone Was Absolutely Filthy
    Photo: Public Domain / via Wikimedia Commons

    REALITY: Until the Black Death of the late Middle Ages made some people worry that baths made them more susceptible to disease (something about "miasmas" and the dangers of open pores), people in the Middle Ages were bathing freaks. Art and documents from the time prominently featured bathing (with soap, herbs, and oils) as a social, sexual, and celebratory activity. They weren't as clean as we are today, but they also weren't a bunch of Pig-Pens.

    WHY THE MYTH?: Pre-social media, a popular email made the rounds that claimed to describe a "day in the life" of someone living in the 1500s. The prank email was full of real-sounding but false "facts" mixed with some half-truths. One of the "facts" was that people got married in June because they took their "yearly bath" in May. Besides the fake facts email, people may also assume the attitude people took toward bathing during the Black Death (1346–53 AD) was one people had during the entire Middle Ages (500-1500 AD).
  • MYTH: Water Was So Nasty That Everyone Drank Wine and Beer Instead

    REALITY: People totally drank water in the Middle Ages. In fact, cities spent a ton of money on ensuring reliable water supply sources and medical texts from the period recommend drinking it, too. Clean water was also free and easy to come by (rain, rivers, melted snow, etc.).

    WHY THE MYTH?: People in the Middle Ages didn't write that much about drinking water, chronicling instead their adventures making, selling, transporting, and consuming ale, mead, and wine. There are also some texts from the period that warn against drinking too much water, or drinking it at the "wrong" times. But no one was recommending avoiding water entirely, or just drinking alcohol instead.
  • MYTH: Men Made Women Wear Metal Chastity Belts

    MYTH: Men Made Women Wear Metal Chastity Belts
    Photo: Cornelis Anthonisz / via Wikimedia Commons

    REALITY: The idea of a metal chastity belt with a lock and key for a woman to wear to protect her virtue was a joke or part of an allegory, but not a real thing in the Middle Ages.

    WHY THE MYTH?: There are actual fake medieval-looking chastity belts in museums, but they were created in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as "curiosities." There are also depictions of chastity belts in prints from the Middle Ages, confusing things a bit (the joke is lost on modern people).