Here are some of my favorite historical misconceptions that have been debunked. History has never been shy of controversy, mystery, and, occasionally, flat-out fallacy. Somewhere between tales told around the campfire and blockbuster movie adaptations, a few historical facts have been lost, twisted, or Hollywoodized. Let’s journey through some of the most commonly misconceived notions from the annals of history, and debunk them with a historian’s magnifying glass and a dash of wit. Spoiler alert: The truth may be less glamorous, but it’s certainly more fascinating.
Contrary to every Viking Halloween costume and opera stereotype, real Viking helmets did not have horns. It appears the horned headgear trend started during the Romanticism period of the 19th century when artists took some creative liberties. Historians agree that horns would have been highly impractical in battle. After all, why would a Viking want to provide a handle for their enemies?
Napoleon Bonaparte has often been depicted as a man of short stature. However, this is merely a tale tall in inaccuracy. Standing at around 5 feet 7 inches, he was of average height for a Frenchman of his time. The misconception may have arisen from British propaganda or confusion over French and British measurement units. It seems size does matter, especially when converting inches!
The Salem witch trials are notorious for supposed fiery endings. But before you imagine a grand bonfire, it’s time to extinguish that myth. The convicted “witches” in Salem were hanged, not burned. Perhaps the burnings in Europe were so notorious they cast a shadow all the way to the New World. Either way, it’s a hanging matter of historical accuracy.
No, we’re not talking about the band. The Iron Maiden, a coffin-like structure lined with spikes, is often cited as a favorite torture device of medieval Europe. However, evidence suggests that this cruel contraption didn’t see much use—if any at all—during the Middle Ages. Some historians believe it’s a myth born out of misinterpretation and a touch of Gothic horror fascination. Perhaps it’s just as well; it doesn’t look very comfortable.
This one might flatten your perception of historical gullibility. Contrary to popular belief, educated people during the Middle Ages knew that the Earth was round. Ancient Greeks like Eratosthenes had already measured the Earth’s circumference. The flat earth myth didn’t gain traction until the 19th century when writers misunderstood medieval viewpoints. It turns out, our ancestors weren’t as flat-out wrong as we thought!
This notorious quote, supposedly uttered by Marie Antoinette, might take the cake for historical misattribution. There’s no substantial evidence that the French queen ever said these words. The phrase was likely political propaganda, a cherry-topped falsehood. Sometimes history is more about the frosting than the cake.
While Paul Revere did ride to warn of British troop movements, he probably didn’t shout this dramatic phrase. Considering many colonists still considered themselves British, yelling “The British Are Coming!” would have been as confusing as shouting “The People Are Coming!” in a crowded square.