5 Fictional Stories You Were Taught in History Class
Forget about Stephanie Meyer or JK Rowling or Stephen King--at the end of the day, they just write stories and make billions of dollars. No, the writers who really deserve a pat on the back are the ones who wrote completely fictional stories that, over time, were remembered as actual history. In fact, we bet in history class some of you were taught about...
Paul Revere's Midnight Ride
In Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, little children are told a fantastic story of patriotism and late night horse riding. In the poem, Revere and a few others coordinate a secret warning signal so an informant can tell everyone how the British are invading; one lantern in the Old North Church if the Brits were coming over land, two lanterns if they were invading by way of the harbor. After chilling for a while with his horse, Revere sees his signal of two lanterns and starts galloping from village to village, warning all the locals to tool up.
...or arm themselves, for you non-Wire fans.
Take a look:
Listen my children and you shall hear; Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere
"But don't listen too long 'fore you go grab a musket, cuz Wu Tang Clan ain't nothin' to fuck wit."
You might notice that the story of Paul Revere that you've always heard happens to rhyme. If you ever took a creative writing class, or actually listened to the lyrics of a Kanye West song, you might have noticed that the truth really doesn't give a shit how well it rhymes.
But it's still somewhat surprising to learn that Paul Revere got sole credit for the ride because "Revere" rhymed with "hear." We wish we were joking. Longfellow was not out to write accurate history, in fact he gets many other facts seriously wrong in his poem. What he wanted was a poem that reminded those who read it of the glorious beginnings of the United States. Why was that so important? Because he wrote it in January 1861, and the country was about to be torn in half. He wanted to inspire New Englanders in the face of the looming Civil War.
This would hurt way more if I didn't know the story of Paul Revere.
The story starts to fall apart when you look at the facts. First of all, this was a covert operation. Screaming the "British are coming" at the top of your lungs when up to 20 percent of the population are loyal to the crown is a good way to get busted. He did quietly warn other men, but whispering your warning is a lot slower than shouting it from horseback. To get the drop on the British, they need an estimated 40 people to take part in "Revere's" ride. The only two other names we know are William Dawes and Samuel Prescott, and the latter only took part because they ran into him "returning from a lady friend's house at the awkward hour of 1 a.m."
Another thing that slows you down when warning of a potential invasion is stopping, and having a beer. Yep, the three men took a break from starting America by stopping at a pub, where some British sentries decided to investigate these patriotic ne'er-do-wells. Dawes and Prescott led the sentries on two exciting chases through the woods, both managing to evade capture and reach the towns they were supposed to warn. Revere? Well, he gave up without a fight at the pub. Yes, of the 40 people involved in the operation, we know about three, and Revere was the least heroic of the group. But because his name is easier to rhyme, we celebrate his achievements instead of the guys who actually completed their rides.
He was also a dentist, but nothing rhymes with that stupid word.
Nero Fiddled While Rome Burned
Roman emperor Nero played his fiddle (or lyre) while Rome burned to the ground in 64 C.E.
This came from Roman historian Suetonius and his history book The 12 Caesars. The thing is, he had incredible access to the royal archives full of contemporary descriptions of dead emperors, yet his book ended up more like a gossip column than an actual history. Suetonius was apparently bored by the military and political victories of those in charge; instead he spends most of his time talking about way-too intimate details of their lives, especially those revolving around feasts and sex. So while the historian may not talk much about his Gaul campaign, we do learn that Julius Caesar wore a wig, and Augustus wore high heels to look taller.
Nero was the latest in a long line of Imperial Neckbeards.
Nero, on the other hand, is described as a narcissistic, power-crazy psychopath who had his mother murdered. So it's no surprise that Suetonius threw in a story about him setting fire to Rome in order to have room to build a bigger palace for himself, then playing the lyre (the fiddle hadn't been invented yet) while it burned. It fit in with the rest of his "Nero is freaking insane" narrative.
He was just jealous of Nero's mad jams.
Nero probably wasn't even in Rome at the time of the fire.
According to writers who were alive at the time (Suetonius was born a few years after Nero died), the Emperor was actually in a different city altogether when the 64 C.E. fire started. And despite how devastating the blaze was, there was nothing suspicious about it. Fires started by accident all the time in ancient Rome; other major fires occurred in 69 and 80 C.E. And at least four other major historians of the time don't even bother to mention the blaze.
They were all focused on Nero's battle with prescription painkiller addiction.
Marie Antoinette was a Bitch
Marie Antoinette is known to most people for allegedly saying, "Let them eat cake" when she found out the people of France were out of bread. Hell, some of you only knew that saying, and didn't even know who said it. So Marie Antoinette's bitchiness is more famous than she is.
This portrait is of Marie at age 13, proving she had a life-long case of old lady hair.
British writer Mary Wollstonecraft is now known as one of the first feminists, but she got the anti-Marie ball rolling by painting Marie Antoinette as a greedy, uncaring queen not because it was true but because of what she represented: The upper class and their supposedly God-given rights.
"Let them kindly refrain from putting their greasy fingers on the tablecloth."
To a lesser extent, Jean-Jacques Rousseau is also to blame for the world's most classic "Marie Antoinette was a bitch" rumor. It was Rousseau who wrote the line "Let them eat cake." However, he could not have meant this to have been attributed to the Queen since she was about 11 and still an Austrian princess at the time he wrote it. All he says is that he had heard that a "great princess" (possibly implying the wife of Louis XIV) said it at some point.
What a dick.
While Marie Antoinette was functionally illiterate and very sheltered, there is no reason to believe she was a bad person.
Turns out guillotines aren't exactly picky.
She was disliked by her people for her Austrian ancestry, something she could hardly help. Imagine if you married into a dysfunctional family when you were only 14, and they hated you for purely Xenophobic reasons, and blamed you for all of their problems, and they were French. How would you react? Well, by all accounts from those who actually knew her, Antoinette was a sweet and caring wife and mother who expressed deep concern for her adopted country. The "let them eat cake" came about at a time when the stories that made people shout the loudest were the ones that stuck.
It would be like future historians looking back on the testimony of protesters from the late 20th Century, and coming to the conclusion that every American President from Reagan through Obama had been an avowed member of the Nazi party.
Naked Lady Godiva Rode Her Horse Through Town
Lady Godiva rode her horse through the town of Coventry, naked, as a protest to her husband's exorbitant taxes on their fellow townsmen.
Above: Serious History.
The story goes that Godiva's husband Leofric kind of double-dog dared her to do it. She complained about his taxes and he said he'd lower them if she rode through the town on a horse, naked. The townspeople were ordered to stay home, close their shutters and keep their eyes closed and Lady G called his bluff and mounted up. Except for that one perv who bore a hole through his door to get a peek and was struck blind for his dirtiness, everyone won. The sick bastard of a husband got a show he never forgot, the townspeople got lowered taxes and Lady Godiva went down in history as one badass aristocrat.
And, somewhere along the line, we all got preposterously expensive chocolate.
Now if that didn't actually happen, why the hell would anyone make something that bizarre up? It's like passing down a story that in 1985 the mayor promised the local librarian a subscription to Highlights if she performed Swan Lake for the city council.
Lady Godiva owned the town. She didn't need permission from her husband to lower taxes.
Or to lower anything else, if you catch our drift.
Godiva, or Godgifu of Mercia was totally a real person and both her and her husband Leofric were well known for their generosity. They built monasteries and gave out money like it was candy, apparently. That's what we know about this wealthy couple from contemporary sources. It wasn't until about 100 years after her death that the legend of the nudie ride showed up in a history written by a monk named Roger of Wendover. Roger claimed he got the story from another chronicler from the abbey named John, but guess what? We don't have that copy of the story. Historians think the story of Lady Godiva riding her horse nakedly might have just been an apocryphal way of showing her unbridled generosity.
Above: unbridled "generosity."
It's most likely the event never took place and was just written as an interesting story about the town of Coventry. That or the monks just needed to sneak some naked ladies into their daily reading somehow.
"And... then... they... totally... started... lezzing... out. Amen."
Anne Boleyn Was a Deformed Freak
Henry VIII's second wife had six fingers on her right hand.
People with extra digits are nothing but trouble.
According to a Catholic priest named Nicholas Sanders, Anne Boleyn was seven degrees of jacked up. She not only sported six fingers, but she also rocked a snaggle tooth, jaundiced skin and a big ol' cyst on her neck that was probably a third nipple. Otherwise, she must have been crazy hot, because Sanders still described her as "handsome to look at."
Standards were... different, back then.
And as if he hadn't done enough damage to Anne's image, Sanders also suggested Boleyn was Henry VIII's own daughter. So, according to Nicholas Sanders, Henry married his hot triple boobed, buck-toothed, yellow skinned kid. Well played, Sanders.
Anne Boleyn was totally normal looking.
Her sister, on the other hand, was smoking.
So why would Sanders lie?
Well, in 1558, Nicholas Sanders found himself in a church-related pickle. A few years earlier England had been restored to Catholicism under Mary I, but then Mary died and her Protestant sister Elizabeth became queen. After that, Sanders and other Roman Catholics were seriously persona non grata. Obviously, the only way to get back into power would be to restore a Catholic ruler to the throne, duh. But unless Sanders wanted to get Bravehearted, spreading rumors about the ruling Queen Elizabeth was not an option. What was an option was talking shit about her mom.
In 1573, Sanders published a book explaining the history of the Reformation in England, which was also the perfect place to slip in some whoppers about Boleyn. How do we know Sanders was lying? For one thing, he never actually saw Anne Boleyn. His book was published 50 years after her death. And when Anne's bones were exhumed in the late 1800s they found no evidence of any extra finger or breasts. Plus, none of her contemporaries who actually met her ever said she had six fingers or anything else horribly wrong with her body. The longest description we have of her physical appearance is from a Venetian ambassador who met Anne several times. The bitchy Italian described her as short with bad skin and droopy boobs. Ouch.
"Did you see the size of her ass? I mean, seriously."
For more things from our past that you believe but aren't true, check out 6 Things From History Everyone Pictures Incorrectly and 6 Ridiculous History Myths (You Probably Think Are True).
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