6 Ridiculous Myths About the Middle Ages Everyone Believes
When you think of the Middle Ages, chances are you picture gallant knights sitting astride brilliant destriers galloping through a sea of plagues, ignorance, and filth. And you can hardly be blamed for that, when everything from the movies you watch to your high school history teacher (who was mainly the football coach) has told you that ...
Scientific Progress Was Dead
They call it the Dark Ages for a reason. Any scientist who dared to actually study the universe would be shut down by the Catholic church, which thought all that bullshit was immoral and that the Bible was all the learnin' anybody could possibly need. They even thought the Earth was flat, for crying out loud.
"No, we can't cross the ocean there, don't you see that sea monster in the way?"
Aside from the fact that, as we've already explained, most people in the Middle Ages did not think the Earth was flat, the church wasn't responsible for killing science -- to the contrary, it was largely responsible for saving it.
After the barbarians invaded Europe and Rome went the way of the dinosaurs, the Catholic church was the last remaining aspect of Roman culture in Western Europe. The church went about setting up monasteries across Europe, and along with the monks came the monks' massive libraries. Monks were just about the only educated people in the early Middle Ages, and pretty much everything we know about this entire time period was written by them.
"Look, the monks' scroll clearly says that all monks had 12-inch dongs, so it must be true."
As time went on, the church stepped it up a notch and started establishing universities to foster the preservation of knowledge. You may have heard of a few of them: Oxford, Cambridge, and the University of Paris (not to mention pretty much every other top school in Europe). At these universities, students studied more than most college kids do today, with an average bachelor's degree taking up to seven years to earn, and a master's or doctorate taking several more. The universities were also big on translation, having successfully translated into Latin guys like Aristotle and Plato, which effectively made the Renaissance possible. All of this despite the fact that beer bong technology was still in its infancy.
Around the same time as universities were popping up all over Europe, the Crusades were bringing Europeans into contact with advanced Muslim ideas of science and technology. Ideas like the compass and the astrolabe came to the West via Muslim Spain and came in handy during the later Age of Exploration. Italian merchants came back from trading in North Africa and gave us another innovation: Arabic numerals.
Pfft, like people are going to want to learn a whole other set of characters.
Medicine also made massive advances thanks to the university system. Contrary to popular belief, dissection of corpses was actually fine and dandy with the church, and medieval universities often did it in the basement (OK, so maybe it wasn't totally fine and dandy). By the 14th century, there were functional hospitals, and doctors had learned how to use antiseptic when lopping off people's body parts.
And that's a good thing, because everybody was encrusted in filth back then, right? Well, about that ...
Everyone Smelled Like Complete Shit
Even if we know nothing else about the Middle Ages, we know that everyone was absolutely filthy. Medieval peasants looked like something straight out of Monty Python and the Holy Grail ...
But not nearly as whimsical.
... and the upper classes were hardly any cleaner. People back then took baths with about the same frequency as we go to the dentist -- a couple of times a year for the obsessive ones. Just getting to a person's genitals required a stiff wire brush and a chisel.
They were way into bathing for much of the Middle Ages. Maybe too into it -- they continued the Roman practice where a bunch of strangers got naked together for communal bathing, and most towns and even villages in medieval Germany had a communal bath where craftsmen would hang out and bathe together after a hard day's work. Just sitting there, probably washing each other's dongs while having loud conversations about how incredibly not gay they were.
"You see my new pickup wagon with a bunch of tools in the back?"
Meanwhile, not only was it common for medieval folk to wash their hands before and after eating, it was also customary to offer to bathe with guests when they entered your home, something The Man has repeatedly reminded us is no longer acceptable in modern society. Medieval demand for soap (usually made from animal fats, with a variety of oils and salts added) was so great that by the 13th century, soap was being made on an almost industrial scale in Britain, Italy, Spain, and France.
So why do we picture everyone as wallowing in their own filth back then? Well, things changed all at once. If only an act of God could change Europe's epic bathing culture, they got one -- in the mid-14th century, the Black Death strolled up and kicked Europe right in the teeth with its pestilence boot. Suddenly, smart people were telling the previously washed masses that bathing was a surefire way to open your body's pores and invite in all the bad spirits or gremlins or whatever (they weren't too savvy on what caused illness back then).
"The academy is divided down the middle, between Jews and forest pixies."
As a result, by the early modern period of history, bathing had become obsolete. So it's entirely possible that George Washington rated higher than Richard the Lionheart on the smell-like-shit-o-meter.
Knights Were Honorable, Chivalrous Warriors
Knights were gallant and brave warriors, charging into battle to slay the dragon and rescue the fair maiden.
Knights often had less in common with this:
"We shall die for the glory of our randomly assigned piece of land!"
And more in common with this:
Remember, knights were professional warriors, and when there wasn't a war to fight, they had to find something to do with their war-boners. Most of these guys were relatively young and didn't have Call of Duty to satisfy their violent urges, so they tended to take it out on the local population. Toward the 11th century, many of the local lords started bickering over who would get a slice of the Holy Roman pie that Charlemagne baked, and the knights were at the forefront of these petty wars. These "wars" were less Braveheart-style epic battles and more knights rolling up into villages and slaughtering everybody.
The church tried to curb these conflicts, because frankly, they were nasty and threatened the stability of everything. First they tried to gather up all the knights and shake various body parts of dead saints at them, but when that didn't work, the Pope called the First Crusade and exported all these assholes to the Middle East, where they chivalrously ate babies and massacred the entire population of Jerusalem.
"Hey, the Pope said we wouldn't go to hell! No backsies!"
Later attempts were made to get these young 'uns under control, one being the chivalric code that was adopted around the 13th century. Examples like Sir Lancelot and Edward the Black Prince were raised to show knights how to behave in battle and in peace. Knights were encouraged to "defend the weak," but "the weak" was commonly interpreted as noble women and children, not peasants. So noble-on-noble violence may have decreased, but it was still totally cool for knights to kill and rape peasants, since, like those beers you had for breakfast, they didn't really count.
Everyone Was a Prude
Casual sex, and even knowledge of how sex works, is a modern invention. During the heavily religious Dark Ages, sex was strictly forbidden outside of marriage, and every single person of consenting age (a term that was very loosely defined back then) led a life that was a never-ending squelch through a pool of their own sexual repression.
You know those really goofy-looking shoes that men wore back then? The extra pointy ones, like something an elf would wear?
We'd still wear those over Heelys.
Well, those points are called poulaines, and apparently they were meant to directly represent the wearer's dong. And in a revelation that will come as absolutely no surprise to anyone even remotely familiar with the intricate relationship between a man and his wang, these points were sometimes so big that dudes couldn't walk up stairs. Good thing they were all wearing those elaborate codpieces to protect their actual dongs when their shoe-dongs tripped them up.
And the sexy didn't stop with their fashion. Prostitution was a big friggin' deal back then. Although technically against the teachings of the church, everyone collectively agreed that if there were no hookers around, men would be out raping, just, everyone, because some of what you've heard about the Middle Ages wasn't a myth. In most medieval cities, prostitution was completely legal yet confined to certain districts and licensed by a town's mayor. The church even got in on this deal and licensed some holy brothels of its very own.
"She'll tickle your schmeckel for only a shekel!"
But let's not leave out the married folk. Since most upper-class marriages were political arrangements and the people getting married didn't necessarily like each other all that much, extramarital affairs were where it was at. And man, did these people get down -- if you've ever watched a show like The Tudors and thought it was all sexed up for a modern audience, you were wrong.
One of the reasons that Eleanor of Aquitaine usurped her husband Henry II was because Henry II apparently had more mistresses than Tiger Woods. Seeing that getting in bed with the king was a good way to get ahead in life, daughters of lower nobility basically became escorts and tried to become the king's favorite mistress, which worked out pretty well for Anne Boleyn when she married Henry VIII and became Queen of England. Worked out pretty well, that is, until she was beheaded for allegedly banging too many people who weren't Henry VIII.
The Bible is very clear that you're only allowed three affairs at a time.
But the whole situation was still bad news for women, right? Because women were basically property back then? Well ...
Women Were Treated as Cattle
Europe during the Middle Ages is right up there with Taliban-ruled Afghanistan in the Top 5 Places It Would Suck to Have a Vagina. Women were horribly oppressed and were treated as second-class citizens -- their only responsibilities were to cook, clean, and squeeze out (male) babies on demand.
"Sweetie? You get that new male heir I asked for? It's been like an hour ..."
Up until about 200 years ago, Europe was a largely agricultural society. And the funny thing about back-breaking and often dehumanizing labor is that it has a weird way of equalizing people -- when literally every member of the family is out busting his or her ass every morning just to fend off the very real threat of starvation, gender roles and sexism suddenly don't seem all that important. Thus, when it came to household responsibilities, women and men were equals by default, since the women had to do all the same bullshit their husbands had to do. So should time travel ever become a thing, never tell a medieval peasant woman to go make her husband a sandwich, because she'll probably cackle her plague-breath all up in your face before snapping you in half like a twig.
And the story wasn't much different in the cities. If dad owned a shop or a tavern, his daughters were the ones helping out. Sometimes a daughter would actually take over the family business and run it herself if her father became unable to, something that wouldn't really happen until much later in modern society. Women also generally ran the taverns in the Middle Ages -- in fact, women once ran England's entire beer industry. It's not quite clear when that changed, but we have to assume that at some point men realized they had allowed women to become all powerful by letting them be in charge of both beer and vaginas.
"Well, at least we still have sports ... Oh Christ!"
Women who weren't busy running taverns or growing crops to survive could join a convent, which may not sound all that impressive until you realize that this gave them access to education in a time when that was extremely rare -- nuns could read and write in an age when the most powerful kings couldn't. And if they stuck with it long enough to become the abbess of a convent, they were in a position of power very similar to a male lord -- only, you know, maybe even a little higher, seeing as how they technically reported directly to the King of Kings and all.
Life Was Horrible and Everyone Died Young
Life in the Middle Ages has famously been described as "nasty, brutish, and short." The food sucked, the housing sucked, the work sucked, everything sucked. Luckily, people didn't have to endure all the perpetual suck for long, since they only lived to see 35, tops. Today, if you see a character older than 60 in a movie set in the Middle Ages, he's also a wizard.
"A wizard dies precisely when he means to. Or when the giant eagles show up late."
As for lives being short, while it may be true that the average life expectancy was 35 years, we tend to overlook one very important word there: average. Infant mortality was brutal, since vaccinations against childhood diseases didn't exist yet and medicine was still in its "Here, chew on this root and stick some leeches on your junk" stage. So that skews the average way down. But if a male living in 1500 managed to see his 21st birthday, he was expected to live around 50 more years from that point.
The typical perception of the medieval peasant is someone breaking his back doing nonstop labor for lords who gaveth not a single fuck as to his well-being, but your typical peasant actually worked around eight hours a day, with long breaks for meals and naps. And did you know that peasants got more time off than you do? Sunday was an automatic day off, and when you factor in long vacations at Christmas, Easter, and midsummer, plus all the saints' days (considering the fact that the Catholic church has even more saints than it does scandals), and medieval peasants were on holiday for a good one-third of the year. And since much of that time was accompanied by epic festivals, they spent it getting shitfaced on various varieties of medieval ale. So not only did they work less than you, they also partied harder.
"Hey, you guys coming to the after-orgy?"
And it turns out they weren't exactly living lives of "bare bones subsistence," either. By the late Middle Ages, your average English worker was making around $1,000 a year -- significantly better than people in some of today's poorer nations. And while no one will argue that that level of income would provide lifestyles that would inspire rap song lyrics, it did allow them to afford varied diets, the occasional luxury item, and plenty of ale to cover all the partying they were virtually required to do. Hell, you could get a rap song out of that, right? Quick, what rhymes with "dick shoes"?
For more things you're totally wrong about, check out 6 Things from History Everyone Pictures Incorrectly and The 5 Most Overrated Jobs of All Time.
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