5 B.S. Rumors That Created The Modern World
Much of human history is nothing more than a bunch of people falling for some bullshit a charismatic figure made up on the fly. If you want to trick the masses into war (or anything else), you just have to find out what they want to believe and feed it to them. And the sad part? It doesn't even have to be a good lie.
If you want proof, just look at some of the ridiculous bullshit that has altered the course of history ...
A Bullshit Doomsday Prediction Sets Off The Third Crusade
In 1184, an official looking letter made the rounds amongst Pope Clement III and other European notables. The letter's message was simple: the end was finally nigh. This was technically no big deal in the 12th century, as doomsday prophecies came and went like the rain. However, this letter came from the prestigious university in Toledo, Spain, and made use of the newfangled science of astrology. Plus, people were stupid back then.
"Yup, that's God's handwriting all right. Can't fake that."
The grim letter described the imminent arrival of an alignment of the planets that would spell doom in the sky. The writings were oddly detailed about God's plan: Although the cataclysm would cause drought, famine, earthquakes, and disease all over the place, the areas most affected by divine destruction would be cities like Mecca and Baghdad, and scores of Muslims would convert to Christianity in desperation.
Now, when we say the letter was bullshit, we don't just mean the apocalypse stuff (if you're not familiar with the time period, we should note here that the apocalypse did not in fact occur). Although it may really have been sent from the university at Toledo, it was written under a fake name, following a pre-existing template that proved so popular that similar letters would appear throughout the Middle Ages. It was a lazy hoax by some random asshole.
it was basically the 4chan copypasta of the 12th Century.
Too bad the priests and noblemen weren't in on the joke.
The Third Crusade.
The letter's message that God would finally step in to take non-Christians to task resonated heavily throughout Europe, which suddenly remembered it still had an ax to grind with the Muslims after the unmitigated disaster that had been Crusade 2: The Crusadening. As such, many notables clung to the letter's messages, and it ended up being one of the deciding factors that whipped up European nobility enough to have another crack at reclaiming Jerusalem. What could go wrong?
So the Third Crusade kicked off -- you know, the one where Orlando Bloom fights Saladin -- and proved successful enough for Europe to launch another six of them over the next century, resulting in immeasurable suffering and death.
The original example of a poorly thought-out trilogy leading to a bunch of shitty spinoffs and sequels.
Thanks, random dickhead in Toledo!
The Kingdom of Saguenay: The Scam That Made Canada
Here's the short version of how Canada came to be: A Native American chief bullshitted a bunch of gullible idiots and got an all-expenses paid trip around the world.
Here's the longer version: During his second voyage to the newly discovered land of Canada in 1535, French explorer Jacques Cartier reached a small Indian village in what we know as Quebec. Donnacona, the chief of the tribe, told Cartier of Saguenay, a mystical kingdom to the north that was absurdly rich in gold and other valuables, and for some reason populated by a bunch of people who spent their days hopping around on their one massive leg. He also told them of another tribe of folks that didn't have butts at all because at that point, Donnacona was clearly just throwing random words at the wall to see what stuck.
"So you said the boob-headed monkeys are this way?"
Somehow, Cartier swallowed the stories hook, line, and sinker, and decided to ask the chieftain to come with him to France. Donnacona gleefully accepted, and was soon presented at the court of King Francis I. The chieftain repeated his stories, everyone once again took them seriously, and hilarity ensued.
The colonization of Canada.
France had previously held the snowy land in little value, as it was extremely barren and inhospitable compared to their plantations in the southern Americas (Cartier had only been able to get his voyage there sponsored by the crown because he was trying to find a shortcut between Europe and Asia). However, the idea of Saguenay enticed the king, and the thought of owning a magical, gem-laden kingdom where no-butt folks roam free range pulled his focus from his Asian trade ambitions.
"Oh, my foot fetish had me pulling more than just that."
The brunt of the Colonize Canada Project fell on the shoulders of Jean-Francois Roberval, who was sent out with a large colonization party that swiftly started freezing to death instead of finding the famed Saguenay. With their hopes of unlimited gold, assless people, and comfortable existence crushed, the first French settlers soon abandoned Canada as a miserable hellhole.
"'Dear King Francis: Wish you were here! So much gold. Sincerely, Roberval & Crew'
"Alright, that should do it. Let's go to the Bahamas."
However, the seeds of colonization had been sowed, and five decades later the French finally went through with the plan.
As for the crafty chief who kick-started it all with his tall tales? Donnacona remained a guest of the royal court and enjoyed all the fineries French noble life had to offer for the remainder of his life. We can't really complain about that -- if your stories are so good they're directly responsible for giving the world poutine, you probably deserve some fine wine and powdered wigs.
A Prank Letter Causes An Invasion Of Europe
In the mid-12th century -- yes, around the same time as the apocalypse hoax above -- the emperor of Byzantine and a number of other powerful folks acquired copies of a letter from a mysterious man called Prester John. The writer claimed to be the king of an isolated, Asian-Christian nation surrounded by enemies of the faith (that is, Muslims). The letter described the Kingdom of Prester John as a place of utter opulence and lunacy where seaworthy emerald ships, seas made of gravel, and awesome magic fruits were par for the course. Oh, and ugly pig-men, massive dogs, and talking birds with human feet roamed the lands.
It was, as you can guess, a bunch of bullshit some joker just made up to fuck with them (nobody knows who exactly it was). Still, this was 1177, and the initial reaction was a combination of, "Holy shit, emerald ships!" and "This Christian king can help us fight off the heathens!" Let's just say people were ... less skeptical back then.
"They need help. My best friend's sister's boyfriend's brother's girlfriend heard from this guy who knows
this kid who's going with the girl who saw Prester get jumped at 31 Flavors last night. I guess it's pretty serious."
The hype faded over the next 40 years or so, but then reports from the Fifth Crusade surfaced about a weird, massive army coming from the east, wiping out the Saracens around Persia. "Holy shit, it's true!" They said. "It's Prester John! Or, like, his son! Or Grandson! Or something!"
The good news for Europe's Christians: There indeed was a veritable horde of soldiers tearing through the enemies of Christianity. The bad news: The rumored Prester John Jr. was none other than Genghis fucking Khan.
The name change was certainly lucrative for his future career as a giant statue.
The Mongols could waltz into Europe when and how they damn well liked. We suppose the Europeans couldn't have done much to stop them -- this was goddamned Genghis Khan here -- but because of the Khan's association with the Prester John legend, few people in Europe saw Mongols as the unstoppable rapin' and pillagin' force that they were, instead reporting their antics as Prester John's holy crusade to crush the heathens. They literally didn't realize the rampaging army wasn't the Christian king coming to rescue them until it smashed through Catholic countries like Poland and Hungary and showed up at their gate.
"Hey Prester, the Muslims are over there! ... Uh ... Prester?"
Chances are we'd all be speaking Mongol today if Genghis' son and successor, Odegei, hadn't suffered a fatal heart attack at a strategically vital moment and forced the Mongols to cease their invasion.
Major Smedley Butler Bullshits His Way Across Nicaragua
To understand why Nicaragua is important, you have to look at a map. It's the green blotch:
Right there, at the base of South America's umbilical cord.
Nearby that spot is the Panama Canal -- maybe the most important stretch of water in the world, as it connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, and lets trading vessels sail back and forth without having to go all the way around South America. The U.S. has had some form of control over the canal since it was created, but if some country wanted to dig their own, Nicaragua is where they'd go.
So, in 1912 America sent troops into Nicaragua at the request of its president, Adolfo Diaz, who was about to be toppled by a revolt. President Taft sent in some troops, including a marine battalion led by Major Smedley Butler, who at the time played the war game at hardcore level due to a severe bout of malaria that gave him the nickname "Old Gimlet Eye", on account of his feverish staring. His first task: to take back the country's crucial railways and trains. Butler had just 354 men and a 104-degree fever going for him, but he would set forth trusting in the magical power of bullshit.
"Don't worry, men. With the malaria I've got all kinds of shit leaking out of me."
Whenever rebel troops challenged his men, Butler made them step back either by bullshitting his way through (this was probably helped by his death glare) or waving sandbags in the air and yelling: "Dynamite!" When he got near the rebels' headquarters, he put wooden tent poles in the muzzles of their small field guns to make them look like 14-inch artillery cannons, and packed his marines in a tight, semicircular line so it would be impossible to see how many rows of soldiers there were (the real answer was "precisely one").
When the rebels' delegation arrived to see what was what, they found the illness-ridden Butler sitting on a makeshift throne, and threatening to crush them with his "superior numbers" and "big guns." Their leader not only surrendered any claim to the railroads, but asked if the U.S. could smuggle him out of the country completely. Other American troops soon cleaned up the remaining rebel forces, then left a contingent force in the country as a friendly reminder that they could crush all opposition with a handful of men and two freaking tent poles.
Smedley later went on to conquer all of Mexico using only a handkerchief and strep throat.
The Panama Canal remained the only transoceanic route through Central America, and America's biggest economic rivals were irrevocably screwed.
Over the years, Nicaragua had been in talks with nations such as Germany, France, Great Britain, and Japan, all interested in establishing their very own "Nicaragua Canal" shipping route. However, the potent mix of gratitude and fear following these events prompted President Diaz to sign a treaty that granted the U.S. exclusive rights for all transcontinental canals on Nicaragua's soil.
"Shit, you can have Brazil; just don't make me look in his eye."
This right went happily unused, as the sole point of the deal was to retain the Panama Canal's monopoly, and thus allow the U.S. to control the entire maritime trade in Central America. It's anyone's guess how the situation would have played out if their economic rivals had managed to build a canal of their own -- although we might find out in the near future, as Chinese canal builders have lately been throwing longing glances at Nicaragua.
A Diamond Necklace Helps Spark The French Revolution
It starts a little like the movie Titanic -- with shady people in pursuit of a super fancy necklace. It was the most expensive diamond necklace in the history of mankind, in fact, commissioned by King Louis XV, who had died right before the transaction was completed. Look at this shit:
Each gem was hand-soaked in a vat of beluga caviar and the tears of peasant children.
In 1785, a conwoman named Jeanne de Valois -- known in Paris as Madame de la Motte -- decided she wanted it. She couldn't have known she was knocking down one of the dominoes that would result in a world-changing revolution. Or maybe she did, but didn't care, because look at that thing.
The woman had started an affair with Cardinal Prince Louis de Rohan (no relation to Theoden). She convinced her lover that the queen, Marie Antoinette, desperately wanted the necklace, but needed a middleman, as she could not personally purchase it behind the king's back. In order to convince Rohan to be said middleman, she presented him with letters by the queen requesting his assistance, and even arranged a brief clandestine meeting between the two. In reality, the letters were clumsy fakes that the forger had signed using the wrong name, and the "queen" was a random prostitute Jeanne had dressed up to vaguely resemble Marie Antoinette. Still, Rohan agreed to make the deal and before long, Jeanne de Valois was in possession of the hugely valuable necklace.
"This will go great with my offensively flamboyant hairdo."
When the first payment for the necklace did not arrive, the jewelers went straight to Marie Antoinette to complain, exposing the entire scam. The responsible parties were immediately apprehended, and that is where the whole thing went mightily tits up. Instead of dealing with the entire debacle behind closed doors, the king and queen felt it necessary to turn the trial into a media circus, and had Jeanne de Valois publicly flogged and branded with a "V" on her shoulders ... while leaving the nobleman Rohan comparatively unpunished.
They tried to write "very bad woman" but the budget for branding irons was pretty limited.
To understand how this seemingly minor scandal played a part in starting the freaking French Revolution, you have to look at the context. The country was in the middle of an economic crisis, and the rulers were blamed for mishandling the nation's finances. So it'd be like if, right in the heart of the financial collapse in 2008, President George W. Bush had been accused of using public money to buy a platinum-coated lamborghini. If he then held a huge show trial to publicly punish the person who was accusing him, would anyone believe him?
Maybe one person.
That's how this necklace thing looked to the starving commoners in France. Remember, Marie Antoinette would go down as history's most famous example of an oblivious aristocrat blithely shitting on the peasants (thus the, "Let them eat cake" legend). Now imagine those peasants watching as the ruling class played out petty vendettas over scandalous luxuries. It became known as The Affair of the Diamond Necklace, and the masses decided that it was really about their greedy queen trying to get her hands on some fabulous bling, under the table.
The scandal ruined the queen's reputation for good (despite the fact that, again, she was completely innocent of this particular debacle) and reaffirmed the worst fears the French people had about their superiors: that they were incompetent assholes whose greed led them to run dick-first into financial ruin. The scandals piled up and, four years later, came the French Revolution.
And they all lived happily ever after.
For more of Cedric Voets' attempts at witticisms or his famous recipes for toilet wine, follow him on Twitter.
For more weird ways history was shaped, check out 6 Tiny Mistakes That Changed The Course of History and 6 Mistranslations That Changed The World .
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