Hollywood Myths, Cracked: 4 Things Movies Get Wrong About Medieval Times

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The Northman

Universal Pictures

We here at Cracked lowkey enjoy dunking on the common misconceptions of those times somewhere in the middle of the ages. We’ve looked at what Hollywood loves to ignore about Medieval warfare (knights were real freakin’ Chads), and we’ve done a full investigation of what life was like for a Medieval peasant (conclusion; not great). 

Let us then venture yet again into that time between the 5th and the 15th century, and debunk some beliefs audiences have about the people who came before us, all thanks to that darn Hollywood.

Medieval People Didn’t Eat Like Barbarians (And They Had Some Real Fancy Cooks)

Before we dive in, a quick note: Yes, this article includes examples of The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones because, while both depict fantasy worlds, both stories are based on J.R.R. Tolkien and George R.R. Martin’s knowledge of Medieval Times, and also they’ve stated as much. We’re most certainly using these IPs, then, as they contribute to people’s ideas of a time when humans didn’t have fancy auto-flushing toilets yet. They did, however, have cutlery and table manners, but looking at the movies and shows, you’d think those were only reserved for the rich and noble.

Table manners (and just good manners in general), was such a big deal back then that it spawned its own genre of literature dubbed the courtesy books. These books taught children (and some adults) things like how to drink properly from a cup (wipe your lips after) and not to chew on bones “because that is what dogs do.” Proper etiquette included not loosening your belt at the table, and never picking your teeth at the table or passing any gas. They were big on washing their hands before and after a meal — a custom many people choose to ignore today. 

While most of Europe didn’t use forks until the 17th century — they were apparently considered “too Italian” — people did have spoons and knives and didn’t just eat everything with their bare hands. Also, if we believe what movies and TV shows portray, people in the Middle Ages only ever ate turkey legs. This is simply not true, because there are many actual cookbooks and recipes still intact from that time. Like this cookbook, compiled by King Richard II’s cooks in the 14th century:

University of Manchester John Rylands University Library via The Guardian

Translation: Something something probably yum.

Folks back then were all about spices and sauces, and a person could have an actual career in the art of sauce making. Also, some cooks got hella fancy. Banquets would often have meat from peacocks, seals, and even whales. They dyed their food with natural colorings, and made sugar sculptures in the shapes of everything from castles to famous philosophers of the time. 

Of course, those with a lesser social status didn’t get to eat such fancy feasts, but they didn’t chow down on turkey legs, either. Finding fresh meat was a struggle for them, but they did preserve a lot of ham in salt, and they ate a lot of dairy thanks to literally everyone having cows. As for turkey, the native American bird would only be imported to Spain for the first time in 1519, and to England in 1541. So yeah, that’s the turkey leg eating timeline.

Medieval Folks Weren’t Dirty All The Time

Man, just look at all these grimy bastards. They either look like coal miners, or people who just like to roll around in the sand all day.

“Robin Hood” (2010), Universal Pictures

“The Northman,” Universal Pictures

“A Knight’s Tale,” Sony Pictures

“God, Ulrich, just take a bath!”

It’s a pretty common misconception that people back then didn’t give a hoot about hygiene. Sure, there was water scarcity in many places just like today, but even those who couldn’t bathe every single day still religiously washed their faces, brushed their teeth, and cleaned up as much as they possibly could with the resources they had. Smelling all stinky was believed to mean a person didn’t have good morals, and many people didn’t want some church lover breathing down their neck about that.

While the wealthy Medieval folks had their big, lavish baths, there were plenty of public saunas and bathhouses for the rest, even the peasants. Cleanliness was promoted as good health practice by the medical community, and some health manuals had entire sections on the importance of scrubbing your butt in the tub.

It wasn’t just Europeans who enjoyed splashing around in baths back then. The Middle East and Northern Africa also delighted in the use of public bathhouses. By the end of the Middle Ages, going to a bathhouse was as common as it is for us to eat at restaurants (an activity that would only take off during the Renaissance era). 

Medieval People Weren't Oblivious About Medicine

The Physician isn’t just a movie starring Ben Kingsley and  Stellan Skarsgård that a total of only five people saw, but it’s also an historical 11th century film that opens with the following prologue: “In the Dark Ages, the art of healing developed in the Roman era has been widely forgotten in Europe. There are no doctors, no hospitals, only traveling barbers with poor knowledge. At the same time on the other side of the world, medical science is prospering.”

Universal Pictures

“Oh no, we killed another one.”

Many people think that, during the Middle Ages, the closest anyone got to practicing medicine was rubbing a bunch of leaves together while farting on an open wound or something. Sure, there were many strange superstitions back then that were widely shared — uh, COVID pandemic, anyone? — but people were still exploring the science of medicine. 

In fact, many of our cures and treatments today can be traced back to those times when people were really starting to get worried about handling sexually transmitted diseases. We have manuscripts from the Middle Ages instructing doctors how to inspect a person’s urine. They had catheters to treat bladder infections. They had cough syrups and herbal balms for colds and joint pain. They performed surgeries, just … not like we do today. Those surgeries were indeed pretty horrific and terrifying, but at least they didn’t just look at each other and say, “Well, go on and die, then.”

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Medieval Europe Was Way More Diverse

There’s been a lot of renewed talk following the new The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power series featuring a more diverse cast than the original movies ever did. And as it should, because Medieval Europe was a melting pot of race diversity. Racial slavery wasn’t a thing yet, and people were living together in close communities as peacefully as they possibly could.

This, however, doesn’t mean that there wasn’t any racism going on back then. In fact, it would seem that some writers of the time set the tone and discourse that would eventually lead to the dehumanizing and justification of enslavement that followed. Huh, weird how movies seldom show that. 

The point is that Europe wasn’t all white in Medieval times, and the belief that it was has been causing trouble for more than a century.

New Line Cinema

With no help from these guys.

In 2017 scholars officially picked up a link between modern white supremacy and the false idea that everyone in Europe was white during the Middle Ages. Today, we have images of Charlottesville marchers with their Knights Templar symbols and insurrectionists with their Viking tattoos etched into our brains as these people use their false beliefs of the past to fuel their racist agendas. They debate the pro-whiteness of Tolkien’s The Hobbit, and blame not Peter Jackson but the Jews for everything they find wrong with the movies. It’s not that far off to say that if these stories, movies, and TV shows depicted greater diversity earlier than the 2020s, white supremacists would at least have had one less stick fueling their hateful fire.

Thumbnail: Sony Pictures, New Line Cinema

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