As TopTenz has covered in other articles, the past was in some ways so much worse than we can relate to. But let’s not assume that it was all terrible, or that everyone was too stupid to make life better for themselves. Our heads are full of flawed beliefs about the past. These myths are often created to make history more dramatic to keep students awake during class, to simplify the past for easy digestion, or to inflate our sense of superiority over some country or the past in general. Let’s try to set some of those myths straight.
10. American Soldiers Won the Revolutionary War Due to British Tactics
One assumption often made about the Revolutionary War is that America won because British troops lined up in their bright red uniforms, which were perfect targets for American troops who were well-honed by their frontier lifestyle to become crack shots. The high British casualties at the famous Battle of Bunker Hill certainly seem to bear that out. But the truth was that a lot of American troops were actually much worse shots than the British, and with good reason. America was actually a mostly impoverished country before the revolution, and many of the regulars didn’t even have enough money for a gun, let alone becoming the crack shots history has since painted them as. Their inaccurate fire simply wasn’t going to exceed the casualties massed British fire could, especially since the smoke of battle meant that it would soon be impossible to even see the enemy.
Also, the Americans retreated and failed during numerous battles and fights until they began dressing in the familiar blue French uniforms. As attractive as the image of Americans winning by pluck and common sense, it was lining up in bright colors that won the war.
9. Marriages Were Between the Young Back in the Day
It’s common to assume that people in the premodern eras would be mostly marrying in their early teens. Children would be needed to do the many chores as soon as possible, after all, and lives were shorter. Plus, we assume that people from days past wouldn’t have the psychological sophistication we do now to realize how horrible it is to pressure people that aren’t yet fully matured into lifelong commitments.
But in places such as Medieval Europe, this wasn’t the case. In France and Italy during those centuries, the average age of women during their first marriage was around twenty. For men, it was around thirty. For men, at least, that’s about the same as it currently is in America today. Even in the rural areas, recorded ages for men during their first marriage are still a relatively “old” twenty-three, not far shy of middle age at the time.
8. Bathing Ended in Europe with the Roman Empire
Posterity likes to claim that the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 AD meant that culture and society went with it. And with that went the famous Roman habit of bathing. In reality, for almost a millennium after, bathing was considered not just a relaxing pastime but a popular social one. The Frankish monarch Charlemagne and his soldiers were particularly noted for going to bathhouses, which quickly attracted reputations as dens of sin among the Christians but persisted regardless.
What drove rigorous bathing out of fashion across Europe was the Black Death in 1346. In response to the death of about one-fourth of Europe’s population, people everywhere came to exactly the wrong conclusion. They believed that cleaning the dirt off the skin left pores open to being receptacles of infection. Not to mention, the sinful natures of bathhouses bringing the “punishments of God.” Ironically, this meant the Renaissance and the period where Europeans smelled the worst began at about the same time, rather than during the Dark Ages.
7. Religion Held Back Science
This is a popular tool of atheist spokespeople like Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens, who insist that people having religious beliefs was a loss for humanity. Inevitably, criticism of Charles Darwin, the house arrest of Galileo, and movements like Christian Science Cults will be used as evidence. Belief in forces and intelligences beyond nature intuitively seems as far from science as it gets.
This has been pretty much the opposite of the truth until recent years. Islamic scholars were the ones who preserved the findings of Greek scientists and mathematicians, and passed them on to European monks and other members of clergy. Pioneering physicists and scientists included Roger Bacon and Nicholas of Cusa, respectively a monk and a cardinal. Genetics pioneer Gregor Mendel was an abbot. Copernicus, Isaac Newton, and Johannes Kepler were all deeply religious people. In short, rather than being in opposition to science, historically science owes its very origins, in many ways, to organized religious institutions. They preserved the seed of learning, and provided for the scientists who fostered scientific advancement in Europe.
6. The Viet Cong Won the Vietnam War
Just like we want to portray the scrappy, underdog units of the Colonial army during the American Revolution as winning the war against the organized, trained British units, we believe that the Viet Cong guerilla tactics defeated the American military. They would strike, run to their tunnels where all the searching and destroying couldn’t find them, and the Americans were basically forced out by frustration and public sentiment turning against the conflict.
This is incorrect. And it was understood to be incorrect by military analysts, even at the time, let alone with hindsight. While the infamous 1968 Tet Offensive drew a lot of publicity, it basically broke the back of the Viet Cong as even a guerilla unit. It was the intervention of the North Vietnamese Army that successfully engaged and gradually drove the Americans out of South Vietnam. The Communist government and military, people that would have been invested in making the victory look like it had been won with the support of the local population, did not consider the Viet Cong intervention to be relevant militarily.
This just goes to show that as much credit as we like to give to underdog guerrillas, they do not have the successful history that is often ascribed to them.
5. Democracy was First Invented in Greece
Given that the very word ‘democracy’ is Greek in origin, we credit that eventually united collection of city-states with being the first ones to try that system of government. That’s not just wrong, it’s super wrong. Even by the lower estimates, it’s wrong by about a millennium. It was communities of India that, as early as 2000 BC, were having popular votes determine policies and electing officials.
The first credited community to attempt it was a village in the area of Malana Nala. In ancient times this never became anything like the dominant social structure of all India, with numerous monarchies existing alongside democracies.
4. The Third Reich was Super Efficient
By the time the 20th Century rolled around, there was a persistent stereotype that the Germans are a very efficient people. This reached its pinnacle when the Nazis took over and had the Gestapo monitoring the population for any hint of dissent. This was particularly good for the citizens after the end of World War II, who wanted to insist to the world that they had been under the jackboot of a regime too powerful and effective to be resisted.
These claims are undermined by the actual statistics. At the height of its powers, the entire Gestapo was only 16,000 members in 1944. And it wasn’t even very well funded. Entire cities of hundreds of thousands of people had only a few dozens Gestapo operatives in them. Even these small groups were underfunded, which was to be expected considering the German government was on the verge of collapse. Tragically, this indicates that had there been wider spread opposition to the government and more attempts at resistance, the Gestapo would not have been very well equipped to deal with them. Those who genuinely wanted to see the overthrow of the Third Reich were effectively held at bay with an unloaded gun.
3. Jewish Slaves Built the Pyramids
While the intent of this list is not meant to be anti-religion, there are numerous pieces of evidence that cast serious doubts on the biblical assertion that slaves taken from Judea were involved in building the wonders in Ancient Egypt. Even Jewish scholars agree that there’s almost no evidence of all inhabitants being taken on the journey voluntarily or in bondage. There’s not been so much as a shard of pottery, and no records from the areas around Judea of a mass movement like this. Besides, the major marvels of the Egyptian empire which would justify taking such an influx of slaves, such as the Pyramids, were built before the Judean religion was even created.
While the excuse is often made that the Egyptians would strike a humiliating event such as the departure of Jewish slaves from their control from the record, there are records in Egyptian histories during their wars with the Nubians. These indicate they did not consider an undesirable outcome reason to remove an event from the historical record.
On a more positive note, the evidence indicates that the Egyptians didn’t rely on slave labor to produce wonders like the pyramids at all. True, the laborers who assembled them were from the lower classes and the intense labor certainly shortened their lives. But the laborers retained their status as citizens, were able to own private property, were paid, given full burial rites, and only worked for periods of roughly three months out of the year.
2. Romans Almost Always Wore Togas
Just about any portrayal of ancient Romans in popular culture is sure to put them in togas. This must have left many frustrated frat members who had to go to toga parties wondering how ancient Romans put up with such an inconvenient garment. Well, the fact of the matter was that many Romans wondered the same thing. The toga was a widely despised garment even on the rare formal occasions where it was worn, because it often meant having to hold part of it all day if you wanted to speak at a meeting. Plus, maintaining all the folds was a hassle.
It wasn’t even necessarily considered a particularly esteemed or formal garment. Among women, it was a very popular garment. Among prostitutes, that is. With that in mind, it’s little wonder that more respectable women were sometimes forced to wear them as punishment. It’s also probably why you don’t see toga parties thrown by sororities.
1. Atheism is Relatively New
We assume that religions had such a hold on humanity of the past, that they would have made atheists outcasts if they were open about their lack of belief. We also assume that humans have to fill in their understanding of the world around them with something. Before the enlightenment and scientific method started explaining everything, it’s almost innate that ancient people would naturally plug gods and mysticism in there. It turns out that, actually, centuries before Christ there were societies that had no religion, no rituals, nothing of the kind, and they were all over the place.
In ancient Greece, there was Xenophanes, who around 500 BC was arguing that humans had just invented gods in their own image. That’s a view that would be quoted by European philosophers such as Ludwig Feuerbach during the Enlightenment. At the same time, tribes in Africa also went without any religious ceremonies or evidence of beliefs. Tribes in Sri Lanka did the same, and were found to still be doing so well into modern times.
In India, early disciplines of Hinduism also taught of a material world rather than one dominated by spiritual matters, such as one known as the Carvaka School. Also, in China as early as 300 BC, major Chinese philosophers like Xun Zi and Mencius were tearing into the whole notion of there being anything beyond the physical realm. Xun Zi in particular relished mocking the idea of prayers. In short, science answering many of reality’s mysteries wasn’t necessary for many people to reject the whole idea of religion.
Dustin Koski is one of the authors of the most hilarious and exciting fantasy book ever about fairies turning into monsters, Forust: A Tale of Magic Gone Wrong.