10 Widely Believed Myths About History


History is often mistaken to be facts. In reality, it is – at best – the most reliable version of what happened after studying various perspectives from that time. Historical records are often not objective, and biased accounts of historical events, often favoring whoever wrote them. Verifying these various – often conflicting – accounts is a big part of a good historian’s job, though they have their own biases and interests, too.

Because of all that, so many of us still believe in many ‘facts’ about history that are actually distorted versions of the real events, perpetuated by outdated or inaccurate history books, pop culture, and our own biases. 

10. Marie Antoinette Said “Let Them Eat Cake”

Entire books have been written about the many possible causes of the French Revolution, though one of them is still cited as the trigger that started it all. As it goes, when one of her aides told her that her subjects were starving due to famine and widespread poverty, Marie Antoinette – the queen of France at the time of the revolution – famously replied with, “Let them eat cake.” The phrase got so popular that it’s still cited as a perfect example of the French monarchy’s indifference towards its people just before the revolution.

Did Marie Antoinette say that, though? While she did do a lot of things that perfectly justified the revolution, as far as that quote goes, there’s no evidence of her ever saying anything like ‘let them eat cake’. The phrase has actually existed in some form for much longer than that, usually used to describe rulers oblivious to the plight of their people. 

9. Fortune Cookies Are From China

Fortune cookies – sweet, hollow cookies with an uplifting message, or ‘fortune’, tucked inside – are found in restaurants around the world, though they’re especially popular in the USA. They’re often served at the end of the meal as dessert or with the check at Chinese restaurants, leading many people to believe that they’re Chinese in origin.

If you go to China, however, you’d find that fortune cookies certainly have nothing to do with China. Historically speaking, their origins actually lie in Japan. In fact, you’d find many other confectionery items still sold in Japan that closely resemble fortune cookies.

They probably came to the US with Japanese immigrants in the beginning of the 20th century, when they were widely sold at Japanese bakeries. That continued until the Second World War, when Japanese-Americans were relocated and interned by a Presidential order after the Pearl Harbor attacks. 

That gave the Chinese a chance to enter the business of producing and selling them. Soon, they became a popular dessert item at Chinese-owned restaurants, as they worked as a light, savory dessert after the meal. A bit more than seventy years later, Chinese manufacturers are still the biggest players in the fortune cookie production business. 

8. Vikings Wore Horned Helmets

Picture the Viking era in your head, and chances are that you’re imagining a lot of them – if not all – with rather-cartoonish, horned helmets. Some movies and TV shows go one step further and replace the horns with wings. We just assume that it must have looked cool for the fashion sensibilities of the time, as the horns don’t seem to serve any other real purpose. 

However, we have no archaeological evidence that even suggests they wore them, as no such helmet has ever been found. According to all the reliable records from the time, Vikings actually wore skull caps made out of leather instead of metallic helmets, horned or otherwise. Horned helmets do show up in some mythological art from that time, though they’re only seen on Gods and other god-like figures – like ancient warriors.

7. Rome’s All-White Aesthetic

Like every other ancient empire, we know very little about what everyday life was really like in ancient Rome. What we do know, however, is that everything was white. From movies to costume parties to advertisements, the notion that everything in ancient Rome was white in color still shows up in a lot of places. 

Obviously, life wasn’t really all-white in Rome, much like every other empire from that era. Roman cities were ethnically diverse places populated by people from many different cultures. An average Roman market would have as many shades and colors as a modern market, along with houses painted in all kinds of wall paints, murals and other colorful art. 

The misconception probably comes from the color of the statues found from that time. After the fall of the Roman empire, most of their sculptures and statues were either buried or left out in the open. As a result, almost all of them had turned white by the time they were rediscovered and copied by artists during the Renaissance era.

6. Cesarean Section Is Named After Julius Caesar

The belief that cesarean section is named after Julius Caesar’s surgical birth may not be as widespread as some of the other myths on this list, though it’s still widespread enough that historians have to regularly clear it up. Its possible origins are rather obvious, as ‘Caesar’ sounds too close to ‘Cesarean’ to not have any connection with it.

While its exact origins are debated – as records from that time are so scarce – the procedure definitely doesn’t have anything to do with Julius Caesar and his birth. At that time, the cesarean sections were only performed on dead or dying mothers, though we know that Caesar’s mother survived his birth from later records. It’s more likely that the word comes from the Latin word ‘caedare’, meaning to cut. 

5. No One Cared About Hygiene

There’s no doubt that hygiene standards have come a long way from most of our history. Thanks to modern medicine, we now know that many diseases could be fully eradicated by just staying clean and regularly sanitizing your surroundings. That, however, is often taken to mean that no one in history ever bothered about keeping clean, feeding into the larger misconception that history has just been a continuously forward march in every field.

In reality, people living in successful empires during most of civilized history stayed cleaner than we give them credit for. Take the Roman empire as an example, where public baths were commonplace. During the medieval era, most towns across Europe and Asia – the most populated parts of the known world at the time – had similar public baths, and it was common for everyone – even the peasantry – to at least wash their hands and face every morning. For those who could afford it, taking a bath was a regular affair. It was common knowledge, even at the time, that staying dirty could attract diseases through fleas and lice. 

4. The Dark Ages Were Dark

The Dark Ages – a period roughly spanning from the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century to the 10th century – is usually remembered as an era of widespread unrest, poverty and general misery. It follows the wider belief that the time of classical antiquity was one of enlightenment and wisdom, and it ended with the fall of Rome. 

So, how ‘dark’ were the Dark Ages, really? Many historians in recent years have challenged this idea, blaming it on Renaissance-era historians that were heavily biased towards Rome. In reality, the period was marked with quite a few scientific, literary and cultural achievements across Europe, even if they weren’t comparable to that of the Roman empire.

More importantly, this misconception takes a Euro-centric view of history, assuming that it was a bad time for everyone else, too. What we know as the Dark Ages in the West was one of the most prosperous times in the history of the Middle East. The Golden Age of Islam – roughly 8th to 14th centuries – was a time of massive leaps in the fields of science, mathematics, banking, medicine, and others. 

3. Witches Were Burned At The Stake During The Salem Witch Trials

The Salem Witch Trials were a series of investigations and trials that happened in the largely-Puritan settlement of Salem, Massachusetts, between May and October 1692. They were triggered by a slew of young girls suddenly experiencing seizures and violent contortions throughout the village, which was widely agreed by everyone to have been the work of witches. In the modern context, it’s seen as a major event of the witch-burning era, which was all the rage in Europe around the same time. 

Except, no witches were ever burned in Salem. Unlike their counterparts across the Atlantic, most of the witches at the trials were executed by hanging, as per English law at the time. The myth of the burning witches at the Salem trials likely comes from its association with the witch trials in Europe, where burning at the stake remained a popular punishment for suspected witchcraft until the 18th century.

2. The Average Life Expectancy Was 30

It’s an oft-repeated statistic that people during most of our history had a life expectancy of at most 30. It sounds obvious because of another largely-held belief about history – that it was a time of almost-consistent warfare and misery for the general population. In an atmosphere like that, it’s surprising that the average person could even reach 30.

While we’d likely never know the precise life expectancy for any time of our history, there’s no evidence to believe that it was significantly lower than today, except for kids. Due to factors like infectious diseases and lack of proper healthcare, infant mortality has been disproportionately high in almost every society before a few hundred years ago, 

1. Everyone Thought That The Earth Is Flat

While Christopher Columbus’s story is generally full of historical inaccuracies and myths – like the claim that he was the first European to land on the American shore – one particularly-persistent one also relates to another larger myth we believe about people in history – no one knew the Earth was round until recently. Many accounts of Columbus’s journey still claim that his voyage around the planet first proved that the Earth was round, dispelling a widely-held myth at the time that it wasn’t. 

That’s despite the fact that almost everyone – at least in the Western world – knew the Earth was round since at least the third century BC, according to one historian. Philosophers, mathematicians and other scholars had made that observation as early as 600 BC, and it would have been common knowledge long before Columbus’s voyage.

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