Medieval Myths: Commonly-Believed Misconceptions About The Middle Ages

The Medieval period, also called the Middle Ages, spanned from the 5th century through the 15th century. This era became famous for the Bubonic Plague, Crusades, and harsh life. But many peoples’ assumptions about the Medieval period are wrong.

For instance, if you thought that knights were chivalrous, you would be incorrect. Assuming that people were unhygienic and couldn’t drink water is common, but factually incorrect. Test your understanding of the Middle Ages with these facts; here are the most frequently believed misconceptions about Medieval life.

People Were Not Dirty All The Time

In a 1450 artwork, farmers plant seeds and plough a field.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Contrary to popular belief, people in the Middle Ages were not constantly living in filth. According to the Ancient History Encyclopedia, at least 80% of people bathed daily during that period. Water from lakes and rivers was available in most cities.

Hot baths, however, were seen as a luxury. Evidence suggests that people spent a lot of money on scented oils and wood-ash soap. Medieval doctors also recommended bathing because they knew that they could prevent disease. Although Medieval people were less clean than we are today, they were not dirty all the time.

People Did Not Eat With Their Hands

In this painting, three men eat during dinner.
DeAgostini/Getty Images
DeAgostini/Getty Images

Another common fictional portrayal is that Medieval people ate with their hands. However, utensils had been around since the 4th century. Forks were invented in the Byzantine Empire, and knives had been around since 600 BC. Spoons were made from cow horns, wood, and brass.

The nobility owned silver and gold utensils that many people are familiar with today. During parties, many people brought their own knives, as hosts were not expected to provide them. In Medieval Asia, citizens had already been using chopsticks for the past few thousand years.

Medieval People Had Access To Clean Water

An artwork shows Venice in 1338.
Culture Club/Getty Images
Culture Club/Getty Images

One of the most common history myths is that Medieval water was too dirty to drink and that people only drank beer. On the contrary, historical evidence proves that most people drank water.

Water was free and clean, often gathered from rivers and wells. In 1236, construction of water pipes began in London, and soon everyone had access to it. However, since water is tasteless, many people preferred other drinks. Sometimes, Medieval people would flavor water with wine or honey, but religious clergy preferred to have water only.

Waste Did Not Go Straight Into The Street

An artwork from a 15th century manuscript shows people visiting an apothecary.
Culture Club/Getty Images
Culture Club/Getty Images

The myth that Medieval people threw human waste into the street is so widespread that even some teachers repeat it. However, people did not actually do this. Although they did not know that exposure to waste caused disease, they knew that it smelled terrible and polluted the streets.

Medieval towns had strict rules about waste disposal. In 14th-century London, throwing anything out the window would result in a fine equivalent to $142 today. Houses had latrines or buckets that they emptied every day into a river.

Plague Doctors Did Not Exist During The Black Death

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Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Plague doctors, the physicians who wore iconic bird-like masks, are often associated with the Middle Ages. Many people believe that they were everywhere when the Black Death began in 1346. But according to historians, the first plague doctors appeared during the 1600s.

Even then, few plague doctors emerged in the 17th and 18th centuries. Most lived in Italy, mainly Rome and Milan, although some were recorded in southern France. Of course, physicians existed during the Black Plague, but none of them are recorded as wearing masks even remotely similar to plague doctor masks.

Knights Were The Opposite Of Chivalrous

A soldier wearing the uniform of the Knights Templar is seen in this 1309 illutration.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Knights were not as chivalrous as the average person assumes. According to Jennifer Goodman Wollock, a medieval studies professor, they were “hired thugs.” In fact, the chivalrous code was designed to keep knights in check.

During the 11th and 12th centuries, knights were known as being hot-headed and inclined to violence. The concept of a “chivalrous knight” only appears in fiction. Many of these stories were not written by knights themselves, but poets and clergymen who invented a romanticized view of knights in the Middle Ages.

Peasants Worked Less Than We Do

An illustration shows construction workers laying out bricks in 1250.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The modern perception of Medieval peasants is that they worked constantly from day to night. In reality, peasants had less vigorous work schedules than we do today. History professor Julier Schor said that the tempo of Middle Age life was slow, with workers even stopping to take naps.

Thirteenth-century laborers often had 25 weeks off every year. In contrast, the average American has 16 days off annually. Although the work was still demanding, English peasants had around 1/3 of the year off, including religious holidays.

The Medieval Diet Was Better Than Today’s

A 14th century painting shows people bringing food into a banquet hall.
English Heritage/Heritage Images/Getty Images
English Heritage/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Despite what movies about the Middle Ages portray, peoples’ diets were not entirely bland. Peasants had access to livestock and gardens, which gave them milk, cheese, sage, garlic, and parsley. Meats were preserved with salt and drinks were sweetened with honey. Although food depended on the season, peasants had a largely filling diet.

Since spices were expensive, the upper class had more varied and flavorful meals than the lower classes. Still, Medieval meals were probably far healthier than today’s diet, according to the BBC. They were varied, flavorful, and less sugar-filled than modern food.

The Average Life Expectancy Was Not 35

This 19th-century painting portrays the death of Christopher Columbus.
The Print Collector/Getty Images
Henry Guttmann Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

If you’ve ever heard that the average life expectancy in the Middle Ages was 35. This is technically correct. However, the term “average” is misleading. If one person dies before the age of one, and the other lives until age 70, then the average life expectancy is 35, explains historian Walter Scheidel.

This average number is low because of the high infant mortality rate. In reality, human life expectancy has not changed much throughout the centuries. Once people in the Middle Ages survived early childhood, they often lived for 70, 80, even 100 years.

Not Everyone Was A “Flat Earther”

This map of the world is from 1602 Spain.
Buyenlarge/Getty Images
Buyenlarge/Getty Images

In the Middle Ages, most people did not believe that the earth was flat. Historian Jeffrey Burton Russell claims that the “flat earth” theory stopped being a widespread belief by the 3rd century B.C.

You might ask, “But what about the church?” Between two and five popes asserted that the earth was flat, but the rest disagreed. The concept of “anti-science” Middle Ages came from 19th-century writers who were largely anti-religious, according to Russell. It is possible that there are more flat-earthers today than there were in the Medieval era.

Medieval Citizens Were Diverse

A painting from the 17th century shows the three magi looking upon baby Jesus.
Bartolomé Esteban Murillo/Wikipedia Commons
Bartolomé Esteban Murillo/Wikipedia Commons

Modern depictions of Medieval Europe show people who are mostly Anglo-Saxon. However, the Middle Ages were diverse, even in Europe. This even appears in Medieval paintings. Art professor Pamela Patton says that Medieval artists “seem clearly interested in representing a diversity of ethnic variations.”

Why don’t we see more diversity, then? Blogger and researcher Malisha Dewalt found that many textbooks did not include this art. Many people don’t focus on diverse art, because it contradicts what many people believe about the Middle Ages. If you want to see them, go to a museum.

People Did Not Sleep Through The Night

A medieval art piece portrays Joseph sleeping.
Leemage/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Leemage/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Today, health experts recommend that we get around eight hours of sleep per night. But in the Middle Ages, people did not sleep that long. They had two “sleeps;” they would rest for four hours and then wake up to read, write, chat, etc. Then, they would sleep again for three or four hours.

This pattern of sleeping continued until the 19th century. Doctors even recommended a nightly break from sleep. In France, a 16th-century doctor told couples that the nightly break was the best time to conceive.

Most Maps Did Not Feature Mythological Creatures

A map of the Portuguese Coast includes illustrations of monstrous sea creatures.
Picturenow/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Picturenow/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

When people think of Medieval maps, many picture inaccurate naval charts with drawings of mythological sea creatures. These maps did exist, but they were not used for navigation. They were owned by nobility and often hung as art pieces.

On top of that, the creature illustrations were not viewed as “magical” or “monstrous.” According to historian Chet Van Duzer, cartographers tried to follow scientific descriptions of sea animals. What we’re seeing are the early imaginations of lobsters, sea lions, whales, sea cucumbers, and other animals that people didn’t yet have names for.

Robin Hood Never Existed

A painting shows Robin Hood and his Merry Men.
© Historical Picture Archive/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
© Historical Picture Archive/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Robin Hood has been a popular fictional figure for 700 years, but historians have yet to discover a real person like him. Academics have yet to find evidence of a person who steals from the rich and gives to the poor.

In the 13th century, terms like “robehod” “rabunhod” were slang for thieves. Perhaps 14th- and 15th-century ballads about Robin Hood were a tongue-and-cheek twist on the term. But if there was a person who inspired the Robin Hood stories, we have not found him yet.

People Traveled For Fun

A painting portrays characters on a pilgrimage in Geoffrey Chaucer's works, 1343.
Culture Club/Getty Images
Culture Club/Getty Images

Many people believe that Medieval people grew up and died in one village, never seeing any other part of the world. According to the British Library, people in the Middle Ages were fascinated with civilizations beyond their borders. If they could afford to, they traveled.

The common person traveled to neighboring villages, which had town centers and churches where people would worship. Armies traveled farther. When people could not see the world, they explored maps of Asia and Africa. The maps were not perfect, but the passion was there.

Democracy Existed

An illustration from 1470 shows Parliament in France.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

During the Middle Ages, many countries–including France, England, Spain, and Germany–had monarchies. However, some democratic institutions formed before the Medieval Era. In 930, the first assembly of the Alþingi convened in Iceland, which is regarded as the world’s first parliamentary system.

In the 13th century, parliaments formed in England and France. The first one was created in 1215 with the Magna Carta. These groups were summoned by the king, and they were mostly men. However, they made major strides toward democracy and representation in these Medieval civilizations.

Knight’s Armor Was Light And Easy To Wear

A Medieval knight sits on a horse in this 1884 painting by Edmund Blair.
Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images
Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

All that steel-plated armor and chain mail looks heavy, doesn’t it? In reality, it was actually quite light. Knight armor weighed between 10 and 15 pounds, which is actually less than modern soldiers carry. American soldiers have to haul 60 pounds of gear at least.

That said, certain types of armor were heavier than others. In 2011, a study found that 15th-century French armor required knights to use twice as much energy as the English did. Contrary to common belief, the sword was the lightest part, only around 2.5 to 3.5 pounds.

The Middle Ages Saw Many Medical Advances

Eyeglasses from the 13th century, Italy are seen.
C. Balossini/De Agostini Picture Library via Getty Images
C. Balossini/De Agostini Picture Library via Getty Images

Although people in the Middle Ages were not as medically advanced as we are today, they made many strides in the field. For instance, records from a 14th-century Dominican friar prove that Medieval people wore eyeglasses. We do not know who invented them, only that they were worn.

Historians also believe that interest in anatomy began in the Middle Ages. Doctors began dissecting during this time, and Italian physician Mondino de Luzzi even hosted public dissections to teach his students in 1315. These developments are what make us so knowledgeable about medicine today.

They Had Universities

A tomb-slab at the university of Bologna shows students attending lessons in 1346.
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Culture Club/Getty Images

If you think that most people in the Middle Ages were uneducated, you wouldn’t be the only one. But the Medieval era had several universities, some of which still exist today. These include the University of Paris, Oxford, Cambridge, and the University of Bologna.

By 1300, 23 universities existed in Europe. Many of these schools did not have a founding date, instead of being built over time. Students studied liberal arts, language, law, and medicine. In some schools, such as Bologna, a guild of students hired professors to teach them whatever they wanted to know.

The Middle Ages Were Not Lawless

A painting shows the court during the trial of a Franciscan friar in the 13th century.
Leemage/Corbis via Getty Images
Leemage/Corbis via Getty Images

Despite what some movies portray, the Middle Ages were not lawless. Citizens had laws, punishments, and trials. The 12-person jury first emerged in the 13th century, and capital punishment was on the table for some criminals.

Less life-threatening laws also existed. Merchants had to pay taxes, and they could declare bankruptcy if needed. When envoys traveled, they had diplomatic immunity. Many citizens in Spain, France, and Germany owned property, and they brought these laws to the Americas. The legal system was not too different from today, really.

Clothing Was Not Dull, Dirty, Or Plain

Two musicians play the lyre in the lute in this illustration from 1400.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Many TV shows and movies about the Middle Ages show people wearing dull, drab clothing in grays and browns. In reality, Medieval clothing was far more colorful and ornate. Most clothing pieces were blue, crimson, yellow, green, and purple.

The higher classes decorated their clothing with jewels, feathers, fringes, tassels, and embroidered designs. Both sexes of all classes wore long tunics that were tied with brooches and belts. They also had decorative belt buckles, gloves, and hats. Although lower classes wore simpler clothing, they were still colorful and had some special design elements.

Vikings Did Not Wear Horned Helmets

A man wears a fake viking helmet with horns.
George Rose/Getty Images
George Rose/Getty Images

Vikings existed during the Middle Ages, many residing in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. But many modern notions about the Vikings are incorrect. One is that Vikings wore horned helmets. According to the National Museum of Denmark, there is only one preserved helmet from the Viking Age, and it does not have horns.

Written accounts from the Middle Ages do not mention Vikings wearing horns. The first depiction came from an 1876 German play, Der Ring des Nibelungen. The costumes defined how many modern people perceive Vikings today.

Archers Did Not Keep Quivers On Their Backs

People participate in an archery contest during a medieval fair.
Sergei MalgavkoTASS via Getty Images
Historic England Archive/Getty Images

Fictional depictions of the Middle Ages show archers wearing quivers on their backs. But this is not how real Medieval archers traveled. Instead, archers attached quivers to their belts. It was much more useful to draw their arrows and quivers from their belts while riding on horseback.

Another fun fact is that Medieval archers did not wear shoes. Because early shoes did not have rubber soles, they lacked the grip that archers needed. By traveling barefoot, archers got more grip on buildings, dirt, mountains, and grass.

King Arthur Probably Did Not Exist

A 1509 artwork depicts King Arthur.
Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images
Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Throughout the centuries, historians have debated over whether King Arthur was a real person. More accurately, most wonder whether he was based on a historical figure. King Arthur was first mentioned in 829, and he was supposedly involved in the Saxon invasion of the 500s. However, historians cannot find any accounts of people who match his description.

The mythological figure really became famous in the 12th century with the book History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth. The legend of the Holy Grail came from the French poet Chrétien de Troyes.

Even Peasants Had Table Manners

In this historical re-enactment, members of a monastery gather for dinner in Israel, 13th century.
DeAgostini/Getty Images
DeAgostini/Getty Images

Do not believe Monty Python–people in the Middle Ages were not always rude and brash. Everyone knew table manners and basic hygiene. Before people sat down to eat, they always washed their hands. Guests were expected not to make rude or offensive jokes, especially in front of ladies.

People waited for everyone to be served before eating. If a dog sat under the table, people were expected not to feed them. Of course, the nobility had more strict etiquette rules than the lower classes. But everyone had manners in the Middle Ages.

“Prima Nocta” Did Not Exist

A 13th century drawing depicts a royal marriage.
Culture Club/Getty Images
Culture Club/Getty Images

Prima nocta, also called droit de seigneur, was supposedly the legal right of a monarch or lord to date any peasant woman at any time, especially on her wedding night. The concept goes back to the Mesopotamian tale The Epic of Gilgamesh. However, scholars have not found any evidence that prima nocta existed.

Although the idea appears frequently in literature, there is no historical record of it. In the 19th century, French author Louis Veuillot claimed that “the Middle Ages had never heard of the droit du seigneur.”

Medieval People Did Not Believe That The World Would End

In this 12th century illustration, monks write down manuscripts.
Culture Club/Getty Images
Culture Club/Getty Images

Does anyone remember when people predicted that the apocalypse would occur in the year 2000? Some historians propose that people in the Middle Ages thought the same thing about the year 1000. However, there is little evidence that people actually believed this.

In the 10th century, Pope Sylvester II predicted that the Judgement would happen in 1000. Although some believed him, there is no evidence of mass terror or even widespread belief. The concept of a 1,000-year-long reign exists in the Book of Revelations, but few people put much stock in it.

There Were Not Entire Armies Of Knights

A 19th century artwork portrays the final assault on Constantinople, 1453.
The Print Collector via Getty Images
The Print Collector via Getty Images

Many fictional portrayals of the Middle Ages show entire armies of knights. However, there were not that many knights. Each familia or group of knights did not even reach 1,000. King Henry III’s familia only consisted of 100 knights, according to records from 1225.

Knights were expensive and rarely formed the backbone of armies. Most soldiers were foot soldiers. Even during the Hundred Years War and the War of the Roses, most knights fought on foot, not on horseback. Throughout the entirety of the Middle Ages, there were rarely more than 1,200 knights at a time.

Medieval People Had Pharmacies

Monks dispense medicine in this medieval pharmacy.
Buyenlarge/Getty Images
Buyenlarge/Getty Images

When Medieval people wanted medicine, they did not always have to enlist a physician or a cunning man. Many towns in the Middle Ages had pharmacies. The first pharmacy opened in Baghdad, 754. They became popular in the Arabic world, and by the 12th century, they spread to Europe.

Apothecary shops were operated by pharmacists who studied for the job, similar to today. By the Renaissance, many nuns took over the pharmacist job, especially in Italy. Pharmacists became more skilled and even developed classes in the 15th and 16th centuries.

Witch Hunts Were Not Common In The Middle Ages

A medieval artwork portrays flying witches.
API/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
API/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Pop quiz: when did the European witch hunts happen? If you guessed the 13th, 14th, or 15th centuries, you’re too early. Major European witch hunts did not begin until the Early Modern Period, between 1550 and 1700.

Witch trials were not common during the Middle Ages. Some religious leaders, such as Pope Gregory VII, did not believe in witches and requested that people did not search for them. But others still believed in witchcraft. In 1487, clergyman Heinrich Kramer wrote the infamous Malleus Maleficarum which explained how to spot and condemn a witch.