William the Conqueror

8 Myths About the Middle Ages

1. People only ate with their hands.

It was the Middle Ages, not the Stone Age. Utensils had been around for a long time, and while medieval people did eat with their hands, they used utensils too. Some of them probably preferred to slurp their soup from the bowl, but others used spoons for that. Spoons were also used for convenience on items that were harder to pick up by hand, like oats and other grains.

Likewise, knives and daggers were used to carve up foods to make them easier to swallow. The image of messy medieval feasters chewing huge hunks of meat while grease runs down their chins is a myth. Table manners were just as important then as they are now, if not more so.

Interestingly, forks weren’t used that much. Since eating with one’s hands was considered both acceptable and normal, people who used forks were looked upon as “dirty” because their hands weren’t clean enough to be used for eating.

2. People didn’t wash their hands before eating.

Although utensils were used, hands were still the primary instrument for eating. Not only is there historical evidence showing that medieval people washed, but it also makes sense. Just as you wouldn’t want to use a fork with three-week-old food on it, medieval people didn’t want to use dirty hands.

At feasts, the host would usually provide bowls of water, sometimes perfumed, for his or her guests to cleanse themselves. This was considered an act of hospitality and common courtesy. Failure to provide water or to cleanse oneself were viewed as rude.

Commoners were also concerned with cleanliness, and they frequently washed their hands in water before eating.

3. People often ate turkey legs.

We can thank renaissance fairs and pop culture for this one, but it is, unfortunately, false. The reason is very simple: turkey is indigenous to North America and was not domesticated and brought back to Europe until the 16th and 17th centuries. Medieval people used other meats, such as pork and fish, in their dishes.

4. English nobles spoke English.

Map of English lands in France
English lands (red & orange) in France (blue) at the height of English power in continental Europe

Technically speaking, this is true. Noblemen and courtiers living in England could speak English, but it wasn’t used in official business until 1362. Instead, business was conducted in French. Similarly, many nobles preferred to use French for personal matters and day-to-day life. The use of French stems from the fact that the medieval English kings (and many nobles) were actually Frenchmen who held lands in France as well as England.

It all started when William, duke of Normandy, invaded England in 1066 to assert his claim on the English throne. He won, and he and his nobles took over the country, but they still considered themselves Frenchmen. That mentality continued for centuries as English kings gained land and power in French territory.

William the Conqueror
William the Conqueror: “Hey, Harold, the throne belongs to me.”
Harold II
Harold II of England: “No, Will, it doesn’t.”

5. Every member of the Knights Templar wore white.

TV and movies are at fault for this one. While it’s true that knights of the Templar order wore white, other members usually didn’t. The knights were a tremendous minority among the Templars, since the order also consisted of the far more numerous sergeants, clerks, priests, and lay brothers. Members who weren’t knights typically wore black or brown, more along the lines of what monks wore during that time.

6. Knights wore full plate armor into battle.

Gothic Plate
Gothic plate: Elegant, strong, and totally not a thing for most of the Middle Ages

This was true from about 1400 onward, when the technique for making plate armor had been developed; however, that’s only a fraction of the Middle Ages. While knights were known for wearing pieces of plate mail into battle, full plate armor suits weren’t common until much later. Knights’ actual armor varied from person to person, but chainmail and padding were quite popular with many. In those cases, pieces of armor could also be worn to cover the legs and arms, and helmets were common.

7. Vikings wore horned helmets.

If you’ve ever worn a large hat, you probably know that it’s easily knocked off if you bump it into things. In the chaos of battle, there are numerous things for a warrior to bump into and numerous other warriors trying to bump their weapons into his (or her) head. A helmet with huge horns is highly impractical and easy to knock off in a fight, which is pretty undesirable in protective headgear. Securing it to the head with straps would be similarly dangerous. There is zero historical evidence that Vikings ever wore silly hats, and it’s logically insensible.

8. People only lived until about the age of 40.

It’s true that the average medieval life expectancy was 40, but saying that most people died at that age is incorrect. We get this statistic because of the massive infant mortality rate during the Middle Ages. Families had many children (sometimes as many as ten or more), but because medical technology was unsophisticated, many children died while very young. Even though people who survived to adulthood could live into their sixties and their seventies, many children didn’t survive to adulthood, which is what drags this statistic down.

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2 thoughts on “8 Myths About the Middle Ages

  1. Terry Pratchett posited the idea of ‘Lies to children’. This was the idea that it was easier to present images and concepts which were easier to understand and explain in words that would fit the attention span of children.

    The point you make about Hollywood being responsible for these errors may be because lies to children become so settled in the mind that those of a creative bent often pass them on in their work. I am reading the Shardlake series of Medieval murder mysteries and this seems to be realistic but I am sure there are errors even in these books.

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    1. Thanks for stopping by!

      I absolutely agree with that interpretation of childhood education. It’s important that we make things understandable for them, but I often wonder if we sacrifice too much detail and truth to make things easier.

      I think you’re right about Hollywood and pop culture too. At times, I catch myself making similar historical errors in my fiction pieces, and I even know better!

      Like

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