Even though history is, in theory, a fixed and unchangeable field of study, in practice it evolves all the time. Things and events that we were sure to have happened can be turned on their head by a single archaeological discovery or a reinterpretation based on new facts.
It is after these changes in historical perspective that certain notions, myths, and misconceptions stick around. In other cases, however, it could just be that not so historically accurate movies have created them as such for dramatic effect. Whatever the case may be, we are here to set the records straight for 10 of them…
10. The Viking Name
The Norsemen, more commonly known as the Vikings, were a group of peoples from Northern Europe, particularly the Scandinavian Penninsula, Denmark, and Iceland. They made a name for themselves from the 8th to 11th centuries AD mostly by pillaging, enslaving, but also trading with other European and Middle Eastern peoples.
The most common misconception about the Vikings is in regard to their very name. The term Viking didn’t appear in the English language until the middle of the 19th century. There are several possible origins for the term; the most widely accepted being that it came from vikingr, an Old Norse term meaning to raid or piracy. A similar theory proposes that the term Vikings refers to men rowing in shifts.
What’s more, the Norsemen had different names to the different people they came in contact with. The Germans knew them as the Ascomanni (ashmen), the Irish knew them as Lochlannach (lake people), while the Slavs, Byzantines, and Arabs know them as the Rus. The fact of the matter is that we don’t really know what they called themselves. Nevertheless, the Vikings that ended up living in Ireland began calling themselves Ostmen (east men) at some point.
9. Napoleon Was Short
There’s a common misconception that Napoleon Bonaparte was really short in stature. This myth is so ingrained in today’s collective consciousness that we even have a psychological issue named after it: the Napoleon Complex. This type of inferiority complex manifests itself in some shorter people, particularly men, where they feel the need to overcompensate by exhibiting aggressive and/or domineering social behavior.
As far as the actual Napoleon was concerned, he was 5-foot-2, to be exact. That’s not particularly tall. But the fact of the matter is that he wasn’t shorter than the average Frenchman from the late 18th and early 19th centuries. So, why all the fuss about his height, then? The answer lies in the difference between the measuring systems of France and England at the time. Both nations used inches in their measurements, but the French inch was longer than its British counterpart.
In reality, Napoleon was 5-foot-6 in British inches and 5-foot-2 in French. At some point, a confusion was made, and people started believing that Napoleon was 5-foot-2 in British inches. To make matters worse, Napoleon was often surrounded by taller guards, making him seem smaller by comparison. But the Imperial Guard had height requirements, which account for Napoleon’s by-name of le petit caporal or the little corporal.
8. Benjamin Franklin Discovered Electricity
Many people around the world are under the misconception that Benjamin Franklin discovered electricity during his famous Kite Experiment. And while Franklin was a renowned scientist of his time with an interest in many areas of study and an inventor of many things, such as bifocal glasses, he did not discover electricity.
In fact, scientists of the 17th century had been experimenting with static electricity. What Benjamin Franklin did, however, was to prove that electricity had both positive and negative elements and that lightning was, in fact, a type of electricity. His initial idea for the experiment was to use a 30-foot rod. But after two years, he decided on the silk kite, instead. Little did he know at the time, however, that a French naturalist by the name Thomas-Francois Dalibard did conduct the experiment as Franklin originally intended — on May 10, 1752, just one month before Franklin. Dalibard concluded that Franklin’s hypothesis was right.
7. Peasants Ignited the French Revolution
Revolutions are almost always idealized as an event in a nation’s history where the lower class people took up arms against a brutish and authoritarian regime. Yet, as history has shown us time and time again, for a revolution to be successful, it oftentimes requires more than just the peasantry. The same thing can also be said about the French Revolution of 1789.
Explaining the actual causes and how the revolution went down is something way beyond the scope of this list. Nevertheless, the common “knowledge” is that impoverished people began the revolution. There were several notable uprisings prior to the revolution, when the people of Paris rebelled against the government. But every time, the middle class prevented things from degenerating further. In 1789, however, things were different. The middle class and lower nobility, themselves — dissatisfied with the high taxes and levels of corruption — joined the commoners. Thus, sealing the fate of the French monarchy.
6. Hernan Cortes and the Aztec Empire
At its height during the early 16th century, the Aztec Empire managed to cover much of what is now central Mexico. It encompassed an area of over 52,000 square miles and a population of around 11 million. Though relatively young, the Mesoamerican nation managed to gather a lot of wealth and expand its reach in a short amount of time. This, however, also attracted a lot of hatred from the people they subjugated, as well as the attention of the Europeans stationed in Cuba.
Hearing reports of strange stone monuments and brightly dressed and golden-covered natives on the mainland, the Spanish Governor of Cuba, Diego Velasquez, organized an expedition comprised of a fleet of 11 ships, 500 soldiers, and 100 sailors. At the head of this expedition was Hernan Cortes. And even though the expedition was later canceled, Cortes sailed to the mainland anyway.
The historical myth surrounding Hernan Cortes is that he, alongside his men, managed to bring the mighty Aztec Empire to its knees all by themselves. Truth be told, they were sporting state-of-the-art weapons such as crossbows, steel swords, guns, pikes, cannons, and full plate armor. They also had horses, something which the natives had never encountered before. All of these weapons made the Spanish hundreds, if not thousands of years ahead technologically, proving their worth time and time again on the battlefield — mainly as morale breakers for the enemy.
Nevertheless, this would not have been enough to bring down an Empire — let alone in a timespan of just three years. It was by employing the help of several subjugated tribes and their armies, as well as smallpox that was introduced several years earlier that managed to do the job — alongside Cortez and his heavily-armed men, of course.
5. Richard the Lionheart was English
Richard I of England, later known as Richard the Lionheart, was born on September 8, 1157 in Oxford. He was the son of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. Second only to Henry VIII, Richard I was among the most famous kings of England. Among his most notable achievements was his involvement during the Third Crusade (1189-1192) alongside Frederick I Barbarossa, King of Germany and Holy Roman Emperor, and Philip II of France.
The campaign was ultimately a failure, with the Crusaders not being able to take the Holy City of Jerusalem. There were, however, several victories along the way, most notably the capture of the city of Messina in Sicily, the capture of the island of Cyprus, the capture of Acre in what is now present-day Israel, and the Battle of Arsuf. Though not able to fulfill its intended objective, the Crusade created a Christian foothold in the Middle Eastern mainland.
Even though he was born in England, Richard the Lionheart became the Duke of Aquitaine and Count of Poitou at age 11 — both in France. Among Richard’s other deeds were two rebellions against his own father, after which he became sole heir of the Kingdom of England, as well as Normandy, Maine, and Aquitaine. He died in 1199, leading a siege at the age of 42, and throughout his life he only set foot in the British Isles twice for a total of six months. He never learned how to speak English and, prior to the crusade, he emptied the Crown’s coffers and sold off many lands and titles in preparation for the campaign.
People, by and large, have a fairly idealistic view of history. Many of us like to think that the past was a simpler, nicer, and overall better time. But this is a common misconception so deeply ingrained into our common consciousness that even historians sometimes have trouble distancing themselves from it. Many of us oftentimes forget just how war-ridden the world was or how little access most people had to so many things that we take for granted today.
The purpose of history is, or should be, to examine events and systems in the most objective way possible. To see what worked and what didn’t, and how we can use those things to improve the future. History shouldn’t be about keeping score or grudges, nor should we look at it through a nostalgic lens so as to better fit with our idealistic point of view.
One example of this is chivalry. Popularized by numerous medieval and modern novels, stories, and epic poems, chivalrous knights are often seen as valiant, noble, courteous men, defined by their high-minded consideration, particularly towards women. Yet, the reality is quite different. The origins of the term and concept stem back to the 10th century France. It was introduced by the church as an attempt at regulating the endemic violence in French society. The term comes from chevalier, or knight, which in turn, derives from cheval, or horse.
In reality, these knights were quite violent, with numerous accounts of sacking and pillaging towns, villages, monasteries, as well as regularly committing acts of murder, torture, rape, and so on. In short, chivalry evolved to become somewhat of a code of conduct in warfare and had almost nothing to do with what we now consider chivalrous today.
3. The Infamous Vomitoriums
According to popular culture, a vomitorium was a room in Ancient Rome where Romans would go to purge during feasts so as to continue gorging themselves and make room for more. But while the actual Romans did love their food and drink, the purpose of the vomitorium was a completely different one that had nothing to do with vomiting.
For the actual Romans of old, vomitoriums were the entrances and exits to stadiums, arenas, and theaters. They were dubbed as such by the Roman writer and philosopher Ambrosius Theodosius Macrobius in his work entitled Saturnalia. He called them this based on how these exits spewed crowds of people onto the streets.
It was sometime during the late 19th and early 20th centuries when the term was reintroduced with its wrong connotations. In his 1923 novel Antic Hay, author Aldous Huxley writes about vomitoriums as literal places for people to vomit.
2. Vincent van Gogh Cut off His Own Ear
Many people around the world have seen Vincent van Gogh’s Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear. He painted it shortly after returning from the hospital in 1889. The official version of the story is that, in a fit of madness, the disturbed Dutch painter severed his left earlobe with a razor blade shortly before Christmas 1888. He then wrapped it in a pieced of newspaper or cloth, walked to a nearby brothel and handed it to a prostitute, who immediately fainted.
He then went back home, went to sleep and almost bled to death before the police found him the next morning in a blood-drenched bed. Being unconscious, he was taken to the hospital. When he woke up, van Gogh asked for his friend, the French artist Paul Gauguin, who refused to see him.
Nevertheless, two German historians have proposed a different version of events. The two argued that, after reviewing numerous witness accounts and letters, the official story had plenty of inconsistencies. Their interpretation points to Paul Gauguin, van Gogh’s friend, who was a keen fencer and, during a heated argument, lopped off his earlobe with a sword. The two made a so-called pact of silence where Gauguin was looking to avoid prosecution while van Gogh wanted to keep his friend, with whom he was infatuated.
A somewhat recent discovery, however, seems to disprove (or at least significantly alter) both the original version and the one proposed by the two German historians. A letter written by Dr. Felix Rey explains in full detail the extent of the wounds. As it turns out, the entire left ear was sliced off, not just the earlobe, as it was previously assumed.
1. Emperor Nero Played the Fiddle as Rome Burned
For an entire week in 64 AD, the citizens of Ancient Rome watched helplessly as their city burned to the ground. As with many similar tragedies, ordinary people who’ve lost everything often look for someone to blame. Old stories say that Nero, himself, set fire to the city, after which he climbed on the city walls and began playing the fiddle and reciting long-lost poems about the destruction of Troy. Truth be told, Emperor Nero was not a particularly good man. Going from cruelty to incest, murder, and the like, Nero is considered by many to be the Biblical Antichrist.
But when it comes to the fire of 64 AD, Nero didn’t sit idly by or play his instrument as the city burned. He was actually at his Palace in Antium when the fire began. When news reached him, Nero rushed back to the city where he personally coordinated the firefighting efforts during the first night. He also opened all public buildings and his own private gardens to act as temporary shelters. In addition, Nero imported grain from all nearby cities and offered it to the citizens at only a fraction of the cost.