Fake History – WIF Myths and Misconceptions

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Historic Myths

and Misconceptions

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.

4. Chivalry

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.


Fake History –

WIF Myths and Misconceptions

Weather Winds of Change – WIF Historical Switcharoos

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When Weather Changes

the Course of History

Everyday weather has a tremendous impact on day to day life. While it generally tends to just slow down our commutes or affect our picnic plans, extreme weather can flip the tides of a war or bring a civilization to its knees. Mother Nature doesn’t take sides, and the world as we know it would look awfully different if not for her interventions.

10. The Kamikazes

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The divine winds we’re talking about here aren’t the suicide pilots of WWII, but the powerful monsoons that shook Japan’s coast in the 13th century. Genghis Khan’s grandson, Kublai Khan, had taken the throne of the Mongol Empire, defeated southern China and united the country under the newly formed Yuan Dynasty. He then set his sights on the islands of Japan.

After several unanswered attempts to persuade the Japanese Emperor to surrender, Kublai amassed a large force and attacked. In 1274 he began his offensive with 40,000 men and 900 ships. Leaving the Korean peninsula, they arrived at the southern tip of the island of Kyushu and came face to face with 10,000 samurai. The Japanese bushido style of combat was utterly unsuited to fighting the Mongols, but a powerful typhoon struck the coast and destroyed the attackers’ fleet and most of the army.

Seven years later, Kublai Khan brought together an even larger force of 140,000 soldiers and 4400 vessels to take the islands once and for all. Mother Nature intervened again,wrecking all but a couple of hundred ships in a furious storm. The survivors were little match for the better prepared Japanese.

9. The Battle for Long Island

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During the American Revolutionary War, General George Washington was leading 19,000 troops in the defense of New York City in the summer of 1776. After the British left Boston in March, they arrived at Staten Island and made their headquarters there in July. Over the following weeks their numbers bolstered to up to 40,000.

Not sure where they would attack first, Washington left half his forces in lower Manhattan and moved the rest to Brooklyn and Guam Heights on Long Island. On the 22nd of August, the British landed in Gravesend Bay. Thanks to loyalist informants, the attackers discovered an unprotected path through the Guam Heights that would take them right into the heart of the American forces. On the 27th, the British charged the defenders, who quickly realized their dire situation and began their retreat to Brooklyn.

Under the cover of darkness and with the help of some locals, the Americans managed to slip away unnoticed to Manhattan via the East River. The British, stationed only a few hundred yards away, were totally unaware because of a dense fog which settled on the bay in the early hours of that morning. Eyewitness accounts mention George Washington being among the last to retreat. If it wasn’t for that mist, chances are that General Washington would have been captured and the war would have taken a very different turn.

8. The Mayan Decline

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The Mayan civilization was one of the most prominent Mesoamerican cultures. Existing as early as 1800 BC, they reached their peak around 800 AD. During this time they built over 40 cities and mastered mathematics, astronomy and calendar keeping. They also practiced agriculture, but in a slash-and-burn style that cultivated mostly corn, beans and squash.

After around 900 AD, little evidence of other advancements exist and most oftheir cities were abandoned. Historians are still unsure what happened, with some blaming civil unrest or warfare. More recent evidence points to long periods of drought brought on by heavy deforestation — since most of the Yucatan peninsula relied heavily on rain for its water supply, a drought can spell disaster and bring even the mighty Maya to their knees.

7. Attempts to Invade Russia

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We think by now the Russians are accustomed to the idea that pretty much no one can invade their country. With the exception of the Mongols, who successfully conquered Russia in the beginning of the 13th century, no other force was able to do so thanks to the extremely harsh winters the region experiences almost every year.

The first to try was King Charles XII of Sweden in the winter of 1708-9 during “the Great Northern War.” He led a sizable force from Saxony to conquer Moscow, but was stopped in his tracks because of the losses sustained during one of the coldest winters in modern European history.

The same thing happened to Napoleon in 1812. Of his 600,000 men only about 100,000 managed to return to France, while the rest died of starvation or exposure to the elements. This defeat, inflicted in part by the Russians and in part by Mother Nature herself, changed the course of history.

Adolf Hitler apparently forgot the lessons taught by the aforementioned leaders,since he made the same mistake. In the winter of 1941, German forces trying to conquer Moscow and Stalingrad were all but wiped out by the bitter cold and constant attacks from the Soviets. This marked the beginning of the end for the Third Reich.

6. Donora Smog Disaster

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In the late days of October 1948, disaster struck the town of Donora,Pennsylvania. A weather phenomenon known as “air inversion” hit the town due to a flux of cold air coming from the west. Located within a valley and surrounded by peaks towering some 400 feet, Donora offered the perfect conditions for an inversion.

The phenomenon on its own isn’t dangerous. It blocks warm air close to the ground, while cold air flows above and a thick mist is generated. But mixing this trapped warm air with pollutants from a zinc smelting plant, steel mills, a sulphuric acid plant, coal burning steam locomotives and river boats isdangerous. 20 people died and another 6000 became ill because the pollutants couldn’t escape into the upper atmosphere. The Donorans were unknowingly breathing in large amounts of sulfur dioxide, soluble sulphants and fluorides.

The events led to a settlement of $250,000 for the victims’ families and the steel mill closing nine years later. The companies that owned the plants never assumed responsibility for the disaster, claiming it was “an act of God.” Nevertheless, it sparked a nationwide response, leading to the enactment of theClean Air Act and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.

5. Cold Weather and Witch Hunts

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All throughout the Middle Ages, people were torturing and burning women at the stake in the belief that they were witches. Women and girls were accused when something out of the ordinary happened in a village, and accusations of witchcraft were also a good way to address personal disputes and rivalries.

Another possible motive involves the weather. Witch hunts took place in part between the 15th and 18th centuries, during which the sun was covered with multiple sun spots that created a time of colder weather known as a “little ice age.Young girls accused of controlling the weather provided the perfect scapegoats for crop failures. This could be a coincidence, but the pattern repeated itself during the Salem witch hunts, when another cold spell lasted from 1680 to 1730. Some diaries and sermons dating from that period offer further evidence that the weather was the main cause for the prosecutions. And it’s repeating itself again in Tanzania, when women are killed for witchcraft after too much or too little rain.

4. The Hindenburg

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While it’s been long believed that the Hindenburg disaster was the cause of technical malfunction caused by an engine spark which ignited the highly flammable and possibly leaking hydrogen inside the zeppelin, some recent evidence may have proven otherwise. Leaving Germany, the Hindenburg began a three day journey towards New Jersey. After reaching its destination on May 6, 1937, the airship suddenly caught fire and plunged to the ground just when it was beginning landing operations. After just a couple of minutes and 36 casualties, the era of the blimp was over.

Other possible theories involve a lightning strike and even a saboteur’s bomb trying to destabilize the Nazi regime, but recent findings suggest that a storm theHindenburg flew past on its way to the States is to blame. When it came across this storm, the airship was charged with static electricity. When it started to land it was grounded, which produced a spark that ignited the excess hydrogen built up in the back of the ship.

3. The Evacuation of Dunkirk

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During the early stages of World War II, when Axis forces were winning battle after battle on all fronts, a force of about 330,000 Allied soldiers found themselves trapped on the beaches of the English Channel near the town of Dunkirk. Bearing down on them were German forces looking to finish off the stranded French and British troops.

To make the situation even bleaker, an effective rescue was next to impossible since the German Air Force was far bigger than the Royal Air Force, meaning rescue ships would have simply been blown out of the water. Then, as Nazi tanks were only 20 miles away, what Winston Churchill called a “miracle of deliverance” appeared as if from nowhere. A freak storm cloud and heavy rain kept the German planes grounded, while to aid the Allies further Mother Nature brought along heavy mist and some of the calmest waters the English Channel had ever seen.

From May 26 to June 4, 1940, Operation Dynamo saw everyone from the military to locals with boats capable of traversing the Channel evacuate soldiers. As the last men were ferried to safety the weather cleared, leaving the Germans alone on the beach and the Allies alive to fight another day.

2. The Challenger Space Shuttle

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73 seconds into her flight, the Challenger came apart on the morning of January 28, 1986. The initial launch date was set for the 22nd, but bad weather and technical difficulties pushed the date to the 28th. What at first baffled engineers and technicians working on the mission became clear when they saw the video recordings.

As the shuttle was taking off, hot gas was leaking due to a faulty O-ring made of rubber that was designed to keep a joint in the booster rocket sealed. The ring failed because of the low temperatures Florida was experiencing that morning. A recommendation was written to not launch in temperatures below 53 F, but the suggestion was ignored. January 28, 1986 is still the record holder for the lowest temperature in the area, with 26 degrees compared to an average of 50.

1. The French Revolution

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The French Revolution was largely an economic and food related uprising. France, already burdened by the aid they offered the Americans in the Revolutionary War, was experiencing a series of droughts and other weather that lowered food production significantly.

The previously mentioned little ice age had more severe effects during the second half of the century, and together with an eight month volcanic eruption in Iceland in 1783 and some major temperature fluctuations brought on by a major El Nino event made crop yields plummet. This led to increased prices in food that French citizens couldn’t afford. A series of hailstorms that destroyed crops in 1788 made the situation even worse for the hungry populace, and the Revolution soon followed.

Weather Winds of Change

– WIF Historical Switcharoos