Five Common Misconceptions About the Middle Ages

No matter how interested you are in history, you probably have still heard a lot about the Dark Ages, but much of that information, even the stuff you learned back in school, is actually fiction. Here are five commonly held beliefs about the Middle Ages that aren’t actually fact. Note: While the specific time period coverd by the term the "Middle Ages" (also called the "Dark Ages" and the "Medieval period") can vary, in this article, they refer to the years 500 - 1500 A.D.

Medieval Doctors Weren’t Completely In the Dark

When most people think of medieval doctors, they tend to think of barbarians whose only solution to problems was to bleed the victim until the problem went away or until the patient died. While its true that the doctors of the time were operating under the Greek concept of humours, that have since been proven wrong, that doesn’t mean that doctors of the time were totally inept or that there were no improvements to medicine made until the Renaissance. In fact, the idea of doctors needing to attend a University was first developed during this period and those who wished to become a Doctor of Medicine would need to go through ten years of higher education in order to qualify.

During the Crusades, European and Islamic doctors began exchanging techniques and while it’s easy to think that the Westerners got the advantage in this trade, there was still useful information traded from both sides. In fact, it was the European doctors who taught Middle Eastern practitioners that wound infections could be successfully treated with vinegar.

During the early Middle Ages, surgery was considered to be less important than the practice of other medicines, but as time progressed, surgery started to earn a much higher regard. By the fourteenth century, doctors had discovered a number of innovations in the field including the use of antiseptics to prevent infections and anesthesia made from opiates and herbs to help patients through the procedure. Additionally, hospitals were first developed during this period, originally operating as hostels for travelers, clinics for the injured and homes for the disabled. Italy led the trend of hospital building and, by the end of the fourteenth century, Florence had thirty hospitals within its boundaries.

In England and France, most hospitals were established in Monasteries, where monks would help care for sick travelers and victims of chronic diseases and plagues. So next time you end up needing to visit the hospital, get better, and then remember you have those alleged bumbling fools of medieval doctors to thank not only for the treatment center, but also for the idea that doctors should be well-educated before they are allowed to start serving the public.


Bad Hygiene Wasn’t Actually Common

For years, stories have been circulating that the average person of the Dark Ages would only bathe once a year and that the reason brides carried bouquets was to help them ward off the gross smell of the guests at their wedding, but really, people of the time had pretty decent hygiene. In castles, the wealthy would have a tub with a stool in it so they could sit and bathe for long periods of time.

Many castles also had a special room next door to the kitchen that was exclusively for bathing parties. While the poorer populace may not have had their own tubs inside their home, they still could visit the public baths in the city or bathe in rivers or lakes near their home. In fact, bathing didn’t fall out of fashion until the Renaissance, when it was believed that water could carry disease.

So there’s a good chance that a peasant from the thirteenth century actually smelled a lot better than Leonardo da Vinci. Their clothes didn’t smell horribly either, laundry soap was introduced from the Orient in the early Middle Ages and while clothing did go unwashed in the freezing winters, as soon as spring hit, laundresses went out in droves washing clothes on the local river banks.

Sources: Gode Cookery and Wikipedia

Spices Weren’t Used to Hide the Flavor of Rotten Meat

No doubt you’ve heard tales of spices being so important to people of this time period in part because it helped them hide the flavor of their rotting meat dinners, but really, even peasants at fresher meat than we do today. Because there was no refrigeration, when an animal was slaughtered or hunted, it would be divided between the parties consuming it and then eaten completely within the next few days.

When the meat did need to be preserved, it would be dried, smoked, brine-soaked and salt-packed to protect its freshness. It would never just be allowed to rot, only to be eaten anyway. Besides, it would take a ton of spices to hide that kind of rancid flavor and spices were far too valuable to waste on something like that. Not to mention, eating rotten meat would still make people sick just as it would today.


Most “Medieval” Torture Devices Were Anything But

Most people consider Medieval Times to be a brutal and cruel era, filled with war and torture. But while there may have been plenty of war during the period, most of our ideas about torture from the Dark Ages are actually based on fiction. There certainly were inquisitions and tortures going on during the period, but many devices we picture being used on the victims were actually created in the 18th century for the purpose of attracting people to newly built torture museums.

Notable fictional torture devices of the era include iron maidens, Judas Cradles, the rack and the Pear of Anguish. To be fair, the rack and the pear were both actually used as torture devices at some point, just not during the Dark Ages. In fact, the pear, which people commonly claim was used to mutilate the genitals, was actually far less gruesome than you think as it was never used in any orifice but the mouth. Yes, jaw breaking is painful and horrible, but still far less terrible than using the device on anything down south.

Sources: Wikipedia #1, #2, #3 and Live Science Image Via Flominator [Wikipedia]

Chastity Belts Weren’t Even Invented Yet

Another popular display at torture museums are chastity belts, although they are not technically torture devices. They also were not invented until the Renaissance and weren’t widely used until the Victorian Era, when they were presented as an anti-masturbatory device to prevent the wearer from touching his or her genitals, which was believed at the time to cause insanity. The metal, scary ones seen at the museums though aren’t even of this variety. Like the Iron Maidens, they were completely made up as a fun attraction for museums to display.

The early Renaissance ones were fitted with padding on the metal to prevent chaffing and they also weren’t used for long periods of time as modern myths would have you believe.

Source Image Via Stevenj [Wikipedia]

For those of you that are into history, I’m sure you know plenty more myths about the Middle Ages, so feel free to share some of your favorites in the comments. Also, for those of you interested in learning more, I'd highly recommend checking out Terry Jones' Medieval Lives series. While some of the "facts" he presents are still being debated on by historians, it's still a fascinating look at alternative views of the time period.

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Very interesting! I love myth-busting articles. Regarding the Pear of Anguish, I have to disagree with the author on one point: I think the actual use (in the mouth, to break the jaw) actually sounds far worse than the fictional use in the nether regions.
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I'd always considered the Dark Ages to be approximately 500-1000 and the Middle Ages to be 1000 to 1500, but perhaps that's because British history is neatly divided by the Norman conquest of 1066. I had no idea that many of the things we assume were around in those days were later inventions. I recently saw a series of TV programmes showing that personal hygiene actually got worse over the years as people stopped bathing themselves as often (public baths came to be seen as vulgar) and covered the dirt on their bodies with clean clothes instead.
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Another very common misconception is the belief that everyone at the time thought the world was flat and they were afraid of "falling off the edge".. People back then were less educated, but they were not stupid or blind. Even the ancient Greeks figured out that the world was round by measuring the length and direction of shadows at different locations at the same time of time. Also, anybody who watched a ship sail over the horizon could figure out that the earth had some curvature. The ancients and the medievals knew the earth was round, although they vastly under-calculated it's size.
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It's also a misconception that women had no rights in the middle ages. There were plenty of working women int he middle ages and they had healthy sexual lives too. Actually, in the Renaissance is when women's rights went downhill, and they were repressed sexually.
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