History is for the most part not a mystery. Chronicles, legends, ruins, artifacts, and other forms of evidence have given us a pretty solid grasp of what happened in previous centuries. We know who fought which battle where and when, who ruled which country, who invented which device, who lived where, and who married which king and when.
And then sometimes we find out that we were wrong.
It isn't a common occurrence: most of our knowledge about the past is based on hard evidence. No amount of scientific innovation is going to change the date of the Battle of Vimy Ridge
or the number of people who died in the sinking of the RMS Empress of Ireland
. But some of what we believe to be sound historical fact is based on soft and sometimes unreliable evidence - hearsay, legends, traditions, opinions that have gone unchallenged due only to respect for authority and / or a lack of dissenting voices, reasoning based on data too fragmented to be unambiguous, and occasionally outright forgeries. When new discoveries or new methods of investigation or even new opinions on an event lead to the original belief being discredited among historians, the writer who based his work on contemporary history can be unfairly left looking like he skimped on the research
As you might guess, the more distant the subject in time the more likely this trope will come into play. We know more about any given day during World War II
than we do about the entire reign of the Egyptian pharaoh Khufu (better known as Cheops), for instance.
Compare Science Marches On
for when the same thing happens in science.
This trope is NOT for Alternate History
stories where the writer deliberately subverts historical fact to explore the possibilities of a new timeline. Examples where a writer simply didn't know better should go in Hollywood History
. Examples where a writer deliberately misstates history to make it more palatable go in Politically Correct History
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- One of the first complete Neanderthal skeletons discovered is that of a male with a twisted, bent spine, a wasted lower jaw, and a pronounced hunchback. Archaeologists assumed this was a typical Neanderthal skeleton, which led to the popular view of Neanderthals as hunchbacked, chinless knuckle-draggers. Recent analysis has indicated, however, that the individual in question was probably well over sixty years old and suffered from severe arthritis and bone wastage.note Most skeletons found since suggest that a Neanderthal would likely look very similar to a modern human (although they wouldn't be winning any beauty contests). Well-known works based in part on the old trope include Isaac Asimov's short story The Ugly Little Boy and numerous cartoons from Gary Larson's The Far Side.
- Jean Auel resurrected the arthritic old man, named him Creb, and made him a great shaman-priest and Ayla's adoptive father in Clan Of The Cave Bear.
- It has also been assumed that Neanderthals couldn't speak, or that their ability to articulate was very limited, because the all-important hyoid bone was not found in any of the skeletons until 1983. Writers like Auel who wanted to portray them as intelligent usually had them use a sophisticated Hand Signals language. Now, it turns out they had hyoid bones all along.
- In fact, it's likely that the modern human's version of the FOX P2 gene came from Neanderthals.
- Later analysis of their vocal tracts have shown that they would not be capable of human speech, however, meaning they would sound rather strange to us.
- The Ugly Little Boy was expanded into a novel where one of the doctors goes into a detailed lecture about the hyoid bone. The Neanderthals are portrayed as having a language with click consonants, while Timmy learns to speak English — it just sounds a little blurry.
- On a similar note, the infamous Piltdown man, despite being correctly guessed as a fake the year after its "discovery" and several times afterwards, wasn't completely discredited until four decades later. One of the main reasons being that many people of European descent, including respected scientists, simply couldn't fathom or palate that humanity's ancestor could have originated some place other than Europe or its near vicinity, much less Darkest Africa.
- For a long time, it was accepted history that the end of the Bronze Age was brought on by the discovery of iron smelting in Asia Minor, with the discovering tribes promptly sending their 4/3 Legions to curbstomp everybody else's 1/2 Phalanxes. Later archaeological evidence demonstrates little proof of such a conquest event occuring; while there is no overriding theory as to what caused Bronze Age states such as Mycaenaean Greece to collapse (or ones such as Egypt to not collapse), it's now believed that iron metallurgy was adopted as a localized replacement for increasingly rare bronze tools. Copper and tin are almost never found in the same geographic areas, and bronze metallurgy depended upon a healthy trade network, whereas iron is the most abundant element that people at that time can get and use (and 2nd most abundant metal on Earth, behind Aluminum). To early adopters, due to primitive metallurgy, iron made softer, inferior tools and weapons compared to bronze; better bloomeries, higher smelting temperatures, and the ability to carburize wrought iron into steel would be discovered later and totally change the equation.
- Quite a few historians are now speculating that (non-meteoric) iron tools and weapons were actually developed concurrently with bronze ones. A number of copper ores also contain iron, and a furnace capable of melting copper is also at a temperature capable of reducing iron ore to metallic iron in the presence of carbon monoxide. Iron tools found in bogs in Northern Europe have been dated to the middle of the Bronze Age, and bronze swords have been found with iron inlays in the handle. Bronze may have simply been used because it's prettier, and indicative of a far-reaching trade network.
- A popular belief of early modern times was that Europeans could be divided into two groups: "fair" Europeans from the north, known for rationality, intelligence, hard work, and integrity, and "swarthy" Europeans from the south, known for laziness, dishonesty, greed, and stupidity. Racial "scientists" later subdivided the swarthy Europeans into Mediterraneans and Alpines, the first of which was said to be creatively Brilliant but Lazy and shiftless, and the second stupid, plodding peasants. Despite the skepticism of most mainstream anthropologists and historians, the Nordic "master race" theory became a cornerstone of Nazism. Less horrifically, it also shows up in much of the fiction of the time: Conan the Barbarian might be the best-known example. Of course, we now know that Nordicism is bunk: not only do we now know that "Nordics" did not arise in Scandinavia (which was the last area of Continental Europe to be peopled), we also know that the various "fair" Northern Europeans aren't particularly closely related to each other.
- In fact all of the West Eurasians (A much broader group then just Europeans)are closely related to each other: skin color and pigmentation variations are rather recent and can't be used to indicate relatedness/lack-of-relatedness.
- Historians generally just assumed that the pyramids were built by slaves, since they couldn't imagine anyone working at such a difficult, back-breaking job voluntarily. This theory was exploded when archaeologists discovered contracts and other evidence showing that the pyramid builders were almost all free men. Historians now suspect that the pyramids were not just tombs but also enormous public works projects intended in part to give underemployed farmers something to do in the off seasonnote . Currently, the general idea seems to be that the builders were free men, but not doing the labor voluntarily — the government was taking their taxes in the form of labor rather than money or goods. Furthermore, they were building temples to their gods - and that might qualify them to be treated better in the afterlife. Still, virtually every movie set in Ancient Egypt gets this one wrong.
- While there is still some serious dissent from this interpretation of the historical evidence, the Egyptians won't let anyone who claims otherwise go poking around the ruins for counterevidence. Though now, with the Arab Spring and Zahi Havass being removed from Antiquities Minister post, this might finally change.
- The Ancient Astronauts hypothesis has also been thoroughly disproven. The idea was that these early civilizations were too primitive — and for primitive read "stupid" — to build anything that sophisticated. The blueprints have been found, along with graffiti on the stones indicating that the builders treated their work as a team sport.
- Conventional historical wisdom had it that Hatshepsut was a wicked stepmother who stole the Egyptian throne from Thutmose III, the legitimate heir (and her nephew, son-in-law, and stepson), and had herself crowned King of Egypt. She supposedly allowed Thutmose to control the army but otherwise ruled the country with an iron hand until her death despite Thutmose being a competent adult for most of her reign. The proof? After Hatshepsut's death, Thutmose walled up all her inscriptions, tore down her statues, and obliterated her name from the histories - clearly, a sign of someone who had finally had enough of a meddling mother-in-law. Putting aside for the moment how unlikely it would be for a woman to stage a successful palace coup in 1514 BC when her opponent had complete control of the military, it was discovered in the 1990s that Thutmose didn't even begin to obliterate Hatshepsut from the historical record until twenty years after she died. Historians now think that Hatshepsut and Thutmose were friendly allies who ruled as co-monarchs, and that the elderly Thutmose or his son walled up her inscriptions because even decades after her death the people saw her as a more legitimate ruler than Thutmose. This has also put a few thorns into the common belief that Thutmose was Egypt's most successful and best-loved ruler. The trope is the basis of Pauline Gedge's novel Child of the Morning.
- The supposed conflict even had some historians theorizing that Thutmose had arranged Hatshepsut's murder. Recent tests on her mummy show however that she likely died of cancer that either formed in the liver or spread there from an unknown primary location. There was also a flask of skin lotion found with her whose contents included benzopyrene, a potent carcinogen sometimes found in traditional eczema preparations.
- Paintings dating back to the reign of Akhenaten (Amenhotep IV) show the "heretic king" with a large, flabby belly, unusually wide hips, and other features not often seen on healthy adult men. Until very recently it was assumed that these paintings portrayed Akhenaten accurately and that his unusual body shape was likely a result of either an intersex state or birth defects caused by generations of inbreeding. CT scans of his mummy, though, reveal that he was neither intersex nor deformed in any way. Historians now think that the body differences shown on the paintings were totemic - in other words, that Akhenaten was portrayed that way for religious purposes.
- Likewise, his disestablishment of the state religion and proclamation of Aten as the one and only true God has been portrayed as a New Age revelation just short of Crystal Spires and Togas, a beneficent proto-Christianity, the inspiration for monotheistic Judaism, a megalomaniac's delusions, or even something his mom put him up to for political reasons. The most popular theory among historians was that it was due more to a feeling that the traditional gods had deserted Egypt (not only had the country endured a massive earthquake and tsunami but also a long series of pandemics) coupled with Akhenaten's desire to wrest power from the priests of Amun.
- X-ray evidence showing splinters of bone inside Tutankhamen's skull once led historians to believe that the pharaoh was murdered by his vizier, Ay, as part of a palace coup. Scans years later of the mummy using modern diagnostic imaging devices have proved that the skull was splintered from the inside after death, probably as part of the mummification process, and that Tutankhamen likely died from a massive infection arising from a fractured leg (this does not disprove that Ay killed him, of course, but it does make it less likely — broken bones were not necessarily fatal even at that point in time). This mistake has shown up not just in novels but also in a few Video Games.
- And is something of a plot point in The Egyptian.
- And even newer evidence from DNA sequencing finds that Tut was the product of Brother/Sister incest, had malaria, and, if he had lived longer, would have developed a serious bone disease. Examination of his skeleton showed that unlike his father Akhenaten, Tutankhamen was deformed from inbreeding, by a club foot and slight cleft palate and overbite.
- It was also originally assumed that Tutankhamen's reign couldn't possibly have been of any real significance, simply because he died at such a young age. That was before it was verified that he was Akhenaten's son, and thus took the throne during one of the most tumultuous periods of Egyptian history. The fact that his reign was the one in which worship of Amun was restored means, even if he personally did very little, his reign really did have an impact.
- Most historians now doubt that Judah and Israel were ever a single united kingdom under the House of David (or Saul, or a confederation under the loose rule of the Judges). Considering that the source material was for many years considered too sacred to question...
- Closer examination of said source material demonstrates that even the contemporary authors themselves were aware of infighting among the ancient Jews. Most of the blame can be laid at the feet of those who gloss over such things in the quest to find good allegories that fit the message they want to deliver in Sunday school.
- Similarly, differences between the northern and southern Jewish kingdoms are thought to explain the story of the Jewish Exodus. There's little to no credible evidence of the entire population of Hebrews being enslaved in Egyptnote . Later attempts to integrate this fact with the book of Exodus involved smaller groups either as hostages or mercenaries, or groups of commoners escaping famine conditions. The present historical thesis is that the entire story is political grandstanding; the earliest written accounts of the Exodus were found in the northern kingdom of Israel. While the southern kingdom of Judah was an Egyptian client state, Israel instead allied itself with Egypt's Mesopotamian rivals.
- The final redaction date for the Torah has continually moved forward, from earlier than 1000 B.C. (the alleged time of Moses, and the rise of the Kohanim priests), to the Deuteronomical revival of king Josiah of Judah in circa 600 B.C.. Some historians even believe that the Torah didn't reach it's final form until the Babylonian captivity (beginning some 20 years after Josiah's death, and lasting about 50-60 years). Similarly, the prominence of Jerusalemnote and the preeminence of monotheism over henotheismnote have been moved to later and later points in history to square them with archaeological and documentary evidence.
- The census which led to Joseph's journey to Bethlehem (and the birth of Jesus in same city) has no documentation in historical Roman records. Nor does it particularly make any sense by Roman standards (requiring Jews to travel to the city of a distant ancestor would have involved separating them from every quantifiable source of income, making such a census useless for tax purposes; the Roman censuses we know of involved census takers traveling from city to city instead of the reverse). The earliest known Gospel by modern standard, the Book of Mark (the book of Matthew was once considered older, but that in and of itself is another History Marches On), begins with Jesus' baptism and ministry and completely ignores his life prior to that. In the modern day, the Nativity story is often thought of as a literary device to ensure Jesus' birth in Bethlehem (the city of David, ancient king of Israel and presumed ancestor of the Jewish Messiah) despite his lifelong association with the city of Nazareth in Galilee.
- Recent archaeological findings in Bethlehem cast doubt on whether Bethlehem even existed at the time of Jesus' birth, leading some to argue that he might have been born in Bethlehem of Galilee, which would have made slightly more sense since that village is closer to Nazareth than Bethlehem of Judah.
- Similarly, Jesus is only ever described as a tekton - a Greek word that simply means "worker". The idea that he was a carpenter arose largely because his father Joseph was a woodworker and most people assumed he taught Jesus his trade. "Our Savior the Carpenter" sounds more noble than "Our Savior the Itinerant Worker", which is what many believe the historical Jesus to have been. Other theologians argue that considering Jesus never made any references to carpentry in his teachings but did talk quite a bit about stones, he may have been a stonemason instead.
- The Synoptic Problem, as briefly mentioned above. Basically, the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke (the "synoptic" gospels, meaning "same eye"), all agree on the basic structure of Jesus' life, and contain much material (the Triple Tradition; almost all of which is the "biographical" portion of the three Gospels) that is the same word-for-word. In addition, there is a considerable amount of other material that is shared between Matthew and Luke, but not Mark (the "Double Tradition"; this is mostly "sayings", among them the Lord's Prayer and the Beatitudes). The problem, so to speak, is attempting to determine which of the Gospels came first, and whether the other two knew of each other. In the 5th century, St. Augustine of Hippo proposed a hypothesis that Matthew was the first of the three written, Mark was an edited version, and Luke copied from both of them. This is still the official position of the Roman Catholic Church (due to the tradition of the Book of Matthew being written by one of the Apostles), and the ordering of the Gospels in modern Bibles comes from this hypothesis. Many scholars would later come to reject the theory citing Mark's overall shortness, relatively crude Greek, and the fact that Matthew and Luke don't really seem to agree on anything outside of the common material, and often interpret the common material in different ways. Several other theories about the order have been proposed over the years, with the current majority behind the "two source" hypothesis: the book of Mark came first, and the books of Matthew and Luke copied independently from Mark and a hypothetical "sayings" source, often referred to as "Q."
- This can often go the other way too. People thought that Balthazar from the book of Daniel was made up, until historical research unearthed that he was King Narbondius' son and co-regent of Babylon. While his father went out to face Cyrus' army, Balthazar stayed behind to fortify the city. Cue the writing on the wall.
- The discovery of the Nag Hammadi Library in the late 1940s really shook up the world's image of the early history of Christianity, as they contained the scriptures of a long-extinct sect of Christianity called the Gnostics, who had a radically different view of God and Jesus than traditional Christianity. These sources also contained several Apocryphal texts — gospels that failed to make the final cut and weren't included in the Bible.
- Gnostic views were known long before, it's just that much of the prior knowledge came from second-hand sources like Orthodox writers bashing Gnosticism. The discovery let the historians to have a first-hand account instead.
- Conversely, the notion of "Pauline" Christianity coming into prominence very late after Jesus' death and squashing differing accounts is also considered apocryphal by most historians. While Gnosticism, Nestorianism, Arianism, and other alternative approaches to Christianity certainly did exist, they only really obtained prominence outside of the Mediterranean "civilized" world, and were swallowed up by orthodox movements (or later, Islam), with very little incident as later migrations brought those peoples into the Roman sphere. In a similar vein, the Gospel of John (and the linked Epistles I, II and III John) was often thought to have supported a dualist Gnostic worldview; discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls (which, contrary to common knowledge, contain no New Testament works or anything at all related to Christianity) suggests John was instead using rhetorical devices similar to those used by the Essenes.
- Related to Ancient Egypt, the Jews were never enslaved as a group in Egypt. Archeology shows Jewish tribes migrating out of Canaan, with the primary difference between early Jewish and Canaanite sites being a lack of bones from animals the Jews consider unclean. Backing this up is the lack of evidence in Egypt of a mass enslavement of the Jews. It has also been found that at the time some Jews believe these events to have occurred, Egypt controlled the land that the Jews had been said to have fled to.
- First of all, Columbus was not the first European to make landfall on the Americas. The Vikings beat him there by some five hundred years. And the Chukchi people had been crossing from Alaska to Chukotka (part of NE Asia) for millennia, across the Bering Sea.
- Currently anthropological and genetic evidence point to America actually being populated, originally, by people who entered from Asia. Theories for the route include the Beringian land bridge — at certain points in the ice age, there wasn't any Bering strait — and the seacoast south of the land bridge.
- There is even some evidence to support that Native Americans actually crossed the Atlantic as early as 60 BC.
- The complete lack of anybody other than Native Americans — no, not even Vikings — living in the Americas when Columbus arrived didn't stop racist Europeans from declaring that no Native Americans could have built the Mesoamerican pyramids or the Mississippian mounds. No, they must have been a "lost race." Even attributing them to "Giant Jewish Toltec Vikings"note was considered more plausible than admitting that Native Americans built them. Such racist notions were finally discredited by 20th-century scientific archaeology.
- Secondly, in the Medieval times, people not only knew Earth was roundnote , they knew (and had known since the Hellenistic era) roughly how big it was. Columbus, however, got that wrong. He underestimated the size of the globe and overestimated the size of Asia, so that the distance that he predicted between Europe and Asia was much shorter than in reality. (That's why all those monarchs before Isabella refused to fund him: they were right and he was wrong.) He and his sailors would have died en route if not for his big stroke of luck: an entirely unknown land mass at just about the distance from Europe that he predicted. What makes it worse is that he really should have known he was wrong. The very method ships used to navigate are not just based on the fact the world is round, but they also give really good estimates of how big the world is. Although in his defense they work best for latitude, not longitude, so maybe to him the world was cigar shaped?
- Some claim that Columbus didn't so much get the size of the globe "wrong" as "shaved a third of the established value off to make it a better sell."
- This particular theory is used in Orson Scott Card's novel Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus, which describes Columbus desperately looking at ancient records to try to find "proof" that his size of Earth was the correct one. He is pretty obviously shown to be disregarding any piece of evidence to the contrary. Interestingly, the novel shows that by the time he brought his case before the Spanish royal court, his case was solid enough to rival the established proof, leaving the tie-breaker up to the Queen, whom he convinced by his sheer piety. Also, according to the novel, Columbus thought he was looking for China, not India, because a hologram sent from the future and pretending to be God told him to.
- People who want to strip Columbus of his usual heroic portrayal risk falling for the opposite fallacy and labeling him an idiot. In these cases, pointing and laughing at the "fact" that he confused the Caribbean with India and its inhabitants with Indians is common. In reality, however, Columbus didn't sail in search of a route to India, but The Indies, which is how East Asia (China and the Spice Islands, i.e. Indonesia) was called in Europe at the time (hence why after America was confirmed as a new continent Indonesia was called the East Indies and the Caribbean the West Indies, which is the appellation that survives today). In fact, when Columbus first made landfall in the Bahamas he assumed he was in an island close (but not even in) what Europeans called "Cipango" - Japan. A very honest mistake to make given the current European knowledge of Asian geography, since the Bahamas are at the same latitude as Taiwan and they don't even look that different from the Okinawa archipelago.
- Alejo Carpentier's novel El Arpa y la Sombra proposes that Columbus knew of the Viking's travels, so he knew he'll find new lands, and he used the wrong size on purpose to get financement for the expedition and return a hero for the discovery.
- Despite the modern associations with the word, Gothic architecture wasn't at all that dark; churches used to be painted bright colours, and there was plenty of light. After centuries, the paint faded away and everything was covered in grime and dust and the colours were lost. Emulators in later centuries built buildings that looked like the old churches ended up looking, with all the gloomyness and intimidation that entails, that wasn't originally even there.
- Actually one of the properties of Gothic cathedral structure was big windows (between pillars). Big windows means a lot of light. At least, until you go a hundred years or so between window cleanings. Modern tourists have been known to complain after a cathedral gets its stained glass windows washed because it's "too bright".
- The Dark Ages weren't nearly as backwards as Renaissance and Enlightenment scholars claimed. Even the phrases "Dark Ages" and "Middle Ages" are going out of style: both were invented by the same scholars to emphasize the glory of the ancient world and the nobility of the scholars who reached for it, in comparison to the ignorant fools who laughed at their theories, yes, laughed, but they'll show them, they'll show them all. Historians are now more likely to use the phrases "early medieval" and "late medieval" ("medieval" is derived from the Latin for "middle age", so you have to wonder if it just sounds cooler).
- Those Renaissance scholars and especially the enlightened scholars apparently put in a lot of work to 'prove' how little books had been written in the Middle Ages: by throwing away anything written in that time-period. Later researchers bought into the propaganda and genuinely believed nothing of note was written during Medieval times. They also introduced the idea of Medieval people being obsessed with religion when it seems they were mostly pretty laid-back about the whole thing. It was the Renaissance people who were the overly religious nutjobs (keep in mind they were the ones who cared enough to break off from the mother church).
- The supposed fall of Western culture was once thought in part to have been caused by a series of massive tribal migrations collectively known as the "Volkerwanderung". Specific examples included the migrations of the Saxons, Angles and Jutes to England; the Lombards into Italy; the Vandals and Visigoths into Spain; and the Franks into northern France. The belief was that these tribal migrations displaced the original inhabitants of these areas, sending them into less hospitable areas (such as the supposed "Celtic fringe" of the British Isles) and disrupting cultural progress. But DNA comparisons of ancient and modern peoples show very little evidence that the Volkerwanderung ever occurred; modern Englishmen, for instance, are far more closely related to ancient Britons (and to modern Scots, Irish, and Welshmen) than they are to modern Saxons. This DNA evidence is so new that historians are still grappling with the implications, but one possibility is that the Volkerwanderung only displaced the elite - about 0.5% of the population in most areas - leaving the bulk of the population unaffected except by the consequent cultural changes.
- Another theory is that people did move, but only a little, with people abandoning their old homes but resettling close-by. It does indeed seem that the massive relocations all over Europe that historians once saw as fact never really occurred.
- One of the strangest results of the recent DNA comparisons is the discovery that Europe contains two genetic outliers - two ethnic groups that are less closely related to Europeans in general than others. One, not surprisingly, is the Finns, who trace their origins back to what is now Asian Russia. The other? The Italians, who have less in common genetically with the Spanish, Romanians, French, etc. than do groups that were never part of the Roman Empire (such as the Ukrainians or the Irish). Nobody has yet come up with an explanation for this seemingly impossible result.
- This comes up over and over again in archaeology: Some researchers seem to believe the only way ideas and cultural influence can spread is via conquest. For example, older literature quite often gives the impression that the whole of the Neolithic was one giant exercise in cultural imperialism as zealous farmers left North Africa and the Middle East en masse to convert the rest of humanity from their hunter-gatherer ways.
- Likewise, the view popularized by Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe of plucky "English" commoners still resisting their "Norman" overlords a century or two after the conquest has likewise been shown to be hogwash - but that doesn't stop it showing up in most Robin Hood adaptations, where the Sheriff's soldiers are referred to as Normans to make it OK for Robin to kill and wound them. The idea either dates to the Hundred Years War, when Henry V's propagandists started to play up an imaginary antagonism with France (despite Henry's whole claim in that war being based on his being, you know, a member of the French royal family), or to the Reformation, when it was even more useful to play up a nationalist narrative.
- Such was the strength of this, incorrect, legend, people were referencing the 'Norman yoke' which had supposedly derailed incontrovertible English freedoms as justifications for rebellion in the 17th century. There was no sense of Norman and non-Norman by then, but it was a handy reason to demand more rights. Walter Scott was clearly on a well trodden path when he penned his work.
- The fact that the Norman/Saxon distinction eventually evaporated as they blended together doesn't mean that the "Norman yoke" of, say, William the Conqueror didn't exist or that the Conquest wasn't a loss of English freedoms. See the "Harrying of the North".
- And the fact that in the Robin Hood story, the Merry Men long for the return of "Good King Richard" to return and oust the evil Norman usurper, John. Richard was John's brother, so, presumably, a Norman as well!
- For centuries it was assumed that Europe's first introduction to plague (the Black Death) was in 1348-1350, when roughly one-third of the population died. Nobody knows exactly when plague arrived in Europe for the first time, but recent scholarship suggests that plague was behind many ancient epidemics, including the Plague of Justinian and the pandemics that affected Egypt in the time of Amenhotep III and Greece in classical times.
- Plague can infect people in three ways: through the lymph system ("bubonic plague"), through the lungs ("pneumonic plague"), and through the bloodstream ("septicemic plague"). Most of the descriptions handed down to us by medieval doctors describe bubonic plague, so it was once thought that it was the most common form; many people even today think that "bubonic plague" is the correct name for the disease. But the main reason doctors described bubonic plague so often was because bubonic plague victims lived long enough for the doctor to arrive, unlike victims of pneumonic and septicemic plague who generally died within hours of the first symptoms. Meanwhile, evidence from the 20th century plague pandemic supports the idea that pneumonic plague is actually slightly more common than bubonic.
- Even today, it's common (see above) to describe the Black Death pandemic as having "started" with the arrival of plague-carrying rodents in Europe. In fact, by that point in time it'd already ravaged the Middle East and much of Asia, killing an estimated 25 million people in China alone.
- Everybody Knows That people in the Middle Ages loved to burn witches — it was like their version of the movies. Go into town, do some shopping, and then stop to watch some witch burnings. Good times. Except this is another of the things manufactured by later philosophers to elevate their own times over the so-called Dark Ages. The medieval Catholic Church actually considered it heresy to believe in witches — that's right, accusing a woman of witchcraft would likely get you in trouble. It was only late in the Middle Ages when the Church declared witches to be real, and it's the supposedly enlightened Renaissance and Reformation when the witch burning craze took off. Incidentally, burning was primarily a continental thing — in Britain (and Salem, Massachusetts) the punishment was hanging.
- Witchhunts were in fact a very Protestant thing during the Reformation, while the Catholic world remained generally apathetic about it (the main exception being France). So if you are planning to follow Dan Brown and write a story about poor girls being rounded and burned by the Corrupt Church because they are feminists ahead of their time that know the truth about Mary Magdalene, consider that for example, the entire number of witches burned by the terrible Spanish Inquisition was 12. In a single trial in 1609 directed by a French inquisitor that was sacked after it, and after which the whole existence of witchcraft was declared bollocks by his superiors. Essentially the Inquisition was too busy killing Jews and Protestants to bother with peasant superstition.
- The Spanish Inquisition actually spent very little time killing Protestants and "crypto-Jews/Muslims" and did spend most of their time correcting peasant superstitions. Because the Church in Spain was reformed 20 years before Luther, and all of Luther's works were banned, Protestantism never really spread to Spain. Instead the Inquisition spent most of the latter half of the Sixteenth century correcting folk superstitions in rural Spain (and not by torture, amazingly enough). It's true they were a surprisingly small organisation with little effect outside the cities in which the minority of the population lived. Most (approx 70%) of the cases brought before the Inquisition dealt with lapses of morality and general sexual misconduct, and most of those concerned ordinary Spanish people. The other 30% dealt with charges of religious ignorance which they strove to correct. Roughly 3% would concern people brought up on full charges of heresy and fewer still were burnt. The Inquisition sought primarily to educate ordinary people about and uphold the faith, not to go around burning witches and heretics. That said, we have no idea how many people in Portugal, Castile and Aragon were tried and hanged as witches by local authorities and nobles acting under their own jurisdictions. The number could be in the thousands, but the records simply don't exist.
- Contrary to popular belief, witches were hunted not by Inquisition (that was formed to fight heresy) but by the local, secular authorities as witchcraft was a common crime like murder, assault or theft. Inquisitorial courts actually had no jurisdiction in such cases, unless the witch was also accused of belonging to a heretical cult (which was their jurisdiction).
- The Inquisition was the first judicial body in Europe to have established rules of evidence, recognize an insanity plea, ban arbitrary punishments, and dismiss anonymous accusations. It was actually closer to modern jurisprudence than most secular courts of the Middle Ages and Early Modern periods.
- They also believed that the accuser held the burden of proof, whereas most secular governments at the time required the accused to prove their own innocence.
- Joan of Arc, by the way, was not burned as a witch. Her crime was relapsed heresy, having to do not with her voices but with her cross-dressing. She signed something promising she would never again do so, then her captors stole her skirt and replaced it with pants; it was either that or go naked. Anyway, her real crime was leading the French to victory, anything else they accused her with was just an excuse.
- In fact, the vast majority of "accepted knowledge" about the Medieval period has turned out to be patently untrue - as it was heavily based on the accounts of Protestant and Enlightenment writers, who would fabricate information or present hearsay as fact to advance their point of view. The Middle Ages (as known by historians nowadays) were a colourful epoch, sporting many significant advancements in science, a lot of cultural crosstalk (Gothic architecture, almost synonymous with the Middle Ages, was inspired by Indian and Arab/Muslim building styles) and not nearly as much dirt as later accounts would have you believe. The problem is that Reneissance writers - whom most accounts of Middle Ages were originally based on - considered the entire epoch between Antiquity and them to be just like recent history - and recent history was Black Death and Hundred Years' War. Several myths still endure, but several popular history books have now been published which popularize the scholarly view of the matter.
- Indeed, Early (10-13 centuries) and High Middle Ages (14-15 centuries) could be called a times of prosperity, and some retaking of the Roman heritage (the deed the Renaissance authors were so proud of) already started to happen. But then the Black Death arrived, and with it a whole host of new wars and plight, that ended that nascent boom.
- The media following King Solomon's Mines that feature lost and always foreign civilizations in the mists of Darkest Africa have their roots in the plain racist interpretation of Great Zimbabwe after its discovery by Europeans in the late 19th century, that stated the place was "too advanced" to have been built by "obviously primitive" Black Africans. This view was debunked as early as 1905.
- When the far-right white-minority regime came to power in Rhodesia, they promoted the myth of Great Zimbabwe as having been built by a "lost" White civilization to the extent that archaeologists excavating there had their work interfered with by the government who were keen to suppress anything which contradicted the official story.
- The Benin Bronzes were apparently also the subject of crackpot "lost civilization" nonsense by European racists who refused to believe that they had been created by Africans.
- Also, Great Zimbabwe wasn't as much discovered by Europeans in the late 19th century as "re"discovered. The place had been visited and documented plenty by the Portuguese in the 16th century, when it wasn't abandoned yet, and there was even an unfortunate Englishman named Jonas Wright that travelled there during a civil war, in 1632, and was killed. Making Great Zimbabwe any mystery required a big deal of self delusion since the beginning. It wasn't the only time this happened in the history of European exploration in Africa: James Bruce's account of his "discovery" of the Blue Nile's source spends a few lines trying to convince the reader that two Iberian Jesuits who had been there more than a hundred years earlier, Pedro Páez and Jerónimo Lobo, totally weren't, when not plain insulting them. Unfortunately for Bruce, not even his nation's historians agree with him anymore.
- The mistaken belief that everyone in the Middle Ages believed that bathing was unhealthy is especially pervasive in modern times. In fact, there were public bathhouses throughout the Middle Ages, despite nudity taboos and opposition by liturgical factions. Bathing did not start to decline until the Protestant Reformation and the Renaissance, where there was a shift from woolen to the much easier to clean and maintain linen clothing, allowed for one who had not bathed to maintain a clean and well groomed appearance. That the decline in bathing saw a significant increase in the importance of laundry should also be noted.
- Related to this is the depiction of Vikings as a band of unwashed barbarians by medieval English writers. Scandinavian peoples at the time had a rather elaborate bathing culture: the unwashed, smelly appearance of Vikings was a result of them being an invading force, who had come there by ship, both of which were not conducive to hygiene.
- "Feudalism," once considered the defining characteristic of medieval government and society, is now considered to be an invention of historians. The notion of a pyramid of obligations linking king to lord to knight to commoner goes against many primary sources; kings held the allegiance of all their subjects, not simply as landlord to the most prominent ones, and the gifts and homages of the ruling class were an unkempt web of reciprocal obligations.
Renaissance and Early Modern Age
- Catherine de' Medici was one of the cruelest royals of the early Renaissance. She followed the (in retrospect, probably sarcastic and retroactive) advice of Machiavelli, to ensure that her husband and three of her sons ruled France; hundreds of noble and wealthy Frenchmen died either directly at her hand or otherwise. She even arranged for her son Charles to be sexually abused by courtiers in an unsuccessful attempt to turn him gay so that he would die childless and his younger brother Henry (whom she adored) would eventually become king. Given her deservedly bad reputation, it's not surprising that contemporaries in England blamed her for instigating the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre. Screeds called her a "Catholic bigot" who washed her hands in the blood of innocent Protestants. Modern historians, on the other hand, believe that the massacre was actually instigated by the Guise family, who feared Catherine's alliance with the Protestant Navarre family. But TV still holds on to the old belief, as can be seen in shows such as Elizabeth R, The Tudors, and Godfathers of the Renaissance.
- This one is a tough one to be sure of—accounts of the Massacre are something of a tangle, and the whole thing seems to have been a spur of the moment occurrence, not a carefully created plot, which makes figuring out who's responsible difficult. However, Catherine probably does bear the brunt of the blame for making the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre an honest to goodness Massacre. As for the Guises, contemporary accounts note that after (quite possibly accidentally) kicking the whole thing off by killing Admiral de Coligny, Henri, Duke of Guise went around placing Huguenots under his personal protection—further he was one of the only Catholic participants to apologize for the whole affair.
- Machiavelli, author of The Prince, was a staunch supporter of the concept of a free republic. Unfortunately The Prince was his only well-known piece for a long time. Now it is known that he was most likely a satirist, because that was his only pro-Medici screed, and after writing it, he went right back to writing pro-republic stories.
- He was also often portrayed as a cynical, somber and shrewd politician. Contemporary data, including his letters and works portray him rather as a very sociable satirist who also happened to be an observant historian and a good rhetor.
- Contemporaries viewed Lucrezia Borgia as a scheming, amoral poisoner who abetted her father and brother (Rodrigo and Cesare Borgia, respectively) in their Machiavellian plans to dominate Europe. This belief became even more prevalent in Victorian times, when the word "borgia" entered the dictionary as a synonym for "sadistic female poisoner". More recent scholarship has cast doubt on this belief, as there is no historical proof that Lucrezia herself ever harmed a flea, let alone committed multiple murders. If anything, Lucrezia's life might have been a lot easier if she had been a poisoner. It's thought now that Lucrezia was blamed by her contemporaries because unlike her less innocent relatives, she was a safe target.
- And then there's the Borgia's supposed poison, la cantarella, a potent yet undetectable brew whose formula could be adjusted so that the victim could die at any time the poisoner wished. Too bad it's not actually possible for such a poison to exist given the limitations of Renaissance science and the unpredictable response every individual will have to a specific toxin. Roderigo probably used plain old arsenic while Cesare and Giovanni disposed with subtlety, strangling their enemies and throwing them in the Tiber.
- Did we mention that the Borgias were no more murderous than any other prominent Italian family of the time? They got the bad rep because they were social climbers, not because they were especially evil or because their evil was hereditary. Which is a good thing for Tom Cruise, since Brooke Shields is a descendant of Lucrezia Borgia. Of course, that Shout-Out in The Prince certainly doesn't help...
- The fact that Borgias were Spanish also wasn't helping in getting sympathy from Italian aristocrats.
- The Spanish film Los Borgia shows that Lucrezia was only used as a way for the family to ally with powerful families, and then canceling those marriages when they weren't useful anymore.
- The recent biography The Borgias: The Hidden History by G.J. Meyer maintains there's actually no evidence that Pope Alexander VI had any children. Cesare, Lucrezia, and Juan were related to him somehow, but the family tree is tangled and records are uncertain. At at time when diplomats sent their masters every bit of gossip they could get their hands on, there's no contemporaneous record of the pope having a wife, a mistress, or children. Savonarola denounced the Borgias in general and Alexander in particular in the harshest possible terms and accused him of every kind of corruption imaginable, except sexual immorality.
- While there's still some debate over Richard III's overall character and culpability for certain actions (specifically the deaths of his nephews), this trope is in play for Richard's appearance. As part of the Historical Villain Upgrade he received from Tudor historians and playwrights, Richard was depicted as a deformed hunchback. Later historians tended to conclude that this description of his appearance was likely anti-Richard propaganda. However, when Richard's body was discovered in late 2012/early 2013, it was found that he actually did suffer from scoliosis and roundworms. His portrayal in Shakespeare complete with hunchback, withered arm and limp was more than just an exaggeration of his appearance - had he been as Shakespeare wrote, he wouldn't have been capable of mounting the horse he offered to trade his kingdom for - but the kernel of reality within the myth was there.
- The controversial reign of Henry VIII has engendered many myths about the King and his wives and children.
- Whig history has often depicted Henry as "Bluff King Hal", a jolly Falstaffian monarch whose general good cheer was interrupted only by the tragic necessity of sending his whoring wives to the Tower. In reality, however, Henry was a complex, mercurial hypochondriac with a horrific temper and a complete inability to accept criticism or see himself as he really was. In fact, it was his courtiers who were forced to display forced jolliness, lest Henry's formidable temper be directed against them. Some of his later reputation for bluffness may have been based on the fact that was apparently incapable of overt deceit. This may have been the case, but Henry's incapacity for deceit didn't make him bluff: it merely made him sneaky.
- It was also often said that Henry was unusual in that he had more wives than mistresses and was very attentive to his wives - at least before he divorced or beheaded them. Evidence from the Letters and Papers of Henry's reignnote tell a very different story: payoffs to numerous women, extravagant grants of land to his laundresses' bastard children ("extravagant" as in "more than a baron would normally receive"), and the like.
- Strangely, the same historians who claimed Henry was a paragon of devotion to his wives also claimed he suffered from syphilis, with the sore on his leg evidence of the infection. The Letters and Papers again tell a different story. Syphilis was the HIV of the early 16th century; it beggars belief that Henry's team of experienced, educated physicians would have missed the most obvious diagnosis of their time. But Henry's apothecary bills, which survived intact, show that Henry was never treated with any drug that would have at the time been used to fight syphilis. As for the sore on Henry's leg, there's some evidence that it was much worse than previously thought; instead of a single sore on one shin, both of Henry's lower legs were apparently covered in abscesses. Whether this was caused by a bone infection or by the combination of varicose veins and diabetes is anyone's guess.
- And then there are the myths about Henry's queens.
- Anne Boleyn gets the worst of it, being given a sixth finger, a projecting tooth, a facial defect, and a goitre in the late 16th century (and a third breast in the 20th courtesy of the egregious Book of Lists). None of this is contemporary, and in fact she was said even by her enemies to be attractive and sexy (if not conventionally beautiful). Had Anne suffered from any obvious defects she wouldn't have been sent to court in the first place, lest the Queen see her and conceive a deformed child; she'd likely have been shut up in a convent on her twelfth birthday. These myths show up frequently not just in popular culture but in the books of historians who should know better.note
- There's also some controversy over Anne's age. Historians long believed that Anne had been born in 1507, which sat well with Whigs who didn't think Henry would marry a woman much over 25 if he wanted to have children with her. But a letter written by Anne to her father from the court of Burgundy has now been definitively dated to 1513-1514. The content of the letter and, more importantly, the penmanship, make it all but certain that Anne was around 13 years of age when she wrote it, which pushes her date of birth back to around 1501. It may be that the 1507 date comes from a document where a "1" was misread as a "7", a common mistake at the time as much as today.
- Catherine of Aragon is often depicted as a typical dark Spaniard whose failure to bear a son was her "fault". But Catherine of Aragon had reddish-gold hair, blue eyes, and pale skin; not only were the Spanish upper classes of the time much paler than the common peoplenote (or modern Spaniards for that matter), but Catherine had English and French ancestry as a descendant of John of Gaunt. What's more, her reproductive difficulties may have been organic or psychiatric in partnote , but the horrific prenatal and perinatal care as practised in the Tudor court couldn't have helped.
- It's often claimed that Jane Seymour died after being delivered of the future Edward VI via Caesarian section. This myth sprung up very shortly after Edward's birth; there's even a Child Ballad about it. But there is no evidence of this either in the historical record or in the Letters and Papers; if Edward had been born via Caesarian, Jane wouldn't have survived the birth, let alone been seen by dozens the next day sitting up in bed healthy and hale. There would also be a surgeon's bill in the records, which there is not.
- Anne of Cleves's ugliness is an early myth propagated by Henry himself, who was enraged that she didn't recognize him when he showed up in a disguise at her lodgings. Courtiers who wrote home about the controversy said that Anne was perfectly pleasant-looking; one calls her Henry's most attractive queen to date. An X-ray of a painting of Anne shows that she may have had a longer nose than we in modern days would deem attractive, but in Tudor times a long, thin nose was a sign of royal blood. There is no contemporary evidence for Anne being ugly, pockmarked, or overweight.
- Catherine Howard was once assumed to be much older than she's now thought to have been at her death. Most historians had agreed that this painting◊ by Holbein currently in the Toledo Museum of Art was of Catherine, and that the notation proved that she had reached the age of 21 by the time of her arrest. However, research on the provenance of the painting has established that it was originally owned by the Cromwell family, who were exceptionally unlikely to have commissioned a painting of the queen involved in their downfall.note There's no consensus as to Catherine's date of birth, but there's a tendency to see her as much younger than tradition would have her: few historians believe she was over 20 at her execution, and many think she was as young as 16.
- Catherine Parr was often portrayed by Protestant historians as well-educated and fluent in Latin and Greek before she married Henry. Her recent biographers haven't found any evidence that she was particularly erudite, however. It appears that she only spoke English when she arrived at Henry's court in 1543, and taught herself Latin and Greek so she could read the Bible in its original. She may not have been educated, but if this is true she must have been highly intelligent.
- Edward VI, Henry's son and successor, is often said to have been a sickly child. But there's no proof of this: both courtiers and ambassadors privately wrote that (aside from one bout of fever) Prince Edward enjoyed rude good health until he caught measles in his teens. It was this infection that weakened his immune system and caused him to fall ill with a chest infection in 1553.
- It was once thought that Edward's last days were prolonged by the Duke of Northumberland (Jane Grey's father-in-law) feeding the tuberculous Edward a concoction containing arsenic (keeping him alive but in agony) until he agreed to write a will disinheriting his sisters in favour of Jane. This is sheer nonsense, from a medical standpoint as much as a historical one. For one thing, it's not certain that Edward had tuberculosis; for another, feeding a patient with terminal TB arsenic is immensely more likely to kill him immediately than to extend his life. Most importantly, though, we have Edward's notes on the matter, which make it clear that the idea to disinherit Mary and Elizabeth and put the staunchly Protestant, undeniably legitimate Jane on the throne was his own idea, and dated back to before his final illness.note His first intention was to limit the succession to Jane's sons, but he didn't survive long enough for Jane to have any.
- Mary I (Bloody Mary)'s most pervasive myth involves the nature of her false pregnancy. It was only in the early 20th century that the idea arose that Mary's condition was a "phantom pregnancy", but when it did arise historians and fiction writers ran with it. Current thinking, however, is that Mary had some kind of tumour that caused recurring abdominal swelling.note
- The myths surrounding Elizabeth I could take up their own page.
- Let's start with the "Virgin Queen". There's no evidence either way. There's certainly no evidence that she had sex with Robert Dudley. There's also no evidence that she was incapable of having children: the old myth that she was born without a vagina (or that she was a man!) is disproved by the numerous gynecological examinations she underwent as part of marriage negotiations, often in the presence of ambassadors who would not have been discreet after arriving home had anything shocking been discovered.
- It's known that while she was living with her stepmother Catherine Parr and her husband Thomas Seymour after Henry's death, she became embroiled in some kind of intimate relationship with Seymour. Some Whig historians blamed her for the liaison, claiming that since Tudor-era girls could marry at age 12, they must have been fully sexual adults at that age, and that Seymour was therefore the poor, poor, totally innocent victim of a sexually precocious Elizabeth. No wonder Catherine Parr sent her away! But not only is this a complete misreading of Tudor beliefs on marriage and child sexuality, it's one of the most obvious Whig victim-blaming exercises in the historical record. Even in Tudor times, a gentleman was supposed to be completely proper toward any young girl under his roof. He could offer honourable marriage to a ward unrelated to him by marriage or blood, but a stepdaughter was considered absolutely sacrosanct. Had his actions been better known to the general public at the time Seymour would have been loved about as much as Jimmy Savile is today, and for exactly the same reason. But it's only in the 21st century that historians have had the detachment to label Seymour's actions as the sexual abuse they most undoubtedly were.
- She didn't hate Catholics, although Catholic propagandists certainly hated her. Who she did hate were traitors, and virtually all of the plots against her were led by the Catholic faction in England.
- She was astonishingly intelligent - David Starkey regards her as a true genius on the level of Mozart - but she was neither a seer nor did she have a modern view of the world. She was superstitious and sometimes indecisive (although, again, not to the extent that Whig historians had her), and she had a temper.
- Contrary to sentimental biographers from Agnes Strickland on Elizabeth, unlike her half sister Mary, did not have a particularly unhappy childhood. She was not sent away in disgrace after Anne's execution, in fact Henry was seen playing with her and judged to 'love her very much' the Christmas after his marriage to Jane Seymour. Court sycophants praised the young Elizabeth to her father - which they certainly would not have had she been in disfavor. She seems to have spent time at court whenever there was a queen to chaperon her and was living there under the care of Katherine Parr during Henry's last years. While not of course close to her father evidence indicates she was neither neglected by him nor afraid of him. She admired and was proud of Henry and confident enough of his affection to ask him for favors.
- Louis XIV: Versailles, the palace where Louis XIV and his successors lived in wealth and decadence. Most adaptations depict it as a glamorous, elegant and classy place. However, to modern audiences, some of the behaviour the king and the nobility committed would seem extremely vulgar and undignified. For instance, people didn't bath often and our notion of hygiene was virtually nonexistent. For example, the living space assigned to most courtiers were extremely cramped so that the general atmosphere was less "lap of luxury" and more "NYC tenement house". Also, because of the general lack of bathrooms, people (both rich and poor) had to resort to answering the call of nature in the dark corners of stairwells and closets.
- The French Revolution decisively marked the beginning of the modern world but judging from most cultural depictions, it's quite rare to find any positive depictions about it, especially since a lot of it rests on sentimental misunderstandings of the original Reign of Terror which is almost never presented in its original context, a series of emergency laws to save France from Civil War and invasion. They also see the Terror as an abberation of the "real" revolution when it was during that period, that France abolished slavery for the first time in the Western World, that the Louvre and the Jardin des Plantes was opened to the public, that technological innovations in the metric system(with the legendary calendar created to align with it) and the Chappe Semaphore Telegraph developed and became instituted. The Terror also modernized the army thoroughly, by instituting meritocracy and giving careers to several Young Future Famous People of the Napoleonic Wars including Napoleon Bonaparte himself who would never have been given the Field Promotion had it not been for the army's reforms.
- It was originally thought that Useful Notes George III suffered from mental illness, probably caused either by inbreeding or immorality, since all crazy people at the time were thought to be immoral monsters. Historians are now fairly confident that George suffered from a blood disease called porphyria, since many of his descendants suffered from the condition and his symptoms were virtually textbook. Ironically, the type of porphyria George is thought to have suffered from is caused by one dominant gene, so inbreeding had nothing to do with it.
- When 1776 was written, not a lot of information about James Wilson was available. The playwrights looked at the writings they had, and tossed in a bit of Artistic License, creating a climax where his desire to remain a nobody is the crucial factor in him breaking with Dickinson and voting for independence. They note in the DVD Commentary that this story choice was never singled out by historians as a major misstep, but later findings show that James Wilson was actually a staunch proponent of independence, and that the delay in the vote which the play attributes to stalling techniques by Adams was partially due to Wilson wanting to go home and check that his constituents were all right with his vote.
- Like George III's porphyria, Queen Victoria's status as a carrier of hemophilia was also originally blamed on inbreeding. As is the case with George's porphyria, hemophilia is caused by a single mutated gene and is therefore not more common in inbred populations. The mutation is believed to have first occurred spontaneously in the gametes (=eggs/sperm) of either of Victoria's parents, making her the first person in her family ever to have the mutation. Thus, inbreeding would have absolutely nothing to do with it. If anything, it's interbreeding with Victoria's daughters that spread hemophilia to so many other nations' royals, whether they were previously related to her or not. American television shows love this trope, though.
- Speaking of inbreeding, historians are beginning to wonder if Victoria was really as closely related to her husband Albert as everyone assumed. They were supposed to be first cousins - Victoria's mother was sister to Albert's father - but German historians have pointed out that Albert was the spitting image of his mother's lover, Alexander von Hanstein, who was unrelated to the royal families of Germany. If this is the case, Victoria and Albert would have been fourth cousins - and fourth cousins share no more genes on average than any two unrelated persons.
- It's not at all certain but at least one alternative theory in recent years is that van Gogh was actually shot accidentally by someone else.
- Painters and musicians of the 18th and 19th century were captivated by Orientalism and especially by the concept of the Turkish harem. They were enraptured by the idea of hundreds of beautiful young concubines or "odalisques" loitering around in various states of undress, fawned on by cringing slaves and guarded by eunuchs, all existing solely for the pleasure of the Sultan. The best-known works influenced by this are probably Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Abduction from the Seraglio and Ingres's Grand Odalisque. We now know, of course, that the Real Life Turkish harem was very different from the imaginings of these artists; most inhabitants were older female relatives of the sultan or of previous sultans, and the concubines that did live in the harem were often left to wither on the branch, most sultans being either too old, too drunk, or too disinterested to make use of them. Even the term "odalisque" was used incorrectly: in Real Life odalisques were the slaves tasked with looking after the harem's older inhabitants, and were often chosen from the least attractive women at the slave market.
- Virtually every story of Irish immigration to America in the 19th century describes the many "No Irish Need Apply" signs that sprouted up in American cities, denying Irish immigrants the right to work and housing. There's no denying that the Irish, like all immigrant groups, were the subject of some pretty nasty prejudicesnote but the "No Irish Need Apply" signs? There's no evidence that they existed in the United States. The historian who examined the myth did find two want ads specifying that Irish not apply - that's two ads, both for household maids, in seventy years of American publishing - but every supposedly "historic" sign he was shown turned out to be a modern replica. (You can buy them on eBay should you feel the need to own one.) He thinks the belief was derived from a music-hall song called, unsurprisingly, "No Irish Need Apply", which was written about the situation in England in the late 1700s. Even then, nobody's sure if those signs really existed or were, again, another early urban legend.
- Of course, a sizable fraction of the immigrants in question were illiterate and/or monolingual in Gaeilge, so they couldn't have read a "No Irish Need Apply" sign in English if they had existed.
- The RMS Titanic sank on a dark, moonless night. Most survivors who had escaped in lifeboats thought they saw the ship sink in one piece, while the few survivors closer to the ship and struggling in the water to survive said they thought it broke in two. The inquiry into the sinking accepted that the survivors in lifeboats had a better vantage point, and it became accepted fact that the Titanic sank whole. In 1985, however, the ship was found on the ocean floor in two pieces, surrounded by a debris field that could only have been created by the two pieces separating at or near the surface. All movies about the sinking filmed before 1985 show the ship sinking whole (including A Night to Remember and the Nazi Titanic), while the ones made afterwards show it splitting up before sinking.
- And now there's speculation as to the extreme angle of the ship before it split, with many historians now claiming that it wasn't as high up as originally thought before it split in half. Not quite as exciting.
- And then there's the way it split. Analysis of the blueprints of the Olympic-class superliners suggests the Titanic likely broke apart from the bottom up, not from the top down. Also, a big chunk of broken-off hull was recently discovered on the seabed, beyond the main debris field.
- And now, yet more studies of both the debris fields have shown that it was indeed most likely a split from top down, as chunks of the ship from the area where the split happened have been found on the ocean floor. Also further investigation of the keel plates have shown damage caused by the bow pulling down, eventually pulling out the rivets.
- There was also the issue of the size of the wound the iceberg made. For years it was assumed that it had torn a gash in the side of the ship. Dr. Ballard's expedition proved that the iceberg actually caused the hull to buckle, forcing rivets to pop out and separate the steel plates.
- The wording of the British Enquiry report after the disaster may have been the source of this inaccuracy. Edward Wilding (chief naval architect for the company that built the Titanic) estimated based on the speed and location of the flooding that the iceberg made multiple small holes along a 300 foot length. However the final report only stated that the damage extended for 300 feet.
- On top of that, there's considerable debate over the quality of the steel used in her construction. Ever since it was found that the steel had a high sulfur contentnote , some at first thought that low-quality steel had been used in an attempt to cut costs. However, more recent evidence has come to light suggesting that not only was the steel of much higher quality, but it was also some of the highest quality steel available at the time. Unfortunately, the steel-manufacturing methods of the time hadn't quite yet gotten to the point of reducing the amount of sulfur content in steel...
- The bad quality might also be attributed to the enormous amount of steel needed, leading to subcontracting to unexperienced metal-workers.
- A 1981 episode of the Leonard Nimoy series In Search Of asks the question "Will we ever find the Titanic?" The answer turned out to be "yes" just four years later, making the episode date very quickly. And, of course, the experts interviewed for the show assumed the Titanic sank in one piece and the idea that it broke in half was not even suggested.
- Same goes for Clive Cussler's story Raise the Titanic!, which also assumed that the liner sank in one piece and was an honest mistake to make when the book was published in 1976. The film adaptation, while still grandfathered under the "they didn't know any better" clause, depicted the Titanic's salvaging in a more laughably inaccurate way, showing the ship to be almost 100% intact on resurfacing, right down to the perfectly-preserved skylight in the foyer.
- The views on the mysterious ship that, as some survivors caimed, passed in view of the Titanic without rendering help changed at least twice in the last hundred years. Initially it was assumed that this was the much maligned Californian, and her captain was harrassed until his very grave in the mid-Sixties, and then, just a couple years later there appeared a deathbed confession of an old Norwegian captain. He alleged that this ship might be a Norwegian whaling schooner Samson, where he served as a First Mate at the time, and the then Captain has sworn the crew to secrecy so not to damage the ship's reputation (they were poaching for seals in Canadian waters and mistook the sinking Titanic for a Coast Guard cutter). The story held for some years, until someone was bothered to check with the archives and found that at the day of the catastrophe the Samson actually was in Iceland, hunderds of miles from the place, so it still isn't known what the ship it was.
- Recent study of World War One era documents suggest that there never really was a "Schlieffen Plan". New writings from archives in the Soviet-controlled sector of Berlin have revealed no evidence to suggest that Count von Schlieffen had a rigid plan to defeat France within M-42 before turning on Russia. The Germans only moved into Belgium in 1914 because it was anticipated that the Entente would do so anyway.
- World War I, at least in Britain and the US. For decades, even historians who saw the war as worthwhile depicted Western Front generals like Douglas Haig and Sir John French as blundering incompetents wantonly sacrificing their men for little appreciable gain. This view was propagated by popular histories like Basil Liddell Hart's The History of the First World War and Alan Clark's The Donkeys, not to mention cultural depictions like Paths of Glory and Blackadder. More recent historians (Hew Strachan, Brian Bond) tend to emphasize the tactical and logistical difficulties confronted by Haig and Co., arguing in part that the war's unprecedented scale and new technologies (planes, tanks, gas) made it extraordinarily difficult for generals on either side to adapt. More extreme claims, like Haig's supposed obsession with cavalry, have been sharply revised. This is by no means a consensus view (see John Mosier and Denis Winter for opposing views), but analysis of WWI is less one-sided than it was even 20 years ago.
- Also, the long-ignored peripheral theaters (especially Britain's misadventures in the Middle East) have received a lot more attention in recent years than previous decades.
- It was speculated for decades that Russian Grand Duchess Anastasia survived the execution of her family by the Bolsheviks. This was the inspiration not just of two films titled Anastasia but also of numerous Real Life pretenders who claimed to be the Grand Duchess. Eventually, investigators were able to find and exhume the mass grave the family was buried in and proved conclusively through DNA testing that Anastasia was killed with her family in 1918.
- Even after the grave was discovered, there were still two bodies missing, that of Alexei (the only son) and either Anastasia or her sister Maria. However, in 2007, charred remains of a boy and girl were found nearby the mass grave, and in 2009 they were proven through DNA testing to be the bodies of Alexei and one of his sisters, proving definitively that all of the Romanov family was killed by the Bolsheviks.
- Remember Rasputin? The mad monk who was poisoned, beaten, and shot in the head four times before being thrown in the Neva River, and when they fished him out they discovered that he'd drowned? Turns out that the entire story was a tissue of lies. The autopsy report (which was discovered after the fall of the Iron Curtain) shows that Rasputin was shot in the head by a .455 Webley revolver, a gun normally issued at the time to British Secret Intelligence Service officers, and died instantly. There was no evidence of poison, no evidence of pre-mortem beating, and no evidence of drowning. Whether he was killed by the SIS or whether Prince Felix Yusupov, who had close ties to the British government, used a British gun to kill him, will probably never be known, but the entire story of poisoned cakes and wine and the indestructible mad monk seems to be a complete invention.
- It's also probably unwise to read too much into the murder weapon being standard issue to British intelligence agents, as well; in addition to being used in the service sidearm of The UK Armed Forces at the time, .455 Webley was in widespread use as a law enforcement, target and self-defence handgun calibre and could be purchased almost anywhere in Europe or Asia. And why would clandestine British agents use a weapon that could be linked to their home country?
- The truth about the poison was eventually elucidated by a posthumous letter from the Doctor Lazovert, who was in charge of providing the cyanide. At the last minute, he got cold feet, and provided instead some harmless substance.
- Oh, and the guy never was a monk. He was a lay preacher and a possible former member of a wacky para-Christian cult.
- T.E. Lawrence's reputation seems to shift with each passing decade. From the '20s through 1955 he was viewed as a Chaste Hero and military genius honorably serving both the British and his Arab allies. After Richard Aldington's Biographical Enquiry of 1955, he became viewed as some combination of Consummate Liar, Small Name, Big Ego and Depraved Homosexual. In the '60s it was common to depict him as an imperialist agent knowingly selling out the Arab rebels, based on a selective reading of declassified War Office files. From the '70s onward, biographies like John Mack's Prince Of Our Disorder focused on his psychosexual hangups and literary output. More recent volumes typically explore Lawrence's military and diplomatic achievements, framing them in light of recent events in the Middle East.
- Mussolini did not make the trains run on time. Even in his own time some observers (namely American journalist George Seldes) called Mussolini on this, but the myth persisted.
- Though that didn't stop him from lying about it.
- For a while after World War II, it was an assumption that Nazi Germany was efficiently-run because of its fast ascension from economic devastation to infamously cruel conqueror of Europe; in Star Trek: The Original Series episode "Patterns of Force", for instance, this view led a misguided historian to believe he could make it work without the ethical problems. Since then, however, a lot of evidence has drawn historians to the conclusion that the regime was full of internal corruption and egotistical rivalries, and about as (in)efficient as you might suspect an oversized bureaucracy to be.
- In many cases, even more inefficient: when the Nazi economy was looked at post-war, it was discovered that the country was on the verge of economic collapse prior to World War 2, which was delayed by the merger with Austria (providing some economic buffering), and delayed again by the bloodless conquest of Czechoslovakia, which was essentially looted. By 1939, without any other free targets to exploit to shore up the economy, military conquest was the only thing left preventing economic meltdown.
- The Gestapo was also portrayed as a ruthlessly efficient political police. In reality, they were constantly understaffed and overworked and could only count on helpful German citizens or paid informers in the occupied countries. Also, no intimidating black outfits — that was the SS (Schutzstaffel) who wore those. Being the members of secret police Gestapo officers usually operated in plain clothes; on rare occasions they wore unassuming gray police uniforms.
- As a demonstration of inefficiency, Goebbels wrote in his diary late in the war "we needed 240 000 people to occupy Romania, the Soviets manage fine with 4 NKVD divisions".
- German intelligence failed to notice such things like the plot to kill their own boss Reinhard Heydrich, the plot to kill Hitler and commit a coup and the real location of the Allied invasion.
- For decades, historians considered the 1933 Reichstag Fire a False Flag Operation designed to solidify Adolf Hitler's hold on power. Understandably, given the far greater crimes committed by Nazi Germany, relatively few questioned this claim. However, recent historians like Ian Kershaw and Richard Evans argue there's no evidence of Nazi complicity: Hitler merely took advantage of a crime committed by a Dutch Communist to stamp out opposition.
- One variant that frequently crops up in media (and politics) is the Guilty Men (a British anti-appeasement polemic written after the outbreak of war) interpretation of Neville Chamberlain and the appeasers in Britain and France - a small, craven, and idiotic clique that hijacked their nations in the 1930s. This interpretation was challenged as early as the 1960s by A.J.P Taylor, and current historical opinion is divided, with some historians saying appeasement was the right call, others saying that it was the right call but poorly executed, and a minority arguing that the British and French should have stood up to Germany when their military capacities were still limited. Almost all agree that the appeasers were men of compassion, humanity and courage, if - depending on interpretation - misguided. But try telling that to all the Films, Books, TV shows and political leaders who portray them as stupid cowards.
- Significantly, one important thing that's often left out is that Chamberlain quietly had his nation prepare for war even as he trumpeted the peace agreement; one modern interpretation is that he believed that his nation simply wasn't prepared for war yet, and was using the peace negotiations to stall for time while the country moved towards a war footing, with no real expectation that the peace would hold. There's also the not-insignificant fact that the last war with Germany cost over a million lives, and any option short of war would have looked good if the alternative was going through that again.
- And whatever Chamberlain's personal motives, it's undeniable that many British conservatives (most notoriously Edward VIII and Lord Halifax) were at least passively pro-Nazi, viewing Hitler as preferable to the USSR if not outright admirable.
- As another data point, consider that Franklin D. Roosevelt won the 1940 Presidential election in the United States on a "Peace ticket", promising that the US would not get involved in the growing wars overseas. And then, just like Chamberlain, immediately began ramping up the US Military, modernizing and expanding it considerably once his reelection was secured.
- One reason for the plethora of Stupid Jetpack Hitler conspiracy theories is that, for a long time after the war, it was believed that they Never Found the Body - the Germans radioed from the beginning that the Führer was dead, but they burned his body with Eva Braun's and buried them in an unmarked grave because Hitler feared that his remains would be desecrated by the enemy like it had happened to Benito Mussolini's. Various people put forward theories that he had survived, whilst most historians, such as William Shirer and Hugh Trevor-Roper, felt that it was more plausible that he had been buried in a mass grave (some even theorized, on good evidence, that he ended up in the Jewish cemetery). It didn't help that the Soviets also saw the propaganda value in claiming that the Western Allies were sheltering him. With the fall of the U.S.S.R, it has now become apparent that they did find the body, and even preserved skull and jaw fragments, which were confirmed by Hitler's dentist. The corpses were first buried under a parade ground in Magdeburg, then exhumed in 1970, burned, crushed and thrown in a river to prevent the place from becoming a neo-Nazi rallying point if the location ever was discovered.
- That was until 2009 when the Russian government allowed some American scientists to test the skull and jaw fragments and it was discovered that they belonged to a woman between the ages of 20 and 40. In other words, Eva Braun. Oops.
- The view of the 'Stalin Note' amongst most western historians went through this twice, ending up about where it began. The first view was that Joseph Stalin was not serious about wanting a united neutral Germany, and did it mainly to sour relations between Germans and the West. Then, in the early 80s declassified documents indicated that the western powers had not always acted in good faith about the offer, leading to a shift towards viewing Stalin as more serious about his offer... which lasted until the end of the Cold War lead to declassified Soviet documents that indicated that the main Soviet goal had been to sour German-Western Allied relations.
- For much of the Cold War, the U.S. believed all communist countries were strictly Soviet puppets. Helping this view was the fact that the communist countries of eastern Europe were indeed Soviet puppets. However, the U.S. refused for the longest time to acknowledge that Maoist China wasn't simply a Soviet puppet. This was quite disadvantageous politically because the Chinese could easily be used as allies against the Soviets, and maybe the US could have persuaded Mao Zedong to refrain some of his more irrational policy decisions like invoking the Cultural Revolution. Nixon's visit to China occurred when the U.S. finally figured this out. Also, at the time of The Korean War, it was believed that Kim Il-sung was a Soviet puppet who had invaded South Korea on Stalin's orders. Declassified Soviet documents later revealed that the war had been Kim's own idea, and he had traveled to Moscow to obtain Soviet military support, which Stalin gladly gave him.
- U.S. sources were well aware of the Sino-Soviet split. The CPC, however, was ideologically even more hardline than the Soviets (they rejected the whole "peaceful coexistence" thing and Krushchev's de-Stalinization programs), and the country wasn't open to a normalization of relations with the U.S. until dangerously isolated and destablized by the Cultural Revolution.
- Not even strictly true re: the Eastern Bloc. That Stalin installed communist governments in Eastern Europe post-WWII didn't make those countries complacent yes-men. Tito's Yugoslavia broke with the Soviet Union early on. Albania and Romania pursued foreign policies largely independent of Moscow (notably, Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu helped Nixon arrange his visit to China). The Soviet invasions of Hungary (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1968) were triggered largely by efforts from the local governments to gain more autonomy from the USSR. Only East Germany and Poland could be considered "puppets," and even their relations with the Soviets weren't entirely smooth.
- The identity of Deep Throat, the principal informant of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein who helped unravel the Watergate scandal, was a mystery for thirty years. In All The Presidents Men he's portrayed as an anonymous figure in a trenchcoat; in the film Dick (1999) "he" is actually two teenage girls. In 2005 Deep Throat was revealed as former FBI Associate Director Mark Felt whose motives were likely revenge against Nixon for not promoting him to replace Hoover.
- Arguably, Deep Throat's identity was an open secret long before Felt's revelation. Nixon and H.R. Haldeman can be heard discussing Felt as the probable leaker on one of the White House tapes. Richard Reeves' 2001 biography of Nixon, President Nixon: Alone in the White House, reproduces this conversation.
- Alan Moore's graphic novel 'Brought To Light' portrays the Contra War-era La Penca bombing (where an assassination attempt was made on Contra (Democratic Revolutionary Alliance) leader Eden Pastora in Costa Rica) as a CIA-masterminded operation. It was later revealed in 2009 that the bombing was committed by the Sandinistas, not the CIA.
- Carlos the Jackal is the Big Bad of The Bourne Series, which presents him as a Diabolical Mastermind and attributes a number of assassinations to him, including that of JFK. The actual Carlos was captured in 1994, and is now viewed as more of a bumbling Smug Snake whose past reputation was highly exaggerated. This also account for most of the differences between the books and the movies (he had been caught by that time).