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"Although the graduate schools now go in for all manner of metacritical precautions, it is still a common enough ambition to find and follow the clue which will show that quod semper, quod ubique, quod ab omnibus, that trinity of squares, have been wrong all the time."
Frank Kermode, "Reading Shakespeare's Mind", The New York Review of Books, October 12, 1967.note 

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, also known as Cheops (the one who built the really big pyramid), 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 changes 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. This trope can however be caused by someone in the past mistating history for the purpose of political correctness if their version ends up being taken as fact by later generations. Likewise, this trope is not for cases where an author takes a clear side in something that is currently actively debated by historians, only for situations where later research or revelations definitively reverse the common understanding.



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  • 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 for several reasons:
    • A big one was that many early 20th century people of European descent, including respected scientists, simply couldn't palate that humanity's ancestor could have originated some place other than Europe or its near vicinity, much less Darkest Africa.
    • Some people who knew better were supporters of the eolithnote  theory, and the Piltdown Man was the only thing to support it, so they kept silent.
    • A third reason was that the original model of human evolution, that the brain became advanced first and the body shifted to serve it, was being systematically torn down with every new human ancestor discovered except Piltdown Man; after its "discovery" it was considered a clinching counter-example, but the reason it was finally re-examined decades later was that by then it was the only one.
    • The examining methods were still very crude when Piltdown Man was "discovered" but had become far more refined forty years later.
    • The Piltdown cranial and jaw specimens were kept locked away for decades to preserve them, with virtually no follow-up examination that might have exposed their discrepancies. Believers considered them too priceless to be handled, and any curators with private doubts may not have wanted their origin debunked on their watch.
  • The discovery of "Ardi" in 2009, the most complete Ardipithecus skeleton to date, threw into question many established theories regarding human evolution. The prevailing theory on why humans began walking upright had been that Australopithecus, the first truly bipedal hominid, evolved on the savanna, and being bipedal enabled its ancestors to see further across open landscape, finding food and shelter and spotting predators more easily. However, analysis of Ardi's skeleton indicated that the thick forest-dwelling and one million years older Ardipithecus was capable of walking upright to at least some degree. The current theory is that bipedalism arose in Ardipithecus as a means to better navigate dense jungle and underbrush.
  • More than a dozen pre-modern human varieties (Java man, Peking man, etc.) are now believed to have been local breeds of Homo erectus (which may or may not be the ancestors of modern humans) and not separate species at all.
  • 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. Later analysis 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 as long as they didn't enter a Homo sapiens beauty contest. 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 was also assumed that Neanderthals couldn't speak, or that their ability to articulate was very limited, because no all-important hyoid bone was found in a Neanderthal skeleton until 1983. Writers like Auel who wanted to portray them as intelligent usually had them use sign language.
    • Furthermore, now it's likely that the modern human's version of the FOX P2 gene came from Neanderthals.
    • While analysis of Neanderthal vocal tracts have shown that they would not be capable of some human sounds and that they would sound strange to us, this wouldn't have prevented them from communicating with any sounds. In fact, their ear canals suggest that they heard in the same frequency as us and unlike chimpanzees and more primitive hominids like Australopithecus.
    • In retrospect, the notion that Neanderthals could have entirely lacked a hyoid bone is, in itself, an antiquated one: most other tetrapods and all other primates have such a bone, just positioned too high to permit our style of speech.
    • 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; Timmy learns to speak English, but it sounds a little blurry.
  • Claims that Neanderthals and anatomically modern humans couldn't interbreed - or that if they did, their descent would be short-lived and/or infertile, a source of angst in Earth's Children, The Neanderthal Parallax, and Björn Kurtén's The Dance of the Tiger among others - have been thoroughly disproven with the discovery that all modern humans but Sub-Saharan Africans have a small amount of Neanderthal DNA in them (and in the case of Australoids, also Denisovan-like DNA). As of now, the saving grace of such works is that all of them deal with pairings of Neanderthal men and modern women; for one reason or another, all Neanderthal DNA in modern humans seems to have come from females.
  • 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 occurring; 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, which requires electricity to smelt effectively). 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. Bronze also doesn't rust, which would have been a liability of early iron implements in non-arid regions.
    • In sub-Saharan Africa, no "Bronze Age" occurred, and instead the prehistoric civilizations there progressed directly from stone tools to iron ones, due to the lack of access to bronze. This was long overlooked by European historians because of racist attitudes presuming black Africans to automatically be primitive and that their history wasn't even worth studying.
  • The Alpine mummy known as Ötzi the Iceman was originally assumed to have frozen to death or died in some accident... until an arrowhead was found embedded in his shoulder. Then DNA of different men was found on him and his belongings, all but confirming that he was chased up there by a group that fought and killed him. Some old documentaries also depict him as a bald man purely because his mummy looks bald, but this is an artifact of decomposition. He actually had a head full of hair and a beard when he died.
  • 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 than 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.


    Ancient Egypt 
  • 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 season.note  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.
    • It was partly also backed up by being in The Bible (Exodus).note  However, no evidence exists for so many Hebrew slaves existing in Egypt, let alone working on the pyramids as slaves. In fact it now appears they arose from within Canaanite culture, with some Egyptian cultural influence from Sinai nomads; stories about foreign origins were both intended to associate them with "superior" foreign empires, and to differentiate them from culturally and linguistically (and even religiously!) similar neighboring groups. Israeli archaeologists, permitted to dig up the entire Sinai Peninsula looking for evidence, found none, and even they now admit this (the Jews being slaves in Egypt then coming to what's now Israel was one of their claims to the region, which is Serious Business).
  • 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. Tests on her mummy show instead 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 2007, 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 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 is something of a plot point in The Egyptian and Mummies Alive! among others.
    • 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 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.
  • In 1994, Ramses II was discovered to be a redhead and in 2016, he was discovered to be fair-skinned. Portrayals of him where he is black haired (when not shaved bald and given a wig) and brown skinned is thus dated. Since there have always been Egyptians of all skin and hair colors (some of Ramses' own hieroglyphic murals depict his subjects running the full gamut of skin colors), this shouldn't come across as surprising though.
    • Likewise with many Ancient Egyptians unburied, discovered, and their DNA researched, it's generally agreed that their "race"note  are a lot more complicated than what it was commonly believed - particularly they resembled Modern Egyptians with diverse gene pool mixing from many ethnicities note  rather than the "white/black" race dichotomy that are hotly debated. Given Ancient Egypt's long history of being conquered, it's inevitable there would be ethnicities and populations mixing over the centuries.
  • Cleopatra VII was once seen as a scheming, amoral Femme Fatale whose sins led to her death and to the destruction of Egypt as an independent nation. Recent evidence from Alexandria and a reappraisal of the historical record has led many historians to believe that Cleopatra saw seducing Caesar and Antony as a legitimate way of convincing them to help restore order in a country quickly approaching lawlessness and poverty while at the same time preventing Rome from invading and enslaving the populace. The discredited trope informs everything from William Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra and Julius Caesar to the paintings of Alexandre Cabanel and Guido Cagnacci.
    • Historians were also divided over whether Cleopatra was the most beautiful woman to ever live or an outright gonk. There was no middle ground. Recently, they actually decided to look at the damn coins Cleopatra minted, and concluded she was an average-looking young woman — no great beauty, but nothing to be embarrassed about either. More recently, they've done facial reconstruction with a computer, which shows that she was plain but cunning-looking, which seems appropriate considering that contemporary accounts said she had a bewitching voice and a strong, forceful personality. In any case, nobody is quite sure what classical standards of beauty were, so there's no reason to say that she wasn't beautiful either.note 
    • For the longest time, people assumed that Cleopatra had numerous slaves bitten by the asp she'd later kill herself with to make sure that its venom was potent. She didn't need to: the Egyptians had used snakes to kill upper-class prisoners for thousands of years, and they knew what breed to use and how. They were also quite aware that an asp that's already bitten numerous slaves isn't going to have enough venom left to kill a fly. And some now believe that the asp story is a cover-up, and that Cleopatra was killed on the orders of Octavian.
    • It has also been generally assumed that Cleopatra and Caesar were a political alliance and Cleopatra and Antony a genuine love affair. Nowadays that theory has come into question. Caesar knew that the Roman people would never accept Cleopatra and that while he could bring her to Rome he couldn't marry her without losing the love of the common people, nor could he name their son his legal heir. Antony, who was nowhere near as wise to the game, seemed to believe that the opposite was true and that allying himself with Cleopatra would benefit him in Roman politics. Basically it now appears that she had a love affair with Caesar and a political alliance with Antony. Or, she actually did have genuine romantic relationships with both... or neither.
  • The Great Library of Alexandria attracts a number of myths:
    • It was destroyed by Julius Caesar (rather than by Christians or Muslims). The idea that the Muslims destroyed it was probably a garbling of their destroying the Great Library of Ctesiphon.
    • The idea first sprang by Edward Gibbons and furthered by Carl Sagan that if it weren't for the destruction of the Library of Alexandria, human civilization could had progressed much further than where we are today and the intervention of religion is what stopped the advancement, as all of the knowledge in the Library of Alexandria could've been used to achieve these scientific accomplishments. Since then, many historians and scholars have researched whether this is true and plausible. As a result, while many vocal atheists cling to this notion, many historians find it falls flat on complete fallacy conjuncture.
      • The Library of Alexandria wasn't all that different from other libraries of the time.
      • Not every book that was stored in the Library focused on science. There was also knowledge about philosophy, history, poetry, etc.; and teachers who taught at Alexandria mostly focused on these fields and paid less attention to science.
      • Books were written in papyrus, a material that decays quickly over time. Even if one managed to save the majority of the books, they would need to be rewritten several times. Papyrus does not last long in Southern Europe's climate, but more so in Egypt's, and parchments were very expensive in the Middle Ages. That papyrus certainly can endure for two thousand years under Egypt's dry and hot climatic conditions is proven (among others) by the Oxyrhynchus papyri dating to Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt. As a matter of fact the comparative wealth of sources such as inscriptions, papyri and archeological remains in relatively good condition found in Egypt compared to other sites of similar antiquity has led to the term "Egypt envy" among archeologists working with places whose soil and climatic conditions have left much less stuff preserved.
      • Christianity did not stop technological and scientific advancements. Any Medieval historian would tell you otherwise, and explain the scientific and technological advances during the Middle Ages (see examples and further explanations in the Medieval Times folder).
      • Christianity and the destruction of the Library of Alexandria did not stop all scientific and technological advances, as this idea excludes those in the Muslim World, China, India, and the Americas.
    • Recent archaeological evidence seems to suggest that the Great Library's death blow wasn't even caused by a fire, but rather its collection simply being moved elsewhere. Its general decline might not even have been started by a fire, but by a political disagreement in 145 BC resulting in several notable thinkers leaving the Museum (the often-forgotten proto-university that the Great Library was a part of). An earthquake shortly following this event wouldn't have helped matters at all. The library may have simply faded in importance until someone sold off its remaining contents.

    Ancient Levant 
  • David and Goliath were rejected as myth, but scholars now see the armor Goliath wore as plausible for the Mycenaean civilization. His Greek name was probably Kalliades. His story might have a Greek origin, and certain hard-to-translate phrases from the Bible seem to be loan translations from Ancient Greek.
  • At least some 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.
    • 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. One current 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 circa 600 B.C.. Some historians even believe that the Torah didn't reach its 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.
  • People thought that King Belshazzar from the Book of Daniel was made up, until historical research unearthed that he was King Nabonidus' son and co-regent in Babylon. While his father went out to face Cyrus' army, Belshazzar stayed behind to fortify the city. Cue the writing on the wall.
  • The Persian emperor from the Book of Esther is usually identified as Xerxes I. There is no historical record or other evidence of a "beauty contest" note  held during his reign to find a replacement queen after he divorced his primary queen for disobeying him. He did have a Royal Harem full of wives and concubines, but he acquired them in the same way that most kings of that time did: through Altar Diplomacy. And his primary queen wasn't named Vashti. Her name was Amestris, and she was never divorced by Xerxes I or deposed from her position as primary queen.
  • 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, just like today). The earliest known Gospel according to current evidence, the Book of Mark (the book of Matthew was once considered older, but that in and of itself is another case of dated history), 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, fulfilling a prophecy which said the Messiah would be born there.
    • 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 Judea.
  • Jesus is only ever described as a tekton - a Greek word meaning "worker". The idea that he was a carpenter arose largely because Joseph was a woodworker and most people assumed he taught Jesus his trade. "Our Savior the Carpenter" also sounds more noble than "Our Savior the Itinerant Worker", which is what many believe the historical Jesus was. 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.
  • There is almost no non-religious based historical consensus on the Crucifixion besides the fact that it happened.
    • Though common, crucifixion was not standardized. The Latin word Crux and the Greek Staurós could be applied to any vertical wooden structure where someone was nailed to, including a stake, a wall, a frame, even a tree. In other words, our very notion of what being 'cross-shaped' means is inspired by religious representations of the Crucifixion, rather than the other way around. Those were likely based on the text saying Jesus was nailed with his arms extended and the legend "Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews" fixed above his head.
    • Even accepting the common definition of cross, some historians have questioned that Jesus would have been forced to carry the whole cross to Golgotha as impractical, proposing instead that the condemned were forced to carry the horizontal section only while the post remained in place and was reused. Others favor that the real cross was T-shaped rather than a conventional Latin cross, as that would have been easier to assemble.
    • Practical experiments (including by Nazis at Dachau concentration camp) showed that if a man was nailed through his palms as Jesus is usually represented, the hands would rip completely under his weight. Because of this, it's been proposed that the condemned's arms were also tied to the cross, and/or that the nails were inserted through the wrists, or even the forearms.
    • Even then, Jesus' own weight would have likely suffocated him long before he's said to have succumbed. Some have proposed that the cross' post had some kind of footrest to 'help' the condemned resist for longer and make him suffer more.
    • The number of nails involved is unknown, with some churches claiming up to 14 nails. The commonly depicted three nails (one through each palm and another through both feet) were codified in The Renaissance; four nails (one per hand and foot) was the preferred version in the European Middle Ages. In The '70s, Israeli archaeologists found the tomb of Jehohanan, a 1st century crucified, and claimed that his injuries supported a crucifixion with three nails, one through each forearm and the third through the heels, with the feet placed laterally on the post. However, a review questioned most of their findings and only admitted evidence of one nail through one heel, adding that such nail wasn't long enough to perforate both heels.
    • The Last Temptation of Christ references nearly all of these points one way or another. He is shown carrying only the horizontal beam, where he is nailed (by his wrists) and also tied. His cross is brand new, but the thieves are nailed to dead trees, and Golgotha is full of other older, 'occupied' crosses. His cross would have looked like a T, but the INRI sign at the top is wooden and makes it look like a Latin cross. The third nail is not through the heels and crosses both feet, but still allows him to turn his legs to the side (and thus acts as Scenery Censor, since unlike in other depictions, Jesus is naked here).
  • 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."note 
  • 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 gave historians 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; their value in theology comes from the fact that they showed the texts of the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament) had been codified fairly early and hadn't been substantially altered by the rise of Christianity) suggests John was instead using rhetorical devices similar to those used by the Essenes.

    Ancient Greece 
  • The Trojan War. Up to the Renaissance, Homer's account was treated as historical truth (excluding the machination of the gods, of course). But as scientific archaeology was established, Troy was relegated to myth. Right now, most archaeologists agree that a Bronze Age city once existed at the site where Troy should have been based on clues in Homer, and that some sort of battle did occur there. It's safe to assume that Homer employed a generous helping of Artistic License, however.
    • As early as the first century, a man claimed that the battle did occur... but the Trojans won.
    • There is even a theory that The Iliad and The Odyssey are in fact Alternate History, in which the real retreat after years of battle gets a twist ending tacked on. The Fridge Brilliance in this is that most of the interactions with gods and mythical creatures center on Odysseus, the man that also came up with the Twist Ending horse trick. It's like someone added the character for storytelling purposes.
    • Or it's a memory of the Bronze Age collapse where people have been in constant movement due to reasons not well-understood. Entire civilizations fell, once-glorious cities became uninhabited and new cities became overpopulated due to the migration. There were rebellions recorded, and fires destroyed several key locations. Population movements were huge; they even wanted to settle in Egypt — where they became known as the Sea Peoples — but the Pharaoh stopped them. A group settled in Canaan and became the Peleset/Philistines.
    • While the possibilities the Trojans won are interesting, they're still hypotheses. We know there was a Troy, a.k.a. Ilios, Wilusa in Hittite documents. Wilusa was a vassal state of the Hittite Empire, that before the dates given for the Trojan War was ruled by Mycenaean Greeks. They were on good terms on paper, but there seems to have been some interesting developments.
    • The heroes of the Iliad might have not been kings at all. In Linear B, they seemed to be names of shepherds and other working-class people (e.g. Achilles was mentioned as a shepherd). Some names, though, do appear in Hittite documents as kings; for example, Agamemnon is mentioned as Akagamunaš. His father Atreus might have been mentioned as Attarsiya. That said, we don't know if these names refer to the legendary kings.
    • Paris was Greek. Or maybe he was a mix of two people? In the Iliad, he was also called Alexandros and someone named Alaksandu ruled Wilusa. Pariya might have been his Luwian name. Whether he merged with another figure, or he took a Luwian name out of respect, we don't know.
    • There were problems between Ahhiyawans (Achaeans, a.k.a Mycenaean Greeks) and Hittites over Wilusa, according to Tawagalawan letter, where it's mentioned that they went to war for it. However, the Hittites were clearly the aggressors, not the Mycenaeans. Tawagalawa is the Hittite form of Ancient Greek name Eteocles, or rather a more archaic form *Etewoklewes with 'w' falling from use over time ('ϝ' or digamma is the Ancient Greek letter for W). In the same way, Wilusa became Ilios. Tawagalawa was the brother of the King of the Achaeans, whose name did not survive.
    • A renegade named Piyamaradu (piyama means "gift" in Luwian, "Radu" was one of their gods) was the main subject of the Tawagalawa letter. For 35 years he attacked Hittite vassal states (including Troy) causing trouble to not one but three kings, before just disappearing. It's generally agreed he was an ally and commander of Mycenaean Greeks, because whenever he was almost caught by Hittites, he would flee to his base in Millawanda (Miletus), which was controlled by the Greeks. What makes his story interesting is that it falls within the Trojan War chronology. It seems Achaeans were using a Hittite intern as a commander for their armies. It has been hypothesized that he claimed inheritance over Wilusa, which is why he might have been interested in siding with the Greeks, but it's still dubious. He is the most important person mentioned that has to do with the possible real Trojan War and we have no idea who he corresponds with in the Illiad. Priam has been mentioned as a possibility. Yes, Priam, the Trojan King.
    • The Hittites destroyed Miletus as revenge for Piyamaradu's raids, which prompted the Greeks to officially rise against the Hittites. Their objective was Wilusa, one of the most important cities. While the details aren't certain, the Greeks won, so the Hittite King had to send an apology letter for what he did to Miletus, where he asked for Piyamaradu, their biggest ally. We don't know what happened to him. The few details that remain mention a battle in Scamander. That's the content of Tawagalawa letter.
    • Archaeology shows that there were a series of nine ancient cities built on the site of Troy, often separated by periods of devastation, and that the Troy of Homer was one (either the sixth or the seventh) or a combination of two: one which archaeologists call Troy VIh, when the city was rich and splendid and which was destroyed by an earthquake, not war, and another, Troy VIi (formerly VIIa), which was exactly like Homer described (the architecture, geology etc.) but wasn't rich, and was still suffering from the earthquake. That city was destroyed by war. Scholars have described it as a city under siege.
    • There is a hypothesis that the Trojan Horse is actually allegory for a timely earthquake. In the Epic Cycle, Odysseus' ruse is helped by Poseidon, who kills Laocoon before he can warn the Trojans. In Greek Mythology, Poseidon was god of horses and the depths (of the sea and land), and earthquakes were one of his tricks. A Troy damaged by a big earthquake could have fallen easily to invading Mycenaeans, who would have not a prayer of taking the city in its prime.
    • Troy continued to be lived on for some centuries after the supposed war. Not according to the Iliad.
    • The Hittites mention the Greeks were taking women and children and killing men in their western territories. This Greek habit only occurs in a war, never in other times. The word they used to refer to the prisoners is the same Homer used. They were attacking three Hittite islands around Troy. Troy was one of the cities the Greeks aimed for, wanting control over Western Anatolia.
    • It's generally agreed Helen of Troy's myth was added later. Helen used to be revered as a full goddess, not a demi-goddess. The original version of her story said that she was kidnapped in her youth by Theseus, and her brothers went to save her. We know this because Helen's story has other Indo-European parallels. Also, her Eidolon was a far more important part of her story, and Homer barely scraped this in the Iliad.
    • The appearance of warriors in the Trojan War is also subject to this. Ever since the Archaic period, they've been shown armed in either whatever was the current fashion of the day, or in an archaic manner usually harkening to Classical Greece. Since the 19th century, though, we've found that their styles of weapons and armor were completely different from anything that had yet been pictured. This shouldn't have been surprising if you consider that the Iliad contains a detailed description of a very real Mycenaean helmet made from the tusks of boars. Even within recent times, the depictions have evolved. A few decades ago it might have been claimed that warriors throughout the Late Helladic period carried tall tower or figure-8 shields. However, the Trojan War is purported to have occurred toward the end of the period, and it's now thought that tall shields were out of fashion by then, while round shields like Homer describes really were the most common style at the time.
  • The so-called "Spartan Mirage." Historians for a long time held Sparta as an unstoppable military juggernaut, due to its core army of Proud Warrior Race Guys and badass warrior kings, ceasing warlike activities only to deliver dry witty phrases to philosophers for posterity's sake. Problem is, most historical sources can be divided into two categories: a.) Athenian oligarchs such as Plato or Xenophon, who praised what little they knew of Sparta's system in order to address their own criticisms of Athenian democracy and b.) Roman sources such as Plutarch, writing long after the fact and trying to link Sparta's "martial spirit" to Rome's own. Sparta was something of the North Korea of its day, complete with secret police; contact with the outside was highly discouraged, and visitors to Sparta such as Xenophon were essentially treated to a Spartan Disneyland of all the things they wished to glorify about themselves. More modern assessments of Sparta, working from primary sources, generally show a more prosaic portrayal of their military might: Sparta was a regional power that essentially cannibalized all the non-military functions of its own state in order to continue a bitter war with the city-state of Argos, and was able to use the ensuing victory to bully its allies into fighting for them. At the time of Thermopylae, this victory had been within a generation, and the city-state was better known for the beauty of its women rather than its military prowess; the mythology of its heroic defeat is thought to have cast a long shadow and heavily influenced the city's culture. Spartan military supremacy lasted less than a hundred years, its hegemony over Greece only ten, the "invincible" Spartan army lost more battles than it won (and that's not counting the ones where the commanders were simply bribed away), and its central warrior caste was decimated by the city's own leaders to profit from their "inalienable" land holdings.
    • This even pertains to The Spartan Way. We have no sources that indicate Spartans, children or adults, performed any sort of combat training. Although Spartan children of both sexes were given a heavy emphasis on physical education, and boys were taught to master hunger and extremes of temperature, there was no indication of weapons drills or formation training; while the Spartans did perform basic formation drills, making them a first among Greek city-states, this training was only done when the army marched to war, and included their allies. Greek warfare of the Classical period was that of committed amateurs, and it was felt that courage was much more important than skill with weapons. In addition, the agoge evolved over time, and was not considerably different than the training of leisure-class children in other city states.
    • In Sparta, BTW, it is stated that there was no military training for actual skill, because a warrior is supposed to win through strength and courage, not tricks. The result was that while they definitely had good warriors, whenever they encountered actual tactics, the results were jarring.
  • Hoplites probably weren't a slow-moving formation of bronze armor, interlocked shields and bristling spears presented at the enemy for the vast majority of classical Greek history. Men that could afford only a spear and shield were accepted as hoplites, and since poorer fellows tend to outnumber richer ones, they were certainly commonly represented in hoplites' ranks. Hoplites stood too far apart for even the second rank of men to be able to effectively stab at the first rank of enemies and the average Greek hoplite was poorly-disciplined, so they certainly fought as individuals and any time hoplites would have had their shields packed next to each other would also have rendered them entirely immobile. The aforementioned poor discipline likely led to their generally-used deep formation as a way to help ensure units would stay in a coherent order without lines falling apart in movement (moving together in formation over a stretch of time is actually very difficult) and attacking hoplites charging in. The first appearances of true pike weapons in Greece is about the real point in time Greek troops armed with pole weapons fought in a close-order formation. Spartan hoplites' distinctions from other hoplites from Greece probably were being a tad closer to this popular image of a hoplite, though of course at this point there's a much lower bar to hurdle.
  • Unfortunately for writers, historians seem to change their minds about Alexander the Great almost as often as the seasons change. Was he bisexual, homosexual, heterosexual, asexual or omnisexual, and does it matter that he wouldn't have recognized the terms? Roxana: passionately desired wife or all-but-ignored political pawn? Bagoas: manipulative poisoner, victim of child molestation, or adult lover? Hephaestion: lover, colleague, or rival, or all three? Alexander's death: poison, alcoholism, typhoid, meningitis secondary to scoliosis (the 2009 belief), or accident? Did he really will his empire "to the strongest" on his deathbed, or to a specific person, or was he too sick to even speak at the time (the latter is the currently prevailing view)? Was he Too Good for This Sinful Earth or a Magnificent Bastard? Given the historical revolving door, it would be hard to fault a writer for making up his own mind about any of it.
    • The 2010 suggestion was that he died of West Nile disease.
    • In 2012, it's waterborne parasites. See what we mean?

    Ancient Rome 
  • All those marble statues, pillars, and facades found in Greek and Roman ruins were originally thought to have been as clean, white, and free of ornamentation when they were new as they are now. More recent tests on Roman ruins (and discovery of buried ruins at Pompeii, Palmyra, and Antioch) have revealed that the Greeks and Romans painted almost all of their white marble in loud, garish colors using vegetable-based paints that decomposed and bleached out as the buildings fell to ruins. This trope affected not just fictional representations of the old days but also architecture (notice how gleaming white the US Capitol is?) and interior design.
    • And just to prove that History Marches On, other historical evidence disagrees. Several statues were found with no traces of paint at all, and furthermore, historical texts (Ovid, Virgil) describe the youths and gods of Roman and Greek mythology as fair as the "white and translucent marble of a statue." And the references in ancient literature to white statues far outnumber those of painted statues (although they do exist). Additionally, stone records of artists describing the process used to create statues includes the step of polishing the stone until lustrous. Not only does this indicate that the stone was the final product (glossy finish), it also counters the argument that they were painted afterwards, as paint does not adhere well to polished stone. There is also a great prevalence of colored stone—especially the purple Imperial marble of the emperors—which would negate the need for paint. So far art historians seem to be saying that some statues were fully painted, others partially painted or gilded, and some left white.
    • Carving statues from marble was more a Roman custom. Greeks much preferred casting them in bronze, and used marble mostly for smaller-scaled prototypes. Which is why Greek statues are generally known nowadays by their Roman marble copies—most bronze originals were melted for their bronze in the Middle Ages (e.g. for cannons and church bells), and you couldn't melt marble down into anything useful. For these statues, we cannot know how much of them was painted, since so few survive, but all the mentions of white are hardly applicable.
    • There was a similar notion about all Greeks and Romans wearing "noble" white clothes. While some people actually dressed in white (e.g., Romans conducting in the forum), most people preferred the same garish, bright colors. This is the Roman equivalent to assuming that the three-piece business suit or the full tuxedo is everyday casual wear for today. Romans actually hated the toga (they were hot in the Italian summers, cumbersome, and you can't use your left arm while wearing one), so much that there had to be a law stating that togas must be worn to enter a forum in part to discourage anyone from trying anything funny while there.
  • Carthage was probably not salted after the Third Punic War, and neither was Milan by Frederick Barbarossa over a thousand years later. The idea appears to come from confusion over a Medieval order calling for the city of Palestrina to be ploughed over "like Carthage", and also salted. Carthage itself was certainly ploughed over, but the idea of it being salted doesn't turn up until the 19th century.
    • For that matter, historians and novelists have misunderstood what was meant by salting and ploughing a city. Ploughing and salting were merely symbolic gestures similar to running defeated soldiers under the yoke. There wasn't enough salt in the Republic to render barren the land underneath Carthage, nor enough manpower to completely flatten the city. Not to mention that salt was far too expensive to squander tons of it by dumping it on the ground. The Romans needed the infrastructure of Carthage intact and the land fertile, as Roman soldiers would be sent to live and farm there after they were demobilized.
    • The legend may be partly based on the Biblical story of the salting of Shechem. Being near the Dead Sea, this was actually practical.
  • Like Troy, Pompeii faded into obscurity to the point of being considered a myth by the time of its rediscovery in the 18th century. This despite the fact that it disappeared in a much more recent time, with extensive written records including those of first-hand witnesses, and one of the most read Roman scientists and authors of all time, Pliny the Elder, died when attempting to rescue two friends from the eruption (Pliny was the local naval commander).
    • The account of the eruption by his nephew, Pliny the Younger, was still considered bogus well into the 19th century, when other volcanoes erupted in the exact same way as he described the Vesuvius in AD 79. Because of it, this kind of eruption (pyroclastic explosions with a tall column of ash and pumice but little liquid lava) is commonly known to vulcanologists as a Vesuvian or Plinian eruption.
    • Changes in sensibilities have allowed the publication of rather explicit images that were on display on the city, which changed popular perception of the Romans from a genteel, prim, proper, and moral people to a debauched, hedonistic people. Archaeologists and historians believe that Roman sexual taboos were as strong as ours, just completely different in nature, and that Romans were considerably more open and frank about sexual matters than we are.
    • Archaeological opinion about Pompeii's reputation likewise has gone back and forth, as it's alternately been regarded as a red-light pleasure resort (thanks to all the whorehouses) or just a typical city of an era that wasn't prudish about such things.
  • In the 18th and 19th centuries, as religion further faded in academia and it became clearer that much "contemporary" writing about early Christians was Medieval interpolation, many historians, including some as prominent as Edward Gibbon, came to believe that all references to the persecution of Christians were fabricated, and the Romans paragons of religious tolerance. Ultimately, due to archaeological findings and better techniques of textual analysis, this belief has only a very few holdouts.
  • It's a trope of Medieval-to-modern Christian historical fiction that the Romans persecuted Christians because they didn't understand Christianity and misinterpreted acts performed by Christians, or because they were a religion that catered to the poor and were seen as dangerous to the aristocratic establishment. Later historians, both secular and some Christians, have nuanced this.
    • The Roman persecution of Judaism and Christianity had to do with its laws: they would tolerate a faith only if it accepted the Emperor and was inclusive. If Jews and Christians accepted as Jews and Christians those who also believed in, prayed to, and accepted other gods, then it was A-OK. In practice, to be Christian or Jewish was to accept one belief and reject all others (much like many other faiths with strict doctrines concerning religious identity). Romans, on the other hand, enjoyed worshipping and erecting temples to all kinds of distant gods (like, say, the Egyptian Isis and later the Persian Mithras) while still praying to Jupiter and participating in Saturnalia, so they didn't see why they couldn't keep doing that and still stop in at a church or synagogue from time to time. This was a policy of enforced syncretism, and faiths which tended to assert their own independence in doctrine and membership demands aroused the paranoia and suspicion of the government, the same way the Eleusinian and Dionysian Mysteries did in earlier eras in the Republic and in Ancient Greece. The word Mystery Cult signifies the state suspicion that these faiths were underground movements that could potentially agitate against them.
    • Roman persecution of Christians has been found in part to be due to the refusal of Christians to worship the emperor. Later Romans, after some dialogue with Christians to get them in line with their policies, asked for a requirement to pray for rulers, which is repeated many times in Christian scripture and is still maintained today. Likewise, for those seeing Christianity as revolutionary in origin, there has been no historical evidence of any anti-state revolt led by Christians. Historians note that peasant-led Christian revolts happened in The Middle Ages (against the Corrupt Church and Christian kings moreover). But in the Roman era, the dangerous revolts like the Spartacus uprising, Boudica's uprising, Queen Zenobia's Palmyrene Empire, and the ulcer that was the Jewish Revolts were all non-Christian. It is definitely true that Christianity did attract followers among women and the lower orders who were neglected, disenfranchised, and subjugated by the state, but they certainly did not promote revolution or agitation against the state. Likewise, Christians also tolerated and condoned slavery in the Roman era, though they also advocated for better treatment of slaves and included them in gatherings. However, Epicureanism took the same position on slaves and slavery. So the opening narration of Spartacus, which claims that slaves were freed only with the rise of Christianity and the end of pagan tyranny, is a little too generous to the former and not entirely fair to the latter given that most of the slaves were pagans and that two of the famous slave rebellions (the 1st Servile War and the 3rd Servile War) were led by leaders inspired by messianic callings and claims to prophecy (which is actually common in many slave rebellions, such as the Haitian Revolution, whose leaders and practitioners were Voudou practitioners rebelling against the Catholic French landowning class).
    • The Romans did see Christianity as destabilizing, but this was because rival Christian sects and groups often fought each other violently and because the Christians persecuted pagans and deliberately won over converts by subverting other cults. The Emperor Julian the Apostate, the last Pagan Emperor, complained in his missives about how Christians were anti-syncretic while at the same time blatantly co-opting certain pagan motifs, getting jobs teaching Homeric classics, and using their classical training to better sell their faith. Now Julian, as an ex-Christian neo-pagan, is clearly biased. But most historians do think he has a point. Furthermore, once Christians found active patronage under Constantine and later Theodosius (who banned all pagan practices), the Church drifted away from the flock that had supported and built it (women, slaves, the poor) and became subsidized and catered by Rome's aristocratic elite. The Christian aristocracy of Late Antiquity Rome also created the system of serfdom, by which peasants who formerly had rights and freedom of movement were tied to the land — something the Church did not lift a finger to stop or hinder (and even tacitly condoned).
  • The Christian shrine in the Roman Colosseum (formerly known as the Flavian Ampitheatre) has tripped up many writers and readers. The ruins of the Colosseum were consecrated in 1749 by Pope Benedict XIV, supposedly in memory of the many early Christians martyred in that location. But Christians were never martyred at the Colosseum; even the editors of the Catholic Encyclopedia could find no definitive proof. There's a possibility that Nero's massacre of Christians after the Great Fire took place on the land on which the Colosseum was later built, but it's more likely that Benedict XIV invented the entire story to justify protecting the building from property developers looking to turn it into a wool factory.
  • There's also a popular conception portraying Roman paganism and Christianity as the main rivalry, with the assumption that the latter was the most popular religion back in the Roman Empire. This ignores that Christianity was just another sect along with hundreds of other religions and cults (ex. Cult of Iris, Gnosticism, the Imperial Cult, the Bacchic Rites, the Dionysus Mysteries, Manichaeism, etc). Likewise, the persecution and treatment of Christians also extended to other religious groups that were rarely mentioned in history like the Celtic druids, Bacchaes, and Manicheans. Like the explanation above, their treatment of religion were less for reasons of tolerance and more for reasons of "follow the law, stay proper, and we will leave you alone".
  • The notion of living emperors being worshipped as gods is more or less a modern invention. While some of the more unbalanced emperors, such as Caligula, may have claimed divinity, and many claimed descent from one god or another, there's little evidence the average Roman citizen was willing to play along. The genius, or spirit, of deceased emperors was often given divine honors, but this itself was an extension of contemporary Roman religious practice; the pater familias of a Roman family was given the same honors by his gens, and the Emperor was considered to be a "father" to the entire city. The only two rulers who were officially deified were Romulus and Julius Caesar, and both were only deified posthumously.
  • It's now generally dismissed that Christianity was the primary cause of the fall of Rome, and no serious historian entertains the idea that it did so by making people too stupid to run an empire. Rather, the Roman Empire had a number of compounding problems well before the spread of Christianity and the rise of Christianity happened because of the gradually failing social order. It's also generally accepted that there is no one cause of the breakup of the Roman Empire. It was rather a series of problems that arose, some coincidental and some not, that caused a gradual decline. Many people in the early "Dark Ages" still basically behaved as Romans and orders were still sent and obeyed after the sack of Rome. So even the final "death" of the Western Roman Empire happened over a very drawn-out period of time.
    • On the flip side, the idea that Rome collapsed because of its own decadence and luxury (popular in the 19th century) is not well-supported either. For one thing, we actually see Romans in the historical record complaining about how hedonistic and lacking in virtue their society was getting... pretty much every single generation. It's really no different than your parents complaining about The New Rock & Roll corrupting the kids these days, as though kids of their generation weren't up to all kinds of mischief. As discussed below, the facts about how decadent Rome actually was are a bit more complicated than you might think.
  • Orgies in Ancient Rome: For centuries people believed that Greek and Roman orgies were nothing more than sex parties. Modern research has debunked this idea. In reality, orgies were secret rites. Decadent activities could be a part of them, but it was all in the style of a ceremony, perhaps closer to the Wiccan "Great Rite". Accusations of sexual orgies were lodged by Christians later. The pagans had also accused the Christians themselves of engaging in them. Such slanders have been made against virtually every religious group where it's unpopular. Similarly, the supposed rite at such events of stuffing yourself with food until you want to throw up, going to a special room to do so, and then returning to continue eating is also an example of this trope. The myth is based on a misunderstanding of the word "vomitorium", which refers to the exit of an amphitheater and has nothing to do with actual vomit. (They share the same etymology, though: vŏmo, vŏmis, vomui, vomitum, vŏmĕre, "to spew forth".) If you have ever been to an event at a major arena (e.g. a football game — any kind), and entered and exited through a corridor to get to the seats, you have been in a vomitorium. You may have been sick in it, but probably not intentionally.
    • It was a common belief from the Victorian era that Ancient Rome was sexually decadent, hedonistic, and presumably more open-minded to sex than other periods. This is both true and not. One has to take into consideration that this belief started when Pompeii was discovered and made open to the public during the 18th and 19th centuries. The people were shocked by the discovery of Roman sexual imagery and activities exposed (as before then, Rome had for a long time been perceived as a cultivation of glorious culture and art, with Greco-Roman sculptures and copies of Roman texts being their only sources on what Rome was like). It's easy to see the Romans as licentious when compared to the prudish Victorians. However, as much as Romans had different standards from the Victorians', in their own way they had strict gender roles and high expectations on sexual roles. For example, a man was expected to perform missionary on his wife and treat her as a "woman of higher status" only and not a "woman of pleasure". It was considered taboo to have her on top of him, as it was a sign that he was "effeminate". Hence, many Roman poets loved to satirize things that were taboo, like women's sexuality and anal sex. Yes, they were more open-minded when it came to sex than the Victorians, but they were very critical towards sexual taboos that are acceptable today. They had sex with prostitutes, exploited their slaves, used boys as the bottom, depicted sexual activities in art — the same as other cultures and time periods have done... Mind you, sexual decadence was still an absolute no-no to the Romans. Hence anecdotes like Tiberius owning a sex circus, Caligula committing incest, Messalina having a sex marathon behind her husband's back, and Elagabalus prostituting himself before men and women, would hardly have been considered acceptable, as they were slander by later writers.
  • The Eagle of the Ninth:
    • The lack of information on the Legio IX Hispana after AD 117, when it was stationed on the Caledonian border, led to speculation that it had been wiped out in an ambush by local tribes during an invasion of what is now Scotland. Decades after the novel was published, however, historians found evidence that the Legion had actually been moved to the German border, and later, to the East. This led to speculation that it was destroyed in AD 161 during a battle in Armenia. The latest thinking has veered back to some kind of disaster north of Hadrian's Wall. The IXth does disappear from the records and a new Legion was imported to Britain at about the same time. The Romans undoubtedly knew perfectly well what had happened to the IXth, the information just didn't survive to our time.
    • Sutcliff's first inspiration came from reading about the late 19th-century discovery of a Roman eagle buried under a British house. However, after the book came out, that eagle was identified as decoration in a temple to Jupiter, and not part of a Roman military standard as initially assumed.
  • The notion of lead poisoning as a major factor in the fall of Rome. Roman authorities were aware of the consequences of working with lead, due to the slave-driven lead mining industry, and aqueducts were constructed with ceramic pipes. Nevertheless, the level of lead in this water was 100 times higher than in local spring waters. It was not unknown for locals to punch holes in the pipes to draw water off, increasing the number of people exposed to the lead. That the Romans knew about the harmful effects of lead didn't stop them from making a sweetener-cum-preservative called sapa or defrutum by boiling concentrated grape juice down in lead pots into a syrup, however. Why lead pots? According to the winemaker Columella, "brass vessels give off copper rust, which has an unpleasant flavor."
  • The common view of Roman history, since at least the Enlightenment, is that of the "idle plebs", in which the Roman citizenry was freed from most physical labor by the large number of slaves, and spent their time eating free grain and watching state-sponsored gladiator games. In reality, while the grain dole was a real thing, it was seldom if ever distributed to the very needy, and in any case never provided enough for a family to survive on. Urban slaves and freedmen dominated the skilled trades, leaving most of the city's free population to eke out a meager living as semi-itinerant day laborers, and malnutrition and disease were rife among them. Even in rural areas, while large farms had a core labor force of slaves, the labor-intensive nature of planting and harvesting meant that these would require large numbers of free laborers as well.

Middle Ages

  • Most Hollywood History of the Medieval period is patently untrue, as it is heavily based on the accounts of Protestant and Enlightenment writers, who would fabricate information and present hearsay as fact to advance their point of view. The Middle Ages (as known by historians nowadays) were a colorful 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 started with Renaissance writers considering the entire epoch between Antiquity and them to be just like recent history - and recent history was the Black Death and the Hundred Years' War. But the Middle Ages lasted over a thousand years and such a long time span was not all the same, as one would expect. Medieval Stasis did not apply in reality. Indeed, the Early (10-13th centuries) and High Middle Ages (14-15th centuries) could be called times of prosperity, and some retaking of 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 troubles, which ended that nascent boom.
  • There was an earlier Renaissance of the 12th century when many Greek works were reclaimed during the Crusades. These works were though to have been consciously preserved by the Muslims, but that too is mostly myth. For climatic reasons, papyrus documents survived better in the countries the Muslims conquered. There were many Christians and Jews in those areas who preserved ancient works, but the Muslims who dominated the areas got the credit. Most lost books and plays weren't destroyed deliberately, they just weren't copied, and rotted away.
  • The whole Middle Ages are often referred as the "Dark Ages" because of widespread illiteracy and lack of civilization. A common conspiracy theory is that the Catholic Church intentionally inhibited people from learning to read in order to keep the monopoly of thought. The actual reason for illiteracy was that there simply was no accessible writing media in Medieval Europe. Learning to read and write requires a medium upon which to scribe. Papyrus decomposes and rots quickly in the cold and humid European climate, and parchment and vellum are atrociously expensive. Papermaking from linen rags was either introduced or invented independently in the 12th century, and once papermaking became ubiquitous in the 14th century, literacy also spread like wildfire, especially in cities and towns. Learning the Roman alphabet and the corresponding phonemes is very easy, and literacy can be assumed in a matter of weeks. As a matter of fact, literacy was commonplace in Russia and Scandinavia already in the High Middle Ages, as they used birch bark as writing media. Birches are rare in Central Europe, but ubiquitous in the North.
  • Added to the above is the myth that Catholic churches chained up Bibles and Gospel books to keep laypeople from reading them. As mentioned above, the majority of laypeople in Western Europe were illiterate. The actual reason the books were chained up was because they were valuable—the Gospels, in particular, could easily have gold covers, possibly studded with jewels, which made them tempting targets for thieves. Even without such embellishment, the books, in a time before the printing press, were expensive, time-consuming to make and hard to obtain in and of themselves. In fact, secular libraries such as those at universities also tended to chain their books up.
  • Even the phrases "Dark Ages" and "Middle Ages" are going out of style: both were invented 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).
  • Renaissance scholars and especially Enlightenment scholars put in a lot of work to 'prove' how few 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.note  They also introduced the idea of Medieval people being obsessed with religion. Not an entirely wrong idea, given the importance of pilgrimages and piety to most commoners (as well as uglier forms, such as anti-Semitic riots), but the ordinary people weren't falling at the knees of the sinister church-men. In fact, the Church in Western Europe was frequently criticized for its priests failing to live up to the holy standards they should have, to the point where a lot of laymen acted as preachers just so somebody would get it right. The nobles and kings weren't shy about arguing over political matters with Popes either, and Crusades tended to disintegrate into We ARE Struggling Together on national grounds. 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).
  • Things characteristically associated with the "Dark Ages" such as witch burnings and over overzealous persecution actually came about in the supposedly "enlightened" Renaissance. The icing on the cake is that after the Reformation, Protestants used these witch-burnings to demonstrate how brutish and backwards the Catholic church was... even when the majority occurred in Protestant lands and their numbers increased after the Reformation.

    Early Middle Ages (5th-10th centuries) 
  • The very concept of the Fall of Rome as a singular event (in 476 AD) is discredited, and really came about because Renaissance and Enlightenment Historians in Western Europe wanted to make a clear line between the glory of Rome and themselves. This meant dismissing, denigrating, or outright ignoring the Byzantine Empire, which remained the dominant superpower in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa until the 7th century (and may well have remained so, if the rise of Islam had not coincided with the end of over 20 years of total war with Persia that left the Empire exhausted), held Rome until the mid 8th century, and large portions of Italy well into the 11th century. After that, it remained a regional power until the 4th Crusade of 1204 (and even then, it stuck around in diminished form until 1453). It also remained a magnet for scholars, traders, and adventurers, being at the Western end of the Silk Road and the Varangian trade route from the Baltic. It wasn't even called Byzantine until the 16th century, when it was dubbed as such to separate it from Rome, in a long tradition that previously had referred to it as 'the Kingdom/Empire of the Greeks', among other things. This is despite the fact that the Byzantines themselves very much considered themselves to be 'Romaioi', and were called that by their eastern neighbors - the Ottomans even kept the title of Roman Emperor as 'Kayser-i-Rum', dubbing their Christian subjects 'Romans', into the 20th century. When it was discussed, it was usually dismissed as the effeminate and corrupt debased remnant of the noble and macho Roman Empire, save for honourable mention of 6th century titans like Justinian the Great and Belisarius.
    • The roots of this are complicated, but have to do with the Iconoclasm controversy of the 8th and 9th centuries. The idea was that the very iconoclastic Muslims were God's punishment on the Byzantines for violating the commandment on worshipping graven images, leading to about a century and half of wrangling over the status of icons (eventually the pro-icon party won out). At one point in the late 8th century, the Empress Irene took the throne, and the Pope - who opposed her and had been trying to wrangle more independence for Rome in any case - took it as an excuse to declare the position of Roman Emperor vacant and crown Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor. He didn't take it overly seriously, but later successors did. The Byzantines, meanwhile, didn't have too much problem with the idea of a foreigner being considered Emperor/Imperator/Basileus of their own people (i.e. the Franks), but had a very big problem with someone else calling themselves Roman Emperor, as it implied a claim to the Byzantine throne. Add in a lot of geopolitical squabbling over Italy, and some of the more ambitious Sicilian Normans trying to conquer the Empire, and a growing rivalry with Venice and you had a recipe for trouble. The Crusades absolutely did not help, with plenty of pre-existing xenophobia on both sides, and then there was the series of disasters that was the 4th Crusade of 1204, which sacked and occupied Constantinople until The Remnant Empire of Nicaea took it back in 1261. However, at the same time, the West and East maintained active diplomatic relationships, traded royal brides on an increasingly regular basis, and the Pope was horrified by the sack of Constantinople, excommunicating the entire Crusade on the spot - though the sheer amount of cash later won him over.
    • Even a common "excuse" for using the term "Dark Ages" nowadays (i.e. that it is wrong for the whole Middle Ages, but a somewhat accurate term for the few centuries after the Fall of Rome, when political disruption affected record-keeping negatively, and there is a dearth of knowledge on the historical events of this period as a result; thus "Dark Ages" is not about a fall in the quality of life at the time, but about a drop on historical knowledge about it) really only valid for the British Isles, which were thrown into chaos after the legions left in 410. In Gaul, Spain, Italy, Tunisia, not to mention the Byzantine Empire, Roman institutions survived (just with Germanic kings replacing Roman governors at the top in the first four), and we have a generally solid idea of what was going on there in this time. We lose the picture in more faraway areas outside of Roman civilization like NW Africa and central, northern, and eastern Europe, but this is because we only had second-hand Roman narratives about them in the first place.
  • With archaeology in its infancy, 19th-century "reconstructions" of ancient Germanic tribes tended to confiscate their trousers and tunic sleeves, arm them with weapons from the wrong time period, and attach horns or wings to their helmets. (The Middle Ages wasn't the only period thus affected; the ancient Near East often wound up looking like a jumble of Assyro-Babylonian and then-modern Ottoman influences.)
  • 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 "Völkerwanderung". 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 Völkerwanderung 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 Völkerwanderung 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 they 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.
    • England is a rather odd example, since the genetics vary a lot based on region. Surprisingly, Midlanders cluster closest to continental Europeans (being about equidistant from continental Northwestern Europeans and the Insular Celts), while less surprisingly, people in western and northern England cluster the furthest from the continent (being virtually identical to their Celtic neighbors). General modern consensus is that there was a significant migration of Anglo-Saxons to Britain, but not to the extent that was once believed. It's now generally believed that they were a minority of between 10-25% of the total population that assimilated the native Britons, rather than the old theory that they massacred and drove out all of the natives.
    • Some of those erroneous assumptions are due to Upper Class Historians preferring to write about elites and often kings and leaders were treated as identical to the tribes / peoples they led. Also, there seems to be a difficulty distinguishing between armies and peoples during the 5th and 6th century. Also also sometimes the linguistic evidence leads one astray - while the Spanish language has little to no Germanic influence (indicating a quickly assimilated small elite) French has much more "Frankish" loanwords and the decidedly Germanic Old English all but replaced the previous Celtic (and Romance-British) languages - so absent genetic evidence and with chroniclers talking of "utter defeats" and "cataclysms", it is quite understandable to think the Anglo-Saxons all but replaced the prior Celtic population.
  • Before the late 20th century, it was unchallenged that Rodrigo (Roderic) was the last king of the Visigoths in Spain, that he was legitimately elected in 710 after the natural death of the previous king, Witiza, and that "Witiza's children" were sore losers who had invited the Muslims to invade in 711 and collaborated with them out of spite or naivety. However...
    • Sources closer to Roderic's time were uncovered, claiming that he had been elected by the Senate (yay!) but "in a revolt" (wait what), and that he had "conquered the Palace" (!) after a period in exile.
    • Revised chronologies also showed that Queen Cixilo, the presumed mother of Witiza, had only married King Egica some 25-30 years before Witiza's death. So either Witiza was born from a hitherto unknown first marriage of Egica, or he was a young man when he died, not old as assumed. In consequence, Witiza's children would be literal children in 711, and young ones. This is consistent with the children's name not being recorded and the Witizan faction being led by his brother, Bishop Oppas. Sure, it is still possible that Witiza died of natural causes since sources don't say either way, and that Roderic took advantage of it to seize power, but it is simpler if Roderic plain couped and murdered Witiza.
    • Finally, archaeology revealed that while Roderic was minting coins in the capital, some Achila II was minting his own in the northeastern part of the kingdom. Was Achila one of Witiza's children? A third disputer to the crown, until he was also swept aside by the Muslims? Either way, it shows Roderic wasn't even in control of the whole kingdom when he went down fighting the Muslims. Then a 12th century list of Visigothic kings was found in France, that does not include Roderic (unlike lists made in Spain) and instead has Achila II reigning in 710-713, followed by a last one called Ardo in 713-720. The end of Ardo's reign coincides with the Muslims conquering the last Visigothic province (Septimania, in what is now southern France) eight years after Roderic's death at Guadalete.
  • The traditional view of the Battle of Roncevaux Pass (778) as Charlemagne's rearguard being ambushed by Basques assisted by Muslims in his retreat. A 2018 review of the area's geography and newly translated Carolingian sources instead suggests that the army's core was attacked (probably after being chased from Pamplona) and the Franks fought their way through 14 kilometers of pass with great losses, beginning at the plain of Errozabal (which was morphed into Roncevaux, instead of the battle happening at the town of Roncevaux, founded later and named after the battle). The key source confirms that Roland died, but also the Mayor of the Palace Eggihard, Royal Paladin Anselm, and many other paladins that the chronicler does not name because he considers their deaths common knowledge. This would only have happened if Charlemagne's own life was in danger and they died protecting him, which is consistent with Charlemagne covering 27 km in one day when the normal speed of his army was 8,5. In addition, there is no mention of Muslims at the battle, which makes more sense for the area and the time; in fact contemporary Muslims do not mention the battle at all. It seems the Franks hid Charlemagne's presence in the defeat and flight, and the Chanson de Roland later misrepresented the campaign as a Crusade and the battle as a Muslim attack on the rearguard, in order to include a External Retcon ending where Charlemagne hears of Roland's death and returns to bury the fallen and conquer Spain.
  • Horny Vikings. Real Life Vikings did not have horned helmets. The idea that they did results from early archaeologists mixing together scattered evidence from several time periods. Actual physical examples of horned helmets from Northern Europe are much older and appear to be ceremonial. Vikings were professional raiders, and their actual gear was Boring, but Practical. They'd know not to wear something so cumbersome as a horned helmet into actual battle: once an opponent got past the intimidation factor, those cool-looking horns would be little more than handles to grab onto.

    High Middle Ages (11th-13th centuries) 
  • Despite the modern associations with the word, Gothic architecture wasn't at all that dark; churches used to be painted bright colors, and there was plenty of light. After centuries, the paint faded away, everything was covered in grime and dust, and the colors were lost. Emulators in later centuries built buildings that looked like the old churches ended up looking, with all the gloominess and intimidation that entails, despite the fact that they didn't look like that originally. As a matter of fact, 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".
    • In terms of art history, the idea that The Renaissance was an improvement over Medieval and Gothic art became this in the 19th century, when Medievalism and folklore became a topic of interest, and many sought to restore and preserve Europe's Medieval past. Gothic architecture is now considered to be as great and beautiful as Renaissance architecture. Likewise, art historian E. H. Gombrich argued that art as a profession flowered to a greater degree in the pre-Renaissance age where they were part of guilds, patronized and subsidized by the Church than they were in the post-Renaissance age, where artists such as Rembrandt and others had to struggle in the marketplace to sell their paintings for a living and barely struggled over the poverty line.
    • The very name "Gothic" is a misnomer maintained out of force of habit. It is rooted on Renaissance writers deriding Late Medieval architecture as "the ways of the Goths" (maniera dei Goti) and proposing a return to "superior" Roman architecture, unaware (willingly or unwillingly) that the Goths were gone for centuries before "Gothic" architecture appeared, and that the actual period of Gothic rule in Italy was one of stability and continuation of Roman architecture (Justinian's wars, plague, and the Lombards should be blamed for its end).
  • Most things people can name about El Cid - that he killed his future father-in-law in a tourney, witnessed Sancho II's murder (and that Sancho II was murdered), forced Alfonso VI to swear he was not involved in his brother's death at St. Gadea's church, won a battle after death - are just literary creation, and have always been known to be (for one, St. Gadea's doesn't appear in the first poem from c. 1200 AD, but is introduced in the 1230s). Still, historians were willing to believe that the rivalry between the Castilian El Cid and the old Leonese nobility in the poem had a basis in El Cid being, or descending from a Self-Made Man who had gained noblehood through military service. However, genealogical and documentary research in the 21st century showed that he descended himself from Leonese nobility on both sides of his family. He may have been born in Castile as per tradition, or not and just accompanied Sancho there when he was made count, then king of it by his father. The 1200 poem may have introduced or exaggerated a Castilian-Leonese conflict because it was written when Castile and Leon were separate kingdoms with border disputes and opposing views on their relations with the Almohads, while in El Cid's time (c. 1045-1099) there was almost no difference between the two.
  • The view popularized by Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe of plucky "Saxon" commoners still resisting their "Norman" overlords a century or two after the conquest has 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 them. In the Robin Hood story, the Merry Men also long for "Good King Richard" to return and oust the evil Norman usurper, John. But Richard was John's brother, so, presumably, a Norman as well. Also it's often forgotten in the stories that although John did take control of England when Richard was held prisoner in Austria, he also succeeded him as king after his death (not without a rebellion, though it was put down).
    • 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 him being 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 the legend that 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. Sir 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 he didn't persecute the Saxon aristocracy and their allies during the "Harrying of the North" in 1069-1070. But he and the Normans did introduce liberties and achievements, such as the end of Saxon slavery and a reduction of serfdom. Likewise, the Norman-Plantagenet King Henry II would introduce The Common Law.

    Late Middle Ages (14th-15th centuries) 
  • The plague:
    • 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. The 1348 plague was not an exclusive European phenomenon either: By the time it reached Europe, it had already ravaged the Middle East and much of Asia, killing an estimated 25 million people in China alone.
    • 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.
  • Joan of Arc was lionized in 19th century Republican France as a symbol of the nation and the French people. Consequently, they turned her into a rival and victim of those opposed to the Republic - the monarchy, aristocracy, clergy - and diminished their role in the fight against the English. In reality, Joan was not a poor peasant, but the daughter of the Dean of Domremy, and could ride a horse before she met the Dauphin; she never decided strategies or fought in the battles, but served as a standard-bearer and rallying point while the aristocrats led the army (in fact, part of her defense at the trial was that she never killed a person, in battle or otherwise); and Charles VII really tried to take Paris (several times in fact) instead of witholding resources to engineer Joan's defeat out of jealousy. As for Joan's trial, it was the work of the Bishop of Beauvais who was an English ally, so it is not surprising that his verdict was undone by the French King and the Pope as soon as they could. She was also not burned as a witch. Her crime was relapsed heresy, having to do not with her voices but with her cross-dressing. She promised 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 opposing the English, and she was reviled as a witch and a whore in England for decades afterward because of that (e.g. Shakespeare's Henry VI).
  • 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 concluded that this was anti-Richard propaganda. However, when his 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.

    Not yet sorted 
  • Regarding Columbus' landfall on the Americas:
    • First of all, Columbus was not the first European to make such a landfall.
      • The Vikings beat him there by some five hundred years.
      • Adding another layer, pop history writers sometimes accuse hidebound academics of having clung to a Columbus-first paradigm until the past few years. That hasn't been the case for decades; it's pop history that's clinging to an outdated image of what academics believe.
      • Though yet to be verified, the discovery of carvings in Latin in Newfoundland suggests that even the Vikings may have been beat to North America by Europeans. Should they be authenticated, they will give credence to, of all things, a long-discredited tale about Saint Brendan, said to have crossed the Atlantic in the 500s.
      • There is even some evidence to support that Native Americans actually crossed the Atlantic as early as 60 BC.
      • 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.
      • Recent genetic and linguistic testing, particularly on sweet potatoes, has lent considerable weight to the theory that the Polynesians also reached as far as the east coast of the Americas.
    • 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, it 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. Fringe theorists still sometimes revive them, though.
  • Christopher Columbus:
    • The concept of a Flat World is a Dead Unicorn Trope. In Medieval times, people not only knew Earth was roundnote , they knew (and had known since the Hellenistic era) roughly how big it wasnote . Columbus, however, either got it wrong or shaved a third of the established value off to make it a better sell. 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 realitynote . 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?

      If he was genuinely wrong, his reason for believing that the distance between Asia and Europe was a lot smaller than it actually is wasn't entirely unreasonable (though it was still wrong, technically). His theory was based on driftwood reaching the Canaries from the west, with a frequency that was far too common to be from as far away as Asia actually is. So while he was wrong about the size of Earth, he was right that driftwood washed ashore in the Canary Islands far too frequently to have come as far away as Asia is. He knew something was close enough to reach on a sailing voyage, he was just wrong in assuming it was Asia.

      The "he fudged the distance" theory is used in Orson Scott Card's novel Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus and Alejo Carpentier's novel El Arpa y la Sombra. The former 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 pretending to be God told him to. The latter proposes that Columbus knew of the Vikings' travels, so he knew he'd find new lands, and he used the wrong size on purpose to get financing for the expedition and return a hero for the discovery.
    • 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) to 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.
  • Witch burnings:
    • 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 up and burned by the Corrupt Church because they are feminists ahead of their time who 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.
    • 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 Malleus Maleficarum, or "Hammer of the Witches", was not held up as a guide and example by the church. "Malleus", often named as one of the most evil and misogynist texts ever written, details essentially how women are prone to evil and witchcraft and stipulates how one can make sure a person is a witch. There's really no way for a woman to "win" once she's been accused according to the "Malleus", as refusal is a sure sign of witchcraft, the ability to withstand torture and not confess is proof of guilt (vis-a-vis the devil giving her the ability to withstand) and if a man should attest to her innocence all that does is prove him guilty too. This was however not used by the Inquisition or accepted by the Catholic church itself, though many individual Catholics did. It was later banned, though too late by then. At the time it came out the position of the church for centuries was that witchcraft was not real, and that at worst a "witch" was being fooled by the devil with false visions of doing things like riding a broom.
  • The Spanish Inquisition:
    • So the Inquisition was too busy killing Jews and Protestants to bother with peasant superstition, right? Nope! The Spanish Inquisition actually spent very little time killing Protestants and "crypto-Jews/Muslims", and 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.
    • 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.

      Accused persons were also allowed to have counsel, testify on their own behalf, and present evidence, something many secular courts also forbade. That said, many people died in prison before getting to trial (this was not unique to the Inquisition—diseases spread like wildfire inside prisons at the time). Confessions were also still extracted by torture, though again that was simply common practice. The Inquisition also put some limits on this the secular courts did not have. Only methods that didn't draw blood could be used, for instance (since priests were not allowed to). The strappado and water cure were favorites. While still quite horrific, they paled in comparison with some other common torture methods at the time. Additionally, torture could only be used once by the Inquisition, although this was often gotten around by "suspending" the session, then restarting it again later.
  • The concept of Trials by Ordeal were not the illogical or comic farces they are seen as today where the only logical result was guilt or death. In societies where religious belief was strong the guilty would be inclined to confess (often to a reduced punishment) while the innocent would request the ordeal. Modern research now shows that priests had ample opportunities to determine the results of the ordeal themselves,note  with two-thirds typically being found innocent. Those found guilty were likely privately judged by the priests or simply seen as necessary to maintain belief in the system. Trials by Ordeal vanished during the enlightenment as society-wide belief in religion weakened, and had been largely replaced already by legal reforms that the Church instituted (including forbidding priests to participate, which thus ended most).
  • Medieval arms and armor have long been depicted as clunky, heavy, and cumbersome, and only relatively recently has this prejudice begun to be overturned in popular culture:
    • Swords were believed to simply be little more than heavy and crude iron clubs inferior to Eastern swords, and knights simply bashed away without finesse. However reconstruction of historical surviving treatises on Medieval and Renaissance swordplay reveal a highly-developed and formalized school of martial arts. Furthermore, most of the sword and armor examples which led to the popular depiction were actually ceremonial and display pieces that were never intended for actual combat. Close study of actual battlefield weapons (which are much rarer, as these weapons were made to be used, not preserved) reveal light, well-balanced, and often very sharpnote  blades that actually contained higher-quality steel than their Eastern counterparts.note  An actual longsword would range between 2-4 pounds, with the median range being much more common. Compare this to Dungeons and Dragons' 6lb longswords in earlier editions.
    • The concept of armor that was so heavy that knights couldn't even get into the saddle themselves, or severely restricting their mobility, also owes much to display or ceremonial pieces, as well as to the elaborate and heavy tournament armor. However the former examples were never intended for practical use at all, while the latter was the period's equivalent of football pads, being overengineered to protect the wearer. Actual armor made for combat weighed no more than the kit that a modern soldier carries with him into combat, and in fact the weight is actually better distributed. Plate armor actually wore lighter than the mail armor of earlier periods, and when properly fit to the wearer offered very little restriction to range of motion. Armor as cumbersome as that depicted in popular fiction would have been completely worthless on the battlefield. A good depiction of this can be seen here, in an obstacle course run between a firefighter, a modern soldier, and a man in full plate armor. The armor came in between the soldier and the firefighter overall, but in the run in full gear, actually outran the soldier by 14 seconds.
    • In spite of the popular image, it's now understood that knights in full plate armor generally did not carry shields. For a warrior already encased head-to-toe in steel plate, adding a shield just leads to diminishing returns in the amount of protection it provides compared to the weight it adds to the kit. Instead, the arrival of plate armor led to the shrinking and ultimate abandonment of the shield, and the adoption of two-handed weapons (particularly the longsword, polehammer, and halberd) that were better able to deal with said armor (as well as providing considerable advantages to a fully-armored fighter's unarmored opponents). The exception is, again, tournament armor, which did have a shield — because jousting knights were deliberately aiming at them!
  • 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. As often is the case, there were a number of factors at work.
    • 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, allowing for one who had not regularly 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.
    • Another factor may have been the Black Plague, which was believed to be spread by communal bathing in the bathhouses. This is plausible if the infected entered it, as they probably did. Apparently the water wasn't changed very often, meaning that disease microbes would linger there. Regardless of whether this was true, however, it was blamed by some and associated with vanity, which the Plague was divine punishment for. The bathhouses, many of which dated back to Roman times, thus were often closed or abandoned.
    • Even before this it was possible the bathhouses could be disease vectors, as (despite condemnations by the Church) illicit sex (prostitution included) occurred there (this was also the case in Roman times). Some were even viewed as simply fronts for brothels, or just brothels in disguise. Thus the spread of syphilis from the end of the 1400s also seems to have discouraged use of the bathhouses by association, as it was then a quite deadly disease and an especially painful way to die.
    • Even then, bathing still happened. It wasn't anywhere close to modern frequency, but it was for the practical reason that the water had to be hauled to where you were bathing and water is heavy. Thus they would normally bathe with the same water that was drawn to do the laundry in as it was already gathered for that purpose.
  • Related to the supposed dislike of bathing 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 (Saturday was called "bathing day" in Old Norse). 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. Some Medieval chroniclers actually complained that Viking men were too attractive to local women as they kept themselves cleaner than local men.
  • Sauna is often understood as a particularly Finnish phenomenon. Actually the sauna culture existed everywhere in Europe in the Middle Ages, and it was a direct continuum of the Roman bathing culture. The Finnish sauna is the last remnant of the once pan-European bathing culture. Likewise, the Russian word for sauna, banya, stems from Italian bagnio which in turn is a corruption of Latin balneum, bath-house. The reasons why the sauna culture declined in the Renaissance were threefold:
    • The climate change which led to deforestation and scarcity of firewood in Continental Europe (remember, Finland is heavily forested and Finns have no lack of firewood).
    • The spread of syphilis, which transmitted extremely easily in saunas.
    • The Reformation and tightened sexual mores, which considered nudity immoral and obscene. The Renaissance and the centuries after that were the true Dung Ages, not so the Middle Ages.
  • "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 (or were expected to hold) 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.

    Having said that, poor communications back in the day meant that while kings in theory held the allegiance of all their subjects, they (like present-day governments in large countries) relied on local representatives for day-to-day governance. And again like many present-day governments, poor supervision by the higher-ups (kings/central governments) often led to local representatives accumulating more power/wealth than what they were supposed to.
  • A common "pop historical fact" is that alcoholic beverages such as beer or wine were used as replacements for water due to concerns about potability. This is, by and large, hogwash. Neither beverage in their own right is antiseptic (although both contain alcohol, and beer mash is heated during the fermentation process, both still harbor microorganisms - in fact the entire point of fermentation is that yeast grows producing ethanol. And yeast is a micro-organism. It manages to outcompete most pathogens, but not all), and primary sources indicate that water (pulled from difficult-to-contaminate sources such as wells or springs) was still heavily consumed in its native state. Similar to today, alcoholic drinks were consumed for their intoxicating effects and for variety in the diet.
  • Another pop historical fact that gets tossed around is that the average human life expectancy in the Middle Ages was 35 years old. While this is true, it does not mean that someone would have been considered elderly at 35. This is a wild misinterpretation of the data which ignores the meaning of the word average. In general a person could expect to live into their 70s, much like they do today, assuming they survived childhood. The reason the average life expectancy at birth was so low is because at much as 30% of all people born died before they were five, and the vast majority of those died before reaching one. This incredibly high level of infant/childhood mortality is why the average life expectancy is so low despite the actual human lifespan not being too different from the current.
  • The notion of Europeans importing spices to disguise the flavor of rotten meat. The meat preservation techniques known at the time (mostly involving salting, drying, or smoking) were rather effective, and spices were much too expensive to waste on meat that had spoiled. Most domestic meats, in any case, would have been kept perfectly fresh by the simple expedient of leaving it alive until shortly before consumption.note  If anything, Medieval people would have even more cause to avoid spoiled meat than modern ones, having no recourse but bed rest and dubious herbal or folkloric remedies to cope with food poisoning and diarrhea.
  • Food for those not of the nobility was often thought to be considered bland when, in fact, it was not. It wasn't seasoned the way modern people are familiar with, but they often used herbs that could be either fresh or ground into a paste and the juices spread over the meal, and so on. It was also healthier than many assume and with more variety. Commoners did eat meat, usually fish (if a fishable water source like a river, lake or the ocean were close) or pork. The Hanseatic League also engaged in Europe-wide trade of preserved salted fish to such an extent that it became "peasants' food" hundreds of miles away from any coast. Beef and chicken were rare, but that was because cows and chickens were used for their milk or eggs, so any beef or chicken came from one that had simply gotten too old to produce such or recently died of natural causes. Carp became increasingly common as the Middle Ages wore on - the Romans had tinkered with farming it, but it was medieval cloisters (and their demand for "fish" broadly construednote  during Lent) that led to a boom in carp farming across Europe, to the point that scholars cannot distinguish which parts of Europe carp was introduced to deliberately for farming and where it spread "naturally" or by accident. Villages also commonly had a communal pond that served as a reservoir for water in case of fire or drought - those ponds invariably housed fish usually carp, but also often pike or trout.


    Renaissance and Early Modern Age 
  • It was believed that Grand Vizier Ibrahim Pasha from the Ottoman Empire was married to Hatice Sultan, the sister of Suleiman the Magnificent, though this was based on conjecture and scanty evidence. In the late 2000s, research done by scholar Ebru Turan brought up a woman called Muhsine Hatun and discovered references to her in multiple Venetian and Ottoman texts, including a letter signed by her to Ibrahim. It is now generally accepted that Muhsine Hatun was his wife, and no marriage to the sultan's sister existed.
  • 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. 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. Modern historians believe that the massacre was actually instigated by the Guise family, who feared Catherine's alliance with the Protestant Navarre family.

    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—furthermore, 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.
  • The Borgias:
    • 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. Old Harry's Game references this in one episode, where Edith tells a man that there's no evidence Lucrezia Borgia ever murdered anybody. However, since the person she's talking to is Satan, he knows from personal experience that the rumours are true.

      Let's also bring up the infamous rumor that Lucrezia was incestuously involved with her brother and father. Similarly like the poison rumor detailed below, it was taken as fact by contemporaries and later eras to cement how despicable the Catholics were. Nowadays, many historians and scholars take this "fact" as mere rumors to slander the Borgia family. Yes, it's true that Lucrezia was said to be close to her brother and her father, but at the same time, there were no evidences the support the incest relationships either, especially considering that it was Lucrezia's first husband who started the rumor because of an annulment that he did not agreed to. It was only when Lucrezia had her first child with a questionable paternity that the people and the Borgias' enemies started using this as "fact" to attack the family.
    • And then there's the Borgias' 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. Pope Alexander VI's religious tolerance and philanthropy to Jewish populations in Rome was seen by his anti-semitic successor as Not Helping Your Case.
    • 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 a 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.
  • 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 he 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.
    • The belief that Henry went through six wives because he was a misogynist has also been called into question in recent years. Henry's father took the throne after the long series of civil wars, known as the Wars of the Roses, that tore the country apart. The Wars of the Roses came about because the ruling king was a weakling and deemed unfit for the throne and there was no clear next in line, setting the stage for various houses to vie for the crown. Henry VII had two sons but saw one of them die young (Henry VIII's brother Arthur) which served as a reminder that one heir is not enough, there needs to be a backup. Reportedly on his deathbed he told his surviving son that the most important job of the king was to secure the throne and produce heirs. Henry VIII was married to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, for over two decades and did not seek to divorce her until the prospects of her bearing a son became practically none. Anne Boleyn bore a daughter but miscarried a son and was then accused of adultery. Jane Seymour (Henry's favourite among his queens) gave birth to a prince but died shortly after. He deemed Anne of Cleves too unattractive and said it would be impossible to get aroused by her and therefore impossible to sire sons. Katherine Howard was believed to have been unfaithful and thus any sons she gave birth to could be suggested not to be the king's. Catherine Parr survived the monarch. Henry probably didn't value the women in his life the way he ought to have done but he seemed to have learned the lesson as his own deathbed words to his son were that a king's job is to keep peace in the land. Ironically Henry did father one of England's most successful and beloved monarchs - Queen Elizabeth, his daughter with Anne Boleyn.
    • 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:
    • Edward 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 Tudor (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  As for "Bloody", that sobriquet stems mostly from a couple of books published by her religious enemies after her death. For comparison, Elizabeth I ordered about three times more executions than Mary I did. Of course Elizabeth also ruled nine times longer than Mary.
  • 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!note ) 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.
      • The "she was a man" myth was pretty much entirely born out of sexism; in the minds of some people back then, no woman could possibly be as great of a ruler as Elizabeth was, so she must have been a man.
      • One version of the "she was a man" myth, promoted by Bram Stoker in his 1910 book, Famous Imposters, claims the real Elizabeth died of illness as a child and the members of her household forced a farm boy to dress up as her to keep King Henry from blaming them. Forgetting for a minute that lots of people died young in those days (Henry himself lost a brother and sister to illness), concealing such a thing for the entirety of Elizabeth's life would have required a massive conspiracy and everyone involved, from ladies-in-waiting to courtiers to anyone who was intimate with Elizabeth keeping their mouths shut, teaching a peasant farm boy how to like and act as a royal princess and for a man to be able to convincingly live as a woman long before hormone treatments and other things related to transsexualism were available. Even if you could somehow do all that, as the above entry mentions, the gynological exams Elizabeth was forced to undertake would render it impossible to hide.
    • 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 bloodnote , 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 the claims of sentimental biographers, 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 (Marie Antoinette apparently sometimes defected right in the middle of the corridors), with servants detailed specifically for cleaning things up afterward.

  • You may have heard of a young Powhatan woman by the name of Pocahontas who fell in love with the handsome John Smith and stopped a war between her people and his. Pocahontas, for starters, was not a grown woman, or even a teenager. She was a child, about 10 years old, who barely interacted with Smith (also, John Smith was a short, scruffy, redhead, not a tall blue-eyed blond. Nor were the Powhatan people ever "out to get him," or any of his associates; either he made that up, or he misunderstood a welcoming ceremony). She also didn't turn down Kokoum; she was, in fact Happily Married to him (that is, if he even existed at all, some historians believe "Kokoum" might have been some kind of nickname for John Rolfe), before she was captured by the English and later married John Rolfe. She was paraded around as an "exotic" prop, and she ended up dying at age 21 from smallpox while on a boat back to Virginia. So how did we wind up with the story told in the Disney film about her? That was the work of John Smith, who wrote her into his greatly exaggerated memoirs, claiming her to be an adult woman who couldn't get enough of him, as well as writing salacious (and also made up) stories about the women of her tribe. Creepy, much?
    • John Smith never wrote of any romance between him and Pocahontas. The stories of a romance between the two first appeared in the 1803 book Travels of the United States of America by John Davis and it stuck. Pocahontas and John Smith were friends though. Historians agree that John Smith was captured by the Powhatans but was released without Pocahontas' involvement. Smith didn't even write that Pocahonatas rescued him from death until 1616 in a letter to Queen Anne of Denmark - possibly to build up her reputation as The Chief's Daughter.
  • Until 2005, the subject of Da Vinci's painting the Mona Lisa was not assumed to be anyone in particular. Many works that have included Da Vinci would sometimes include a generic woman posing as a model. Turns out? In a way they were right - because Mona Lisa was in fact a real person. In 2005, it was discovered that Da Vinci was commissioned to paint a portrait. As for the name "Mona Lisa", well, "Mona" is an Italian honorific, so it's akin to referring to her as "Miss Lisa" or "Madam Lisa".
  • The Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras were initially thought to be ancient agricultural relics that were over 2000 years old. However, they were later found to be in fact from the sixteenth century at the very earliest, developed as a response to Spanish colonization of the islands driving lowlanders up the cordillera, where taro was previously farmed.
  • The Enlightenment was interpreted in the post-revolutionary and early modern era as embodying a largely aristocratic culture and society. The dominant image is still a bunch of cosmopolitan individuals gathering in a salon hosted by liberal nobles and later trickling down to upstart middle-class societies who wanted to be The Team Wannabe and who later misinterpreted ideas during the Revolution. At least that's how it was seen by the pro-Enlightenment Anglophones. This exploded when Robert Darnton published The Literary Underground of the Old Regime and explored the fact that many Enlightenment ideas and works proliferated to ordinary people via pirated books or in some cases disguised as cheap pulp and pornography, some of them written by Enlightenment types like Mirabeau specifically to flout censorship and pass Beneath Suspicion, and this played a crucial role in spreading and disseminating ideas to a larger audience than previously envisioned.
  • It was once widely believed among historians that The American Revolution was caused solely due to the imposition of British taxes without any representation from the colonists, who held no power in the American colonies. While taxation is still considered to be a major reason behind the revolution, more recent historians have begun to cite the Seven Years' War as sowing the seeds for America's independence, as not only did the war drain Britain's economy and lead them to impose heavy taxes on America in the first place, but the Proclamation of 1763 forbade any settlement west of the Appalachians, in order to prevent future conflicts with Native Americans. This greatly angered colonists, who were eager to travel westward and settle new lands. In addition, the British were initially lenient on colonists who wouldn't pay taxes; it wasn't until the Tea Act of 1773 that they finally began to enforce these new taxes, which became the straw that broke the camel's back and caused revolution to erupt.
    • Some historians have even debated whether the American Revolution was really that revolutionary. Unlike the French and Russian revolutions, which resulted in tremendous changes in society, in America after the revolution people continued to live the lives they had lived prior to independence, with rich landowning men still having the most power. In fact, the entire history of the United States can be seen as one continuous revolution, with things gradually changing over the course of decades. For example, slavery was not completely abolished until over eighty years after the end of the revolution, while women did not gain the right to vote until almost sixty years after that. African-Americans and other minorities didn't completely gain voting rights until 45 years after that, and even today it can be argued that minorities still have trouble voting.

    Modern Age 
  • The French Revolution, being one of the most controversial events in world history, is often periodically updated and revised:
    • Generally, thanks to Anglophone portrayals, most cultural depictions paint this as an event undone by revolutionary excess, thanks to sentimental misunderstandings of the original Reign of Terror which is almost never presented in its original context of a series of emergency laws to save France from Civil War and invasion. Later historians see the Terror as being part of the Revolution's war effort, calling it the first Total War. They also note that many of the key reforms happened during this period: increased participation of citizens with the government, restructuring the army, building of institutions such as the Louvre and Jardin des Plantes, and in 1794, the abolition of slavery. Almost none of this ever gets so much as an acknowledgement, let alone a depiction.
    • Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France was perhaps the most influential commentary on the Revolution in the Anglosphere and it is still heavily cited by extremely conservative commentators. However, Burke's actual reflections on the conditions of The French Revolution are no longer taken very seriously by actual historians as serious analysis on the events.note  Burke's defenders argued that his essay predicted the Reign of Terror, but the Terror was a consequence of the declaration of war (by the very anglophile Girondins), which was supported by King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette (aka bearers of traditions) and opposed by the very radical Marat and Robespierre. In addition the essay is dated for its rather bold-faced classist dismissal of the entire Third Estate as malicious rabble and "Jew brokers" and for its adoption of Abbé Augustin Barruel's spurious Conspiracy Theory.note  The historian Alfred Cobban, himself conservative, noted that in so far as Reflections deal with the causes of the Revolution...they are not merely inadequate, but misleading:
      Alfred Cobban: "As literature, as political theory, as anything but history, his Reflections is magnificent."
    • In most cases, Maximilien Robespierre is depicted as a proto-Lenin and proto-Stalin, when Robespierre never had anything near that level of influence and authority in actual policy-making. Indeed as historian David A. Bell remarked, "No serious historian of the French Revolution of the past century has accepted the idea that Robespierre ever exercised a true personal dictatorship." But then thanks to Hollywood History and Robespierre being far more well known than other revolutionaries, this has generally not trickled down to later depictions of the events.
    • The Revolution is also misunderstood as being a case of "anarchy" and mob rule with the masses rising against the nobles. In actual fact, the French Revolution was predominantly a middle-class revolution. The most radical party, the Jacobins, still advocated for what we would later call free market capitalism. The Parisian mob often sentimentalized and demonized, was in fact a highly literate and informed community with Paris having almost an entirely literate male population. Indeed, more left-wing factions were repressed by the Jacobins.
    • The pop culture viewpoint on the revolution also shifts with the radicalism of the general populace and the government of the time, and in revolutionary circumstances is the touchstone for a culture war between those sympathetic to the revolutionaries who believe that in the end the republic was a noble institution fighting for the popular best interests against overwhelming odds, and that it was a chaotic rising of the mob attempting to overthrow everything decent in the world.
  • The media following King Solomon's Mines that feature lost and always foreign civilizations in the mists of Darkest Africa:
    • These myths have their roots in the plain racist interpretation of Great Zimbabwe after its discovery by the British in the late 19th century, who stated that the place was "too advanced" to have been built by the "obviously primitive" black Africans. This view was debunked by archaeologists 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 or Asian 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, which persisted until the white government was overthrown... in 1979.

      Also, Great Zimbabwe wasn't as much discovered in the late 19th century as rediscovered. The place had been visited and documented plenty by the Portuguese in the 16th century, when it wasn't abandoned, and there was even an unfortunate Englishman named Jonas Wright who traveled there during a civil war, in 1632, and was killed. Making Great Zimbabwe any mystery required a big deal of self-delusion from 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 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.
  • Similarly to the above, the Mound Builders and other advanced civilizations in the Americas were later denied by Europeans as being Native American, a view which thrived in the 19th century. They ignored even the accounts from Spanish and French explorers who'd met the people there, or those who knew them, in previous centuries, instead positing that they were actually Europeans, Chinese, Phoenicians, Indians (from India), or Jews (the ten lost tribes of Israel-this theory was used in The Book of Mormon for instance). Tropes like The Precursors and Ancient Astronauts are often recycled versions of these, just replacing Old Worlders with aliens.
    • Critical to this was the still persistent myth of the "empty America", a.k.a. the stereotype that North America was wholly inhabited by small bands of nomadic, egalitarian hunter-gatherers until the Europeans arrived. This naturally tied into ideas of European innate superiority and how colonists were morally entitled to drive the natives away because they were incapable of making anything productive out of the land. We know now that the Midwest and Southern US was instead occupied by highly populated and stratified agricultural societies from about 800 to 1600 A.D., and that these presumably collapsed as a result of epidemics and increased warfare brought (ironically) by the introduction of European horses, iron, gunpowder - and the early European colonies' own demand for pelts and slaves. Thus the nomadic plains tribes later encountered by colonists as they crossed the Appalahians were actually the recent few, Mad Max-esque survivors of their collapsed civilization, rather than an example of how things had always been.
    • Archaeologists are just starting to find evidence that the same happened in the Amazon, and that Orellana wasn't exaggerating when he claimed to have seen large settlements while sailing along the course of the river (as he's been assumed for centuries).
  • Lost continents such as Atlantis too stem from outdated ideas. It was originally thought that land masses such as this were needed to explain similar plants and animals on multiple continents, with the lost ones between acting as bridges. Cultural similarities were also claimed between Egyptian and Mayan people among others, having a common descent from the Atlanteans. The former were debunked by the discovery of continental drift, with the latter going as well after more knowledge from these cultures was found, with no evidence to show they had a common origin along with distinct differences, or debunking most claimed similarities. However, by then it had been taken up by occult groups and is still thriving among fringe pseudo-history theorists.
  • 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.
  • Paul Revere's ride is an interesting example: though the basic facts are relatively well known, the interpretation of those facts has see-sawed back and forth over the years based more upon the tenor of the times and the personal slant of each particular historian than the known facts of the event itself. A recent history devoted nearly a third of the book to the perpetual and ongoing debate between Revere's skeptics and partisans. What's certain is that most people get their view of Revere from the famous poem on him by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. It gets a lot wrong, the most crucial being that he didn't actually get to his destination. He was arrested, while another rider was the one who got through. For the poem however "Revere" rhymed best and thus he got the credit (the real rider who delivered the warning, a Dr. Samuel Prescott, isn't known at most except for historians).
  • The Chicago cholera epidemic of 1885, which is claimed to have killed up to 90,000 Chicagoans after a thunderstorm washed polluted water into Lake Michigan. Historian Libby Hill debunked this in her 2000 book The Chicago River: A Natural and Unnatural History, showing that there were no contemporary records of such an epidemic; no more than 1,000 Chicagoans died from cholera, typhoid or other diseases in 1885. Hill's book hasn't stopped newspapers, novelists and even historians from propagating the claim, including Erik Larson's popular nonfiction book The Devil in the White City.
  • 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 uninterested to make use of them. In fact, non-castrated men were generally forbidden to enter the harem, which included the sultan himself. The task of choosing his bed mate generally fell to his mother.
    • The majority of women in the Seraglio weren't on the concubine track at all, but engaged in various professions necessary to the running of the Sultan's household. A woman could make a nice little fortune for herself and look forward to eventual retirement and marriage.

    20th Century 
  • The RMS Titanic:
    • The 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 the otherwise stunningly accurate A Night to Remember and the Nazi Titanic), while the ones made afterwards show it splitting up before sinking.

      Most notably, Clive Cussler shot to stardom with his runaway bestseller Raise the Titanic!, which imagines the ship in one piece. Furthermore, the book argues that thanks to the icy cold temperatures, the ship would be nearly perfectly preserved and thus capable of salvaging. Cussler himself acknowledged in later introductions to the book how he was working off of the assumptions of the time and rather happy he wrote the novel before the discovery invalidated the entire plot.
    • Raise the Titanic! also mentions another "fact", which was the ship having a massive gash across the bow from the iceberg. In reality, the iceberg just pushed in the hull's plating to allow water to seep in (had there been such a huge gash, the ship would have sunk in half the time).
    • Some works written before the wreck was found, such as Millennium, by John Varley, have the wreck never being found at all. In this specific case, the ship and the "casualties" thereon were supposedly taken forward in time.
  • Recent study of World War I era documents suggest that there might have never been a "Schlieffen Plan", at least as more commonly understood. This is, however, hotly contested among historians.
  • 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 became less one-sided in just 20 years.
  • The Treaty of Versailles was seen in its time, mostly thanks to J. M. Keynes' book, as a "Carthaginian peace" or a victor's justice forced unfairly on Imperial Germany. This was an explanation shared within Germany, by liberals, by Fascists, and by Communists (such as Vladimir Lenin, who cited Keynes' book in his pamphlets and notes), who agreed with Keynes based on his later fame as an economist. Decades later, the French economist Etienne Mantoux (who fought in La Résistance against the Nazis and died in battle) debunked Keynes' claims and analyses. Later historians such as A. J. P. Taylor, Fritz Fischer, and Hans Mommsen argue that Imperial Germany was truly culpable for the first world war, and deserved to pay reparations. They also point out that the problem with the reparations was that they were too lenient, as Germany was in a position to pay, meaning that Versailles was a Golden Mean Fallacy that humiliated Germany politically yet left it in a militarily and economically secure position to act on its vengeance, while leaving the League of Nations no force and authority to enforce the reparations and conditions of the Treaty. As the economist Thomas Piketty pointed out, far from being burdened with reparations, Germany's history is one of unpaid debts, generous concessions and cancellations.
  • It was speculated in the West for decades that Russian Grand Duchess Anastasia survived the execution of her family by the Bolsheviks. This was the inspiration not just for two films titled Anastasia but also for numerous Real Life pretenders who claimed to be one of the Grand Duchesses.note  Eventually, investigators were able to find and exhume the mass grave the family was buried in, and identified five of the seven family members; however, even after the grave was discovered, the bodies of Alexei (the only son) and either Anastasia or her sister Maria remained missing. In 2007, charred remains of a boy and girl were found near 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 even unwise to read too much into the fact that the murder weapon was a Webley to assume that the murderer had ties to the British. While it was indeed normally issued at the time to British Secret Intelligence Service officers, the revolver and its ammunition could be bought commercially all over the world and was a popular sporting or self-defence weapon; without recovering the murder weapon itself and checking the serial number, it's just as likely that whoever fired the fatal shot obtained it from a gunsmith's shop as from the British consulate. It also seems unlikely that a British intelligence agent, or someone in the employ of Great Britain, would use a weapon so easily traceable to Great Britain.
  • 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.
  • Nan Britton was a woman who claimed, in a 1928 book, that her daughter Elizabeth Ann had been fathered by US senator and later president Warren Harding. For years, she was seen as being obviously delusional, not helped by the fact that the book was terribly written. In 2015, a DNA test proved that Harding really was the father of Britton's daughter.
  • The 1938 radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds allegedly causing mass hysteria and chaos because people thought that Earth really was being attacked by Martians: There is no evidence of any "mass hysteria," riots, looting, or chaos taking place that night or in the days that followed. Also, according to a kind of ratings data, the entire United States was not tuned in to that particular broadcast; only a relatively small number of people actually listened to it, certainly not enough for there to be "mass hysteria." Even among those, very few could be described as panicking. Most just called up the newspapers and police to learn if something was really going on (a quite rational response).
  • 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. Philip K. Dick wrote his Alternate History novel The Man in the High Castle on the assumption that the Nazis were capable of overrunning half the planet. Since then, however, a lot of evidence has drawn historians to the conclusion that the regime was full of internal corruption and egotistical rivalries, which in turn hurt its efficiency in many ways. Which at least in part was by design; Hitler wanted his subordinates feuding with each other, both out of Social Darwinist ideology and because bitter rivals would be much less likely to join forces and attempt to seize power from him. Ultimately, the modern historical view is that Germany did as well as it did in the first half of WWII in spite of the Nazi regime, and a lot of it had more to do with Allied General Failures and unwillingness to take decisive action against Germany until the winter of 1939-40.
  • 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.
  • The claim regarding the murder of Kitty Genovese, based on a New York Times article that came out shortly after Genovese's death, which said that 38 people watched her being killed in plain view, and did nothing. This was, for years, the only narrative about what happened, even being referenced in Alan Moore's Watchmen by Rorschach. However, later researchers found that the Times story lacked evidence: nobody saw the attack in its entirety and those that did see it only saw parts of it. Some people heard her cries for help, but assumed it was a lover's quarrel or just people leaving a bar. One man did open his window and yell "Leave that girl alone!", whereupon the killer left. He returned again to attack her a second time, but disguised himself, so people who might have seen him didn't realize it was the same guy. The second attack took place out of view of any witnesses. Two of Genovese's neighbours did call the police and another, a 70-year-old woman, cradled her while she was dying. So while Genovese's murder was undoubtedly horrible, it was no more awful than most murders: the story that people "stood and watched" it happen right in front of them and didn't lift a finger is entirely without foundation, and seems to have been made up by the original reporter, as the Times itself acknowledged in a 2016 article.
  • The Pearl Harbor attack has become enshrined in history as brilliantly planned and executed primarily as a CYA and face-saving gesture for both sides. In reality Fuchida's execution was effective but hardly brilliant and Genda's attack plan contained a lot of fundamental errors which become glaringly apparent in hindsight (to be fair to Fuchida and Genda, no one had ever contemplated a carrier raid on this scale before and it's highly unlikely anyone else could have done much better). The US Military played up the supposed brilliance of the attack to make their own mistakes seem less important. And the mythical "third wave" attack on the oil storage facilities was never even considered by Genda or Fuchida until after the war when they realized it was what their US interrogators wanted to hear and went Sure, Let's Go with That. A lot of of this is thanks to the actual Pearl Harbor raid only being a small part of a massive simultaneous attack at targets right across the Pacific that was otherwise a complete success.
  • Even relatively well-known events like the Battle Off Samar became Shrouded in Myth fairly quickly: Modern scholarship comparing photographs and cinematography with the various ship's logs and action reports has revealed that the traditional narrative of the battle promulgated in Samuel Eliot Morrison's History of U.S. Naval Operations in World War II simply cannot be reconciled with the actual courses and positions of the Japanese ships involved. Even if Morrison had access to Japanese primary sources the heroic nature of the engagement and triumphalist tenor of the times would have likely prevented him from cross-checking "his" heroic sailors' accounts against their defeated enemies'. Among other things, the research shows that the battleships Yamato and Nagato played a much bigger role in the battle than previously believednote , and that the famous torpedo salvo that forced Yamato to steam north out of battle was probably fired by USS Hoel, and not USS Johnston as commonly reported. However, some remaining questions, such as the recently-unearthed claim that Japanese cruiser Chokai was fatally damaged by hits from USS White Plains sole 5-inch gun, will probably never be answered, as Chokai sank, leaving only one survivor, and the sole surviving Japanese source (Haguro's action report) to mention Chokai's damage states that it came from an air attack. Such confusion is only to be expected in a battle that historian Paul Dull described as being "so chaotic as to almost defy description".
    • As of 2019 and the discovery of Chokai's wreck, with all of her torpedo launchers and their reloads intact, it would appear that the claim that White Plains managed to sink her has been debunked. On the other hand, evidence was found that supported another part of her action log wherein she reported a disabling hit on one of the cruiser's turrets.
  • 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 President's Men (1976), he's portrayed as an anonymous figure in a trenchcoat, with some speculating that he was the combination of different people from Nixon's inner circle; 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. In retrospect, it was never that much of a mystery; Nixon's tapes show that the administration figured it out almost immediately and it killed his career.
  • Carlos the Jackal is the Big Bad of The Bourne Series, written while he was at large, 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 accounts for most of the differences between the books and the movies (he had been caught by that time).
  • Everything saying Area 51 is an Urban Legend is now this as of 2013, when it was revealed to be a spy plane testing site. This was part of the plot of William Shatner's direct-to-TV film Groom Lake. The other part was that, while the government did indeed use the base as a plane test site, using the UFO myth to cover up its activities, there was an actual alien on the base, which the government didn't know about.

    However, the existence and purpose of the facility (technically a remote testing site for Edwards Air Force Base) was never really in doubt, it just wasn't officially acknowledged. Nobody really believed the US government was enforcing a no-fly zone and large restricted perimeter around a random patch of empty ground for no particular reason, which until the reveal was more-or-less the official story.
  • During World War II, much was made of a purported document known as the "Tanaka Memorial", supposedly written by Japanese Prime Minister Giichi Tanaka in the 20s and detailing the steps that Japan would take to conquer Asia and then the world.note  The document was widely believed to be genuine throughout the war, though well-informed observers already doubted it at the time, and it was decisively exposed as a forgery following the Tokyo Trials. It's still not sure who committed the forgery (some sources say it was the Chinese Kuomintang regime or the Chinese Communists trying to garner more foreign support for their wars against Japan,note  others say it was the Soviet NKVD hoping to pull a Let's You and Him Fight between the West and Japan). The document seemed more credible to some contemporary observers because Japan was indeed engaged in an (undeclared) war with China at the time.
  • Dr. Charles Drew dying after being denied admittance to a whites-only hospital because of his skin colour when he was injured in a car crash, and thus (ironically) not receiving a blood transfusion. This gets a mention in an episode of M*A*S*H. He was actually admitted to the Alamance Greater Hospital in Burlington, North Carolina, and was pronounced dead half an hour after receiving medical attention. One of the passengers in Dr. Drew's car, John Ford, stated that his injuries were so severe — mostly in his leg due to his foot being caught under the brake pedal when the car rolled three times — that there was virtually nothing that could have saved him and a blood transfusion might have killed him sooner due to shock.
  • Enemy at the Gates:
    • The movie is usually mocked by historians for its portrayal of Stalingrad (most notably the way it shows unarmed Russians charging German machine guns and getting killed by their own officers for retreating). However, the film is actually (loosely) based on a 1973 non-fiction documentary book of the same name, which draws its content from archives and actual anecdotes from soldiers. Unfortunately, governments (especially the Soviets) classified most of their WWII archives at the time and only granted the author access to a select few, and many of the soldiers interviewed have been revealed as Unreliable Narrators. The book is still regarded as interesting and well-researched, but it's not terribly credible as a source anymore.
    • The sniper duel that forms the plot is largely true to an interview with the real-life Vasily Zaitsev during the Battle of Stalingrad. Scholars looking through German archives have failed to find evidence of the sniper Zaitsev claimed to have dueled, and it's now accepted to be Soviet propaganda. For example, official news at the time list the German sniper as one Major Walter König, Zaitsev's official biography lists his name as Heinz Thorvald, and no German military records, either Wehrmacht or SS, have any record of a sniper by either name.

Alternative Title(s): Outdated History


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