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  • It's commonly thought that Henry VIII created the Church of England in order to divorce his wives, whilst the Roman Catholic Church refused to countenance such a thing. What Henry was actually looking for was an 'annulment', or a church ruling that basically stated the marriage never existed to begin with (among other things, it also meant that any children would become illegitimate). The Catholic Church granted annulments all the time (and still do for those Catholics who find divorce unthinkable), but refused to in this particular case for political reasons. It wouldn't be until Prince Charles and Lady Diana that a Royal couple would divorce.
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  • Works which attempt to invoke Paris amid the dramatic changes of the 19th century and the gilded and wobbly vainglory of Napoleon III seem to gravitate toward two years: 1870 and 1871. Those dates are indeed memorable ones in civic history, but for all the wrong reasons. At that point in history, the real Paris was under siege, with battered soldiers anxiously discussing the war in the coffee shops, people eating their own pets just to remain alive, students manning the barricades, beggars dying from starvation in the streets, elephants at the zoo being found delicious, monocled German officers peering down cannons from just beyond the city limits, and later, after the city had fallen, a revolutionary Commune set up, ending in Communards being shot dead by government firing squads. All this reality would spoil the Parisian ambiance, so it's all quietly ignored. Works that make this mistake include Joel Schumacher's The Phantom of the Opera adaptation and Anne Rice's Interview with the Vampire. On that Phantom bit: in addition to the glaring 1871 opera house date issue, the film has Christine dying in 1918 as a victim of the Spanish Influenza. Thing is, 1918 France was not only besieged by the Influenza; it was also crawling out of the end of this little thing called World War I.
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  • It's often said that people in Ye Goode Olde Days in England always married young, sometimes so young that it seems like pedophilia to a modern viewer. But this is simply not true. We know from church records (which have been kept since at least the reign of Elizabeth I) that the average age at marriage for men and women has barely changed since 1600, holding steady at 26 for men, 25 for women all the way up to 1960. This affects not just how we see the past but also how we see media from the past. For instance, readers who buy into this trope might assume that Elinor Dashwood's fears of being an "old maid" at 19 are justified for her time period, but Austen probably meant to show her as needlessly overanxious about a possibility that might not even occur. This is especially true since most of Austen's other female characters don't marry until they're in their late teens or twenties. Belief in this trope can also take away much of the shock and horror that Shakespeare wanted his audience to feel over Juliet's predicament, especially since Shakespeare made her 13 when she's 16 in the source text.

    So why does the misconception exist? It turns out that some people were married off at a young age — aristocrats, who until much later were the only people mentioned in the history books despite making up about 0.1% of the population. These marriages were usually political alliances, and (unlike Juliet above) were generally not consummated until the bride was old enough to safely deliver a child. The average man or woman, on the other hand, had to work for years in order to save up enough to marry; while men underwent apprenticeships or waited for their fathers to die so they could inherit the lease on the land they farmed, women worked as household servants, dairymaids, and general farm workers.

    The terms "engagement" and "marriage" did not have the sharp divide that exists between them today. A promise of marriage carried as much weight as an actual marriage, and subsequent marriages could be dissolved as bigamous if a previous promise to marry existed (this is the "reason" Richard III of England gave for deposing his nephew and ruling as king, since his nephew was supposedly illegitimate due to his father's being promised to another woman before his mother, making their marriage legally invalid. Incidentally, it's also the reason for Speak Now or Forever Hold Your Peace).

    There were exceptions to the childbearing rule, however — Margaret Beaufort (Henry VIII's grandmother) was married at twelve and gave birth at thirteen. Most historians agree that the reason she only had one child is because giving birth at such a young age left her unable to have any more. It's useful to remember also that this particular exception was something of an emergency situation — the Lancasters to which both the Beauforts and the Tudors were satellite families were lacking in heirs at the time and facing the first rumbles of the discord with the other royal branch of York that became the Wars of the Roses. Getting a backup heir was more important than usual, which led to the very early consummation. As if to prove this, Edmund Tudor, the father of the child, succumbed to plague before the future Henry VII was even born.

    "Marriageability" would be tied ultimately to the menarche, which is still wildly variable and mostly determined by weight rather than age. Some unscrupulous rich men in the 18th century would have their daughters over-fed in order to bring them to puberty earlier and get them off their hands faster (a practice still not unknown in some parts of the developing world...). To return to Jane Austen, this explains why the thin and sickly Fanny Price is not "brought out" — that is, allowed to mix with society and thus be eligible for marriage — until her health drastically improves at age 18, when she also is noted to suddenly get taller — whereas the highly-sexed Lydia Bennett (who the narrator notes is both tall and quite fat for her age) is "out" at only 15.
  • No one realizes these days that the Byzantine Empire WAS the Roman Empire. Usually, they're treated as two distinct entities. It is somewhat understandable, as even when Rome was nominally the center of the empire, after Constantine I the two organizations became very distinct from one another. Even contemporaries from that time recognized and understood that the entirety of the Roman Empire was divided into two distinct entities: the Latin-dominated Western Roman Empire, and the Greek-dominated Eastern Roman Empire. Within two centuries of the fall of Rome, the Eastern Romans fully transitioned to using Greek (which had been the Lingua Franca throughout most of the Empire for centuries) in all of its records. However, economic and cultural structures were an uninterrupted descendant from the Roman systems, and they named themselves "Roman" until long after the Empire itself had fallen in 1453. This led to a little diplomatic comedy when the Latin Holy Roman Emperor Conrad III wrote to the Emperor Manuel I Comnenus, referring to himself as "Emperor of the Romans" and to Manuel as "Emperor at Constantinople." In his reply, Manuel called himself "Emperor of the Romans," and Conrad "friend of our empire" and "king". In his rejoinder, Conrad again calls himself "truly Emperor of the Romans," and refers to Manuel only as "King of the Greeks." They never once called themselves the Byzantine Empire, that phrase wasn't invented until a hundred years after the fall of Constantinople, to themselves they were the Basileia Rhomanion (Roman Kingdom, in Greek). Latin-speaking foreigners generally referred to them as Constantine's Empire.
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    • The Russians also considered themselves the moral heirs of the original Roman Empire, with the capital city of the empire referred to as "the third Rome" (the second one being Constantinople and the first one, well... Rome).
  • Many Roman historians embellished their history to make it more entertaining, such as the infamous exploits of Emperors like Nero and Caligula.
    • When Christianity finally got a spot to itself in Roman society, the "war" among Pagan historians and Christian historians derived into this trope as well. The Emperor you're writing about wasn't a member of your faith? Let's make him even worse than he was in Real Life! Pagan Emperors tortured people For the Evulz! Christian Emperors were traitors to the Empire! Lather, rinse, repeat. Until the Christians won.
  • Similarly, many supposed "acts" related to Christian martyrology are not only riddled with supposed supernatural apparitions and miracles, which are already kiiiiinda hard to believe for many, but some have glaring historical errors.note  A good example is the myth of Saint Philomena of Mugnano: supposed to be about a Greek Rebellious Princess who spurns the offer of an Arranged Marriage to Emperor Diocletian and gets martyred: there were no small kingdoms left by that time in Greece (it was divided in provinces, and Philomena's supposed kingdom was in the island of Corfu — back then, a part of the Macedonia province), Diocletian was a married man and both his wife Prisca and daughter Valeria outlived him for at least four years, Diocletian reigned from outside of Rome (more exactly from Nicomedia, Mediolanum, Antioch, and ultimately Trier) while the whole "tale" happened in Rome itself, etc. Many of the martyrologies were only written centuries after the fact in any case and some atrocities (such as the Christians being fed to lions in the Coliseum) don't have any evidence for them (the executions which occurred were likely at other sites, such as the Circus Maximus). It was only in the 1500s that the Coliseum was identified as such. Nonetheless, this saved it from being torn down.
  • The Wild West in particular is one.
    • In every Western movie you see, there's always the depiction of extreme violence running amok in the American frontier. Gunfighters shooting in the streets, the law being horribly ineffective or downright bloodthirsty vigilantes, and frequent bandit-attacks on banks and towns. Any Western aficionado nowadays know that these concepts aren't exactly true. Although law in the American frontier lacks the efficiency of those in the East (resorting instead to vigilantism and feuds), only an average of 5(!) homicides were recorded yearly in the big settlements in the Old West, because the wearing of guns was prohibited in many Western towns, and shooting up a town or killing one guy was borderline suicidal for gunfighters (they don't live very long).
    • It is safe to assume that the reason why most Western towns at that time such as Dodge City prohibited the wearing of firearms was because some towns did have a history of violence back in the old days. But even so, the violence was not as prevalent. Later towns such as Tombstone also adopted the same laws.
    • Gunfights in the Old West in particular are exaggerated. Although there were cases of violence that occurred on the American frontier, they were not frequent, and were just episodic and far between. Old West gunfights were mostly made up of outlaws versus the law, family or political feuds, or range wars between farmers and big ranchers, and NOT about gunfighters challenging another gunfighter in the streets (it also doesn't help that carrying guns was frequently illegal). If it does happen, the law will always be there to prevent them from doing so.
    • Another common misconception in the Old West is the notion that gunfighters fought in the streets with the use of the Quick Draw. Although duels (both formal and quickdraw duels) did happen in the real West, they were extremely rare. Historical gunfighters would rather have a pistol already in their hand as opposed to drawing them. It was also very rare to see two popular gunmen challenging one another to enlarge their reputation, although there were accounts of young guns commonly challenging a more experienced gunmen to make a name for themselves.
    • The word gunslinger is a modern term.
    • The Cowboys vs. Indians conflicts are also heavily debated upon. Most of the battles white people had with Native Americans were military. Also, relationships between ranchers and Indians were quite friendly, and Indians would even let cowboys cross their land for a fee. However, in times of conflict, there were accounts of cowboys fighting off rogue Indians for various reasons such as war and scarcity of food. Cases like those of Oliver Loving and the Pinhook Massacre are among the most gruesome examples. Cowboys themselves weren't that chivalrous either, and they too were just as aggressive.
    • The monochrome casting of many early Westerns is also grossly wrong. You see, most of the "opening" of the West happened just after the Civil War (1861-1865). The Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1869 (built mostly by Asian laborers) and most of the territory in question had been part of Mexico until 1848. But in 1950s Westerns all you will see in any major role are white males. Women will be shown as love interests at best and window dressing at worst and black people won't even show up at all. In reality many cowboys (you know, people who took care of cows and herded them to the next railroad station) were freedmen in search for work and fleeing discrimination in the old South.
  • Japanese media also tend to exaggerate their own period pieces (known as Jidai Geki). The Bushido Index code of honor for example, is actually a modern term created years after the samurai culture died.
    • Real life samurai were also not as loyal as they are perceived in movies. They would frequently betray their own masters for reasons such as money and being sore losers. Lampshaded very well during the Battle of Sekigahara. The samurai's legendary status of being calm and disciplined (to the point that this trait can be seen stereotypically to Japanese people in media) is also false. Most of the battles in the era were a butcher fest. Peasants themselves who unluckily gets the attention of sadistic samurais would get their heads chopped off... in public. They had the legal right to kill any peasants who offended them back then. Such an offense could be not housing and feeding a samurai with all they had, should they so desire.
    • The notion of a samurai only using the katana as his only weapon (honor wise) is also false. Historical samurai were depicted using bows, polearms and even firearms. Some samurai ninjas also used other despicable weapons in the eyes of the modern viewer. Katana duels were also very rare and frequently frowned upon. Miyamoto Musashi (the greatest Japanese samurai that ever lived) killed the opponent in his most famous duel using a wooden oar.
    • Ninja history is also misrepresented from time to time. They didn't carry straight swords, didn't use kunai knives and throwing stars, and never wore black jumpsuits (this misconception came from Japanese theater and art, used to differentiate ninjas from other characters). Ninja use of parkour is also horrendously exaggerated. And many historical ninjas weren't peasants themselves (except of course the Iga ninjas). Real ninjas were likely to dress as travelers, merchants, pilgrims, peasants, etc. (i.e. people who blend in).
    • Contrary to popular belief, most Ronins were not travelling swordsmen. They were more likely bandits and pirates.
  • One essay on The Battle of Epping Forest (the eponymous Forest being in the South of England) made the mistake (among many others) of assuming that the lyric "not since the Civil War" was an American reference. America isn't the only country ever to have had a Civil War, you know...
    • America may be the first, though, to use the term "civil war" for an attempt at partition, rather than a struggle for control of the existing state as a whole.
  • Some depictions embellish the torture used by the Inquisition, which was actually forbidden to draw blood during torture.
    • The Spanish Inquisition was actually highly regulated, not arbitrary as often depicted. However, since torture was an accepted way to obtain truthful confessions and denunciations were anonymous until the actual trial (which could occur as much as two years after the denunciation, during which the accused would be imprisoned without knowing who had accused them or even what the charges were), this was little comfort to its victims. Additionally, although torture was supposed to be used only once, and any confession obtained from it was invalid unless repeated in court, the inquisitors got around this by "recessing" torture sessions and picking them up later.
    • The Spanish Inquisition was also quite methodical in gathering evidence, to the point where it ended witch burnings in Spain a full century before witch-hunts began to wane in the rest of Europe due to the lack of physical evidence for witchcraft. Again though, since the main business of the Inquisition was to root out heresy, for which there was little physical evidence, this was no help to the other people accused by the Inquisition. It also helped that prior to the early modern witch trials, the Catholic Church officially disbelieved in witchcraft, so it didn't take much to fall back on this position.
    • Compared to secular courts of the time, the reputation the Inquisition enjoyed was such that it was a common occurrence that people imprisoned by the latter would shout blasphemy or claim other religious wrongdoings just to be transferred under the authority of the Inquisition.
    • The Inquisition actually introduced the legal concept of the presumption of innocence. Before that, the accused would have to prove their own innocence. The Inquisition held that allegations of witchcraft, for instance, required solid evidence; this went some way to alleviating the "She's a witch!" mudslinging that was the norm. Furthermore, inquisitors were obliged to provide the accused with legal counsel, considered confession without factual corroboration an unfit grounds for sentence, and were forbidden to accept accusations from ex-convicts or people who could benefit from the sentence. None of these precautions were observed by most secular courts of the period.
    • It's rare for anyone to note that the Papal Inquisition ("the" Inquisition) and the Spanish Inquisition were completely separate organizations. It's hardly ever mentioned that Protestants had their own persecutions of heretics (both Catholics and often Protestants of different sects) and witches. In fact they killed more witches than the Church. It's even rarer to note that the Spanish Inquisition was the state ministry, not a papal organization and served the interests of the Spanish monarchy, not the Church as a whole. It was founded in 1480 and was active throughout the 16th to early 19th century (it was formally abolished in 1834) so its connection to the Middle Ages is rather weak.
    • Often torture is treated as an exceptional method. Torture was standard practice and used by every king, country, city, etc. into the early 18th century, just as fines and imprisonment are used today.
    • Some of the first people to criticize accusations of witchcraft and torture were actually priests, since they had experience in dealing with both. They just pointed out the obvious: that, for instance, a broom will not hold a woman's weight in flight, and people confess to impossible things if tortured.
    • The Church itself also never executed heretics—priests were forbidden to shed blood, as stated above. The convicts were given to the secular authorities, who executed them. The auto-da-fe (act of faith) was not the execution itself, but the public penance of the convicted heretic before the sentence was to be carried out (many were spared at the last moment if they confessed and repented).
  • Heretics are usually portrayed as peaceful if eccentric evangelists and are portrayed in a positive light. In reality, many heretical movements during the High Middle Ages, especially the millenarian sects, strove to reform not only religion but also secular life. Some of them tried to achieve it forcefully, by physical elimination of nobility and clergy, attracting simple criminals. Comparisons with fascists and Bolsheviks is sometimes not too stretched. Another important detail is that many seemingly minor points of doctrine are far more important than they appear at first glance. The argument over whether the Eucharist is really the Body and Blood of Christ or merely a symbol seems like hair-splitting until you consider that it is the difference between true worship and either idolatry or sacrilege (worshiping the Eucharist would be idolatry if it isn't really Jesus, and treating the Eucharist as a mere symbol is sacrilege if it is Jesus). Orthodoxy is Serious Business because of Fridge Horror. This is also why heresy as a whole was treated so deadly seriously: to them it was. If the wrong belief sends you to hell, heresy really is worse than murder, as some theologians like Augustine of Hippo said.
  • Bruno was not condemned for his defense of the Copernican system of astronomy, nor solely for his doctrine of the plurality of inhabited worlds-it was just one of a list of heresy charges, including: that Christ was not God but merely an unusually skillful magician, that the Holy Ghost is the anima mundi, that the Devil will be saved, etc. Like all heretics, Bruno had multiple chances to repent, but refused. Supposedly, he even told off the judge who sentenced him to death with: "Perhaps you pass this sentence upon me with more fear than I receive it." In the end, he had his tongue pierced to stop him speaking while going to the execution site. As his last act, he allegedly turned away from the cross held up to him by a priest.
  • Galileo was never tortured by the church. He was threatened with torture before confessing, but this was standard (as in, any court anywhere, secular or otherwise, had little problem with torture at the time). His sentence for heresy was house arrest at his villa for the rest of his life. There were others, such as Giordano Bruno, who were burned at the stake as heretics. In addition, so long as Galileo kept to his Copernican astronomy as an intellectual discussion among eggheads like himself without talking about its wider implications, he was quite popular with Church officials, including the Cardinal who, as Pope, would later condemn him. It was only when Galileo claimed that his astronomy overturned Church dogmas, and began reinterpreting the Bible, and began talking about it with people who weren’t astronomy nerds (the trigger for his troubles was a letter to the Grand Duchess of Tuscany, who was curious and educated but not an astronomer) that he ran into trouble. It really didn't help that, at the time, differing interpretations of the Bible were grounds for war and rebellion on the part of both Catholics and Protestants, and that Galileo was practically in the Pope's backyard. Galileo claimed that the Bible is the final guide for the people, so all scientific discoveries should be included in the Scripture. It was the Pope who wanted to keep science and religion separate. Galileo didn't really get into trouble until he was asked by the Papacy to include a mention towards the Aristotelian model, which at the time was supported by the majority of astronomers at the time (people tend to forget that the first people to condemn Galileo were not priests, but secular scholars). Galileo did so, but only by introducing a very unflattering character into his writing that insulted his peers. Also, he mocked the Pope. More specifically, he made up a character called Simplicio, or "Simpleton" for an essay he wrote denouncing Aristotelian astronomy... and rather obviously based him on the Pope who'd been defending him.
  • Most people in 1492 knew the world was round (the exceptions were a few non-Pauline Christians and, as usual, proles.) Christopher Columbus never "discovered" it: Eratosthenes of Cyrene had experimental evidence of the roundness of the Earth and a pretty good estimate of its size a full two centuries BC. In fact, Christopher Columbus was the one who failed geography forever - the reason no one wanted to finance his expedition was because he was working under the assumption that Earth is much smaller than it really is; if there wasn't another continent in the way, they would all have died, and nearly did.
  • Those Wacky Nazis used a non-historical definition for the term "Aryan."
    • The term predates the Nazi ideology by thousands of years. Originally, that group of "Indo-Europeans" that swept into the Indus valley and the Iranian plateau during the 1500's BC helped in part to establish the Hindi and Iranian civilizations along with the indigenous people there. You can rest assured those people were hardly blond, since there is evidence that the Aryans and other groups of Indo-Europeans originated in what is now Turkey. Early racist ideologues of the 19th century (Arthur de Gobineau, Houston Stewart Chamberlain et al. whom the Nazis took inspiration from) built up a largely fictional mythos around the term and declared that it applied to white Northern Europeans. Tolkien even wrote a letter pointing out how inaccurate Nazi conception of Aryans were, saying it was a linguistic term referring to speaker of Indo-Iranian languages.note 
    • The fictional definition of "Aryan" was strictly for ideological / propagandistic purposes, and after the Nuremberg Laws (1935) replaced it with "of German or related blood" ("deutschen oder artverwandten Bluts"), it was no longer used in official legal texts.
  • Another common World War II history failure is the notion that the Waffen-SS was an elite, special forces organization.
    • While some did distinguish themselves in combat (mainly the first, second, and third divisions), the only extra training a Waffen-SS unit received that the normal Heer units didn't was purely ideological, and in fact, the combat training and equipment of some SS divisions were worse than the non-SS divisions. Before 1943 the SS were thought of as little more than thugs, and their military role was barely mentioned; they were bodyguards and internal security, not front-line soldiers. It wasn't until they started pushing their recruitment as front line units that they started to build the myth of elite status.
    • Another, smaller issue is the tendency of many works set in World War II to refer to the German Army as the Wehrmacht. The ''Wehrmacht'' was the more general, overarching organization (the equivalent in English would be saying "the military"-literally it means the "defense force") composed of the Army (Heer), Navy (Kriegsmarine), and Air Force (Luftwaffe). These titles (except for Kriegsmarine-it's simply Marine nowadays due to "Krieg" meaning "war") persist in the post-WWII Bundeswehr, which is also often mistaken for the German Army.
    • Yet another common fallacy about WW2 is that both the French and Italians were utter incompetents and total cowards who couldn't fight. The French were ferociously brave in much of their fighting, as they normally were; but they were trying to fight World War 1 all over again and seriously misused their tanks and planes. The Royal Italian Army for its part did very well when properly commanded and supplied; for example, the Italian ''Alpini'' and the paratroops were infamous for their ferocity in battle. It should also be mentioned that both countries were, along with Greece and Poland, home to some of the biggest Resistance movements in Europe; they bravely fought the Germans and gave precious help to the Allied troops.
      • The quick collapse of France is due mostly to the actions of their politicians rather than their military prowess. While most of the army was manning the Maginot Line in anticipation of a WWI trench warfare type battle, the Germans used their motorized units to strike through the Ardennesnote  and bypass the Maginot Line completely, reaching the major French cities before the army could react. At this point, the French army was completely ready to fight and drive the Germans out, however the French government had already capitulated and ordered the army to stand down.note  Had they known that the reason Germany used blitzkrieg techniques was because German industry at the time could not supply a prolonged conflict, history might have turned out quite differently.
    • Related to America Won World War II is the conspicuous absence of the incredibly badass French armies that were reconstituted during the war, such as the French First Army, whose motto, by the end of the war, was Rhin et Danube, referring to the rivers they had torn across during the course of their invasion of the Reich.
  • Napoleon Bonaparte:
    • Any media adaptation that portrays Napoleon as short. He was 5'6" (168cm), average for a man of his time. However, he was often surrounded by much larger bodyguards, making him appear short in contrast. Also, French feet were slightly larger than English feet at the time, making him 5'2" in French units. Additional confusion arises from his nickname le petit caporal ("the little Corporal"), given affectionately by his men for his humility rather than for his height. The English press (especially the satire Punch) seized on the misconception and began portraying him as a comically miniature tyrant to mock him.
    • Napoleon did not speak with a thick French accent. He was born (as Napoleone Buonaparte) and raised in Corsica; the island was settled by Pisans (yes, from the city of the Leaning Tower) and then it was conquered by the Genoese, who kept it as a possession until 1768 (the year before Napoleon's birth) when it was sold to the French. Moreover, the Corsican language itself is actually a dialect of Italian: if anything, it can be said that Napoleon spoke with a thick Italian accent! It stood out so much that the Tsar of Russia was known to boast that he spoke better French than Napoleon. French was the official language of the Russian court (along with many others) during the period so this may well have been the case.
    • Napoleon's Rags to Riches is often emphasized by his biographers and was part of the mystique of meritocracy that accompanied Napoleonic propaganda. The reality is still impressive, but not as plain. The Buonopartes were an aristocratic family in Corsica of relatively old stock. They were however a petty aristocracy grown poor due to circumstances. As a result of Corsica acceding to France shortly before his birth and a Royal Program to provide education to the sons of Corsican lords, Napoleon had an excellent education in the foremost military academy of the French Kingdom, but still faced racist mockery for his low-upbringing and Corsican accent. It was only during the French Revolution's Reign of Terror that Napoleon got his first promotion as a result of his loyalty to France over Corsica (which was allied with the Loyalists) and his exemplary military performance. He like many other generals were promoted as part of the overall army reforms, and Napoleon merely consolidated existing practises when he took over.
    • Thanks to British propaganda he is often portrayed as a near psychotic one step down from Hitler. While he was overreachingly ambitious and certainly ruthless when necessary, he was nowhere in Hitler's league. For one thing, Napoleon ended centuries of feudal anti-semitism by de-ghettoization. Of course, Napoleon was following on from previous reforms made by the Revolution (which he couldn't repudiate). It should be noted that The Duke of Wellington who opposed Napoleon was an anti-semite who as Prime Minister voted down pro-Jewish legislation in the Parliament.
  • Almost any work set in the Middle Ages will be plagued by this trope. Most of the widely-held beliefs about Medieval times were made up during the Renaissance and Enlightenment, which aimed at creating an Alternate History of the world where miracles of antiquity were followed by a thousand years of incredible ignorance and brutality, after which the glorious Golden Age started. The widespread anticlericalism of the Enlightenment didn't help much either. It gets morbidly funny when one realizes that French supporters of democracy (trying to establish and perpetuate the ideology) killed more people within a few years than the Inquisition (both Roman and Spanish) managed to sentence to death during its whole existence.
  • Death penalty:
    • It's often assumed that the mode of death in a judicial hanging is a broken neck (unless the drop is too long and the victim is decapitated), but this is only true of hangings conducted since roughly 1850. Before this time, execution via hanging was usually caused by strangulation. The victim normally either stood on a cart or sat on the back of a horse: after the noose was tightened around his or her neck, the support was gently removed and the victim would strangle to death. And it wasn't quick or pretty: the rope cutting into the throat and cutting off the breath, the twists and the contortions of the trussed body, the stench of the feces and urine as the victim's bowels and bladder emptied, and the involuntary erection (and often ejaculation) experienced by male victims were all deliberate parts of the punishment, as was the jeering, vicious crowd which would pelt the victims with dead cats, rotting meat and vegetables, and feces as they waited to be tied to the gibbet. The families of wealthier criminals could sometimes bribe the jailers to be allowed to pull at the victim's legs to hurry death, but this was not always permitted. Even this was better than the death accorded to women who killed their husbands, even in self-defence: they were burned, and most burning victims were not supplied with gunpowder or other explosives to make their deaths quicker. Executions were supposed to be agonizing. They were supposed to be slow. They were supposed to cause as much suffering as possible. It was a punishment, after all.
    • Ligature strangulation generally leads to unconsciousness within a minute. As far as burning goes, the gunpowder thing is overstated, but in most civil executions (as opposed to witch or heretic burnings), the victim was strangled first (see point #1). Women were more often burned (or in other parts of the world, buried alive, garrotted or beheaded) rather than hanged primarily for modesty reasons (billowy skirts and no underwear); the victim was actually completely surrounded by wood and straw rather than atop it. Neither punishment is particularly humane by modern standards, but they weren't intended to be the death of a thousand cuts either. For that matter, even the death of a thousand cuts (ling che in Chinese) wasn't really the death of a thousand cuts. The victim was usually drugged, and often killed right before the mutilation. Like burning at the stake, the punishment was more about setting a strict lesson in morality for the audience than it was about prolonging agony for the condemned.
    • Being "broken on the wheel" was a method of execution, not the means to extract confessions or information. The victim would be strapped to a cart wheel, then have their arms and legs broken with sledge hammers. They would then bleed to death slowly. It was reserved for people such as heretics whom even the ordinary painful death by burning or hanging was considered too good for. In the Holy Roman Empire of the Habsburgs, it was the harshest punishment reserved for traitors and rebels against the State.
  • From this Frank Miller interview:
    Miller: Nobody questions why after Pearl Harbor we attacked the Nazi Germany. It's because we're taking on a form of global fascism. We're doing the same thing now.
    Conan: They did declare war on us.
    Miller: Yeah, what I mean is, so did Iraq.
Especially amusing, given that a "fight against global fascism" is not really the reason — in fact, had Germany not declared war on the USA, it is highly possible that the USA would not have intervened in Europe at all, though the USA did give tons of supplies to both England and Russia in their fight against Hitler. FDR wanted war very badly with Germany, he just needed the American people to want war too. Use Miller's analogy backwards?
  • Gladiators:
    • Pollice verso, the gesture used to determine the fate of a defeated Roman gladiator, is traditionally portrayed as a "thumb's up" or "thumb's down," indicating that the gladiator was spared or condemned, respectively. This tradition was first popularized in the 19th century painting Pollice Verso. Historical description is very limited on what the gesture actually looked like, and its name simply means "with turned thumb," so it's impossible to know exactly what it looked like. The best modern guess for a condemning gesture is a jabbing motion to the neck, mimicking the fatal neck-stab.
    • While the lifespan of a gladiator was not very high, most fights between gladiators were not fatal. Condemning a defeated gladiator was generally only done if he had put up a particularly shameful performance. Gladiators were expensive to purchase, train and equip, so it would be an incredible waste to kill off a gladiator after only a fight or two. Usually, only condemned men would be made to fight in certain death matches. A modern estimate is that a gladiator had a 90% chance of surviving a non-death match. The approximately 10% that did die were due to complications from particularly severe wounds and not from a deliberate killing blow in the arena. Most gladiator schools had a physician on staff to treat illnesses and wounds sustained in training and combat, adding to the investment owners had in their gladiators.
  • Like marrying age, there is a widespread misconception of historical lifespans. For example, the idea that most people in the Middle Ages, or any other era prior to the Industrial Revolution, only lived about 35 years, with the average peasant getting old by age 30. In actuality, plenty of people lived to be well into their 70's and 80's at that time, even without modern medicine and whatnot. The reason the "average lifespan" was so low, was because of high infant mortality. At that time, babies and children had a very high chance of dying before age 5 from disease...but if a child made it past age 5 without succumbing to disease or malnutrition, they had a fairly good chance of making it to old age.
    • Here is a list of the last surviving veterans of American wars. Count the ones that hit the big 100. And before you point that these are all post-Industrial Revolution examples, bear in mind that Ramesses II lived 90 years and reigned 66. In the second millennium before Christ.
  • Post-1990, it became fashionable to refer to all Sioux as Lakota. Anyone who's looked at the north central part of a map of the United States knows why this is amusing.
  • The claim that all or at least most women that were burnt as witches were wise women is completely false. It was made popular by one guy and accepted as truth by the public because, well, people being killed for being too badass for their time to handle is much more interesting than people being killed because their neighbors didn't like them and claimed that they were doing witchcraft. Also, death sentences were extremely rare among the peasants, because landlords needed any workforce they could have. And wise women were usually the only people around eligible for the role of local medic and midwife. More often than not anyone trying to denounce a 'witch' was considered a troublemaker and flogged for his or her troubles. Modern French researchers led by Jacques Le Goff (The Medieval World) had tried to prove how those who took the brunt of persecution in the Middle Ages were not "the poor" (peasant, petty laborer), but rather the marginals / outcasts, those who lived outside the society norms: the supposed thief, the supposed unbeliever, the unwed mother, the strange old woman living outside the village and so on. Conversely, as so many people died from now easily treatable conditions, for instance complications of childbirth, the midwife-cum-medic often took the blame when they did.
  • Witches in Salem weren't burned at the stake, they were hanged. And none of the accused were actually practicing witches, or pagans, or members of a minority belief system, and no one who "confessed" was executed. The 19 who were killed were the only accused who maintained their innocence. And the Salem Witch Trials didn't really happen in Salem, Massachusetts, but in nearby Salem Village, now called Danvers.
  • When it comes to persecution by the Church, people today tend to go a bit overboard. For instance, a lot of media portrays the historical Church as violently anti-science. This is simply not true. In fact, the Church sponsored a lot of scientific research, particularly medical research, and quite a few Catholic researchers have been credited as the fathers of many scientific fields— including evolution. This makes more sense when you consider that in medieval times there were generally only two institutions in a country that would have the money and resources to support large-scale research: the government and the Church.
  • ANY depiction of Vikings is almost certainly wrong, since they never wore helmets with the iconic horns. Either they wore hats out of leather, or metal helmets that deflect sword blows away from the head (standards varied depending on what the Viking could afford). A horned helmet would A. be more expensive to make B. easier to knock off, C. adds no real combat benefits what so ever, D. would catch blows rather than deflect them, and E. give the enemy a nice handle by which to grapple you. When the Vikings wore decorations on their helmets, it was always wings, and even then, it was most often for special occasions, not for actual battle.
  • No, the "Viet Cong" were not the official army of North Vietnam. They were a guerrilla group in South Vietnam. And the real name of the group was either "Mặt Trận Dân Tộc Giải" or the French "Front National pour la Libération du Sud Viêt Nam" (FNL for short) either of them will do, but it's NOT "Viet Cong". "Viet Cong" was a derogatory term meaning basically "Vietnamese Commie". Additionally, after the Tet Offensive in 1968, most combat actions involved NVA regulars, with the guerrillas mostly sidelined due to their heavy casualties.
  • The current King of Sweden, Carl 16. Gustaf, is actually only the tenth King of Sweden named Carl. 16th century Swedish historian Johannes Magnus (1488-1544) invented six extra Carls as part of a pissing contest with Danish historians about whose country was the oldest, and this fake chronology was later adopted by the Swedish kings.
  • The pyramids weren't built entirely or even mostly by slave labor, let alone by mass-enslaved Jews. They were public works that helped put off-season farm laborers to work and which used sophisticated labor-saving techniques we're still rediscovering today. Don't even get us started on the idea that they might have been granaries.
  • The flag flown nowadays as the Confederate Flag was never an official flag of the Confederate States of America. It's actually either a rectangular version of the Battle Flag of the Army of Northern Virginia or the Second Confederate Navy Jack. They are also incorrectly referred to as the Stars and Bars, which actually was an official flag of the Confederacy.
  • The Lost Cause is not an accurate understanding of the American Civil War.note note  In detail:
    • Southern generals were better in the early war, because more Southerners than Northerners had gone to West Point. There were quite a few incompetent Southern generals (A.P. Hill particularly comes to mind), but there were more Southern officers in general, so there were more good ones. They were more gentlemanly than their Yankee counterparts, because the South put more of an emphasis on presenting oneself as a gentleman, but they were not consistently kinder or more honorable — and some of the worst General Rippers of the war, like N.B. Forrest and the guerrilla William Quantrill, were Southerners.
    • Lee wasn't a wise, sagacious saint. He tried to invade the North twice, and met disaster both times (Antietam and Gettysburg), which proves that he could make military mistakes; at the Battle of Cold Harbor, he callously stalled for several days before permitting the Union to evacuate its wounded from before the Confederate entrenchments — during which time almost all of the wounded died of their wounds in the savage heat. (This would be a war crime today; the First Geneva Convention, signed among European powers in 1864 and joined by the US shortly after the war, requires all sides to allow speedy withdrawal of the wounded.)
    • Superior manpower (ultimately even Irish and German recruits fresh off the docks, who barely spoke a word of English) played a role in the North's victory, but so did having an actually functioning economy, and so did Lincoln's excellent sense of strategy. His blockade of food to the South, like Lee's conduct at Cold Harbor, would be a war crime today; but his most important contribution to the war was his decision to transfer about half of the Army of the Potomac to the western theater (around the Mississippi), gambling — correctly — that if a Southern force could hold back 1 1/2 as many Northern troops, a Northern force could hold back 1 1/2 as many Southerners too. Meanwhile, the South continued to grow cotton for export despite the blockade, instead of planting food in its plantations, which might have actually allowed them to keep fighting — and Davis made no attempt to move troops west to match Lincoln's move. Instead, Lee frittered away the Army of Northern Virginia on pointless offensives into Pennsylvania — meeting disaster at Antietam and Gettysburg.
    • Over the whole course of the war, Grant took the fewest losses of any general, and Lee took the most. Part of this was that Lee served longer against larger enemy forces than Grant did, but part of it was Lee's reckless aggressiveness — as shown at the Wilderness as well as in his two invasions.
    • Both sides' soldiers were mostly farmers; after all, most of the world was mostly farmers. (In the post-Civil War United States, manufacturing didn't displace farming as the main economic activity until the 1930s and 1940s.) The contrast between urban Yankee and country Rebel is false. Admittedly, New England farmers lived in villages (which they called "towns") while Southern farmers lived in isolated houses, but villagers are not at all the same as city folk. (As for the Irish and German recruits the Union eventually fielded, bear in mind that Ireland and the Germanies were less industrialized than the Union; you can probably guess what their occupation was.)
    • The South fought over slavery more than over states' rights. Several states explicitly said as much, and the Vice President of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens, said the same in his Cornerstone Speech on March 21, 1861.
      • The South's interactions with states' rights were odd. The Confederate central government was weak, but in a way that was all downside and no upside; this could be called support for states' rights. (Alabama, for example, successfully insisted for years that its soldiers could only be used to defend the borders of Alabama) The Confederate constitution, meanwhile, was almost identical to the US constitution (even including the Interstate Commerce Clause, a loophole large enough to drive a centralized government through), except that it was more restrictive on slavery. (The Confederate constitution forbade banning slavery, but also forbade importing slaves.) This was absolutely not support for states' rights. In short, states' rights weren't much of a concern for the Confederacy one way or the other. The South actually was hostile to states' rights when it went against them. For instance, many free states passed laws saying slaves brought into their territory were automatically freed. This naturally pissed off visiting Southerners who wanted to bring their cook or driver along. Also, the free states obstructed the return of fugitive slaves to their owners by measures like requiring that a jury find they were indeed fugitive slaves before returning them (some slave-catchers were known to misidentify free blacks). Juries often refused to do this. Because of such things, the issue became federalized by the Fugitive Slave Act, with federal marshals hunting down escaped slaves-hardly what a states' rights supporter would want. Of course the free states loudly protested this, and it helped move civil war closer.
      • The political ideology of state's rights was rarely mentioned in the run up to the Civil War. As shown by the Articles of Secession and other documents of the time, the predominant Southern concern was the maintenance of their way of life, which was heavily reliant on slavery. The South actively embraced federal power when it benefited them (i.e. the Dred Scot decision, the Fugitive Slave Act). Due to the infamous 3/5ths compromise, white southerners had a disproportionate influence in the Federal government, and it was only when the population of the North threatened this (the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 occurred without a single southern state voting for him) that secession picked up steam.
      • What might have been a concern for the Confederacy, other than their obvious and loudly-asserted desire to fight for slavery: fear of being ruled by a hostile tribe. (The same had held for New England in earlier periods, when the South had the upper hand.) Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America discusses the extreme differences in values among the four foundational cultures of the United States: the egalitarian, town-dwelling, well-armed Puritans; the proud Cavaliers, who imported slaves so that they could have peasants who wouldn't run away, and only found an economic use for them afterwards; the Quakers, who were the kind of pacifists that have a whipping post in every town square; and the wild, barbarous Scotch-Irish.
    • Lincoln had explicitly promised to allow slavery to function in existing areas, and to adopt compensated emancipation for the South just as had already been done in the North. (New Jersey, the last Northern state to ban slavery, bought out its last slaveholders in 1858.) And while he fought a brutal (if well-strategized) war, he intended to follow it with a very lenient peace; when Booth assassinated him, Lincoln was carrying Confederate as well as Union money. Booth killing Lincoln when he did was the worst of all possible worlds for the South; the war was already lost, and now the South would lose the peace as well.
    • The Articles of Confederation explicitly ruled out a right to secede from the Union. The Constitution is silent on the issue, and one could argue the case either way (New England had come close to secession in the 1830s, and certainly thought it was valid then). If the South had made a peaceful case for secession, the North would probably have let them go; but South Carolina shot first, bombarding a ship resupplying Fort Sumter, then the fort itself. It wasn't news of secession that inspired the North to fight to hold the South in the Union; it was news of the battle at Fort Sumter.
    Abraham Lincoln: Under all these circumstances, do you really feel yourselves justified to break up this Government unless such a court decision as yours is, shall be at once submitted to as a conclusive and final rule of political action? But you will not abide the election of a Republican president! In that supposed event, you say, you will destroy the Union; and then, you say, the great crime of having destroyed it will be upon us! That is cool.note  A highwayman holds a pistol to my ear, and mutters through his teeth, "Stand and deliver, or I shall kill you, and then you will be a murderer!"
    • How were slaves treated in the Old South?
      • Relations between masters and slaves were often polite and friendly on the surface, as shown by the slavery narratives collected by the US government in the 1930s. One has to be careful taking these narratives at face value, however, as they were often collected by white Southerners, interviewing black people who were suspicious of their intentions, with few qualms about leading the conversations in the direction they desired.
      • Slaves did not have a legal right to own property, or a legal right to buy their freedom.
      • A minority of slave owners allowed their slaves to own property, and to buy their freedom; but most didn't, and this was at a master's discretion. A master was not obliged to accept any price for a slave's freedom, and he could seize a slave's savings if he wanted to.
      • Slavery, by definition, is holding people in a situation where they can be compelled to work for you whether they're paid or not, and where they aren't permitted to leave. If the value of their labor is greater than zero, it's economically exploitative (although many slaves did their level best to make the value of their labor less than zero, by feigning stupidity and carelessness); regardless, being forbidden to leave is exploitative in some sense.
      • Few masters mistreated their slaves if they stayed as slaves and made a show of being content with their lot; but all slaves knew that plotting to revolt meant torture (to reveal any co-conspirators) and death, and that attempts to escape meant severe beatings. After the war, it got worse: lynch mobs (originally a Scotch-Irish "custom" that mostly targeted whites-almost exclusively white-on-black in the lowland South after the war) could and did kill blacks cruelly (sometimes even burning them to death), based on nothing more than rumors.
      • Few or no laws regulated masters' conduct. Custom did, to an extent, but custom is not as powerful as law — and such laws as did exist were very laxly enforced. Physically abusive slave owners were rare, but not by any means non-existent; and slaves had no legal recourse if mistreated.
      • Many or most slave owners were guilty of breaking up slave families by selling one member of a family, but not the others with them.
      • Slaves were not normally permitted to contract Christian marriages — despite Christianization of the slaves being one of the arguments made in favor of slavery, both at the time and later.
      • In Virginia in 1860, it was illegal to teach slaves to read and write, thanks to the Nat Turner rebellion in 1830 (Turner was a slave preacher who used services to agitate for rebellion). Stonewall Jackson defied this law — and the Lost Cause celebrates him for doing so — but most masters didn't. Recall how Christianization of the slaves was an argument in favor of slavery, that the South was overwhelmingly Protestant, and that being a faithful Protestant more or less requires reading the Bible.
  • Early humans:
    • Early humans are often depicted as inventors of the wheel, but it actually wasn't invented until the late Neolithic period, thousands of years after the development of agriculture and pottery.
    • Contrary to popular depictions, there is no evidence that early humans used clubs. Instead they used spears.
    • The term "cave people" is actually a misnomer, as early humans mostly lived in huts or tents. Many did shelter in caves, but caves weren't very common.
  • Rome is often described as having salted Carthage's fields after destroying it in the Third Punic War. This is almost certainly untrue, since that would've rendered those fields useless for distribution to Roman citizens.
  • A common misconception about the Middle Ages holds that the knight's plate armor was so heavy he couldn't even move, much less mount his own horse, without a crane to hoist him up. That myth dates back to 19th-century jokes, and was ingrained in the public mind via Laurence Olivier's movie version of Henry V. A real-life knight's armor only weighs up to 55 pounds, which is much lighter than the kit of a Roman legionary or a World War II GI. And besides, not only could knights mount their own horses with little or no assistance, there are records of high-profile knights actually leaping onto their horses in full suits of armor. In fact, there are multiple accounts of a knight testing out a new suit of armor by doing cartwheels in it.
  • George Washington Carver is often credited with the invention of peanut butter. However, by the time his work on peanuts had begun in earnest, numerous methods of making peanut butter had already been developed for decades. The U.S. Patent Office credits a Canadian pharmacist named Marcellus Gilmore Edson for its invention. And it's actually even older than that: the Aztecs were eating peanut butter as early as the 15th Century.
  • Joseph McCarthy is frequently thought to have been somehow involved with the House Un-American Activities Committee. In reality, he never had anything to do with them (the fact that he was a Senator really should tip off more people).
  • It's popularly believed that Australian Aborigines were all hunter-gatherers. While this is true for the most part, there were exceptions. For example, the Gunditjmara people had a sophisticated system of aquaculture, which they used to farm eels.
  • Neither Dan White nor any member of his legal team claimed that he went insane from eating twinkies. The infamous "twinkie defense" was actually more complex than that. White's defense was that he suffered diminished capacity as a result of depression, and his change in diet from healthful foods to twinkies and other sugary foods was entered as evidence.
  • Vomitoriums are often thought to be rooms — or even entire buildings — where the Romans forced themselves to throw up so they could eat more. While binging and purging may have been an actual Ancient Roman dietary practice, a vomitorium was actually a passage in an amphitheater or stadium through which large crowds could exit quickly.
  • Immigrants' names were not Americanized (voluntarily, by mistake, or otherwise) upon arrival at Ellis Island.
  • Benito Mussolini did not make the Italian trains run on time. Much of the repair work that made this possible was done before the advent of Fascist Italy.
  • No, Albert Einstein didn't do poorly in school. To the contrary, he did extremely well. He was actually a child mathematics prodigy who was doing both differential and integral calculus by age 12. It is true, however, that he didn't like the then-very-militaristic German schools. The myth may have arisen because the grade rankings in Switzerland (where he was born and went to school) are opposite to the ones in Germany (where he lived later). In Germany, 1 is the best grade, 6 the worst. In Switzerland, 6 is the best and 1 the worst. It could be assumed some Germans heard that Einstein "only" got 6s and came to the wrong conclusion. Also, when he first tried to apply at ETH Zürich (a science and technology university) he didn't pass the entrance exam because it was written in French. He still got exceptional marks in mathematics and physics. The other source of this myth may be the opinion of his teachers, who claimed that young Einstein was often prone to daydreaming and had trouble in focusing. Which is not surprising given that Einstein had already mastered large parts of his curriculum and was simply bored as hell.
  • The Siege of Vienna is often depicted as a battle between Christians and Muslims. In reality, there were significant contingents of Christians and Muslims on both sides.
  • Similarly, the Battle of Haldighati tends to be portrayed as a conflict between Hindus and Muslims. But in fact, Maharana Pratap's forces included a number of Muslim mercenaries, while a number of Hindu Rajputs fought for the Mughals.

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