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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.



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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. One of the main reasons being that many people of European descent, including respected scientists, simply couldn't fathom or palate that humanity's ancestor could have originated some place other than Europe or its near vicinity, much less Darkest Africa. Another reason was that some of the people who guessed were supporters of the eolithnote  theory, and the Piltdown Man was the only thing to support their theory, so they kept silent. A third 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; at the time of 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.note 
    • The fact that 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, didn't help either. Believers in their authenticity considered them too priceless to be handled, and any curators with private doubts may not have wanted their origin debunked on their watch.
  • 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. Recent analysis has indicated, however, that the individual in question was probably well over sixty years old and suffered from severe arthritis and bone wastage.note  Most skeletons found since suggest that a Neanderthal would likely look very similar to a modern human (though they'd still struggle in 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 has also been assumed that Neanderthals couldn't speak, or that their ability to articulate was very limited, because the all-important hyoid bone was not found in any of the skeletons until 1983. Writers like Auel who wanted to portray them as intelligent usually had them use a sophisticated Hand Signals language. Now, it turns out they had hyoid bones all along.
      • In fact, it's likely that the modern human's version of the FOX P2 gene came from Neanderthals.
      • Later analysis of their vocal tracts have shown that they would not be capable of human speech, however, meaning they would sound rather strange to us. That wouldn't necessarily prevent them from communicating with sounds, just not quite with the same sounds as us.
      • 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, while Timmy learns to speak English—it just 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) have been thoroughly disproved 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).
  • 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.
  • 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 seasonnote . Currently, the general idea seems to be that the builders were free men, but not doing the labor voluntarily—the government was taking their taxes in the form of labor rather than money or goods. Furthermore, they were building temples to their gods - and that might qualify them to be treated better in the afterlife. Still, virtually every movie set in Ancient Egypt gets this one wrong.
    • 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 migrated directly from what is now Iraq, without any stopover, conquering or assimilating the local Canaanites. 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. Recent tests on her mummy show however that she likely died of cancer that either formed in the liver or spread there from an unknown primary location. There was also a flask of skin lotion found with her whose contents included benzopyrene, a potent carcinogen sometimes found in traditional eczema preparations.
  • Paintings dating back to the reign of Akhenaten (Amenhotep IV) show the "heretic king" with a large, flabby belly, unusually wide hips, and other features not often seen on healthy adult men. Until very recently it was assumed that these paintings portrayed Akhenaten accurately and that his unusual body shape was likely a result of either an intersex state or birth defects caused by generations of inbreeding. CT scans of his mummy, though, reveal that he was neither intersex nor deformed in any way. Historians now think that the body differences shown on the paintings were totemic - in other words, that Akhenaten was portrayed that way for religious purposes.
    • Likewise, his disestablishment of the state religion and proclamation of Aten as the one and only true God has been portrayed as a New Age revelation just short of Crystal Spires and Togas, a beneficent proto-Christianity, the inspiration for monotheistic Judaism, a megalomaniac's delusions, or even something his mom put him up to for political reasons. The most popular theory among historians was that it was due more to a feeling that the traditional gods had deserted Egypt (not only had the country endured a massive earthquake and tsunami but also a long series of pandemics) coupled with Akhenaten's desire to wrest power from the priests of Amun.
  • X-ray evidence showing splinters of bone inside Tutankhamen's skull once led historians to believe that the pharaoh was murdered by his vizier, Ay, as part of a palace coup. Scans years later of the mummy using modern diagnostic imaging devices have proved that the skull was splintered from the inside after death, probably as part of the mummification process, and that Tutankhamen likely died from a massive infection arising from a fractured leg (this does not disprove that Ay killed him, of course, but it does make it less likely—broken bones were not necessarily fatal even at that point in time). This mistake has shown up not just in novels but also in a few Video Games.
    • And is something of a plot point in The Egyptian and Mummies Alive!
    • And even newer evidence from DNA sequencing finds that Tut was the product of Brother/Sister incest, had malaria, and, if he had lived longer, would have developed a serious bone disease. Examination of his skeleton showed that unlike his father Akhenaten, Tutankhamen was deformed from inbreeding, by a club foot and slight cleft palate and overbite.
    • It was also originally assumed that Tutankhamen's reign couldn't possibly have been of any real significance, simply because he died at such a young age. That was before it was verified that he was Akhenaten's son, and thus took the throne during one of the most tumultuous periods of Egyptian history. The fact that his reign was the one in which worship of Amun was restored means, even if he personally did very little, his reign really did have an impact.
  • 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 and brown skinned is thus dated. Since there have always been Egyptians of all skin and hair 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 ethnicsnote  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 ethnics and population mixing over the centuries.

    Ancient Levant 
  • Most historians now doubt that Judah and Israel were ever a single united kingdom under the House of David (or Saul, or a confederation under the loose rule of the Judges). Considering that the source material was for many years considered too sacred to question...
    • Closer examination of said source material demonstrates that even the contemporary authors themselves were aware of infighting among the ancient Jews. Most of the blame can be laid at the feet of those who gloss over such things in the quest to find good allegories.
    • Similarly, differences between the northern and southern Jewish kingdoms are thought to explain the story of the Jewish Exodus. There's little to no credible evidence of the entire population of Hebrews being enslaved in Egyptnote . Later attempts to integrate this fact with the book of Exodus involved smaller groups either as hostages or mercenaries, or groups of commoners escaping famine conditions. The present historical thesis is that the entire story is political grandstanding; the earliest written accounts of the Exodus were found in the northern kingdom of Israel. While the southern kingdom of Judah was an Egyptian client state, Israel instead allied itself with Egypt's Mesopotamian rivals.
  • The final redaction date for the Torah has continually moved forward, from earlier than 1000 B.C. (the alleged time of Moses, and the rise of the Kohanim priests), to the Deuteronomical revival of king Josiah of Judah in circa 600 B.C.. Some historians even believe that the Torah didn't reach 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.
  • 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.
  • Similarly, Jesus is only ever described as a tekton - a Greek word that simply means "worker". The idea that he was a carpenter arose largely because his father Joseph was a woodworker and most people assumed he taught Jesus his trade. "Our Savior the Carpenter" sounds more noble than "Our Savior the Itinerant Worker", which is what many believe the historical Jesus to have been. Other theologians argue that considering Jesus never made any references to carpentry in his teachings but did talk quite a bit about stones, he may have been a stonemason instead.
  • The Synoptic Problem, as briefly mentioned above. Basically, the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke (the "synoptic" gospels, meaning "same eye"), all agree on the basic structure of Jesus' life, and contain much material (the Triple Tradition, almost all of which is the "biographical" portion of the three Gospels) that is the same word-for-word. In addition, there is a considerable amount of other material that is shared between Matthew and Luke, but not Mark (the "Double Tradition"; this is mostly "sayings", among them the Lord's Prayer and the Beatitudes). The problem, so to speak, is attempting to determine which of the Gospels came first, and whether the other two knew of each other. In the 5th century, St. Augustine of Hippo proposed a hypothesis that Matthew was the first of the three written, Mark was an edited version, and Luke copied from both of them. This is still the official position of the Roman Catholic Church (due to the tradition of the Book of Matthew being written by one of the Apostles), and the ordering of the Gospels in modern Bibles comes from this hypothesis. Many scholars would later come to reject the theory citing Mark's overall shortness, relatively crude Greek, and the fact that Matthew and Luke don't really seem to agree on anything outside of the common material, and often interpret the common material in different ways. Several other theories about the order have been proposed over the years, with the current majority behind the "two source" hypothesis: the book of Mark came first, and the books of Matthew and Luke copied independently from Mark and a hypothetical "sayings" source, often referred to as "Q."
  • People thought that Balthazar 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, Balthazar stayed behind to fortify the city. Cue the writing on the wall.
  • The discovery of the Nag Hammadi Library in the late 1940s really shook up the world's image of the early history of Christianity, as they contained the scriptures of a long-extinct sect of Christianity called the Gnostics, who had a radically different view of God and Jesus than traditional Christianity. These sources also contained several Apocryphal texts—gospels that failed to make the final cut and weren't included in the Bible.
    • Gnostic views were known long before, it's just that much of the prior knowledge came from second-hand sources like Orthodox writers bashing Gnosticism. The discovery 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.

    Classical Antiquity 
  • 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, this theory is no longer thought to be true either. Obviously the paint flecks reveal that some Roman marble statues were painted, but other historical evidence disagrees. Several statues were found with no traces of paint at all, and furthermore, historical texts (Ovid, Virgil) describe the fair 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. Glad we cleared that up.
    • 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. In fact, Romans 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.
    • And 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 Middle Ages (usually for cannons and church bells), and you couldn't melt marble down into anything useful. For these statues, BTW, we cannot know how much of them was painted, since so few survive, but all the mentions of white are hardly applicable to them.
  • 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?
  • The history of Troy. Up to the times of the Renaissance, Homer's account of The Trojan War (minus the machination of the gods, of course) was treated as historical truth. But as scientific archaeology was being 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 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 in the stories 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 have destroyed several key locations. Population movements were huge; they even wanted to settle in Egypt—where they became known as Sea Peoples—but the pharaoh, understanding the danger overpopulation would bring, stopped them. A group settled in Canaan though, known as Peleset/Philistines, which gives us the myth of David and Goliath. First it was rejected, but now scholars see the armor Goliath wore as plausible for the Mycenaean civilization. His Greek name was probably Kalliades. His story might have Greek origin, and certain hard to translate phrases from the Bible seem to be loan translations from Ancient Greek.
    • While the possibilities the Trojans won are interesting, they're still hypotheses. We know there was a Troy though, also known as Ilios, in Hittite documents known as Wilusa. Wilusa was a vassal state of the Hittite Empire, that before the dates give for Trojan War was ruled by Mycenaean Greeks. They were in good terms in paper, but there seem 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 it refers to the legendary kings.
      • Paris was Greek. Or maybe he was a mix of two people? In the Iliad, he was also called Alexander and someone named Alaksandu ruled Wilusa. That also means a vassal state of the Hittite Empire was ruled by Greeks. *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 they mentioned they went to war for it. However, Hittites were clearly the aggressors not Mycenaean Greeks. 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' called '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, which is probably the language Trojans spoke, '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 the fact 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 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 a revenge for Piyamaradu's raids, which prompts the Greeks to officially rise against Hitties. Their objective was Wilusa, one of the most important cities. While the details aren't sure, 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 remained mentioned a battle in Scamander. That's the content of Tawagalawa letter.
    • Archaeology seems to suggest that there were several ancient cities standing in that place, often separated by periods of devastation, and that Troy of Homer was only one of them.
      • Homer seems to have combined two layers of Troy history: one called Troy VIh when the city was rich and splendid but it was destroyed by an earthquake not war, the other Troy VIi (formerly VIIa) which was exactly like Homer described it (the architecture, geology etc.) but it wasn't rich, it was still suffering from the earthquake. That city was destroyed by war. Scholars have described it as a city under siege.
      • This has prompted the hypothesis that the Trojan Horse is actually allegory for a timely earthquake. In the Iliad, 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 depth, of the sea or 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 have a chance against the city in its prime.
    • Troy was continued to be lived on for some centuries after the supposed war. Not according to the Iliad.
    • Hittites mention 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 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 when she was kidnapped young 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 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 Peloponnese 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 Thermopylai, 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 drill or formation training; while the Spartans did perform basic formation drill, 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 actually 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 had them be 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 (there's not much point in using pikes if you don't, after all). 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.
  • Similar to Troy, Pompeii faded into obscurity to the point it was considered a myth by the time its remains were discovered in the 18th century. This despite the fact that 1) it disappeared in much more recent times; 2) it disappeared at a time with extensive written records, including those of first-hand witnesses, and 3) one of the most famous and 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 eruptions in other countries happened the exact same way as he described the one of 79 AD. Because of that account, 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.
    • Speaking of Pompeii, change 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.
  • 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 once also divided over whether Cleopatra was the most beautiful woman to ever live or an outright gonk. There was no middle ground. Recently, though, historians 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 was had a bewitching voice and a strong, forceful personality. In any case, nobody is quite sure what classical standards of beauty are, so there's no reason to say that she wasn't beautiful either.note 
    • For the longest time, people have 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 scholars 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 become to 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.
  • In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as religion further faded in academia and it became clearer that much "contemporary" writing about early Christians was medieval interpolation, many historians, including as prominent as Edward Gibbon, came to believe that all references to the persecution of Christians were fabricated, 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.
  • Conversely, 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 so seen as dangerous to the aristocratic establishment. Later historians, both secular and some Christians, have nuanced this.
    • 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 in order to justify protecting the building from property developers looking to turn it into a wool factory.
    • The Roman persecution of Judaism and Christianity had to do with its laws: they will tolerate all faiths only if they accept the Emperor and are inclusive. If Jews and Christians accepted as Jews and Christians those who also believed, prayed and accepted other gods than 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 other 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 (who promoted tolerance for Christians) 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).
  • Providing another example, 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.
  • 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 nineteenth 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 will be sent to live and farm there after they've been demobilized.
    • The story may also be based on the Biblical story of the salting of Shechem. Being near the Dead Sea, this was actually practical.
  • The Great Library of Alexandria attracts a number of myths. It probably wasn't much more impressive than other Great Libraries, and 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 further by Carl Sagan that if it weren't for the destruction of the Library of Alexandria, human civilization could had progressed much further than what we are given today and the intervention of religion is what stops the advancement, as all of the knowledge in the Library of Alexandria could be used to achieve these scientific accomplishments. Since then, many historians and scholars curiously dived to research about whether this hypothesis is true and plausible. As a results, while many vocal atheists and scientists cling to this notion, many historians find this falls flat on complete fallacy conjuncture. First of all, as stated above, the Library of Alexandria weren't all that different from other huge libraries in their contemporaries. Second, not every books that stored in Library focuses primarily on science. Some knowledge included were also philosophy, history, poetry, etc; and teachers who taught at Alexandria mostly focus on these fields and actually pay less attention on science. Third, books were written in papyrus and the material quickly decay over time. Historians put it logically that even if one manage to save the majority of books,they would need to rewrite it several times. Papyrus do not last long in southern Europe climate and more so in Egypt's, and parchments were very expensive in the medieval age. Fourth, no - Christianity did not stop technological and scientific advancements. Any medieval historians would correct you otherwise and explain all the scientific technological advancements during the medival time (see examples and further explanations in the other folder). Fifth and most importantly, no - Christianity and the destruction of the Library of Alexandria did not stop scientific and technological advancements, including ones in the Byzantine Empire, the Mediterranean, China, India, and the Mayans.
  • Similarly to the above, its generally now 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.
    • Its also generally accepted now that there is no one cause of the breakup of the Roman Empire as previous historians often thought. Rather that a series of problems arose, some coincidental 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 is very drawn out period of time.
  • 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.
  • Speaking of Roman sex and orgies, it's a common belief for a long time since the Victorian era that the Romans were sexually decadent, hedonistic, and presumably more open-minded to sex than other periods. This is a somewhat yes and no. One has to taken consideration that this belief started when Pompeii was discovered and 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 was perceived as a cultivation of glorious culture and art for a long time, with Greco-Roman sculptures and copies of Roman's texts being their only sources on what Rome was like). It's easy to see the Romans as licentious when compare to the prudish Victorians. However, as much as Romans has opposite standards compared to the Victorians, in their own way they have strict gender roles and high expectations on sexual roles. For example, a man is expected to performed missionary on his wife and treated her as a "woman of higher status" only and not "woman of pleasure". It was considered taboo if he have her performed on top of him as it would highlight him as "effeminate". Hence many Roman poets who loved to satirized things that were taboo like women's sexuality and anal sex. Yes, they were open-minded when it comes to sex than the Victorians, but they absolutely critical on sexual taboo that are acceptable today. They can have sex with prostitutes, exploited their slaves, used boys as the bottom, depicted sexual activities in art - the same thing other periods has done...
    • Mind you, sexual decadence was 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, Elagabalus prostituting himself before men and women, would hardly be taken as acceptable when they were slanders by later writers.
  • A lack of further information on the Legio IX Hispana after 117 AD, 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. This is the basis of Rosemary Sutcliff's 1954 children's historical novel, The Eagle of the Ninth, its 2011 film adaptation The Eagle and its 2010 dueling movie, Centurion. Decades after the novel was published, however, historians found some evidence that the Legion had actually been moved to the German border, and later, to the East. The speculation now is that it was destroyed in 161 AD during a battle in Armenia. Until someone finds evidence that it was just deployed somewhere else, of course.
    • The latest thinking on the subject has veered back to some kind of disaster north of the 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 was inspired to write her novel after reading on the late 19th-century discovery of a Roman eagle buried under a British house. This eagle was later identified as part of the decoration used in a temple dedicated to Jupiter, 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. 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 harvest time meant that these would require large numbers of free laborers as well.

    Medieval Times 
  • The 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.
    • Literacy was commonplace in Russia and Scandinavia already in the High Middle Ages. 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. And at any rate, the books, in a time before the printing press, were expensive, time-consuming to make and hard to obtain in and of themselves excluding any embellishments of the covers.
  • First of all, Columbus was not the first European to make landfall on the Americas. The Vikings beat him there by some five hundred years. And the Chukchi people had been crossing from Alaska to Chukotka (part of NE Asia) for millennia, across the Bering Sea.
    • Currently anthropological and genetic evidence point to America actually being populated, originally, by people who entered from Asia. Theories for the route include the Beringian land bridge—at certain points in the ice age, there wasn't any Bering strait—and the seacoast south of the land bridge.
    • There is even some evidence to support that Native Americans actually crossed the Atlantic as early as 60 BC.
    • Recent genetic and linguistic testing, particularly on sweet potatoes, has lended 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, they must have been a "lost race." Even attributing them to "Giant Jewish Toltec Vikings"note  was considered more plausible than admitting that Native Americans built them. Such racist notions were finally discredited by 20th-century scientific archaeology.
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.
  • Secondly, the concept of a Flat World is a Dead Unicorn Trope. In the Medieval times, people not only knew Earth was roundnote , they knew (and had known since the Hellenistic era) roughly how big it was. Columbus, however, got that wrong. He underestimated the size of the globe and overestimated the size of Asia, so that the distance that he predicted between Europe and Asia was much shorter than in reality. (That's why all those monarchs before Isabella refused to fund him: they were right and he was wrong.) He and his sailors would have died en route if not for his big stroke of luck: an entirely unknown land mass at just about the distance from Europe that he predicted. What makes it worse is that he really should have known he was wrong. The very method ships used to navigate are not just based on the fact the world is round, but they also give really good estimates of how big the world is. Although in his defense they work best for latitude, not longitude, so maybe to him the world was cigar-shaped?
    • Some claim that Columbus didn't so much get the size of the globe "wrong" as "shaved a third of the established value off to make it a better sell."
      • This particular theory is used in Orson Scott Card's novel Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus, which describes Columbus desperately looking at ancient records to try to find "proof" that his size of Earth was the correct one. He is pretty obviously shown to be disregarding any piece of evidence to the contrary. Interestingly, the novel shows that by the time he brought his case before the Spanish royal court, his case was solid enough to rival the established proof, leaving the tie-breaker up to the Queen, whom he convinced by his sheer piety. Also, according to the novel, Columbus thought he was looking for China, not India, because a hologram sent from the future pretending to be God told him to.
    • People who want to strip Columbus of his usual heroic portrayal risk falling for the opposite fallacy and labeling him an idiot. In these cases, pointing and laughing at the "fact" that he confused the Caribbean with India and its inhabitants with Indians is common. In reality, however, Columbus didn't sail in search of a route to India, but The Indies, which is how East Asia (China and the Spice Islands, i.e. Indonesia) was called in Europe at the time (hence why after America was confirmed as a new continent Indonesia was called the East Indies and the Caribbean the West Indies, which is the appellation that survives today). In fact, when Columbus first made landfall in the Bahamas he assumed he was in an island close (but not even in) what Europeans called "Cipango" - Japan. A very honest mistake to make given the current European knowledge of Asian geography, since the Bahamas are at the same latitude as Taiwan and they don't even look that different from the Okinawa archipelago.
    • Alejo Carpentier's novel El Arpa y la Sombra proposes that Columbus knew of the Viking's travels, so he knew he'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.
    • Columbus's 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.
  • 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 and 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.
    • Actually one of the properties of Gothic cathedral structure was big windows (between pillars). Big windows means a lot of light. At least, until you go a hundred years or so between window cleanings. Modern tourists have been known to complain after a cathedral gets its stained glass windows washed because it's "too bright".
  • The Dark Ages weren't nearly as backwards as Renaissance and Enlightenment scholars claimed. Even the phrases "Dark Ages" and "Middle Ages" are going out of style: both were invented by the same scholars to emphasize the glory of the ancient world and the nobility of the scholars who reached for it, in comparison to the ignorant fools who laughed at their theories, yes, laughed, but they'll show them, they'll show them all. Historians are now more likely to use the phrases "early medieval" and "late medieval" ("medieval" is derived from the Latin for "middle age", so you have to wonder if it just sounds cooler).
    • Those Renaissance scholars and especially the Enlightenment scholars apparently 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).
      • In fact, 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.
    • 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 the 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 supposed fall of Western culture was once thought in part to have been caused by a series of massive tribal migrations collectively known as the "Volkerwanderung". Specific examples included the migrations of the Saxons, Angles and Jutes to England; the Lombards into Italy; the Vandals and Visigoths into Spain; and the Franks into northern France. The belief was that these tribal migrations displaced the original inhabitants of these areas, sending them into less hospitable areas (such as the supposed "Celtic fringe" of the British Isles) and disrupting cultural progress. But DNA comparisons of ancient and modern peoples show very little evidence that the Volkerwanderung ever occurred; modern Englishmen, for instance, are far more closely related to ancient Britons (and to modern Scots, Irish, and Welshmen) than they are to modern Saxons. This DNA evidence is so new that historians are still grappling with the implications, but one possibility is that the Volkerwanderung only displaced the elite - about 0.5% of the population in most areas - leaving the bulk of the population unaffected except by the consequent cultural changes.
    • Another theory is that people did move, but only a little, with people abandoning their old homes but resettling close by. It does indeed seem that the massive relocations all over Europe that historians once saw as fact never really occurred.
    • One of the strangest results of the recent DNA comparisons is the discovery that Europe contains two genetic outliers - two ethnic groups that are less closely related to Europeans in general than others. One, not surprisingly, is the Finns, who trace their origins back to what is now Asian Russia. The other? The Italians, who have less in common genetically with the Spanish, Romanians, French, etc. than do groups that were never part of the Roman Empire (such as the Ukrainians or the Irish). Nobody has yet come up with an explanation for this seemingly impossible result.
    • This comes up over and over again in archaeology: some researchers seem to believe the only way ideas and cultural influence can spread is via conquest. For example, older literature quite often gives the impression that the whole of the Neolithic was one giant exercise in cultural imperialism as zealous farmers left North Africa and the Middle East en masse to convert the rest of humanity from their hunter-gatherer ways.
    • 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.
  • Horny Vikings. Real Life Vikings did not have horned helmets.
  • Likewise, the view popularized by Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe of plucky "English" commoners still resisting their "Norman" overlords a century or two after the conquest has likewise been shown to be hogwash - but that doesn't stop it showing up in most Robin Hood adaptations, where the Sheriff's soldiers are referred to as Normans to make it OK for Robin to kill and wound them. The idea either dates to the Hundred Years War, when Henry V's propagandists started to play up an imaginary antagonism with France (despite Henry's whole claim in that war being based on his being, you know, a member of the French royal family), or to the Reformation, when it was even more useful to play up a nationalist narrative.
    • Such was the strength of this incorrect legend 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. 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". But he and the Normans did introduce liberties and achievements such as the end of native english slavery and a reduction of serfdom. Likewise, the Norman-Plantagenet King Henry the Second would introduce The Common Law.
    • And the fact that in the Robin Hood story, the Merry Men long for the return of "Good King Richard" to return and oust the evil Norman usurper, John. Richard was John's brother, so, presumably, a Norman as well! Though people must remember, it had nothing to do with Richard being a Norman, it had more to do with him being more fair than John was. Richard was a charismatic king and liked by the 12th century English Saxons, he may not have cared for England but certainly would not have wanted civil war going on in one of his domains.
  • For centuries it was assumed that Europe's first introduction to plague (the Black Death) was in 1348-1350, when roughly one-third of the population died. Nobody knows exactly when plague arrived in Europe for the first time, but recent scholarship suggests that plague was behind many ancient epidemics, including the Plague of Justinian and the pandemics that affected Egypt in the time of Amenhotep III and Greece in classical times.
    • Plague can infect people in three ways: through the lymph system ("bubonic plague"), through the lungs ("pneumonic plague"), and through the bloodstream ("septicemic plague"). Most of the descriptions handed down to us by medieval doctors describe bubonic plague, so it was once thought that it was the most common form; many people even today think that "bubonic plague" is the correct name for the disease. But the main reason doctors described bubonic plague so often was because bubonic plague victims lived long enough for the doctor to arrive, unlike victims of pneumonic and septicemic plague who generally died within hours of the first symptoms. Meanwhile, evidence from the 20th century plague pandemic supports the idea that pneumonic plague is actually slightly more common than bubonic.
    • Even today, it's common (see above) to describe the Black Death pandemic as having "started" with the arrival of plague-carrying rodents in Europe. In fact, by that point in time it'd already ravaged the Middle East and much of Asia, killing an estimated 25 million people in China alone.
  • Everybody knows that people in the Middle Ages loved to burn witches—it was like their version of the movies. Go into town, do some shopping, and then stop to watch some witch burnings. Good times. Except this is another of the things manufactured by later philosophers to elevate their own times over the so-called Dark Ages. The medieval Catholic Church actually considered it heresy to believe in witches—that's right, accusing a woman of witchcraft would likely get you in trouble. It was only late in the Middle Ages when the Church declared witches to be real, and it's the supposedly enlightened Renaissance and Reformation when the witch burning craze took off. Incidentally, burning was primarily a continental thing—in Britain (and Salem, Massachusetts) the punishment was hanging.
    • Witchhunts were in fact a very Protestant thing during the Reformation, while the Catholic world remained generally apathetic about it (the main exception being France). So if you are planning to follow Dan Brown and write a story about poor girls being rounded 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.
    • 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.
    • Contrary to popular belief, witches were hunted not by Inquisition (that was formed to fight heresy) but by the local, secular authorities as witchcraft was a common crime like murder, assault or theft. Inquisitorial courts actually had no jurisdiction in such cases, unless the witch was also accused of belonging to a heretical cult (which was their jurisdiction).
    • The Inquisition was the first judicial body in Europe to have established rules of evidence, recognize an insanity plea, ban arbitrary punishments, and dismiss anonymous accusations. It was actually closer to modern jurisprudence than most secular courts of the Middle Ages and Early Modern periods.
      • They also believed that the accuser held the burden of proof, whereas most secular governments at the time required the accused to prove their own innocence.
    • 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.
    • Joan of Arc, by the way, was not burned as a witch. Her crime was relapsed heresy, having to do not with her voices but with her cross-dressing. She signed something promising she would never again do so, then her captors stole her skirt and replaced it with pants; it was either that or go naked. Anyway, her real crime was leading the French to victory, anything else they accused her with was just an excuse. Later on the Pope reopened the case and officially exonerated her.
    • 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.
  • In fact, the vast majority of "accepted knowledge" about the Medieval period has turned out to be patently untrue, as it was heavily based on the accounts of Protestant and Enlightenment writers, who would fabricate information 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 is that Renaissance writers - whom most accounts of Middle Ages were originally based on - considered the entire epoch between Antiquity and them to be just like recent history - and recent history was the Black Death and the Hundred Years' War. Several myths still endure, but many popular history books have now been published which popularize the scholarly view of the matter. Bear in the mind 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 then did not actually 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 the Roman heritage (the deed the Renaissance authors were so proud of) already started to happen. But then the Black Death arrived, and with it a whole host of new wars and troubles, which ended that nascent boom.
    • There was also an earlier Renaissance of the 12th century when many Greek works were reclaimed during the Crusades that had been preserved by the Muslims, sparking a revival in Europe.
      • The idea that Muslims consciously preserved works by pagans 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.
    • 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.
      • Also, 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 media following King Solomon's Mines that feature lost and always foreign civilizations in the mists of Darkest Africa have their roots in the plain racist interpretation of Great Zimbabwe after its discovery by Europeans in the late 19th century, that stated the place was "too advanced" to have been built by "obviously primitive" black Africans. This view was debunked as early as 1905.
    • When the far-right white-minority regime came to power in Rhodesia, they promoted the myth of Great Zimbabwe as having been built by a "lost" white civilization to the extent that archaeologists excavating there had their work interfered with by the government who were keen to suppress anything which contradicted the official story, which persisted until the white government was 1979.
    • The Benin Bronzes were apparently also the subject of crackpot "lost civilization" nonsense by European racists who refused to believe that they had been created by Africans.
    • Also, Great Zimbabwe wasn't as much discovered by Europeans in the late 19th century as rediscovered. The place had been visited and documented plenty by the Portuguese in the 16th century, when it wasn't abandoned yet, and there was even an unfortunate Englishman named Jonas Wright that 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 mistaken belief that everyone in the Middle Ages believed that bathing was unhealthy is especially pervasive in modern times. In fact, there were public bathhouses throughout the Middle Ages, despite nudity taboos and opposition by liturgical factions. Bathing did not start to decline until the Protestant Reformation and the Renaissance, where there was a shift from woolen to the much easier to clean and maintain linen clothing, allowed for one who had not bathed to maintain a clean and well-groomed appearance. That the decline in bathing saw a significant increase in the importance of laundry should also be noted. 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. As often is the case, there were a number of factors at work.
    • Related to this is the depiction of Vikings as a band of unwashed barbarians by medieval English writers. Scandinavian peoples at the time had a rather elaborate bathing culture (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 their 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 corruption from Latin balneum, bath-house. The reasons why the sauna culture declined in the Renaissance were threefold: 1) the climate change which led to deforestation and scarcity of firewood in the Continental Europe (remember Finland is heavily forested and Finns have no lack of firewood) 2) the spread of syphilis which transmitted extremely easily in saunas and 3) 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 higherups (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 can still harbor microorganisms), 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.
  • Similarly, 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 

    Renaissance and Early Modern Age 
  • Catherine de' Medici was one of the cruelest royals of the early Renaissance. She followed the (in retrospect, probably sarcastic and retroactive) advice of Machiavelli, to ensure that her husband and three of her sons ruled France; hundreds of noble and wealthy Frenchmen died either directly at her hand or otherwise. She even arranged for her son Charles to be sexually abused by courtiers in an unsuccessful attempt to turn him gay so that he would die childless and his younger brother Henry (whom she adored) would eventually become king. Given her deservedly bad reputation, it's not surprising that contemporaries in England blamed her for instigating the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre. Screeds called her a "Catholic bigot" who washed her hands in the blood of innocent Protestants. Modern historians, on the other hand, believe that the massacre was actually instigated by the Guise family, who feared Catherine's alliance with the Protestant Navarre family. But TV still holds on to the old belief, as can be seen in shows such as Elizabeth R, The Tudors, and Godfathers of the Renaissance.
    • This one is a tough one to be sure of—accounts of the Massacre are something of a tangle, and the whole thing seems to have been a spur of the moment occurrence, not a carefully created plot, which makes figuring out who's responsible difficult. However, Catherine probably does bear the brunt of the blame for making the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre an honest to goodness Massacre. As for the Guises, contemporary accounts note that after (quite possibly accidentally) kicking the whole thing off by killing Admiral de Coligny, Henri, Duke of Guise went around placing Huguenots under his personal protection—further he was one of the only Catholic participants to apologize for the whole affair.
  • Machiavelli, author of The Prince, was a staunch supporter of the concept of a free republic. Unfortunately The Prince was his only well-known piece for a long time. Now it is known that he was most likely a satirist, because that was his only pro-Medici screed, and after writing it, he went right back to writing pro-republic stories.
    • He was also often portrayed as a cynical, somber and shrewd politician. Contemporary data, including his letters and works, portray him rather as a very sociable satirist who also happened to be an observant historian and a good rhetor.
  • Contemporaries viewed Lucrezia Borgia as a scheming, amoral poisoner who abetted her father and brother (Rodrigo and Cesare Borgia, respectively) in their Machiavellian plans to dominate Europe. This belief became even more prevalent in Victorian times, when the word "borgia" entered the dictionary as a synonym for "sadistic female poisoner". More recent scholarship has cast doubt on this belief, as there is no historical proof that Lucrezia herself ever harmed a flea, let alone committed multiple murders. If anything, Lucrezia's life might have been a lot easier if she had been a poisoner. It's thought now that Lucrezia was blamed by her contemporaries because unlike her less innocent relatives, she was a safe target.
    • And then there's the 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 Spanish film Los Borgia shows that Lucrezia was only used as a way for the family to ally with powerful families, and then canceling those marriages when they weren't useful any more.
    • Let's also bring up the infamous rumor that Lucrezia was incestuously involved with her brother and father. Similarly like the poison rumor, 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 Cesare and her father, but at the same time, there were no evidences the support the incest relationships either, especially more so that it was Lucrezia's first husband who started the rumor all because of an annulment that he did not agreed to. It's only until when Lucrezia had her first child with a questionable paternity that folks and the Borgias' enemies started using this as "fact" to attack the family.
    • 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.
    • 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.
  • While there's still some debate over Richard III's overall character and culpability for certain actions (specifically the deaths of his nephews), this trope is in play for Richard's appearance. As part of the Historical Villain Upgrade he received from Tudor historians and playwrights, Richard was depicted as a deformed hunchback. Later historians tended to conclude that this description of his appearance was likely anti-Richard propaganda. However, when Richard's body was discovered in late 2012/early 2013, it was found that he actually did suffer from scoliosis and roundworms. His portrayal in Shakespeare complete with hunchback, withered arm and limp was more than just an exaggeration of his appearance - had he been as Shakespeare wrote, he wouldn't have been capable of mounting the horse he offered to trade his kingdom for - but the kernel of reality within the myth was there.
  • The controversial reign of Henry VIII has engendered many myths about the King and his wives and children.
    • Whig history has often depicted Henry as "Bluff King Hal", a jolly Falstaffian monarch whose general good cheer was interrupted only by the tragic necessity of sending his whoring wives to the Tower. In reality, however, Henry was a complex, mercurial hypochondriac with a horrific temper and a complete inability to accept criticism or see himself as he really was. In fact, it was his courtiers who were forced to display forced jolliness, lest Henry's formidable temper be directed against them. Some of his later reputation for bluffness may have been based on the fact that was apparently incapable of overt deceit. This may have been the case, but Henry's incapacity for deceit didn't make him bluff: it merely made him sneaky.
    • It was also often said that Henry was unusual in that he had more wives than mistresses and was very attentive to his wives - at least before he divorced or beheaded them. Evidence from the Letters and Papers of Henry's reignnote  tell a very different story: payoffs to numerous women, extravagant grants of land to his laundresses' bastard children ("extravagant" as in "more than a baron would normally receive"), and the like.
    • Strangely, the same historians who claimed Henry was a paragon of devotion to his wives also claimed he suffered from syphilis, with the sore on his leg evidence of the infection. The Letters and Papers again tell a different story. Syphilis was the HIV of the early 16th century; it beggars belief that Henry's team of experienced, educated physicians would have missed the most obvious diagnosis of their time. But Henry's apothecary bills, which survived intact, show that Henry was never treated with any drug that would have at the time been used to fight syphilis. As for the sore on Henry's leg, there's some evidence that it was much worse than previously thought; instead of a single sore on one shin, both of Henry's lower legs were apparently covered in abscesses. Whether this was caused by a bone infection or by the combination of varicose veins and diabetes is anyone's guess.
    • 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 vy 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, is often said to have been a sickly child. But there's no proof of this: both courtiers and ambassadors privately wrote that (aside from one bout of fever) Prince Edward enjoyed rude good health until he caught measles in his teens. It was this infection that weakened his immune system and caused him to fall ill with a chest infection in 1553.
    • It was once thought that Edward's last days were prolonged by the Duke of Northumberland (Jane Grey's father-in-law) feeding the tuberculous Edward a concoction containing arsenic (keeping him alive but in agony) until he agreed to write a will disinheriting his sisters in favour of Jane. This is sheer nonsense, from a medical standpoint as much as a historical one. For one thing, it's not certain that Edward had tuberculosis; for another, feeding a patient with terminal TB arsenic is immensely more likely to kill him immediately than to extend his life. Most importantly, though, we have Edward's notes on the matter, which make it clear that the idea to disinherit Mary and Elizabeth and put the staunchly Protestant, undeniably legitimate Jane on the throne was his own idea, and dated back to before his final illness.note  His first intention was to limit the succession to Jane's sons, but he didn't survive long enough for Jane to have any.
  • Mary I (Bloody Mary)'s most pervasive myth involves the nature of her false pregnancy. It was only in the early 20th century that the idea arose that Mary's condition was a "phantom pregnancy", but when it did arise historians and fiction writers ran with it. Current thinking, however, is that Mary had some kind of tumour that caused recurring abdominal swelling.note  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.
    • 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 sentimental biographers from Agnes Strickland on Elizabeth, unlike her half sister Mary, did not have a particularly unhappy childhood. She was not sent away in disgrace after Anne's execution, in fact Henry was seen playing with her and judged to 'love her very much' the Christmas after his marriage to Jane Seymour. Court sycophants praised the young Elizabeth to her father - which they certainly would not have had she been in disfavor. She seems to have spent time at court whenever there was a queen to chaperon her and was living there under the care of Katherine Parr during Henry's last years. While not of course close to her father evidence indicates she was neither neglected by him nor afraid of him. She admired and was proud of Henry and confident enough of his affection to ask him for favors.
  • Louis XIV: Versailles, the palace where Louis XIV and his successors lived in wealth and decadence. Most adaptations depict it as a glamorous, elegant and classy place. However, to modern audiences, some of the behaviour the king and the nobility committed would seem extremely vulgar and undignified. For instance, people didn't bath often and our notion of hygiene was virtually nonexistent. For example, the living space assigned to most courtiers were extremely cramped so that the general atmosphere was less "lap of luxury" and more "NYC tenement house". Also, because of the general lack of bathrooms, people (both rich and poor) had to resort to answering the call of nature in the dark corners of stairwells and closets.
  • The French Revolution 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 is 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 noted 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. But almost none of this ever gets so much as an acknowledgement leave 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 eventsnote . 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 likewise supported by King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette (aka bearers of traditions), opposed by the very radical Marat and Robespierre. In addition the essay is dated for its rather boldfaced classist dismissal of the entire Third Estate as malicious rabble and "Jew brokers" and for its adoption of Abbé Augustin Barruel's spurious Conspiracy Theorynote . 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 policymaking. 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 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.
    • 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 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 in the Anglophone by pro-Enlightenment sympathiques. 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.

    Modern Times 
  • 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.
  • The Chicago cholera epidemic of 1885, which is claimed to have killed up 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.
  • It's not at all certain, but at least one alternative theory in recent years is that van Gogh was actually shot accidentally by someone else. What is certain is that he did not actually cut off his own ear; that happened after Van Gogh—who was not the most stable of men, to put it mildly—and his friend and fellow artist Paul Gauguin got into a quarrel so fierce that it culminated in them fighting a duel, and Van Gogh claimed it was self-inflicted to keep Gauguin out of trouble with the law.
  • 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 bedmate 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.
  • The RMS Titanic sank on a dark, moonless night. Most survivors who had escaped in lifeboats thought they saw the ship sink in one piece, while the few survivors closer to the ship and struggling in the water to survive said they thought it broke in two. The inquiry into the sinking accepted that the survivors in lifeboats had a better vantage point, and it became accepted fact that the Titanic sank whole. In 1985, however, the ship was found on the ocean floor in two pieces, surrounded by a debris field that could only have been created by the two pieces separating at or near the surface. All movies about the sinking filmed before 1985 show the ship sinking whole (including A Night to Remember and the Nazi Titanic), while the ones made afterwards show it splitting up before sinking.
    • 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 on 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.
      • The book 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).
    • Alternately, 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 is less one-sided than it was even 20 years ago.
  • 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 problems with the reparations was that it was too lenient and that Germany was in a position to pay and that the problem was 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, that 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 were popular sporting or self-defence weapons; 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. Nor seems likely 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.
  • Mussolini did not make the trains run on time. Even in his own time some observers (namely American journalist George Seldes) called Mussolini on this, but the myth persisted (though that didn't stop him from lying about it).
  • For a while after World War II, it was an assumption that Nazi Germany was efficiently-run because of its fast ascension from economic devastation to infamously cruel conqueror of Europe; in Star Trek: The Original Series episode "Patterns of Force", for instance, this view led a misguided historian to believe he could make it work without the ethical problems. Since then, however, a lot of evidence has drawn historians to the conclusion that the regime was full of internal corruption and egotistical rivalries, and about as (in)efficient as you might suspect an oversized bureaucracy to be.
  • For decades, historians considered the 1933 Reichstag Fire a False Flag Operation designed to solidify Adolf Hitler's hold on power. Understandably, given the far greater crimes committed by Nazi Germany, relatively few questioned this claim. However, recent historians like Ian Kershaw and Richard Evans argue there's no evidence of Nazi complicity: Hitler merely took advantage of a crime committed by a Dutch Communist to stamp out opposition.
  • One variant that frequently crops up in media (and politics) is the Guilty Men (a British anti-appeasement polemic written after the outbreak of war) interpretation of Neville Chamberlain and the appeasers in Britain and France - a small, craven, and idiotic clique that hijacked their nations in the 1930s. This interpretation was challenged as early as the 1960s by A.J.P Taylor, and current historical opinion is divided, with some historians saying appeasement was the right call, others saying that it was the right call but poorly executed, and a minority arguing that the British and French should have stood up to Germany when their military capacities were still limited. Almost all agree that the appeasers were men of compassion, humanity and courage, if - depending on interpretation - misguided. But try telling that to all the Films, Books, TV shows and political leaders who portray them as stupid cowards.
  • 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 realise 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.
  • 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 believed and 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 because 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 historian Paul Dull described as being "so chaotic as to almost defy description".
  • 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 he's portrayed as an anonymous figure in a trenchcoat; in the film Dick (1999) "he" is actually two teenage girls. In 2005 Deep Throat was revealed as former FBI Associate Director Mark Felt whose motives were likely revenge against Nixon for not promoting him to replace Hoover. 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 carreer.
  • Alan Moore's graphic novel Brought to Light portrays the Contra War-era La Penca bombing (where an assassination attempt was made on Contra (Democratic Revolutionary Alliance) leader Eden Pastora in Costa Rica) as a CIA-masterminded operation. It was later revealed in 2009 that the bombing was committed by the Sandinistas, not the CIA.
  • Carlos the Jackal is the Big Bad of The Bourne Series, 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 is an actual alien on the base, which the government doesn't know about.
    • 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 believed as genuine through the war, though it was knocked down as a forgery relatively soon after. It's not sure who committed the forgery (some sources say it was Chiang's Kuomintang trying to garner more foreign support in resisting Japanese advances note , others say it was the NKVD hoping to pull a Let's You and Him Fight between the West and Japan). What is known is that since the Japanese Empire actually followed the first steps of the memorial's outline, it granted the forgery a lot of credence.
  • 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 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 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.

Alternative Title(s): Outdated History