10 Historical Misconceptions That Really Need To Be Cleared Up

History: blowing your mind since forever. Let’s get these things right from now on, shall we?

1. Ancient Rome was filled with white marble statues.

When we think of ancient Rome, it’s hard not to summon up an image of a gleaming white city, populated by pristine marble statues. In reality, these marble statues were often painted in bright colors. Let’s face it: classical Roman statues are thousands of years old, so it’s not surprising that their paint jobs have worn off after all this time. Scientists are clever, however, and they can use very small traces of pigment to reconstruct what a statue once looked like. Check out the bust of Caligula pictured above, for example. And the next time you think of ancient Rome, inject a little more color, will you?

2. The pronunciation of “ye olde shoppe.”

It looks like a y, so it must be pronounced like a y, right? Wrong. The “ye” in “ye olde shoppe” is actually pronounced “the.” Yes, the, which is what it means. Once upon a time there was an Old English letter called thorn that represented the “th” sound. It originally looked a bit like the letter P, but by the mid-fifteenth century, began to look like a Y. Today we just use the diagraph th when we want to make “th” noises, which I guess you already know. Anyway, it’s THE OLD SHOP, and you should share this information with your loved ones lest they continue to make fools of themselves!

3. The correct usage of old-timey language (“thee,” “thine,” etc).

Thou, thee, thy, thine. Sounds old-timey and super formal, right? Well, you’d be right about old-timey, but not formal. In early modern England these were the singular informal forms of the second person personal pronouns, and people didn’t just use them willy-nilly. In other words, they’re archaic versions of “you, your, yours” that convey familiarity or indicate that the person being addressed is of similar or lesser social rank. If you were a farmer, you wouldn’t walk up to a king and say “thy crown looks good today, Sire” because it would be disrespectful. Hint hint, fantasy writers. Eventually, use of the singular informal became synonymous with insult; only a few groups of people, like Quakers, continued to use it for religious or literary purposes.

4. Signatures are a good way of gauging whether early modern English people were literate.

Historians used to try and calculate literacy rates based on whether individuals were capable of signing their own name (as opposed to an “x”) on early modern legal documents, such as wills, indentures, or deeds. It sounds like a good plan, doesn’t it? If you can write, surely you can read, right? It indicates that you must have had an education! Well yes, but there’s a catch here: during the sixteenth century, reading was taught approximately two years before writing, and many people were never taught writing at all. Although this may sound strange, historians think that many early modern English people, particularly women, were able to read despite not being able to sign their own name. Literacy, therefore, was probably more widespread than we’ll ever be able to quantify.

5. Colonial American beds were shorter than modern beds because people, on average, were shorter.

Historians don’t believe that colonial Americans were all that much shorter than their modern counterparts, so what’s with all these short beds we see when we go on museum tours? Well, there are a few things going on here. Sometimes people slept sitting up, propped up on pillows, which if you try it out, means that you don’t need as long as a bed as you do when you sleep lying down. However, it’s just as likely that this is all just in our heads. In 1981, the curators at Colonial Williamsburg measured a number of antique beds and discovered they weren’t significantly shorter than modern beds. According to Mary Miley Theobald, author of Death by Petticoat, the architecture of colonial beds (canopies, posts, etc) probably makes the beds seem much shorter than they actually are.

6. Paul Revere shouted “The British are coming!”

It’s April 18, 1775. A number of colonists surely have a beef with Parliament, but things haven’t quite gotten to the point where they’re ready to sever their ties with Britain and dub themselves Americans. What’s important to remember here is that the rebelling colonists, including Paul Revere, considered themselves British citizens. The notion that Revere cried out “The British are coming!” is historically false, and perpetuates anachronistic beliefs about the coherence of American identity. Depositions given by Revere suggest that he used the term “regulars” to refer to the troops headed toward Lexington, Massachusetts. Today this wouldn’t be much different than saying “the army is coming.”

7. The date Americans declared independence from Britain and the date the Declaration of Independence was signed.

Oh, Independence Day. We celebrate you on July 4, but you are so misleading. Why? Well, first of all, Americans formally declared independence from Britain on July 2, 1776, upon the passage of the Lee Resolution. Wham. Bam. Sorted out. Except for this business about telling everyone else what they’ve done. That’s where the Declaration of Independence comes in. The famous document was just meant to explain why the Second Continental Congress passed the Lee Resolution. It certainly wasn’t meant to be the game-changing piece of legislation. Heck, even John Adams, who foresaw independence celebrations, figured that July 2 would be the national holiday! Also, although the Declaration of Independence is dated July 4, that’s simply the day that the Continental Congress adopted the document’s language (basically, the final draft). Thanks to James Madison’s journals, most historians believe that signing did not begin until August 2, 1776.

8. Napoleon was unusually short.

While Napoleon wouldn’t make a good candidate for the NBA draft, he probably wasn’t quite as short as you think he is. In 1802, the dictator’s height was reported to be 5’2”. The catch is that measurement wasn’t exactly standardized yet, and that French feet were a bit longer than British feet, making Napoleon a whopping 5’6 1/2” when you do the conversion, which is hardly unusual. As historical memory goes, it doesn’t help that the British press tended to produce diminutive caricatures of him, nor that a height-based inferiority complex colloquially became known as a “Napoleon complex.”

9. The Emancipation Proclamation freed all the slaves.

In 1863, embroiled in the Civil War, President Lincoln issued an executive order better known as The Emancipation Proclamation. While certainly a significant step towards the abolition of slavery in America, the document itself did not accomplish it. The Emancipation Proclamation only freed enslaved people in ten rebelling Confederate states, meaning that enslaved people residing in states allied with the Union were not affected. When considering the impact of The Emancipation Proclamation we should remember the following things: it only freed slaves in states that the Union technically had no control over, resulting freedman were not considered U.S. citizens, and manumitting a specific group of slaves is not the same as declaring slavery to be illegal. It wasn’t until the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865 that slavery was abolished in America.

10. Women could not vote in America before 1920.

The Nineteenth Amendment granted suffrage to women, but 1920 was not the first year American women could legally vote. Back in the day, property ownership often dictated voting, which effectively excluded women because their legal status was typically “feme covert.” Married women’s property became their husband’s in name, unless they entered into a contract that specified otherwise. In contrast, single women were not barred from property ownership, but for a variety of reasons, single women had a hard time acquiring the acreage needed to be eligible for voting . For a few women, however, inheritance and widowhood provided an opportunity to vote. In 1756, Lydia Chapin Taft, widow of Josiah Taft, voted in her local Massachusetts town meeting, having met the property requirements by acquiring her husband’s estate. In New Jersey, a similar situation existed until 1807, when the law was changed to exclude women. Amusingly enough, being barred from the vote didn’t bar women from office: Susanna Madora Salter became the first female American mayor in 1887.

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