Photo montage: George Marks/Retrofile/Getty/Creative Commons
Gladiators didn’t kill each other as often as you might think. The most prized fighters were worth a lot of money as trained entertainers and many lived very long lives. A grave found at Ephesus in modern-day Turkey in 2007 found the remains of 67 men aged between 20 and 30 - many had sustained serious wounds but they had healed over time, suggesting they had been prized individuals with access to medical care.
OK, someone called Arthur lived in England around the late 5th and early 6th centuries AD. He’s mentioned in the 9th century Historia Brittonum as having taken part in a big bloody battle at Mount Badon, and in the Annalaes Cambriae (written 500 years later). But the 6th century writer Gildas wrote an account of that battle that doesn’t mention Arthur at all and he’s absent from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle which is the fullest guide to what was going on then.
All the stuff about being a king, ruling at Camelot, Lancelot, Merlin, Excalibur, ladies in lakes… that’s all a mixture of folklore, medieval literature and poetry, most notably from Geoffrey of Monmouth, who put together a history of all the kings of England in 1136 that starts with “Albion” being founded by, er, Trojans.
None of this stopped the 2004 film King Arthur focusing on “the history and politics of the period during which Arthur ruled”.
Did King Alfred the Great of Wessex really burn the cakes? There’s no real evidence he did. The cake (or bread, as it was originally) story comes from 12th century sources written at least 200 years after Alfred.
The legend goes that, on the run from Viking hordes in Somerset, Alfred takes refuge with a peasant woman who asked him to look after some cakes while they cooked. Alf took his eye off them and they burned - which is either evidence of him caring so much about his kingdom or evidence he was an idiot, depending on whose side you were on.
But historian Charles Plummer calls the cake story “utterly inconsistent with the genuine history of (Alfred’s) reign.”
Despite them being associated with Nordic raiders in popular culture, the Vikings didn’t wear horned helmets into battle. The 9th century Oseburg tapestry shows someone in a horned helmet, but either it’s someone performing a ritual or it’s supposed to be a god. It wouldn’t be a very practical thing to wear while cutting down unsuspecting English Christians with your sword.
This myth comes from the 19th century revival of all things Norse, when horned Viking warriors were put into epic paintings and productions of Wagner. In fact the whole thing may be the fault of Prof. Cale Emil Doepler, Wagner’s costume designer.
Christopher Colombus already knew - as did the ancient Greeks - that the world was round. His voyages have been painted as an attempt to prove to sceptical clergy and kings that the earth was round, but this is largely thanks to Washington Irvine’s 1828 biography of Colombus, which takes a few artistic licenses.
What Colombus did get wrong was understanding where he was going. He sailed west across the Atlantic to find a faster route to the East Indies (not necessarily India) and even on his third trip to the Americas he thought that’s where he was. As Michael Shermer has written, Colombus thought, until his dying day, that he had found the Indies.
Also, despite giving his name to innumerable schools, towns and parks there, Colombus never set foot on what is now the USA, instead visiting the Caribbean and, eventually, South America.
It’s unlikely Marie Antoinette will ever be disassociated from this phrase, even though there’s no evidence she ever said it.
“Qu’ils mangent de la brioche” first appears in Rousseau’s autobiographical Confessions, which were written around 1765 when Antoinette was still a child and living in Austria.
Rousseau attributed the remarks to a “great princess” a full 20 years before the French Revolution and it wasn’t until the mid 19th century that it started to be attributed to her, as a handy way of summing up the undeniable excesses and nonchalance of the French ruling class.
Napoleon Bonaparte’s shortness has even given name to a psychological complex, but he was in reality an average height for the time.
While it suited British propagandists to paint him as an angry midget, Napoleon was 5 foot 6 inches in height. Some of confusion comes down to the difference between French and English measurement: the pouce, a pre-revolution unit that is slightly longer than a British inch. So 5’2” in pouce is 5’6” in feet and inches.
The Salem trials in 1692 and 1693 were a grizzly affair, but despite the enduring image of witches being burned at the stake, this didn’t happen. Instead, most of the 20 people who were convicted and then killed were hanged. Many who survived were simply imprisoned.
By that point burning people alive was illegal in England and thus also banned in the new American colonies.
The only source for Queen Victoria’s famous catchphrase is a book published in 1919 by one of her courtiers, Caroline Holland. All it says is:
“There is a tale of the unfortunate equerry who ventured during dinner at Windsor to tell a story with a spice of scandal or impropriety in it. ‘We are not amused,’ said the Queen when he had finished.”
Holland wasn’t at the dinner itself. It’s a flimsy basis for a very famous saying.
People in Victorian Britain weren’t as shy about their bodies as people tend to think. There’s a ton of quite explicit and very popular pornography from the 19th century and people certainly didn’t cover up table legs to spare everyone’s blushes.
The story comes in fact from America: British writer Frederick Marryat visited a seminary in New York in 1839 and recorded in his Diary in America that the piano and table legs were covered in little trousers to “preserve in their utmost purity the ideas of the young ladies under her charge.”
By the the time the British press found out about it, they though it was hilarious and ran stories about the prudish Americans. There’s no evidence of anyone else in America doing this.
But the tables turned during the 20th century when somehow the myth became that the British couldn’t stand the sight of a naked table leg.
Thomas Edison invented a lot of things but he wasn’t first to the electric lightbulb.
Several people had pioneered lightbulbs before him, but Edison brought out longer-lasting incandescent versions that were viable commercially.
There is a persistent if somewhat unlikely myth that Albert Einstein, one of the most important scientific thinkers of all, was bad at maths.
Not so: he was brilliant from an early age. What did happen is he failed his entrance exam to the Swiss Polytechnic in Zurich (despite excelling in the maths and physics sections), but he was only 16, two years younger than most people applying for university and he was under pressure from his dad to enter a technical profession rather than pursue learning.
Biographers including Ronald W. Clark and Abraham Pais have also cast doubt on the idea that he had dyslexia.
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