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    18 Historical Things You Probably Believed Were Facts But Are Actually Myths

    Wait, none of the Salem witches were burned at the stake?!

    1. The Great Fire of London didn’t actually cause the end of the bubonic plague.

    Universalimagesgroup / Universal Images Group / Via Getty Images

    We all know the story – In 1666 the Great Fire started in Pudding Lane and raged for days, completely destroying a huge chunk of the city. The silver lining though (or so we were told in school) was that it brought about the end of the bubonic plague, which killed almost 100,000 people in London between 1665-6! The story goes that the huge fire wiped out the rat population responsible for spreading infection, and burned down all the unsanitary houses that were a breeding ground for the disease. In reality though, the fire only burned down a quarter of the city (so there was plenty of room for the rats to scamper to) and though the originally-thatched houses were rebuilt in brick, this made them no less sanitary than before (see: the squalor of the slums in Victorian London)!

    2. And while we’re on the subject, the popular nursery rhyme Ring a Ring a Roses wasn’t originally based on the plague!

    Universal History Archive / Universal Images Group / Via Getty Images

    The first version of the children’s song was recorded in the Victorian era – centuries after the plague swept across the country – and the lyrics were only loosely linked to the plague (e.g. posies being used as treatment, and the phrase "all fall down" being related to death) in recent decades. There are also many different versions of the popular song which have no connotations with disease or death whatsoever!

    3. We don’t actually live much longer today than the average adult throughout history.

    Warner Bros.

    When you've grown up hearing that the average life expectancy of a medieval person was between 30-40 years, it's easy to assume that people were dying of old age at around 35 back in the day! But in actuality, the average number was massively brought down by the super high infant mortality rates. So – making allowances for increased levels of diseases and sickness – people who passed the perilous early years could be expected to live just as long as you or me. In fact, the maximum human lifespan has been fixed at around 120 years for the last 100,000 years.

    4. Napoleon Bonaparte wasn’t actually that short!


    His height was recorded as 5ft 2in in French measurements, which were different to English at the time, meaning he was roughly 5ft 7in! So he was actually quite tall compared to the average Frenchman in 1800. His commanders were specially chosen for their superior height too, so when painted next to them this probably contributed to his teeny tiny image!

    5. Tutankhamun’s tomb was not inscribed with a curse on all who entered it.

    Universal Pictures

    Yeah, this was made up by the media to increase the hype around the infamous mummy. Although the mysterious deaths of several visitors of the site helped to keep the story alive for a pretty long time afterwards.

    6. Victorian doctors didn’t invent early versions of the vibrator to cure female ‘hysteria’ by triggering orgasms.

    BIM Distribuzione

    There’s no evidence that physicians used vibrators as a form of medical treatment. This idea was introduced by a single work in 1999, which has since been thoroughly debunked. The – admittedly intriguing – theory has been further propelled by modern works like the film Hysteria (2011), which experts believe to be wildly inaccurate.

    7. Roman sculptures aren’t actually meant to be white!

    Werner Forman / Via Getty Images

    If I tell you to think of a classic Roman sculpture, an intricately-carved white marble statue is probably the first thing that comes to mind. But the statues that we now associate with Roman art were originally painted with fine, often bright colours, and depicted people of diverse backgrounds. The paint – understandably – faded and chipped away over the centuries, and was later purposely scrubbed to whiteness to project an image of 'purity', but some well-preserved sculptures still show signs of their original colour!

    8. Julius Caesar was not born via cesarean section, nor is the procedure named after him.

    Universal Pictures

    The procedure was simply too dangerous to attempt on a living woman at the time, and was only performed as a last effort to save the child if the mother-to-be was already dying or dead. Since Caesar’s mum lived till he was an adult, it’s basically impossible for her to have had a C-section!

    9. Albert Einstein didn’t fail maths.

    Historical / Getty Images

    Sorry if this is your go-to excuse for not finishing your homework, but it’s just not true – Einstein was exceptionally talented at maths from a young age. The myth most likely stems from a failed entrance exam for the Zurich Polytechnic Institute he took when he was 16 years old. While he excelled in the maths and physics sections, he failed the language and biology parts, which was understandable considering the exam was written in French!

    10. Rosa Parks wasn’t sitting in the front ‘white’ section of the bus when she was ordered to give up her seat.


    She actually sat at the very front of the back ‘coloured’ section, which was generally considered ‘no-man’s land’ unless the bus was very busy. It was expected of African Americans to give up their seats if a white person was left standing, which Parks refused to do. But again, not because she was tired – or no more than usual after a full day’s work – but rather “tired of giving in”.

    11. The Coca-Cola Company didn’t invent the standard image of Santa Claus that we all know and love today.

    Buyenlarge / Library of Congress / Via Getty Images

    Though their 1930s adverts made the jolly figure more popular than ever, the company wasn't actually responsible for creating the image of a plump bearded man in red! Images of Santa that we’d recognise were already around way earlier – with the earliest portrait dating back to 1863.

    12. There’s no evidence that the Vikings ever wore horned helmets.

    Paramount Pictures

    Their renowned hardcore aesthetic would have actually been really impractical on the battlefield! They didn't even wear much armour – preferring lightweight wooden shields as protection instead. While there’s some evidence of spiked headwear being worn for ceremonial purposes, it was actually a costume designed for a performance of Wagner’s epic music drama Nibelungenlied that first introduced the headgear as a sort of ‘Viking uniform’ – and the idea stuck!

    13. Medieval Europeans didn’t believe the earth was flat.


    So we can assume that Columbus didn’t set off on his expedition worried about falling off the edge of the earth – scholars have actually known that the earth was round since at least 500BC! Pythagoras (yep, the very same philosopher that enriched our schooldays with his notoriously easy-to-follow theorem) wrote about the earth being spherical in the sixth century BC, and other notable scholars including Aristotle and Ptolemy followed suit.

    14. Speaking of which, Christopher Columbus wasn’t actually the first European to land in America.


    There’s evidence of Viking and Norse settlements in North America that dates back to the 10th century! Besides, Columbus himself never set foot in modern North America. He only ever reached a number of Caribbean Islands and the coast of South America – and even then insisted that he had landed in Asia, as was his original goal.

    15. Marie Antoinette never suggested her starving subjects "eat cake".

    Sony Pictures Releasing

    She was only ten years old when an early version of the phrase uttered by a previous French princess Marie-Thérèse (let them eat “la croûte de pâté” – literally: 'the crust of the pâté') was first made famous by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in 1766. Rousseau attributed the phrase to ‘a great princess’ – three years before Marie-Antoinette married prince Louis and eight years before she became the queen! The statement was attributed to France’s final queen after her death, most likely in an effort to make her a ‘royal scapegoat’ in the narrative of the French Revolution.

    16. There’s no evidence that an apple ever came near Isaac Newton’s head.


    Newton did say that the concept of gravity came to him as he sat “in a contemplative mood” and was “occasioned by the fall of an apple”, but whether he walked away with a fruit-induced bump on his head has never been confirmed.

    17. None of the accused at the Salem witch trials were burned at the stake.

    20th Century Fox

    The majority of them were either hanged on the gallows or died in prison, and one was pressed to death. This particularly gruesome punishment feeds into the ‘barbaric’ nature people tend to associate with medieval Europe, and so the image stuck.

    18. It wasn’t Mussolini’s harsh dictator regime that made Italy's trains run more efficiently.

    United International Pictures

    The idea that dictatorship (if nothing else) helped to ‘get things done’ was a popular argument of stout supporters of fascism after the regime’s downfall. But this Mussolini myth couldn’t possibly have been true, seeing as much of the repair work on the Italian railways was completed before Mussolini came into power in 1922.

    Do you know any more? Let us know in the comments below! And you can find LOADS of other things that are widely believed but are in fact myths right here.