16 Historical Things You Learned In School (That Are Terribly Wrong)

Not everything that is “common knowledge” is true. Here are a few commonly held beliefs that are simply not true.

1) Napoleon was short.

1) Napoleon was short.

If you ask anyone what he or she knows about Napoleon, it is a sure bet that his height (or lack thereof) will be mentioned. In fact, he was so upset by being short; he developed a chip on his shoulder that resulted in his conquering most of Europe. While this makes for great personal drama, it isn’t true. Napoleon was actually around 5′ 7″ tall, which was taller than the average of 5′ 5″ at the time. So where does this myth come from? Well, you can thank the English, the staunchest opponent of Napoleonic France. You see, Napoleon was 5′ 2″ in French measurement, which differed from the Imperial measurements that the English used. So when the English heard that Napoleon was 5’2″, they just kind of ran with the propaganda aspect. It also didn’t help that the French had a nickname for their beloved leader as “le petit caporal” or The Little Corporal.

2) Christopher Columbus discovered America

2) Christopher Columbus discovered America

Christopher Columbus is so well remembered in America that he still has his own national holiday (Columbus Day on October 12th), along with numerous universities and cities that bear his name. What you might not know is that nearly 500 years before Columbus made his way to the “New World,” Norse explorers discovered and set up a colony there. Around 1000 CE, Norse explorers venturing from their bases in Greenland and Iceland discovered a rich new world full of plenty. After a few years, they returned, named the land “Vinland” (literally Vineland), and settled in for the long haul. Unfortunately (or fortunately), they didn’t last long, and Norse settlements were thought to be a myth until the 1960s when evidence of a Norse settlement was discovered.

3) Great Wall of China is visible from the moon

3) Great Wall of China is visible from the moon

The Great Wall of China certainly is a marvel of humanity. It stretches over 5,500 miles including hilly and mountainous terrain. The myth of the Great Wall is that it is visible from the moon. This “fact” dates back to a “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” (don’t believe it) cartoon in 1932. The cartoon stated that the Great Wall was “the mightiest work of man, the only one that would be visible to the human eye from the moon.” However, the Great Wall is not visible from the moon (how would someone in 1932 know this anyway?) and is barely visible from much closer in outer space. The idea behind this historical myth is really cool, but unfortunately no manmade objects are visible to the naked eye from the moon. There is just lots of cloudy white, blue, greens and yellows.

4) People in the middle ages had a low life expectancy

4) People in the middle ages had a low life expectancy

This one has a grain of truth to it. Life expectancy was certainly shorter during the middle ages, largely due to roughly 1/3 of children dying at a young age combined with a high rate of women who died during childbirth. However, if you survived into adulthood and weren’t killed during a war, you could expect to live well into your 40s, 50s and 60s.

5) Vikings had horns on their helmets

5) Vikings had horns on their helmets

Almost no images are as ingrained as the bloodthirsty Viking raider with his axe and horned helmet terrorizing an English seaside village. This romanticized image of the Viking actually comes from the 19th century when composer Richard Wagner used Vikings in horned helmets as central characters in his opera “Der Ring des Nibelungen.” The image became synonymous, and a myth was born. In reality, having horns on your helmet is a terrible idea since it is something for an opponent to use against you in combat.

6) Slaves built the pyramids

6) Slaves built the pyramids

This is a story that has been popularized in Hollywood films and Sunday school classrooms all over the country. The only problem is that it simply is not true. The pyramids were not built by slaves, but rather paid laborers, who most likely worked in three-month shifts (it probably took 30 years to build the Great Pyramid). That isn’t to say that the laborers didn’t work hard. Skeletons of laborers buried near the pyramids show extensive signs of hard labor, but they certainly had things better than unpaid and underfed slaves. This myth is thought to have its roots with the ancient Greek historian Herodotus who claimed slaves made the pyramids. The only problem with using Herodotus as a reliable source (other than he wrote some really bizarre things) was that he wrote about the pyramids more than 2,000 years after they were built. Which is roughly around the length of time between when Herodotus lived and when you are reading this now.

7) France is prone to surrendering

7) France is prone to surrendering

France’s military in recent years has become the butt of many a ‘Murica style joke (truly “Freedom Fries” was an iconic moment in our country’s history). However, while France did capitulate infamously in World War II to Nazi Germany, France’s martial history is quite impressive. Throughout its history, France has been one of the premiere military powers in Europe. In fact, under Napoleon, France repeatedly defeated much larger armies. France also has a long-standing reputation for insane personal bravery and honorable conduct. So if you had to tangle with any country throughout history, France would be a good one to avoid.

8) How to pronounce old English phrases like

8) How to pronounce old English phrases like “Ye Olde Shoppe”

A phrase such as “Ye Olde Shoppe” is sure to make an appearance when anything “old timey British” is needed. There are a couple of problems with this phrase.
Firstly, “Ye Olde” would probably have never been written in old English, instead it would have been written “Ye Auld,” since “Auld” was one of the most common spellings in English for “old” until the fairly recent times. Secondly, most people are pronouncing “Ye Olde Shoppe” wrong. It isn’t “Yee Old-ee Shopp-ee.” It would actually have been pronounced “The Old Shop,” since “e” is silent and “Ye” is simply the archaic way of writing “the.”

9)

9) “The British are coming!”

Most colonials, including Paul Revere, considered themselves British citizens during the time of the Revolutionary War, so it wouldn’t make any sense if Paul Revere went around yelling, “the British are coming.” Instead, he most likely informed other colonials that the British “regulars” (a designation for British soldiers), were on the move.

10) Classical Roman and Greek Marble statues were white

10) Classical Roman and Greek Marble statues were white

Everyone who has been to a major art museum or looked at an art history book has seen fantastic white marble statues that the ancient Greek and Roman cultures made. In reality, the statues were full of vibrant colors and over the years, the paint covering them simply has worn off. In fact, the famous Roman bust of Caligula (everyone’s favorite insane Roman despot) originally looked a lot like King Joffrey from Game of Thrones…hmm…

11) Betsy Ross designed and sewed the first American flag

11) Betsy Ross designed and sewed the first American flag

We all know the story about how Betsy Ross is the embodiment of womanly patriotic vigor. She sewed the very first flag of the United States, right? Wrong.
The story began circulating in 1870, nearly one hundred years after Ross supposedly created the flag. Her last living grandson put the story forward, and it was quickly accepted as a historical truth. The exact truth will probably never be known, but it is known that Betsy Ross did sew flags for the Revolutionary cause and was the niece of an influential officer in the Continental Army. So the story is remotely possible, but not likely.

12) Van Gogh cut off his own ear

12) Van Gogh cut off his own ear

The myth about Van Gogh is that he was a tortured painter who cut off his ear in a fit of madness after an argument with fellow painter Paul Gauguin. The rest of the story is weirder, as it states Van Gogh then presented the severed ear to a prostitute who, understandably, did not accept body parts as a form of legal tender. After passing out and almost bleeding to death, Van Gogh was found and put into a hospital until he recovered. What actually happened is not really known, but one theory puts forth that Van Gogh lost his ear to Gauguin in a duel, and Van Gogh made the crazy self-mutilation bit up (but might still have tried to buy some nookie with the ear) to protect Gauguin, with whom he had a massive man-crush on.

13) Ferdinand Magellen circumnavigated the world

13) Ferdinand Magellen circumnavigated the world

“First man to circumnavigate the world” is a common question for an elementary geography test, and in school you probably got it wrong. Why? ‘Cause Ferdinand Magellan, the famed Portuguese explorer, was killed in the Philippines (after sticking his nose into other people’s business) during the expedition to circumnavigate the world. The true answer to this question is “Juan Sebastian Elcano,” the man who eventually succeeded Magellan in command of the expedition.

14) George Washington's teeth were made out of wood

14) George Washington’s teeth were made out of wood

A popular misconception is that George Washington had wooden teeth. In actuality, Washington had teeth that were made out of a number of different things. This included gold, ivory, lead, donkey teeth, human teeth and donkey teeth

15) Iron maiden

15) Iron maiden

You may have heard of iron maidens and maybe you’ve even seen one, but the truth is that they weren’t used to torture. In fact they weren’t even invented in during the Medieval period, they were created in the 18th century to attract museum goers.

16) Albert Einstein didn't fail his math class.

16) Albert Einstein didn’t fail his math class.

Albert Einstein failing math was just a false statement in an issue of “Ripley’s Believe It or Not.” The statement was made while Einstein was still alive and he even saw the issue in question. Einstein not only did not fail math, but he overwhelmingly excelled in it, mastering classes such as differential and integral calculus.

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  1. Pingback: A History of Art in Three Colours: White (BBC Documentary) | mostly music

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