You'd be surprised at how much of your school education may turn out, with future revelations, to be a pack of lies. Fat is not actually bad for you (at least not as bad as sugar); Cleopatra could have been black, Macedonian Greek, Egyptian, or some combination of all three; Nero didn't actually fiddle while Rome burned (he was in Actium, many miles away) — next you'll be told that all algebra is a scam and the periodic table needs to be reshuffled. Never take the textbooks for granted, is the main lesson here. But there are nine historical myths that need to be blasted immediately, for everybody's betterment.
Discovering the falsehood of historical ideas is a natural thing. Sources turn out to be fabricated, facts have been concealed to fit somebody's agenda: history's a living thing, and it's vulnerable. Some mistakes — like the fact that July 4 isn't actually the date of the signing of the Declaration Of Independence (that happened on July 2), but the date of approval for a revised version — should have been passed down to you, if your history teacher was a reasonable one. Others, however, have crept their way into curriculums despite copious evidence to the contrary.
Here are nine mistakes, at least some of which you probably thought were true at some point. You'll never talk about Paul Revere the same way again.
1. Cavemen Lived In Caves
While cave paintings do indicate that our ancestors spent some of their time in caves, evidence has begun to suggest that Neanderthals were actually nomads, following crops, the sun, and the weather. Some researchers do still dispute this, claiming that they only moved around their immediate neighborhood — but mostly it seems that caves were seen as useful shelter, not permanent dwellings.
2. Rosa Parks Was Just Tired
The historical narrative surrounding Rosa Parks tends to emphasise her "everywoman" status. She was just an ordinary seamstress, in Montgomery, Alabama, too tired to shift to the back of the bus after an exhausting day. The reality of the situation, however, is that Parks was also an activist whose act of defiance, spontaneous though it was, came from a context of equal rights activism — she'd been the youth president of her local NAACP chapter in 1943, and had been part of discussions about mounting legal challenges to segregation.
“People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired,” wrote Parks in her autobiography, “but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically… No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.” It doesn't make her act any less powerful, though.
3. Romans Threw Up In Vomitoriums At Banquets
The notion of Roman decadence is well-embedded in history. These were the people who thought songbird tongues were a delicacy and held banquets lying down surrounded by dancing girls. But the idea that they were the first institutionalized bulimics — that there was a special "room" off the main Roman banqueting hall, designed for over-indulging guests to purge before coming back for more fun — is an historic myth. Vomitoriums are the entrances to huge public spaces: the arches that lead into the Colosseum are vomitoriums, and while I'm sure they've seen their share of vomit in their time, it wasn't exactly their point.
4. Medieval Europeans Burned Witches
Perhaps you know that nobody actually burned anybody at the Salem Witch Trials, but if you also had the mental image of medieval Europe as crowded with burning witches at every corner, you're in for a disappointment. The Witch Hunts of the 1500s-1700s actually favored another punishment entirely for the poor women who were deemed to be consorting with the Devil: hanging. Burning often happened after the death of the witch, to prevent her rising from the dead and causing more mischief.
5. Eve Ate An Apple In The Garden Of Eden
This isn't necessarily a "fact," per se, but it's certainly an embedded part of religious lore and will have been taught with authority in your religion classes. The problem? The Bible only says "fruit," and the exact identity of the forbidden fruit has been a matter of argument for thousands of years. Apple has its defenders, largely because of a play on words in the Bible's Latin translation: malum, in Latin, means both "evil" and "apple". But other, equally valid, ideas include a fig, an apricot, and a pomegranate.
6. Martin Luther Nailed His Theses To A Door
One of the most world-changing events in world history, kick-starting the Reformation and changing Europe's religious landscape forever, didn't happen as we think it did. It's long been thought that Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses about the sins of Catholicism to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg — but there are no eyewitnesses, nobody mentions it until a century later, and scholars now believe he simply posted his historical protests to the bishops.
7. Benjamin Franklin Discovered Electricity
If your history or science teachers told this whopper, give them a fail mark. Franklin wasn't messing about with a kite in a thunderstorm to discover electricity. For one, it's unlikely that the experiment (in which a lightning bolt hit a key attached to a kite in Franklin's hand) happened at all, and all the evidence we have is Franklin's insistence that it did. For another, people already knew that electricity existed; it was Franklin's observations about using and harnessing it that were useful.
8. People In The Middle Ages Died At 30
Your impression of the Middle Ages in Europe is likely not particularly flattering. Plague, women with pointy hats, hideous deaths in jousts, being captured as a witch (though not burned!) — it doesn't really appeal.
Consequently, the long-standing myth of population that said that "old age" was essentially unknown and most people died before 30 has taken very deep root. The problem is that it's wrong. Lifespans were shorter, but reaching 70 or 80 wasn't unknown. The data indicates that an average lifespan for a noble individual was about 43 for women and 48 for men.
9. Paul Revere Rode Alone To Shout A Warning
The American hero of the Revolution has his legend all wrong, unfortunately. The normal version — that he rode alone to warn the townspeople, yelling "The British are coming!" — has basically no basis in fact, aside from the fact that he did have a horse and he was trying to warn people. One, he wasn't on his own; two, he didn't yell, but went quietly from house to house; three, he didn't call them "the British" but "the Regulars"; and fourth, he never made it to Concord. Another man had to take the news from Lexington, where he was captured.
Images: Pascal, R.Banks, Dennis Jarvis, Freeparking, Jim Forest, David Berkowitz, Hans Splinter, Marion Doss/Flickr; Wikimedia Commons (2)