So this article, I’m going to do a few things you may have been told (or even taught in school when you were younger) were true, but actually aren’t. Unlike most click-bait articles, I won’t claim “10 Facts You Never Knew” because I understand that is a very broad generalization and I’d like to think if you’re reading a history blog you’re probably going to know more than the average person about some of these topics. So let’s dive in.
10: Vikings and their Horned Helmets
One that you see a LOT of (especially with the more recent popularity in Viking and early Nordic culture) and even in a lot of books, is that Vikings wore horned helmets. This is just simply not true. Not only would horned helmets have been incredibly impractical, but they would have likely been more expensive. They often wore more simple helmets or leather caps (or even didn’t wear head gear). The main reason for this is because most vikings were a combination of poor people, farmers in the off-season, and others picked up along the way (and some slaves). They often didn’t have money for a lot of armour or weapons, especially not anything ornate and fancy. Sometimes they would pick it up, but usually you would find basic swords and axes, as well as rather basic leather and mail armours and helmets. The first known “image” of Vikings with horned helmets was from a Richard Wagner opera in 1876.
Here on the left we have an often stylized horned helmet, while on the right we have something more similar to what people would have actually worn.
9: Napolean Bonaparte was Short
Another common thing you often hear about was how Napolean Bonaparte (French revolutionary, and Emperor) was short. This is because of 2 (lesser known) reasons. His pictures often showed him surrounded by his elite personal guard (most, if not all, of which were over 6 feet tall). The other reason was because they used “French feet” instead of “Imperial Feet” (A French inch was roughly 2.71 centimeters, while the Imperial inch was roughly 2.54 centimeters). This difference meant that in French records he was listed as roughly 5’2″. While in English records (using the Imperial measure rather than the French measure) had him recorded at roughly 5’7″, which would actually make him taller than the average French person at the time (even by modern standards, the average male world wide is 5’7″, so while tall for a French person at the time, he would still be considered average by today’s standards). As such, all those short jokes and “Little Man Syndrome” explanations of his behaviours are, historically speaking, completely false.
A painting of the crowning of Napolean and Josephine by the pope. If you notice Napolean (holding the crown) is about the same height as most people standing on the same level.
8: Van Gogh Cut Off His Ear in his own Madness
A rather common line is that Vincent Van Gogh is a brilliant madman who once cut his own ear off to prove his love to a prostitute. And while this adds to his allure, recent evidence shows that this was a lie. He actually lost it in a rapier duel to one of his former close friends (fellow artist, and rival, Paul Gauguin). He was known for his fits of madness, but by modern standards he wasn’t certifiably crazy (though he did suffer from depression). After the duel, the two men agreed to keep what happened between them (likely because of legal issues about the duel), and as a result Gauguin was the reason that the rumour of him cutting off his ear exists in the first place.
Van Gogh on the left, and Gauguin on the right.
7: Medieval Europeans Thought the Earth was Flat
This one is actually a relatively recent phenomenon. The Greeks had in the third century BCE (or BC for those who prefer the Christianized calendar) a mathematical equation for the earths curvature. Sailors also knew that constellations changed as you sailed south (and sailors from the south knew it changed when you headed north). We also had lunar eclipses that showed the curve of the Earth. One “fact” that was going around was that Christopher Columbus discovered America while trying to prove the Earth was round (which is definitely not true, he was trying to find a quicker way to India for a better access to the spice-trade).
6: The American Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4th, 1776
This one may actually be one of the least known facts on this list. Most people always just assume July 4th, but in fact, the Declaration of Independence wasn’t signed until August 2nd, 1776. Though it wasn’t signed on July 4th, the Declaration was already written, because it was, in fact, approved by Congress on July 4th. The founding fathers just didn’t sign it for almost a month (which, without cars and such, would have been around the right time for all the founding fathers to gather their belongings and travel so that they could all sign it).
The Declaration of Independence
5: Marie Antoinette saying “Let Them Eat Cake.”
While we are often told Marie Antoinette once said about the starving masses in France, that they should just “Let them eat cake.” This is another falsehood. While the phrase itself may have been stated by some nobles, this quote attributed to her was published in a book by Jean Jacques Rousseau. Mind you, this book was published when Marie Antoinette was only 10, which means this leads to one of two prevailing theories. One, that this quote is entirely made up by Rousseau (who was an influence during the French Revolution, inspiring Maximillion Robespierre and Louis Antoine de Saint-Just and their “Reign of Terror”), or that it was perhaps said by a member of the royal family, that he then attributed to her.
4: Your Astrological Sign
Alright, this one isn’t quite “History” but it still is something A LOT of people believe in that isn’t true. If you are born between August 23rd and September 22nd, you are a Virgo. You know, or so you’ve been told. The reality is, the constellations that your astrological sign is associated with is no longer where it is supposed to be. Over the last couple thousand years, the constellations shift positions. This leads to people believing they are Virgo’s when they aren’t. Even recently, Virgo itself was changed by NASA (updating it for the first time in over 2000 years) to September 16th to October 30th. Of course, with the update they added the 13th constellation and astrological sign (even when the Babylonians were doing the original horoscope, they left out the thirteenth on purpose, because 12 fits into the 360 degree rotation of earth better so it was more easily divided). On top of the Babylonians, the Herbrews and Egyptians also had a thirteenth constellation.
On the left we have the pictured version of Ophiuchus (the thirteenth constellation). On the Right we have the 3 parts of it (the two Serpents and Ophiuchus) in relation to Libra in August 2017
3: Witches were burned at the Salem Trials
A rather common misconception is that during the Salem Witch Trials, that those who were convicted of being a witch got burned at the stake. While this makes for good stories and a way to make ourselves feel better that we aren’t that barbaric anymore. But this is also false. Those accused of witchcraft were killed, but they were hung. While there were roughly 40,000 to 50,000 witches burned in Europe during the 16th century, the Salem trials only had roughly 20 executions and most of those were done by hanging. One execution was done by, well, being crushed by large stones. And a couple died in prison. But the Salem Trials burning witches is historically not true.
A painting of someone being hung at Salem
2: George Washington’s Teeth were Wooden
While George Washington DID have fake teeth, he didn’t have wooden teeth (at least none have been found). Though he did have 4 sets of fake teeth that we have discovered. They were made up of various exotic metals, elephant ivory, hippopotamus ivory, and human teeth (from what records exist, he bought the teeth of African American slaves to make a set of his own teeth). He had also used Donkey teeth, Horse teeth, and Cow teeth in his fake sets. Some of these things are completely weird (like seriously, who uses the teeth of other humans?). But as far as we know, him (and his dentist John Greenwood) did not use wood in any of his dentures.
One of the preserved sets of President Washington’s teeth.
1: Emperor Nero Played the Fiddle while Rome Burned
One of the things involved with Nero is that he supposedly played the fiddle while watching Rome burn around him. More importantly, he is also often accused of being the one to start the fire that burned down Rome (The Great Fire of Rome was between July 18 and July 26th of the year 64 Common Era). But both of these statements could not have been true. Mostly because Emperor Nero was roughly 30 miles away from Rome at the time, in his villa in Antium. This was reported by historian Tacitus, who is considered one of the most trustworthy historians of the period. The rumours supposedly had Nero starting the fire, playing his fiddle in a tower, and then trying to stop it so he could be a saviour. Though he obviously couldn’t have been playing the fiddle in a tower, there is nothing saying he still couldn’t have ordered someone to start the fire while he was away, but that is something we may never know.
As I said, some of these you may have known. But, hopefully you fine readers of the Reaper Legion, and others who just stumbled upon this blog, learned something new today. As always, Geek Responsibly.