Top 10 Medieval Misconceptions
List of Popular Myths and Misconceptions about the Middle Ages Found in Movies and Medieval Fantasy Entertainment
First I want to say that this isn’t a critique of any specific book, movie or video game and I do not wish to offend anyone’s tastes or preferences. Simply put, nitpicking medieval misconceptions from fantasy and historical fiction can be an entertaining way to learn more about the real Middle Ages, so let’s get started.
Listen to medieval fantasy music while you read 🙂
#10 – Swords making shing! or whish! sounds when pulled from sheaths or scabbards.
The myth that a sword would make a loud metallic shing sound when pulled from a leather sheath or wooden scabbard most likely came from Hollywood writers who were imitating modern sword scabbards which are often made of steel. Basically, the only way pulling a sword from a “medieval” scabbard could make this sound is if the scabbard had a metal mouth at the top where the sword goes in. Most medieval scabbards, however, didn’t have this metal mouth piece, but many modern scabbards do.
Because most medieval scabbards didn’t have a metal mouth piece and where made from wood wrapped in leather, they wouldn’t make the loud shing or whish sound that we commonly hear in movies and fantasy video games, or indeed described in many fantasy books. Actually, it barely makes a sound at all when you pull a sword from a real “medieval” scabbard, unless the scabbard is made from metal, and if it does make a sound it might be a quiet scrape sound. Scholagladiatoria talks about this topic extensively on YouTube, and you can check that out here.
#9 – Burning torches in the daytime and in dungeons.
Commonsense is very helpful in debunking the myth that medieval people would for some reason waste valuable resources by having torches burning all throughout the day. In Hollywood movies that try to portray life in the Middle Ages, these torches are thought to make the atmosphere seem more “medieval” but to anyone who actually studies the Middle Ages it only looks silly.
Medieval people rose early with the sunrise and would retire for the day at nightfall because light was so expensive! Sure, landowners or wealthy merchants could afford to have torches burning all day if they wanted to but what’s the point of wasting those resources when the sun is already providing light for you? Also, torches were a very rudimentary and sparsely used source of light in the Middle Ages, simply because tallow lamps, oil lamps, beeswax candles, etc., were much more practical; they burned longer and you could carry them in a lantern for convenience.
In Hollywood movies, medieval dungeons and crypts have torches burning in sconces but these are, if you look closely, actually powered by gas in most movies, because medieval pitch torches, unlike the clean flame of a beeswax candle or modern kerosene torch, produce lots of smoke! It would be foolish to have smoky torches constantly burning indoors, especially in a place like a dungeon where there is poor air circulation.
With all that said, pitch torches and tallow torches were still commonly used in medieval times, although typically outdoors; they just weren’t nearly as common as Hollywood would unintentionally lead us to believe.
#8 – Armored knights were like tin cans, unable to mount their horses without assistance.
The myth of knightly armor being unwieldy suits that would render the wearer practically immobile to the point that they needed a crane to mount a horse most likely came from, like many other medieval myths, romantic writers from the Gothic Revival. The truth is much different. Medieval suits of plate armor were actually highly maneuverable and because each piece of armor was strapped to a different part of the body this meant that the weight of the armor was distributed evenly across the body and didn’t burden the wearer too much.
A knight fully decked out in plate armor could jump, roll and climb ladders the same as someone who wasn’t wearing armor. This means, too, that they could raise a foot into a stirrup and mount a horse like any regular man. Often, however, an item called a mounting block would be presented by an ostler, squire or page to make mounting a little easier. Medieval mounting blocks were made of wood and had carved steps, but today they’re mostly made from plastic.
Another fact to illustrate that knights and other armored riders like men-at-arms had no problem mounting horses without assistance can be seen by looking at the knight’s armor itself. The part of the armor that would protect the wearer’s waist was specifically designed for horse riding. It’s called a fauld and was constructed in a series of lames that would contract like an accordion whenever the wearer sat down.
#7 – Medieval weapons being able to cleave through armor like a knife through butter.
If swords could easily puncture medieval armor like we see in movies and video games then why would medieval people wear armor in the first place? It’s hard for iron to puncture iron even when done by modern machines. In medieval times, iron plate armor was hardened to prevent penetration and was smooth and rounded to persuade swords to glance off rather than hit with purchase. In fact, maces and other medieval blunt weapons like pole-hammers were invented to bash armor because it was so hard to puncture it with blades. Even when someone wasn’t wearing plate armor, chainmail over gambeson was still very effective at preventing thrust wounds and one would have to be extremely strong to stab through it like butter.
This is why armored knights were so feared on the battlefield, because they had a huge advantage against unarmored opponents. Full suits of plate armor were also very effective at deflecting arrows and crossbow bolts, so try not to cringe next time you see an arrow go straight through a breastplate in a movie.
#6 – Bows creaking when the drawstring is pulled.
In movies and video games, you can almost always hear a long creak sound whenever someone pulls back the drawstring of their bow, but in real life wooden bows don’t make this sound. To prove this, go into the woods and find a flexible tree branch. Put your ear to it and bend it. Does it make any noise? Wood can certainly make a creaking noise, like floorboards in an old house, but wooden bows were and still are intentionally flexible to allow bending and to prevent snapping, and don’t make any weird sounds when strained.
#5 – Medieval armies using fire arrows against each other.
There were special arrows that could convey fire a long distance when shot from a bow, but these were used to light thatch roofs on fire during sieges and weren’t used against personnel. In real life, if you take a medieval arrow, even if dipped in pitch, and light the end on fire, the flame will snuff out the moment you launch it from your bow. The special medieval arrows designed to convey fire actually had metal cages to hold flammable material on the ends instead of sharp points. The YouTuber Lindybeige has an informative video on fire arrows that you can watch here.
#4 – Medieval castles looking like historical ruins.
It’s a shame that modern filmmakers, when they want to film at a real medieval castle, are forced to film at locations that have been aging for hundreds of years. Today, medieval castles have lost much of their plaster and paint and look like ruins, showing bare stone all over the place. In many movies filmed at historical sites, you can even see chips of plaster on the castle walls suggesting that the whole wall was once plastered. Filmmakers would have to travel back in time to shoot their scenes at historically accurate castles.
Castles in the Middle Ages were well-kempt, commonly plastered and painted, or covered in roughcast or harling as they called it in Scotland. Especially in the inside of the castle’s keep you would see much wood paneling, or linenfold wainscot, and murals painted right onto the plaster. It’s true the outside of castle walls could be what you call “faced stone”, showing the mortar between each stone like we see in movies, but again these walls would not have centuries of weathering on them. To be realistic, they would look new like they had in the Middle Ages, not like ruins in the modern day.
Often medieval castles were never fully “completed” per se, as owners and inheritors would do renovation often, adding rooms and buildings, extending walls and other fortifications, but they would nonetheless be built to a standard that dwellers could live inside it while these improvements were being made over generations. Unlike a cathedral that might take generations to complete, a castle had a more practical role and the essentials could be constructed fairly quickly, in as little time as a few years, especially if the owners needed it for a military application. So the main takeaway here is just to remember that medieval castles in movies look nothing like they would’ve in their heyday.
#3 – Everyone in the Middle Ages being dirty, smelly and wearing drab clothing.
Because they had no running hot water and less technology than we do today, it’s easy to assume that medieval people never bathed and therefore must always be stinky with dirty faces. The truth is, they only had to work a little harder to stay clean. Medieval cities had bathhouses for the public, affordable even for the poor, and people who could afford better had private bathtubs made of wood or bronze in their homes. And nearly every home had water basins for cleaning hands and faces before and after eating.
After using the commode or garderobe, forms of medieval toilets, they would wipe with hay instead of modern toilet paper. To have a hot bath, they would have to heat water over a fire and transport it to the bathtub in jugs. And to prevent body odor they had many clever ways of producing pleasant smells. Noble ladies would often wear pomanders, globe-shaped cases hanging from a chain by their neck or waist that would hold pleasant-smelling herbs. Medieval people made soaps out of lye and other natural ingredients, and they also made fine combs out of bone for brushing their hair.
Today, we put flowers in our home because they look pretty, but medieval people would scatter flower petals about their home purely for the fragrance they produced. On average medieval people may not have been as clean as modern people, but I’d argue their soaps were even healthier than modern synthetic soaps and must’ve worked well. Even poor people in the country could bathe in rivers or lakes, and humans will always be humans, finding nasty smells unpleasant! This is why industries that produced fowl odors like glass-blowing and leather-tanning had to be far removed from the general public, because no one likes nasty smells no matter what century they live in.
When it came to medieval clothing, not everyone was wearing drab browns and grays like you see in Hollywood movies. Medieval people were forced to dress as their class permitted so that they could be easily identified, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t appreciate color. Overall, medieval people dressed even more colorfully than we do today, as mismatching colors was actually the popular style in most places. And they would make dyes out of natural ingredients. Of course, people who couldn’t afford to dye their clothing would wear it plain, and undyed wool is often brown, white or gray, same with undyed linen and other undyed fabric common in the Middle Ages, but if they could afford dyed clothing they probably wouldn’t dye their clothing these drab colors, although it did happen of course, as women would often where light brown satin dresses for instance. In most cases, though, if they were wearing drab-colored clothing it was because it wasn’t dyed to begin with. After all, dying gray wool brown, or white linen gray, could be considered a waste of money if you could go for a red, green, yellow or blue. Some dyes like red and purple, especially depending on their ingredients, were extremely expensive, however, and therefore were worn more prevalently by the upper classes.
#2 – Medieval armies not having cannons or black powder weapons.
Yes, it’s true. Cannons have been used since the 1200s, though they used black powder instead of modern gunpowder. When we see a battle from the High Middle Ages depicted in movies, the fact that black powder weapons have been used since the 1200s is often forgotten. Cannons were used against personnel in skirmishes and against gates in sieges. By the 1490s, Venice had already replaced their entire army’s crossbows with black powder firearms. In the 1300s, rudimentary forms of rifles, often called hand cannons or handgonnes, were used frequently on the battlefield, deployed similarly to archers or crossbowmen. The Scottish called their cannon the crakys of war, the French the pot-de-fer.
Most early cannons from the 1200 and 1300s were made from caste bronze that looked like giant vases, and the ammunition from stone. Loam was used to pack the stone cannonball airtight in the cannon’s breech, like wadding in a flintlock musket. The iron cannonball was first use by the Venetians in the late 1400s, and by then these early forms of the cannon, because they had become much safer for the operator to use, had nearly fully replaced the trebuchet as the go-to siege engine in most armies.
#1 – Medieval soldiers wielding swords as primary weapons.
Fantasy video games often provide a wide range of medieval weapons, but in movies and fantasy books it can be difficult to find a polearm. The truth is, a sword was typically a sidearm, worn on the hip during battle, because a soldier’s primary weapon was most commonly a spear or other polearm like a glave or poleaxe. A sword could be a primary weapon for gentlemen in cities, commonly used with a buckler, but not soldiers in armies, unless of course they were using a great sword. Even longswords were not typically primary weapons, as they could be worn at the hip in a scabbard similarly to the arming sword or short sword that most soldiers had. And when a medieval soldier was using a shield, a spear would still be their first weapon of choice, and the sword would only be used if the spear was broken or intentionally discarded for a close encounter.
Just like how a pistol is a sidearm to the rifle for a modern soldier, the sword was a sidearm to the spear for a medieval soldier. Even in the Viking Age when, thanks to Hollywood movies, we’d think swords and shields were the first pick for soldiers, the opposite was true. Many Vikings used spear and shield, with a sword at their hip for back up. Therefore, it’s a major misconception to see armies battling with swords from the outset. Where are all the polearms?
Even though I find it fun to pick out misconceptions about the Middle Ages from medieval fantasy, I still love medieval fantasy and appreciate the art even when it has historical inaccuracies, because I understand the artist’s intention is to entertain and not educate. Over the years I’ve done much thinking and writing on why medieval movies are unrealistic and it’s simply because Hollywood and other creators want to show their audiences what they already expect. For example, the makers of Monty Python and the Holy Grail were actually medievalists and knew a lot about the real Middle Ages, but they were here to make a comedy film and not educate their audience about medieval history. Maybe in the future when the masses, thanks to the Internet, are aware of all these misconceptions, it’ll no longer be prudent for Hollywood and game developers to include them in their creations. Until then, I’ll continue to enjoy medieval entertainment where I can. Just don’t mind me if I cringe every now and then.
Thanks for reading!
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