Getting Medieval on 6 of Biggest Lies of the Middle Ages

ITALY Magazine (Pope Joan Movie ‘A Papisa Joana’ in 2009)

The Medieval Period is said to have lasted from approximately the 5th to the 15th centuries. It is generally said to have began with the fall of the Roman Empire and came to an end with the Age of Discovery and the Renaissance. The era itself is also divided into different periods and each has its own associated myths.

Life was unquestionably tough with famines, plagues and wars but amongst those who haven’t dug any deeper, it almost appears as if the entire Middle Ages was one long period of pain, misery and premature death. That everyone was a filthy, uneducated, diseased peasant is simply not true. It was also an age of preposterous myths and we explore 6 of them below.

Wikipedia (19th century depiction of Magna Carta signing)
Wikipedia (19th century depiction of Magna Carta signing)

1 – King John & Magna Carta

History hasn’t been kind to King John; he is often portrayed as being a weak and spiteful monarch and in some quarters he has even been called ‘the worst King of England’. He is unquestionably best known for signing Magna Carta at Runnymede on 15 June 1215. It was an agreement between John and rebellious barons who were fed up with years of high taxations and generally poor rule.

The thing is, John may not have ‘signed’ the Great Charter at all. The British Royal Mint was criticized for its depiction of Magna Carta which was featured on a £2 coin designed to commemorate the 800th anniversary of the historic event. It showed King John holding a large quill in one hand and Magna Carta in the other. One theory suggests this is a false depiction because the king was possibly illiterate so he would have used a wax seal to ‘sign’ the document. This has been disputed by other historians who claim that King John had a vast library that he treasured.

Whether this is true or not, there are other myths surrounding the legendary document which is viewed as one of the most important legal scripts in the history of mankind. For a start, the 1215 version of Magna Carta wasn’t actually used. Living up to his reputation as a tyrant, John successfully appealed to the Pope in order to have the document annulled.

Part of Magna Carta stated that John could no longer throw people into prison whenever he felt like it. Clearly, he enjoyed this privilege which may be one of the reasons why he had the charter annulled. He died within a matter of months which presumably led to much rejoicing in England. An abridged version was released in 1225 during the reign of Henry III. The 1215 version had 69 clauses but the one unveiled a decade later had just 27.

Magna Carta was important because it laid the foundations for legal concepts such as trial by a jury of your peers and a ban on cruel and unusual punishments. There were also a few less than important issues addressed in the charter including details on how wide the bolts of cloth should be when making monk’s clothes! The clauses within the Charter were whittled away over the centuries and by the middle of the 20th century, there were only three of the original clauses left in British law.

  • Danny Adams

    I’d like to add one: That all the great works from ancient Greece and Rome were nearly lost because Christians burned them.

    While there were some works that were burned – usually heretical religious ones – most of the Classical literature we have survived because it was preserved by monks, either in what had been the Western Roman Empire or in the eastern half, what later came to be called Byzantium. Starting with a 6th century Italian religious leader named Cassiodorus, who thought lessons could be found in secular literature and urged monks to incorporate copying manuscripts into their daily routines, the Catholic Church, especially monasteries, included the copying of Greek and Roman works when they became Europe’s centers of education. The earliest copy we possess of almost every ancient work that has come down to us is a medieval copy.

    Most of the ancient works that were lost were, in fact, destroyed either through war or simple neglect. And as it is, when the “Renaissance Book Hunters” scoured Europe looking to find ancient literature – including authors like the Roman orator Cicero who were thought by then to be completely lost – they made virtually all of their finds in monastery libraries.

    • Hi Danny,

      Thanks so much for sharing your research with us; much appreciated and very interesting!

    • Alan K. Henderson

      I find it noteworthy that in contrast to ISIS and the Taliban, Christians never considered the notion of destroying pagan architecture. The Temple of Athena in Athens (that is, the Parthenon) was safe under centuries of Christendom.

      • Danny Adams

        I wouldn’t say never, as there were some instances of destruction such as the ones after the Theodosian Decrees against paganism. But like with book burning, yes, it was the exception rather than the rule. I think Augustine himself urged Christians to reconsecrate the temples and make them churches.

        • Nigel Sellars

          Good points. Book burnings do seem more to involve destroying the heretical works of other Christians rather than destroying Islamic, classical or Eastern writings, which were viewed as heathen rather than heretical. Even so, book burnings appear very rare indeed.

      • Liam O’Mara

        Alan, that’s not true at all. The Parthenon was “safe” because it had been converted into a Christian church. Christians frequently destroyed literature, and just at the Serapeum in Alexandria, but all over the Classical world. They also destroyed their own literature — there were twenty gospels that we know of, after all. But the main way that Christians destroyed the Classical legacy was through neglect. They decided that knowledge was not worth preserving unless it was the Church’s knowledge, so they just stopped copying the books and left them to rot away. If it wasn’t for the Arabs translating so much material we’d have lost most of what we do have.

      • all

        The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was built over a temple of Aphrodite.

      • allforfunnplay

        The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was built over a temple for Aphrodite.

      • Nigel Sellars

        I would add that Muslims, especially the Turks, also preserved pagan and Christian temples. The destruction of ancients sites is actually a very recent thing, and even then the Taliban destroyed the Buddhas at Bamiyan as more a case of political blackmail and extortion, as much to get the world to either offer it aid or see other cultural treasures destroyed. ISIS, on the other hand, is clearly the fanatical destroyer of everything it sees as heretical or pagan, which even seems to include numerous Islamic sites, especially Shia ones. Otherwise, the majority of religions seem to have respected the sacred sites and temples of others or simply took them over. I might add that the accusation about Christians and Muslims both burning the library at Alexandria is more likely completely overblown. The fires might actually have been more likely associated with earthquakes and fires in other portions of the city, many of which were recorded. And, in fact, much of Greek and Roman learning was actually preserved by the Muslims, which suggests they–like the Christians– had no reason to deliberately burn the library. It has been argued, in fact, that the Renaissance was largely the result of Christendom’s contact with Islam during the Crusades, and the Iberian Reconquista, and with it the re-discovery of the classical texts. It’s really far too easy to blame one group or the other for destruction that neither committed. Personally, I suspect more was lost to the Mongol incursions and the internal wars of Christendom, and most of the learning that was destroyed resulted from collateral, not deliberate, damage associated with other incidents.

        • Javafutter

          What a well started answer. History is filled with grey areas and complexities and it’s too easy to tie everything into one little bow or look at it from only our 21st century perspective.

          Thanks for your well informed and articulated statement.

  • David Lamb

    It’s not “The Magna Carta”. It’s just “Magna Carta”. It’s a proper name. I wouldn’t say “The Patrick Lynch”. I just say “Patrick Lynch”. Same thing.

    • Duly noted and changed The David Lamb.

      • Thank you both for the historical (and hysterical at the end) insite.

        • Patrick Lynch

          Thanks Greg; not everyone approved!

  • Cait McKnelly

    The Venerable Bede mentioned Arthur twice in his ecclesiastical history of Britain. In the first, he doesn’t call him a king but refers to him as “dux bellorum” (war duke) of Britain. In the second, he states that Arthur and Mordred fell at the “battle of Mount Badon”. There is no explanation of the relationship between the two, just their names.

  • Mark Sutton

    The works of Greece and Rome were threatened in the burning of Alexandria …or burnings. Not to mention the sacking of monasteries by various gothic peoples. A great deal of Greek philosophy was preserved by the church as it grafted Neoplatonic thought into a monotheistic religion . Aristotle was borrowed from as well by men like John Scotus Erigena.

  • Mark Sutton

    Point is that Christianity was hardly the sole reason books were lost. Alexandria was burned by Christians and Muslims both. Many works were actually preserved by the church.

  • Old_fashioned_man

    The comments on this page are particularly misinformed, as is some of the “historical” information in this presentation.

    • David

      Some of the comments are also particularly vague and un-actionable.

  • Keith

    History is pop culture, the facts rarely get in the way of a good story.

  • Patrick Robert Easter

    “Photios hated the Papacy, and especially Pope Nicholas I.” Not only false, but a non-sequitur. Nicholas was a man; the Papacy was/is an institution. Photios hated heresy, and all falsehood, as a faithful Patriarch. So, this is sufficient cause to blame him for a ruse? Proven a liar by loving the truth? Are you serious about that?

    • TJ Singleton

      The article never accused Photios of making up anything. The author’s point was that if there had been a Pope Joan in reality, Photios would have made sure to publicize it. That Photios never mentions it or uses the story is evidence that he never heard about it. That he never heard about it suggests the story was a story made up much later.

  • Javafutter

    yeah like Republicans think the economy was great in 2008.

  • JoseGrunt

    Magna Carta ban on “cruel and unusual punishment?” But they were still hanging, drawing and quartering people 300 years later.

  • Lyle F. Padilla

    Most depictions of Lady Godiva’s ride show her riding sidesaddle, hence the origin of the phrase “Hooray for our side!”

  • Steven J Porter

    As an Archaeologist, I can say this about one of these.. Arthur is still widely debated, and many SCIENTIFIC personnel believe he existed. Yes, like Robin of the Hood, the myth has WIDELY distorted the truth, and it is extremely hard to tell Fact from Fiction. But the 3 MAIN theories held today are thus. He was a “Scotsman” (Scots didnt actually exist in that age, but he would have been from the area of modern Scotland), He was a local “savage” (Britannia Pagan) or he was a member of a Rear Guard deployment of Roman Troops as Rome evacuated Britannia. All three have compelling Archaeological evidence. I personally think either the second or the third one, third having the most evidence that I have seen.

    • Cuindless

      What “compelling archaeological evidence” exists to back even one of these theories.

      • Steven J Porter

        Well, the Scots have the very location where “Arthur pulled the sword from the Stone” and have the best claim to a hero with a “Arthurian” name. The “Savage” they think they may have FOUND Excalibur in a Celtic grave, and they think they found the location of the Round Table near Hadrian’s Wall and they think they have a latin inscription with his name on it.

        • Cuindless

          What is the location of the “Sword in the Stone” in Scotland?

          When and where did they find Excalibur?

          Where and when did they find the Round Table?

          Who is “they”?

          Do you have any links or articles to back up these claims?

          • Steven J Porter

            Dude, google it, they are anthropologists. Im not here to be your professor. Im not here to make you believe a word im saying, if you want to know more, google it. I have a full time job and 3 kids to take up my time…

          • George Edward Booker

            As soon as you wrote, “Dude Google it,” you lost the discussion! Either present the evidence that supports your argument or keep it to yourself!

          • Stephen Martin

            George, I’m used to correcting people who have trouble believing experts, and I get similarly frustrated. The thing is, everything scholars do is published. If he’s for real, it will be there. If he isn’t, that will be there, too. Too many people expect us to be their free tutoring service. Sorry, not our jobs.

          • T.j. Thomas

            I suspect I’ll regret jumping in here, but … it’s not a “free tutoring service”. If someone makes an assertion or an argument, then the burden of proof is on them to back up what they’re saying, not the person you’re trying to convince.

          • Revolverkiller

            ive been saying that for years!!!!!

        • Jeremy Dunckel

          I can say for fact that these assertions are unfounded as I am an Arthurian scholar. First and foremost, Excalibur being pulled from the stone was written long after the legend of Arthur was even in existence. Caliburn (the true name of Arthur’s sword) had no mythic properties in the original legend. The round table as well was an invention by writers long after the myth of Arthur existed. The round table was a literary creation for the seating of Arthur’s knights. However, Knights didn’t even exist in the days that Arthur would have lived had he existed. And likely the myth of Arthur rose out of the Wales not Scotland. It is possible he was a real man, but highly unlikely. It is more likely that he was a composite of several men. Arthur, if he was real, was likely a war chief (a general or commander of a sorts), and was a heroic soldier in the service of a higher personage, a clan chieftain or early feudal king. His heritage would have been of the Britons or Welsh natives with possible Roman blood. There is scant evidence that Arthur actually existed. (and as a side note, Robin Hood is almost definitely not a real person who existed)

  • Tsuki_Ouji

    I’m kind of disappointed that Lady Godiva is listed as “one of the biggest lies”, since it’s a tale that even as a 5-year-old I knew it was blatantly allegorical…

  • bill

    Maybe I’m late to the party and times have changed since I was a child, but the continued use of “Magna Carta” without a “the” before it irritates me because nobody talks like that. Nobody says with their voice, “He signed Magna Carta.” We say, “He signed the Magna Carta.” Who is this “Magna Carta” that he/she/it is referred to as if it were a person? Please fix this or tell me by what rule we have personified and anthropomorphized a document, a thing.

    • SwampGrouch

      You mean like Brits saying, “He’s in hospital” instead of “He’s in the hospital?” US usages can grate upon the UK ear and vice versa.

  • KevinF

    Dang, everybody’s here arguing and obsessing over vacuous click bait. Yeah there are probably some debatable points here because someone in India was paid 45 cents to write it.

  • Rich Wright

    correct!!! Richard III got a bad rap.

  • Charles Trig Olio

    Actually the Middle Ages was a lot brighter and full of life than is otherwise thought. Thomas Aquinas is thought by some to be the smartest man that ever lived. This may be very difficult to prove one way or the other, however, he was the greatest philosopher that has ever lived. All the philosophers that came after him must stand on their toes and look up just to glance at him. He did not live in a vacuum. He was surrounded by mental giants and these were surrounded by others who did not think they lived in the ‘dark’ ages. It would be a dramatic mistake for our so-called intelligentsia to look down their collective noses at the Middle Ages.

  • peter

    The most important thing to come out of the Magna Carta was that only Parliament, and not the King, could levy a general tax. Consider the two legends surrounding the tyranny of John: Robin Hood and Lady Godiva, both of which arose from John’s excessive taxation (the Sheriff of Nottingham was a tax-collector).