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.

      • 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.

      • allforfunnplay

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

  • 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.