Today we know that many clichés about the Middle Ages are false. We tended to believe that medieval times were dark centuries where everyone was dirty and uneducated, but the reality is still much more nuanced. But then, how come we have such a distorted image of the Middle Ages? Well, it’s partly due to the films on the subject which put some nice bullshit in our heads. They peddle clichés in spades, and we, poor naive people that we are, we believe them.
1. “Knights would often die in battle”
- 1 1. “Knights would often die in battle”
- 2 2. “Armor was easily punctured”
- 3 3. “The commanders shouted ‘fire’ to order the archers to fire”
- 4 4. “Poor people were filthy”
- 5 5. “Castle sieges were super fast”
- 6 6. “The cavalry charged in front against soldiers armed with lances”
- 7 7. “Everyone ate like crazy”
- 8 8. “The rich had nice teeth and the peasants had yucky snags.”
- 9 9. “Castles were made of stone”
- 10 10. “The kids had no childhood and worked as soon as they could stand.”
We have seen film scenes where the knights rushed on their adversaries then engaged in single combat against the enemy leader before being coldly killed on the battlefield, but this is quite far from reality. Already, the knights were rather well protected by their armor, and especially rather sheltered from the big fights (that’s the advantage when you are rich and powerful). And the real reason they rarely died on the battlefield was that they were so valuable: if enemies fell on them, they would rather capture them for ransom than take their lives. A living knight was worth far more than a dead knight.
2. “Armor was easily punctured”
If you’ve ever watched movies set in the Middle Ages, then you’ve noticed that fighters stab each other with swords as if it were super easy. In the battle scenes, cutting through your enemy with a sword looks as simple as preparing skewers of lamb for the barbec. It makes you wonder why the knights wore armor, after all. Well actually, the armors were much tougher than what the movies show us. They stopped sword strikes and even arrows (most of the time). To kill a knight in armor, suddenly, it was often necessary to use a shorter blade, like a dagger, just to pass through the interstices between the metal plates. But, as I told you above, we preferred to keep the knights alive to exchange them for a ransom. No need to bother to pierce their armor, therefore. A good sledgehammer to immobilize them on the ground, and voila.
3. “The commanders shouted ‘fire’ to order the archers to fire”
In fact, it’s a big anachronism. We only started shouting “fire” since the use of guns on the battlefield (and not since their invention, because it’s been a long time before guns really weren’t anymore. useful than bows and arrows in battle). Suddenly, the commanders ordered rather “let go” (or loose, in English), which corresponds much more to the way of using a bow.
One could also have thought that the “fire” command came from flaming arrows, but they would have been used very little on the battlefield. It was quite a hassle to ignite and it changed the arrow’s trajectory quite a bit, so we generally didn’t bother with that.
4. “Poor people were filthy”
No matter what medieval movie you take, there are always hicks with dirt on their faces and rotting beige and brown clothes. All the poor are represented as ragged, with the possible exception of the beautiful young girl with whom the knight falls in love. In short, it’s nonsense. In reality, the peasants had rather good hygiene compared to what is represented, they used soap and washed their clothes in the streams near the villages. In addition, their clothes were often colored in blue, red or yellow (not too green though, because green dyes were often toxic). They weren’t as dull as you see in the movies.
5. “Castle sieges were super fast”
Well, that depends on the movies. Some insist on the long side of things, but for others castle sieges sometimes take place in a single night. We see thousands of soldiers disembark and climb the ramparts or smash the front door with battering rams to loot everything as easily as one enters Granny’s house. In the Middle Ages, in reality, seats lasted forever. Castles were built on purpose to resist enemies, so if they were that easy to invade, the concept would soon be abandoned. No, usually the enemy was content to surround their target for weeks until the besieged surrendered for lack of food or water. It sounds simple, like that, but it was still quite taxing for the besieger too.
6. “The cavalry charged in front against soldiers armed with lances”
This scene, it comes back often too. We can see hundreds of riders throwing themselves at full speed against a wall of enemies who hold pikes forward to prevent them from passing but who are knocked out by the speed of the horses. In real battles, if the riders had charged like brutes like that, all they would have gained was to see their mount die in two seconds, pierced by a spear. The cavalry therefore had other tactics to attack its enemies. Either the horsemen dismounted from their mounts once close to the enemy soldiers, or they circled them to lead charges at close range and harass them. But it sure is a lot less cinematic.
7. “Everyone ate like crazy”
In quite a few films set in the Middle Ages, the diners eat like pigs, wiping their greasy hands on their clothes, throwing their chicken bones anywhere and burping all over the place. This is another bullshit that has nothing to do with reality. Already at that time, table manners were required, and hands were washed before and after eating. Bowls filled with water were available on the tables to rinse their fingers, and, among the wealthiest, servants could even bring napkins. We didn’t often have cutlery, of course, but we were still a long way from the image of the big yucky who can’t stand.
8. “The rich had nice teeth and the peasants had yucky snags.”
Not at all. Well, I mean, there weren’t any “real” dentists back then so sure there were probably a few more loose dentures than there are now, but people in In the Middle Ages, rich and poor alike knew that it was important to take care of their teeth. Moreover, there were probably more oral problems among the rich than among the poor because the diet of the former was richer in sugar than that of the latter. And we’ve been telling you since you were little: sugar and teeth don’t really mix.
9. “Castles were made of stone”
In any movie or series set in medieval times, every lord’s castle is built of stone. This is a fairly logical error since the medieval castles that have remained standing today are precisely those built with stone that resists time. But, for most of the Middle Ages, most castles were built of wood. The stone was expensive, it took time to deliver and it was difficult to carry. It was only from the 13th century (thus in the very last part of the Middle Ages) that the construction of stone castles became almost systematic. Oh yeah.
10. “The kids had no childhood and worked as soon as they could stand.”
Again, this is greatly exaggerated in the movies. We always see kids helping their parents in the fields or with household chores, but never having fun. It’s true that we made them work quite early, because that was the norm, but we found a lot of toys dating from medieval times, including among the peasants. The children still had a childhood. Afterwards, it is certain that our life is better than that of people in the Middle Ages, we are not going to lie to each other.