Lies You Were Told By The History BooksHistory
Let's find out about some of the craziest lies you were told by the history books!
Human history is packed full of uncertainty and we can’t even begin to know everything about our ancient past, but what if I told you some of the most basic facts you learned in history class are founded on lies?
Let's untangle some of the most common historical misconceptions you should probably know about.
10. Rosa Parks
Iconic activist Rosa Parks had a huge part to play in the history of the American Civil Rights Movement when she bravely refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama on December 1st, 1955.
Many of us may have learned about how this fatigued ordinary woman refused to give up her seat in the all-white section of the bus at the end of a long day and accidentally became the mother of the civil rights movement as we now know it, but that story isn’t necessarily true.
Firstly, Ms. Parks was no ‘everyday hero’; although she was a seamstress by day, she was also a well-trained anti-segregation activist who has since said herself that “the only tired I was, was tired of giving in”.
On the darkening eve of December first, she was sat in the front row of the middle section of the bus designated for African American or ‘coloured’ riders, when the bus became packed with passengers and a white man was left standing.
At this point, Ms Parks and three other black passengers were instructed by the driver to give up their seats to other white passengers. So, it wasn’t as if she was being purposefully disobedient in defiance of the rules like many of us are taught.
She was following the rules by not being in the all-white section, but she refused and was arrested after the driver's request meant she could no longer stand for such harsh treatment – earning herself a pivotal role as a woman who changed the course of American history.
9. Chinese Foot-Binding
In China, there is an age-old tradition where the bones in young girls’ feet are broken and bound into little ‘golden lotus’ shapes which has now entirely died out.
Generally, the teaching of this practice by most other nations has assumed that foot-binding was favoured because it was believed that smaller and daintier feet would make upper-class girls more attractive to potential suitors, but recent research suggests a surprisingly different motivation.
In a study by Lauren Bossen and Hill Gates titled Bound Feet, Young Hands 1,800 foot-bound Chinese women were interviewed, and their responses revealed that the practice was popularised to immobilise girls and force them to stay at home and work.
Girls were taught how to spin, weave and do other handiwork from a young age until the arrival of factories eliminated the value of such tedious work, taking foot-binding with it.
Contrary to popular belief, having these lotus feet wasn’t a privilege reserved for upper-class women, either, although it may have originated from high-class court dancers during 10th century Imperial China.
Many peasant families practiced binding to maximise their family income, and the bizarre cultural beauty standards we have long blamed for this unusual custom are simply another case of distorted history.
8. The Telephone
If the question “who invented the telephone” crops up in a pop quiz, most of us would confidently answer Alexander Graham Bell, but you’d be wrong… technically. In reality, Bell was one of several men working on the idea of the telephone at the same time, he just lucked out on getting to the Patent Office first on February 14th, 1876.
Records have shown that another man – Elisha Gray – had also invented a similar device to Bell’s talking telegraph and intended to patent it on the very same day. Both men sent their lawyers to the U.S. Patent Office, but Bell’s got there first, making his entry the fifth of the day while Gray was 39th on the list.
To make matters more confusing, it also transpired that neither of these inventors can truly be called the father of modern communications, as the telephone was actually originally created by an Italian immigrant called Antonio Meucci.
Meucci began developing his idea for a ‘teletrofono’ in 1849 and even filed a caveat to announce the invention in 1871. However, he was unable to renew it due to his poor social standing, allowing Alexander Bell to swoop in some 16 years later and claim the credit.
Thankfully, the U.S. Congress decided the recognise the work of the impoverished Florentine immigrant in 2002, so all’s fair in love and war.
When you picture the fearsome French military leader Napoleon Bonaparte, you’ll probably imagine a tiny man in a stupidly big hat, but the reality is he probably didn’t look much like that at all.
The common belief that Napoleon was unusually short – giving us the popular phrase ‘Napoleon complex’ – has been up for debate throughout history, and the likelihood is his height was nothing out of the ordinary.
Reports have stated that he stood a measly 5”2 and while that is technically true French inches also used to be longer than English inches, so his height actually translates to around 5”6 which is perfectly average for a man of his time.
For some perspective, the not-so-little leader even measures up pretty well to our own political figureheads today.
Other factors behind his warped image can be attributed to his nickname ‘le petit corporal’ – which was a term of endearment rather than a reference to his height – and the fact that he liked to surround himself with the tallest soldiers as a military tactic. So, as it turns out being likened to Napoleon is really no insult at all.
6. Christopher Columbus
Christopher Columbus is one of the most well-known explorers in history, and he has been credited with a whole host of achievements like proving that the earth isn’t flat and being the first man to discover America as we know it today.
The sad truth is that Columbus actually did neither of these things when he bravely set sail back in 1492.
The age-old tale about Columbus convincing a council of 1490s religious clerics that he wouldn’t just sail off the edge of the earth was completely falsified by author Washington Irving in an 1828 biography titled The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus.
In fact, by the late 15th century no well-educated person actually believed the earth was flat because Greek scholars like Pythagoras and Aristotle had already determined the Earth’s spherical shape as early as 600 B.C.
The intrepid explorer was simply trying to prove that you could get from Europe to China by sailing West rather than East when he hit a large land mass – but it wasn’t even America, it was the Caribbean.
The first European to reach American shores was Erik the Red in the 10th century followed by Norse explorer Leif Erikson in the 11th century, so the whole Columbus story is just one big snowball of historical lies.
5. Salem Witch Trials
The Salem witch trials are one of the darkest chapters in American history in which hundreds of innocent men and women were supposedly burned at the stake for witchcraft and acts of pure evil.
This is actually far from the truth, because the whole thing was a lot tamer than it’s been told – and, between February 1692 and the end of the ordeal in May 1693, not even a single person went up in flames.
The mass hysteria which gripped North America was nothing more than a moral panic perpetuated by a god-fearing belief in black magic, and records show that only 20 people were killed as a result.
14 women and 5 men were hanged, and one man – Giles Corey – was crushed by heavy stones after he refused to admit his collusion with the devil.
The idea that witches were set ablaze while tied to a wooden stake originates from European witch trials in places like Germany, Italy, Scotland, France and Scandinavia which were definitely far uglier.
Witch-burning in these places was a popular form of punishment and some 50,000 people were executed by fire between the 15th – 18th centuries, but poor old Salem always seems to get the blame.
Vikings are probably one of the more interesting things you learned in history class as these fearsome Scandinavian warriors raided their way through Europe during the Viking age of 798-1066 AD.
Part of their appeal is their iconic look – long plaited hair, some pretty impressive facial hair and menacing horned helmets; but what if we’ve got it wrong all along?
Although little physical historical evidence from the Viking period exists, research has shown that the popular image of the horned Viking is little more than a common misconception. Although they did wear protective headgear into battle, there’s nothing to support the idea that horns were involved at all.
Early depictions from between the 8th – 11th centuries show them bareheaded or in simple iron and leather headgear, while only one legitimate Viking helmet has ever been found in 1943, and there were no such horns in sight.
The image we all know and love actually originates from improvised headgear in early artworks, as well as the costume design featured in an 1876 operatic cycle by Richard Wagner called Der Ring des Nibelungen.
3. Isaac Newton
We’ve all heard the story about an apple falling on a young Isaac Newton’s head at university one day which inspired his theory of gravity published in 1687, but it might be just a story after all.
According to research from the Royal Society in London in 2010, the incident likely happened in his mother’s garden at Woolsthorpe Manor rather than at Cambridge, and there is ‘no evidence to suggest it hit him on the head’ at all.
At the time, Newton left no written account of such an event, and he only shared the anecdote some 50 years later in 1726 in a biography written by William Stukeley titled “Memoirs of Sir Isaac Newton’s Life”.
According to Stukeley, the pair were sitting in an orchard one evening when Newton recounted that upon seeing an apple fall some years earlier, he began to contemplate why it fell downwards rather than sideways or upwards.
Newton also claimed to have entertained others with the quirky anecdote during his lifetime, so perhaps this age-old tale is nothing but a work of old man’s fiction at its core.
2. The Titanic
The RMS Titanic went down in history as the ‘unsinkable’ ship which ironically sank after hitting an iceberg in 1912, but recent evidence suggests we may have remembered the disaster all wrong.
Photographs found in an attic in England by journalist Senan Molony in 2017 seem to reveal that the tragedy was actually partly caused by a blazing coal fire in the ships hull, which can be identified by a 30-foot burn mark in an image taken at the shipyard before the luxury liner even set sail.
The disastrous events have been pieced together to suggest that the crew only became aware of the fire three weeks later and tried to contain the flames to no avail, causing significant damage to the ship’s hull and tearing its lining open.
The burning of this excess coal would explain why the ship was travelling at full speed when it collided with the iceberg off the coast of Newfoundland on April 14th, 1912, despite warnings that there were icebergs in the area.
Though the fire may only have hastened the Titanic’s tragic fate, it definitely played a large part in the extraordinary events which captured the world’s imagination.
The popularised image of Jesus has become instantly recognisable throughout history for his fair-skinned features, signature long hair and beard and heavenly white robes, but modern speculation suggests that the Son of God probably looked nothing like this at all.
This well-known depictions of Jesus comes from symbolic representations of the Byzantine era during the 4th century, which modelled Jesus on the Olympian God Zeus to emphasise his position as a divine ruler.
The mythical Shroud of Turin which was discovered in 1354 and supposedly showing an accurate imprint of Jesus’ face after the crucifixion has also been debunked as renaissance art – so what did he look like?
The Bible itself is fairly nondescript in its depiction of Jesus’ appearance other than that he was a regular Palestinian Jewish man living in Galilee in the first century.
Using historical evidence from other men of this time, researchers have concluded that Jesus was probably around 5”5 tall with brown eyes and olive skin. His hair and beard were likely kept short as early cave paintings suggest while his robes were short and tan or cream because white required bleaching.
Images like the one above of a Galilean man by forensic anthropologist Richard Neave based on an Israeli skull from the 1st century AD may be the closest we’ve come to an accurate image – although the world may never truly know.