We may not all be experts and professors, but when it comes to history some things are just common knowledge. After all, humans have been around for thousands of years.
That’s a lot of history behind us, and some of it has got to filter through to people today. Yes, there are certain things about history that everyone knows, whether we learned them at school, saw them on a film, or they’re so well-known we can’t even remember where we heard them first.
But do we really know what we think we know? Okay, a lot of the most famous bits of history are true, but many of them aren’t.
With sometimes centuries between then and now, there’s plenty of time for things to get distorted and myths to build up. Some things we think are common knowledge, are actually common mistakes. Here are three common
3 Everybody stank
If you ask most people, they’ll say it’s only quite recently in history that people have actually bothered to wash – or at least to wash very often. As dirt and smell built up on our ancestors, it seems that it never occurred to them to clean it off again.
Not only is this idea a myth, but it’s also been responsible for spawning other, related myths. For example, some people claim that brides first started carrying bouquets because people only bathed once a year, so they needed flowers to cover up their body odour.
Apparently, they noticed the problem, but didn’t think their wedding was special enough to warrant an extra wash.
In fact, our ancestors were sensible enough to notice sweat and dirt and realise washing it off was a good solution. It’s true they haven’t always washed as often as we do now – your own grandparents may have bathed just once a week when they were young – but neither did they build up a year’s worth of filth before they bothered to do anything about it.
For one thing, the earliest evidence of soap is not far short of 5,000 years old, which suggests an even longer history of washing.
The Romans were famous for their huge communal baths. Come the Middle Ages, baths were still popular, both in the public Roman style and in private tubs at home.
But this particular history myth does have at least a bit of truth. Around the end of the medieval period, the idea somehow got spread around that immersing yourself in water was bad for you.
For a while, regular baths went right out of fashion, but even that doesn’t mean people stopped caring about personal hygiene.
Some would wash with a damp cloth so less water was involved. Others used various non-water based mixtures that would lift the dirt from their skin and leave behind a pleasant herb smell.
2 Romans wore togas
Well technically they did, but most people believe that’s what they wore all the time. That, at least, is definitely a myth. Few Romans wore the toga, and then only occasionally. Oh, and they hated it!
The toga was a formal costume, reserved for a few very special occasions. It wasn’t a sheet, as most people think, but a huge semicircle of cloth which wrapped around the body in a highly complex way.
You needed help from two people to put it on, and then you had to hold up your left arm awkwardly or it would just fall off again.
In some places, it was made a legal requirement for politicians. They were supposed to be wearing it in the first place, but until it was made law they preferred to simply not bother.
The toga wasn’t specifically invented to be that useless and annoying. It evolved through Roman history from simpler, more practical ancestors, and was then kept around for symbolic reasons.
Only Romans were allowed to wear them, and it came to be an iconic symbol for Rome itself. That’s probably why they went down in history so much more than day-to-day clothes.
Even if you preferred not to, the fact that you could wear a toga was a sign you were a true Roman.
So if togas were so rare, what did the Romans really wear? Well the most important part of Roman costume was a tunic – a simple, neat garment a bit like a long T-shirt.
If you were a woman, you’d then wear something over the top called a stola, which was a dress fastened at the shoulders with brooches.
Despite another popular misconception, Roman clothes were almost never white – apart from being boring, that would show the dirt far too easily.
Much like with modern fashions, all sorts of things were popular, but blue seems to have been a particular favourite colour.
1 Until Columbus, people thought the Earth was flat
When it comes to the shape of the Earth, Columbus has somehow managed to get a lot more credit than he’s really due. According to the popular understanding of history, before his famous voyage people didn’t sail West because they thought they’d fall off the edge of the Earth.
Columbus worked out the world was actually round, and set off to prove you could sail right round to Asia. The truth is that, by that point in history, everybody knew the Earth was round, and it was Columbus who disagreed.
The shape of the Earth was established in ancient times. The Greeks worked it out, probably from the way different countries had different views of the stars.
They even figured out the size – the scholar Eratosthenes came up with a very close estimate as far back as the third century BC.
The reason (almost) nobody had really discovered the Americas is that they thought nothing much of interest lie in that direction.
It does seem surprising they didn’t think to check, but they didn’t fancy sailing all that way across what they thought was empty ocean. It made much more sense to go the way they knew, and to be able to stop off for supplies along the way.
So everybody else had happily accepted a round planet for centuries, but Columbus thought he knew better. He insisted that the Earth was pear-shaped.
He also thought it was much smaller than everybody said, and that’s what really made him try sailing West to reach Asia.
By his reckoning, the route would be much shorter than everyone thought, and once he proved it he’d have the credit for a lucrative new trade route.
He was wrong on every count, but he was also lucky enough to find a large continent in his way. That was enough to earn him his place in history.