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Historical Misconceptions Debunked: When Fact Becomes Stranger Than Fiction

Did Vikings Really Have Horns? Did People in the Middle Ages Think the Earth Was Flat? Was Napoleon Short? Was the Iron Maiden a Popular Torture Device?


Here are some of my favorite historical misconceptions that have been debunked. History has never been shy of controversy, mystery, and, occasionally, flat-out fallacy. Somewhere between tales told around the campfire and blockbuster movie adaptations, a few historical facts have been lost, twisted, or Hollywoodized. Let’s journey through some of the most commonly misconceived notions from the annals of history, and debunk them with a historian’s magnifying glass and a dash of wit. Spoiler alert: The truth may be less glamorous, but it’s certainly more fascinating.

The Horned Helmets of Vikings: Fashion Faux Pas

1. Did Vikings Really Have Horns?

Contrary to every Viking Halloween costume and opera stereotype, real Viking helmets did not have horns. It appears the horned headgear trend started during the Romanticism period of the 19th century when artists took some creative liberties. Historians agree that horns would have been highly impractical in battle. After all, why would a Viking want to provide a handle for their enemies?

Napoleon’s Height: The Long and Short of It

2. Was Napoleon Short?

Napoleon Bonaparte has often been depicted as a man of short stature. However, this is merely a tale tall in inaccuracy. Standing at around 5 feet 7 inches, he was of average height for a Frenchman of his time. The misconception may have arisen from British propaganda or confusion over French and British measurement units. It seems size does matter, especially when converting inches!

Witches of Salem: A Trial in Misunderstanding

3. Were Witches Burned at the Stake in Salem?

The Salem witch trials are notorious for supposed fiery endings. But before you imagine a grand bonfire, it’s time to extinguish that myth. The convicted “witches” in Salem were hanged, not burned. Perhaps the burnings in Europe were so notorious they cast a shadow all the way to the New World. Either way, it’s a hanging matter of historical accuracy.


Iron Maiden: Metal Music or Medieval Torture?

4. Was the Iron Maiden a Popular Torture Device?

No, we’re not talking about the band. The Iron Maiden, a coffin-like structure lined with spikes, is often cited as a favorite torture device of medieval Europe. However, evidence suggests that this cruel contraption didn’t see much use—if any at all—during the Middle Ages. Some historians believe it’s a myth born out of misinterpretation and a touch of Gothic horror fascination. Perhaps it’s just as well; it doesn’t look very comfortable.

The Flat Earth Belief: A Round Misconception

5. Did People in the Middle Ages Think the Earth Was Flat?

This one might flatten your perception of historical gullibility. Contrary to popular belief, educated people during the Middle Ages knew that the Earth was round. Ancient Greeks like Eratosthenes had already measured the Earth’s circumference. The flat earth myth didn’t gain traction until the 19th century when writers misunderstood medieval viewpoints. It turns out, our ancestors weren’t as flat-out wrong as we thought!

Chopping Truth: Marie Antoinette’s Cake Lie

6. Did Marie Antoinette Really Say “Let Them Eat Cake”?

This notorious quote, supposedly uttered by Marie Antoinette, might take the cake for historical misattribution. There’s no substantial evidence that the French queen ever said these words. The phrase was likely political propaganda, a cherry-topped falsehood. Sometimes history is more about the frosting than the cake.

The Truth About Paul Revere’s Ride

7. Did Paul Revere Shout “The British Are Coming!”?

While Paul Revere did ride to warn of British troop movements, he probably didn’t shout this dramatic phrase. Considering many colonists still considered themselves British, yelling “The British Are Coming!” would have been as confusing as shouting “The People Are Coming!” in a crowded square.

History – It’s No Myth

Peeling back the layers of historical misconceptions reveals a truth that’s often more nuanced and fascinating than the myths themselves. Whether it’s debunking the horned helmets of Vikings or the short stature of Napoleon, these historical truths remind us that facts, like fashion, can sometimes be a victim of the times.


So the next time you see a Viking in a horned helmet or hear about Marie Antoinette’s alleged dessert suggestions, remember that history is rich, complex, and occasionally misquoted. But don’t let that ruin the party; after all, history’s misconceptions are often the life of the conversation. Just ask Napoleon—he might have been short on truth, but he was never short on intrigue!

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Written by Ivan Petricevic

I've been writing passionately about ancient civilizations, history, alien life, and various other subjects for more than eight years. You may have seen me appear on Discovery Channel's What On Earth series, History Channel's Ancient Aliens, and Gaia's Ancient Civilizations among others.

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