If you have ever played the game of telephone, where one person whispers something and then you whisper it and so on, you’ll know that by the time it makes it all the way around, the sentence has completely changed. Well, that is true of history as well.
At least it’s true for these six events. Whether these tales are the result of miscommunication, they’re all iconic moments in history that we thought were true, but in fact, never actually happened.
Paul Revere’s Midnight Ride
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1861 poem “Paul Revere’s Ride” tells the story of Paul Revere’s legendary ride through Boston to warn the townspeople that the British were coming. Its lines are famous for sharing a key point of American history, including, “One if by land, and two if by sea.” As great as Longfellow’s poem is, it’s not exactly historically accurate.
History.com debunked a few of these myths, in fact. Revere didn’t ride alone—two others, William Dawes and Samuel Prescott, were with him at the start. They note, “By the end of the night as many as 40 men on horseback were spreading the word across Boston’s Middlesex County.” Furthermore, Revere never even reached his destination, as he was captured and held by the British.
Another major misconception is that Revere went through town yelling, “The British are coming! The British are coming!” This didn’t happen either. The warnings were given as discreetly as possible in case any spies or members of the British Army were around—and by the way, even if he had shouted it throughout the town like that, he would’ve called them the “Regulars” instead. The colonists still considered themselves British at that time.
We’ve seen chastity belts in several comedies, and there is good reason for it: They were created for comedy. Chastity belts were never actually used for the intended purpose that people often think of.
In fact, this German print from the 1500s depicts a woman in a belt giving a key to her husband while two men wait in the shadows with their own keys. Medievalists loved their satire.
Writing for Atlas Obscura, Sarah Laskow points out, “When chastity belts were depicted, it was in the Renaissance equivalent of Robin Hood: Men in Tights—and the audiences for those pieces of art probably thought the idea of a metal chastity belt just as giggle-worthy as late 20th century teenagers did.”
The idea came about as a joke and was never meant to be literal; though we have the conception that such belts existed as punishment or torture devices, it seems that medieval satire has been misconstrued.
Hanging Gardens of Babylon
There are a few ancient mysteries that reign as some of humanity’s greatest accomplishments. Up there along with the Pyramids of Egypt and the Temple of Artemis are the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.
The gardens were said to be built around 600 B.C. in the desert of Iraq as a gift from King Nebuchadnezzar II to his wife. These giant vertical gardens were a beautiful oasis in the desert, which is also where the problem lies.
Historians believe the garden may not have ever existed in Babylon, as an article from New World Encyclopedia states, “Some historians make the case that the Hanging Gardens of Babylon never actually existed. They stake their claims on the fact that the warriors in the army of Alexander the Great were amazed at the immense prosperity of the thriving city of Babylon and tended to exaggerate their experiences greatly. When the soldiers returned to their stark homeland, they had incredible stories to relate about the remarkable gardens, palm trees, and imposing buildings of rich and fertile Mesopotamia.”
The stories grew like that game of telephone until it became the fabrication that many people think of today.
We’re not talking about the band—they’re 100 percent real—but instead, the torture devices of our nightmares. They’re basically large coffins that stand up vertically to hold a prisoner; when the box is closed, the spikes layered on the inside make for a pretty bad time for its victim. It sounds like something out of a horror movie, and it basically is.
While many people believe the medieval times were barbaric, there is no proof iron maidens were ever used. In fact, no one even saw an iron maiden until the 1700s. As Stephanie Pappas for Live Science explains, “The first historical reference to the iron maiden came long after the Middle Ages, in the late 1700s. German philosopher Johann Philipp Siebenkees wrote about the alleged execution of a coin forger in 1515 by an iron maiden in the city of Nuremberg.”
This gave rise to torture museums buying up iron maidens, which were literally brand new, as no one had really seen them before. They were being built for the specific purpose of being sold in conjunction with the lie of their history in being used as a death box. This only served to further the common conception of medieval savagery.
Ye Olde Pub
Have you ever seen an English pub called something like Ye Olde Pub and you pronounce it in your head as “yee”? Sorry to break it to you, but that’s wrong too. No one ever used the term “yee.”
What they were actually doing is writing a letter called “thorn,” which is no longer around today. Reason being, when the printing press made its way to Europe, the machines did not contain the “thorn” letter (which makes a “th” sound), so people printing things for the English language didn’t know what to do.
They improvised by typing out a “y,” which looks close to the thorn letter when written out. Therefore, you got all these papers and signs that said “ye” in the front; however, these words really should’ve been pronounced “the” because of the implied thorn letter.
Over time, the transition was lost and people started assuming it was supposed to be the “yee” that we say today to sound like an old-timer in England.
The Dark Ages
When we think of the Dark Ages, we tend to think of famine, poverty, disease, and mostly all things negative. However, that is not really true.
The Dark Ages was a term coined by the scholar Petrarch in the 1330s to summarize the period of decline in Latin literature from the time of ancient Greeks and Romans, as well as the general lack of cultural advancement in Europe from the fall of the Roman Empire unto the Middle Ages.
That does sound bad, but Petrarch’s descriptions of the era were definitely a bit distorted. He and other historians of his time were culturally biased based on their love of ancient Rome. This is especially relevant because Germanic people were conquering all the lands that Rome once ruled and changing all their traditions.
Writing for History.com, Sarah Pruitt gave six reasons why the Dark Ages weren’t so dark, including the idea that, “Historians—especially in later years—question the fairness of this characterization, and consider ‘Dark Ages’ to be a derogatory term. In fact, life in the Early Middle Ages was not actually much darker or more barbaric compared to other eras, and the period saw its own share of political, social, cultural, economic, and religious change.”
Besides the fall of Rome, the Dark Ages also gave us incredible advancements in math, including the basis for algebra by the Islamic scholar al-Khwarizmi (pictured above), whose name is the foundation of the word “algorithm.”