Top 13 Historical Myths Debunked

Battle of Thermopylae, Painted by Jacques Louis David in 1814. At the Louvre.
Battle of Thermopylae, Painted by Jacques Louis David in 1814. At the Louvre. Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia

There are an awful lot of known "facts" about Europe’s history which are actually false. Everything you read below is widely believed, but click through to find out the truth. From Catherine the Great and Hitler, to Vikings and medieval lords, there's an awful lot to be covered, some of it highly controversial because the untruth is so deeply ingrained (such as Hitler.)

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The Death of Catherine the Great

Catherine the Great by Fedor Rokotov
Catherine the Great by Fedor Rokotov. Wikimedia Commons

The legend learned in the playground by all British school children—and those of a fair few other countries—is that Catherine the Great was crushed while trying to have sex with a horse. When people tackle this myth, they often perpetuate another one: that Catherine died on the toilet, which is better, but still not true... In reality, horses were nowhere near.

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The 300 Who Held Thermopylae

The film version of "300" told a heroic story of how just three hundred Spartan warriors held a narrow pass against a Persian army numbering in the hundreds of thousands. The problem is, while there really were three hundred Spartan warriors in that pass in 480, that’s not the whole story.

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Medieval People Believed in a Flat Earth

In some quarters, the fact that the Earth is a globe is regarded as a modern discovery, and there are few things people trying to attack the supposed backwardness of the medieval period like more than claiming they all thought the Earth was flat. People also claim Columbus was opposed by flat-earthers, but that’s not why people doubted him.

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Mussolini Got the Trains Running on Time

The exasperated commuter often remarks that at least Italian dictator Mussolini managed to get the trains working on time, and there was plenty of publicity at the time explaining how he’d done so. The problem here isn’t that the trains improved ​because of what he did, but when they got better and who did it. It might not surprise you to know Mussolini was claiming someone else's glory.

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Marie Antoinette Said 'Let Them Eat Cake'

The belief in the arrogance and stupidity of the France monarchy just before a revolution swept them away is encapsulated in the idea that Queen Marie Antoinette, on hearing that people were starving, said they should eat cake instead. But this isn’t true, and neither is the explanation that she meant a form of bread instead of cake either. Indeed, she wasn't the first accused of saying this...

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Stalin Died Unaffected by His Mass Murder

Hitler, the most famous dictator of the twentieth century, had to shoot himself in the collapsing ruins of his empire. Stalin, a bigger mass killer, is supposed to have died peacefully in his bed, escaping all the effects of his bloody actions. It’s a stark moral lesson; well, it would be if it was correct. In reality, Stalin suffered for his crimes.

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Vikings Wore Horned Helmets

Minnesota Vikings mascot Ragnar
The Minnesota Vikings mascot Ragnar wears a helmet with horns. Adam Bettcher/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images

It's difficult to tackle this because the image of the Viking warrior with his ax, dragon-headed boat, and horned helmet is one of the most iconic in European history. Almost every popular representation of a Viking has the horns. Unfortunately, there’s a problem… there were no horns!

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Statues Reveal How People Died/Went on Crusade

You might have heard how the statue of a horse and rider reveals how the pictured person died: two of the horse’s legs in the air means in battle, just one means of wounds received in battle. Equally, you might have heard that on the carved image of a knight, the crossing of the legs or arms means they went on crusade. As you might have guessed, this isn’t true…

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Ring a Ring a Roses

If you went to a British school, or know someone who did, you might have heard the children’s rhyme "Ring a Ring a Roses." It’s widely believed that this is all about the plague, particularly the version which swept the nation in 1665-1666. However, modern research suggests a more modern answer.

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The Protocols of the Elders of Zion

The rather wordily titled "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" are widely available in some parts of the world, and have been disseminated in the past in most others. They claim to prove that Jews are trying to secretly take over the world, using such feared tools as socialism and liberalism. The major problem with this is that they are completely made up.

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Was Adolf Hitler a Socialist?

Modern political commentators like to claim Hitler was socialist to damage the ideology, ​but was he? Spoiler: no he really wasn't, and this article explains why (with a supporting quote from a leading historian of the subject.)

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The Women of Cullercoat

Many are taught about the boat pulling exploits of the Women of Cullercoat at school ​when they dragged a vessel in order to save a crew, but it turns out quite a bit was missed out...

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Droit de Seigneur

Did lords really have the right to spirit newly married women away on their weddings nights, as Braveheart would have you believe? Well, no, not at all. This was a lie designed to slander your neighbors, and most probably didn't exist at all, let alone in the way the film shows.

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Your Citation
Wilde, Robert. "Top 13 Historical Myths Debunked." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Wilde, Robert. (2023, April 5). Top 13 Historical Myths Debunked. Retrieved from Wilde, Robert. "Top 13 Historical Myths Debunked." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 11, 2023).