Thomas Bailey Project: Historical Myths to Beware Of!
Bailey's solution? He suggested that the chief historical societies create a" centralized Myth Registry, much as dissertation titles are registered, either by the author or by an appropriate abstracting agency. Then, with the marvelous data recovery processes now being perfected, the requisite information can be made speedily available upon request. Such an agency should be a gold mine for teachers, researchers, and especially textbook writers, who have a heavy obligation to keep abreast of this verbal Niagara."
No one took up Bailey's suggestion, but we think it was a good one and in our own way are going to use this site to fulfill his ambition. Whenever we come across articles in either scholarly journals or the media that purport to debunk myths of history we will post them on the site. Readers who want to suggest new listings can do so at the bottom of this article. Of course, we cannot vouch for the accuracy of any of the statements made in the articles listed here. Often, one person's myth is another person's fact.
Tom Spears, in the Montreal Gazette (July 11, 2004):
No pennants flying. No drawbridges. No tall stone castles. No knights in shining armour.
Fifth-century Britain, the time we give to King Arthur, was a time of small tribes in simple wooden buildings, before proper steel was invented, before the code of chivalry. Legend has built up tales of castles. History says these are castles in the air.
So what would Arthur's court have looked like? Historians of early medieval times suggest it would be something quite different than Jerry Bruckheimer's extravagant King Arthur, which opened in theatres last week....
"Forget the towers," says David Klausner of the University of Toronto's History department.
Camelot - or any Celtic settlement of the time - was probably a village of a very few hundred inhabitants with a defensive wall of earth and wooden stakes, he says. Celts and Saxons alike built with the materials at hand, and in a forested Britain this meant huge trees.
"The 5th-century court would have been a fairly brutal and practical affair - hardly any stone building apart from churches," agrees British historian Angela McShane-Jones of the University of Warwick. "Mainly wooden stockades and earthworks around important villages. The Saxons often avoided places where the Romans had been so they didn't take over their villas or anything."
The weapons: Most of the legends tell of men in head-to-toe armour, including helmets that completely covered their faces so only the emblem on a shield enabled knights to tell which was which. Lancelot carried a red cross on his shield, for instance. (This helps the story along; one knight borrows another's armour and you instantly get all kinds of mixups.)
They all had horses in the legend. They carried heavy lances and charged at each other when jousting. But full armour, jousting and the heavy lance were inventions of the high medieval armourers many centuries later.
Fifth-century Britain had mostly small bands of foot soldiers, nothing like Mordred's fictional army of 100,000 men. They were far more lightly armed than later medieval knights. Some of their armour was leather and it didn't cover the full arms and legs, or faces. They had iron swords but not jousting lances, which made sense because they didn't joust.
Had there been an Arthur, "he probably led a band of 40 to 50 men at the outside," Klausner says. "He needed to move very quickly," given the semi-historical record of battles against the Saxons that ranged over much of western Britain. "He probably was pretty agile, and you don't have agility with several thousand people."
It's not believed they shot flaming arrows (as seen in trailers for the film), and their short bows weren't accurate or powerful, anyway. They probably didn't have heavy engines such as catapults throwing flaming heavy ammunition (also in the trailer).
The Romans knew about these - the burning oily stuff was called "Greek fire"- but it was used against slow moving wooden ships or forts, not soldiers who could run out of the way.
The war for freedom: Arthur in the film issues a stirring call for freedom, offering to release his foreign-born soldiers from the army if they get through their mission.
Doesn't ring true, one expert says.
"No 6th-century Briton would ever have phrased it that way," says University of Toronto historian Bert Hall. "Arthur, if he existed at all, was an exponent of keeping Britain under what remained of Roman culture and Roman rule." He calls this freedom business "the George W. Bush school of script-writing."
Knights and ladies: Historians still argue about when feudalism began, but somewhere around the year 1000 is a popular starting point. French historian Marc Bloch defined it as a society with "subject peasantry; widespread use of the service tenement instead of a salary; the supremacy of the class of specialized warriors; ties of obedience and protection which bind man to man; and in the midst of this the survival of other forms of association, family and state."
It had nothing to do with feuding, incidentally. The word comes from the old French word for faith, not feud. In any case, it wouldn't have applied to the real Arthur, if there was one.
All of which means the refined knights and ladies of traditional Camelot stories are out of place by at least five centuries - longer in the case of legends with jousting, and wearing coloured "favours" from a lady, and the formal description of courtly love from Andreas the Chaplain in the late 12th century. (He was a French courtier who wrote a sort of art of dating book.)
"Interestingly, the character of Arthur is mainly based on Malory's Morte d'Arthur, a poem which suggests that Arthur's court was guided by a chivalric code of honour and love and Christianity such as described in the Chanson de Roland,"McShane-Jones says.
"The thing is that Roland is a couple of centuries after the putative
Arthur and so their honour code was rather less chivalric and less straightforwardly
Christian, too. The church was not unified under Rome until about the 8th century."
Maev Kennedy, in the Guardian (July 13, 2004):
The unexpurgated version of the death of Captain Cook, presenting a more realistic version than the familiar heroic scene, has been rediscovered more than 220 years after the deaths of both the explorer and the artist.
Cook died on a beach in Hawaii on February 14 1779, stabbed in the neck by an islander, in a skirmish which destroyed the previously excellent and profitable relations between the Hawaiians and the British sailors.
A painting of the scene by John Webber, the official voyage artist, and innumerable engravings of it fixed it in legend: it shows Cook with his back to the mob, nobly signalling to his ships to cease firing on men armed only with spears and a few clubs.
However John Clevely's version, based on first-hand accounts and sketches by his brother, a ship's carpenter with the voyage, shows Cook fighting desperately for his life, in the last minute of his life, his shot gone, about to club an islander with the butt of his rifle. Most of the islanders have heavy clubs, and others have picked up rocks. One is about to smash the skull of a fallen sailor and the bodies of several islanders are heaped at the water's edge.
The painting, and three other watercolours also on display, was made in about 1784, but by the time it was engraved and published, only a few years later, the artist was dead and the engraving was altered to match the official version of the story.
"The image of Cook signalling his ships to hold their fire made him a classic humane and heroic figure of the age of enlightenment," said Nicholas Lambourn, an art historian, at Christie's yesterday, where the painting went on public display for the first time.
"Clevely's is less heroic but certainly more accurate."...
Daniel Howden, in the Christian Science Monitor (May 19, 2004):
Most true sports fans know that the Olympics were brought back to life in Athens in 1896 by the enthusiastic young Frenchman Pierre Fredy, better known as the Baron de Coubertin.
In the 110 years since the Parisian baron founded the International Olympic Committee, he has enjoyed the unchallenged title of Olympiad revivalist.
But as the 2004 Games return to their ancient birthplace in Athens this summer, the contributions of two other men - an Albanian-born Greek and a British doctor - have surfaced with the help of revisionist historians keen to explode the myth that the Olympic revival was exclusively the baron's brainchild.
Tuesday the French capital, along with Moscow, Madrid, New York, and London, were selected as finalists to host the 2012 Games. The controversy over the Olympics' origin holds serious implications for the French bid, as their argument leans heavily on the baron's legacy. It also offers a reminder of the powerful current of nationalism that surges beneath the movement's surface values of global peace and fraternity.
As the English writer George Orwell once said: "Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules, and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence; In other words, it is war minus the shooting."
Indeed, says historian Konstantinos Georgiadis, the French baron was actually a "latecomer" to the idea of reviving the ancient Greek spectacle. Long before the Frenchman was born, both Evangelis Zappas in Greece and William Penny Brookes in Britain were producing their own version of the games. "Until recently everything we'd read about the history of the Olympics was written by de Coubertin himself and in most of the 12,000 pages he identified himself as the sole architect," says Mr. Georgiadis.
Messrs Zappas and Brookes didn't know one another but as classicists were brought together by their admiration for the Greek poet Dimitris Soutsos. It was his appeal for a modern Olympics that inspired both men to separately launch their own games.
Georgiadis' account "Olympic Revival" points out that the lavishly wealthy Zappas organized a national Olympics in Greece four decades before the IOC's 1896 revival in Athens. Born in Albania to Greek Orthodox parents, Zappas enjoyed a colorful career as a freedom fighter in the Greek War of Independence in the 1820s before making his fortune in the distillery business in Romania. He used his wealth to fund the first of a series of Olympiads in Athens in 1859.
Meanwhile, Brookes had been producing his own games in the small Shropshire town of Much Wenlock. "I fear that Coubertin's vanity caused him to seek all the credit, and actively cover up the contributions of others, denying that the Zappas Games ever happened at all and omitting Brookes's name from his 'Memoires Olympiques,'" says American historian David Young, whose book "Olympics: The Struggle for Revival" highlights Brookes's contribution.
The local festivals Brookes produced in his hometown evolved, by 1887, into the British Olympic Games. His games were especially noteworthy for exhibiting the first women's Olympic event (even though it was the admittedly less-than-athletic knitting contest). And it was Brookes in 1881 who proposed to the Greek government that the parallel games in Shropshire and Athens be "internationalized," according to an archive from the Greek newspaper 'Klio.' It was also the Shropshire doctor who first planted the Olympic idea in the young de Coubertin's mind.
Seed of an idea
In 1890 the Parisian visited the Much Wenlock Games. At the time, de Coubertin was convinced that France was in a state of decline. French schools were unsatisfactory, and the country had suffered military defeat in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870. The baron set about bringing Paris back to preeminence.
In his memoirs, de Coubertin immortalized himself as an idealistic internationalist. But from Mr. Young's claims, it is clear that de Coubertin was focused on his native country. Indeed his main ambition was to stage the first Olympics in Paris, not Athens....
William Burrill, writing in the Toronto Star (Oct. 27, 2003):
Did the infamous Orson Welles The War Of The Worlds broadcast actually cause mass hysteria, or was it the biggest hoax to be found in the fact that we believe so many panicked?
"On October 30, 1938, America panicked. Millions throughout the United States thought that the invasion from Mars had begun and panic gripped the nation." So says a press release that just crossed my desk from Brantford's Sanderson Centre for the Performing Arts, which will be recreating this historic radio play this Wednesday through Friday.
Indeed, when it comes to falling for a story that is truly out of this world, we are constantly reminded of Welles' infamous radio hoax that, we are still told every year, supposedly convinced an entire United States populace that the Martians were invading the United States, or to be precise, New Jersey. Here's a quick recap of how it happened:
It was on the night of Oct. 30, 1938, that a series of short, increasingly ominous news bulletins kept breaking into a live CBS broadcast of the music of Ramon Raquello and his orchestra. In the first bulletin, an Intercontinental Radio News reporter tersely announced that astronomers had detected enormous blue flames shooting from the planet Mars. Next the music was stopped to announce that a meteor had just crashed into the Earth near Grovers Mills, N.J.
Then the radio reporter broke in again to say it was a space ship and not a meteor that had crashed in New Jersey and that a space creatures complete with tentacles had emerged alive from the wreckage. Soon the space monsters were using a giant three-legged armoured mobile vehicle to tromp across New Jersey using their space guns to blast everything in their path with death rays. The now-marauding Martians were also killing the local population with clouds of black gas against which even the most sophisticated gas masks proved useless.
By now radio listeners were starting to panic, hiding in their boarded up basements or packing the wife and kids and a few possessions into the family car to attempt to escape before the spacemen caught them. Those who panicked were people who had tuned in late and had not heard any of the four separate announcements during the series of bulletins that what was being broadcast was a radio play adaptation of H.G. Wells' The War Of The Worlds, performed as one of the weekly broadcasts by Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre.
So the people of the U.S.A. had fallen for a hoax but the report of the spread of panic is something of a hoax itself.
Prankster lore has it that six million people heard the broadcast and of those, fully one quarter (1.5 million) fled or hid in panic. Alex Boese of the Museum of Hoaxes says that "more recent research suggests that the actual number (of people who actually panicked) is probably far lower. In fact, the idea that the broadcast touched off a huge national scare is probably more of a hoax than the broadcast itself."
The Toronto Star of Oct. 31, 1938 carried front page news of the hoax but the amount of panic described in the Star is hardly the stuff of millions running for their lives.
"Until 1 a.m. (CBS's) switchboards were jammed with indignant listeners, some threatening to sue," the Star reported. The report put the number of panicked listeners as being a few thousand and as for those stories of grievous injury caused by the hoax, about the worst the 1938 Star could come up with was: "One woman said she had collided with furniture in her haste to get into the street, blackening both her eyes." CBS "received many phonecalls about the broadcast but only 10 telegrams, all protesting it, this afternoon," the Star revealed.
Two black eyes and 10 pissy telegrams! Does this sound like mass hysteria to you? Alas, history has preserved in amber the perception that The War Of The Worlds broadcast was the epitome of mass hysteria.
Robert Matthews, writing in the Sunday Telegraph (June 1st, 2003):
LONDON -- It was one of the most famous experiments in science: Generations of schoolchildren have been taught how Benjamin Franklin, the 18th-century American inventor and statesman, risked his life flying a kite in a thunderstorm to prove that lightning was a form of electricity.
Franklin's success brought worldwide fame, but a new study of his work suggests that the inventor actually invented the story.
According to the official version of events, in the summer of 1752 Franklin devised a simple way of testing his theory that lightning was caused by an electrical buildup. He constructed a kite fitted with a metal spike and flew it during a thunderstorm.
Textbook accounts say that electricity ran down the kite's cord to a key tied near the end, creating a spark when Franklin brought his knuckle close to it.
His work led to the invention of the lightning conductor, which has since saved countless lives. He was made a member of the Royal Society in London, the world's most prestigious scientific academy, and received the society's premier award, the Copley Medal, in 1753"on account of his curious experiments and observations on electricity."
According to a new study of the historical evidence, however, the experiment that proved the theory took place only in Franklin's imagination.
Tom Tucker, a lecturer and historian at the Isothermal Technical College in North Carolina, has examined the original documents describing the experiment, and found differing accounts of it by Franklin that were vague about when or where it was performed.
"There was no witness identified in the announcement, no location named -- and nowhere does Franklin say he actually performed the experiment," said Mr. Tucker.
Mr. Tucker's suspicions were confirmed when he tried to recreate Franklin's experiment exactly -- using materials available in the mid-18th century.
"I followed the design of the kite and tried it several times -- and it just wouldn't fly."
According to Mr. Tucker, even if it had got off the ground, there was no way it could have reached the heights needed to draw electricity from thunderclouds. He then tried the experiment using a modern kite, but that did not work, either.
Mr. Tucker sets out his evidence in Bolt of Fate, the first detailed analysis of Franklin's kite-flying claims, to be published June 24.
While he debunks the experiment, Mr. Tucker stressed that Franklin's theory was entirely correct."I think he invented the story to claim some active involvement in the science -- to show that he was not just making a suggestion."
Letter to the editor of the NYT Book Review (April 20, 2003):
In his review of ''River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West'' (March 30), by Rebecca Solnit, Jim Lewis advances a common misconception about early photography. Speaking of Muybridge's attempt to prove photographically that a trotting horse lifts all four limbs simultaneously, he writes, ''Muybridge came back with an answer (they do), obtained by trimming the then-standard, minutes-long exposure down to a fraction of a second.''
Standard exposure times were not minutes long. As early as 1852, 20 years before Muybridge, an archaeologist described the use of photography in his profession, writing, ''I have myself sometimes obtained as perfect a picture in one second as I have at others in one minute.'' Photographic manuals of the day also recommend -- depending on many conditions -- taking portraits at anywhere from 5 to 40 seconds. Though some photographers are on record as exceeding the one-minute mark, it certainly wasn't a standard practice. In fact, in once doing so, Lewis Carroll (a photographer using the same process as Muybridge) mentioned it only as an absurdity. Muybridge, accepting mere silhouettes for this early stage of his motion studies, had solely to devise a quick mechanical shutter and a triggering process -- hence Solnit's subtitle -- not mix a new chemical potion, as the reviewer may have inadvertently suggested.
Salon.com, commenting on two new books that debunk myths about Halloween: David J. Skal's Death Makes a Holiday: A Cultural History of Halloween and Nicholas Rogers's, Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night (October 2002):
Of all today's holidays, Halloween seems like the most primeval. Its bats, witches, spooks, skeletons and monsters surely indicate roots reaching back before the dawn of science and Christianity; the whiff of prehistoric campfires clings to its sable robes. Well, guess again.
Halloween has been creeping up on Christmas to become the second biggest annual bonanza for U.S. retailers, a Grim Reaper that harvests $6.8 billion per year in exchange for candy, costumes, cards and party supplies. That success sets it up for the kind of debunking that Christmas has endured recently, as historians have shown that what we think of as time-honored Yuletide traditions are actually only about 100 years old. Likewise, as two new books document, the seemingly ancient customs of Halloween turn out to be recent embellishments to a holiday that used to be a pretty low-key affair. And forget those Transylvanian villagers and superstitious medieval peasants -- Halloween is as American as the Fourth of July.
The basic elements of an American Halloween -- pranks, treat-begging, masquerade and scary images -- aren't new, of course, but gathering them together and using them to celebrate a holiday at the transition from October to November (from late summer to early winter) is. As both Nicholas Rogers'"Halloween" and David J. Skal's"Death Makes a Holiday" point out, those customs can be found scattered here and there among various other holidays throughout history, yet pinpointing the moment when they all came together to define Halloween as we know it is a tricky matter indeed.
It's often said that Halloween originates with the Celtic festival of Samhain (show off your pagan cred by correctly pronouncing it as"sow-an"), but it's hard to recognize the modern world's gleefully ghoulish festivities in what one scholar called"an old pastoral and agricultural festival" that marked the beginning of winter. Rogers, whose book is at its best when digging up the anthropological forerunners of the holiday, says that"there is no hard evidence that Samhain was specifically devoted to the dead or to ancestor worship," although in Ireland it was thought to be a time when mischievous spirits were particularly frisky. (The ancient Celts are rumored to have engaged in human sacrifice in some of their rites -- not Samhain specifically -- but those reports came from the conquering Romans and may have been propaganda.) Samhain was a time of reckoning when livestock were slaughtered for the winter stores and the days became short, cold and gloomy.
For a contrary view:
Maria Karadimos, writing in the Western Herald (Oct. 30, 2003):
For anyone who has ever wondered why black cats are considered bad luck or where the tradition of scraping out pumpkin innards and carving the remaining shell came from, read on.
"Most people are familiar with the outline of Halloween, but few know its history," said Clifford Davidson, medieval studies professor at Western Michigan University.
According to Davidson, Halloween's origin dates back to the ancient Celts, who held the festival of Samhain to celebrate their new year on Nov. 1. This day was said to mark the end of summer and the beginning of winter, a time of year often associated with human death.
"The Celts believed that on the night of October 31 the spirits of the dead returned to earth," Davidson said. "They celebrated with sacred bonfires and animal skin costumes. To them the presence of the ghosts helped the Celtic priests make predictions about the future, which was important going into the winter months."
Davidson said it was after the Celtic tradition became mixed with other influences that the basis of Halloween formed.
"By the eighth century, the Celts had been influenced by the Romans and Christianity and the Celtic festival was replaced with a church celebration called 'All Hallows,' meaning All Saints' Day," Davidson said. "The day before All Saints' Day began to be called All Hallows Eve and eventually became Halloween."
The new holiday was celebrated in a similar fashion to the Celtic Samhain festival, with large bonfires, costumes and parades.
According to Davidson, hundreds of years ago winter was an uncertain and feared time and people were afraid of spirits coming into their homes to cause destruction on Halloween. In order to keep the spirits away, people would place bowls of food outside their homes as an offering to the spirits in hopes that the spirits wouldn't enter their houses. People would also dress in costume when leaving home on Halloween so that the ghosts would mistake them for fellow spirits.
According to Stuart Schneider, author of "Halloween in America" and author of numerous Halloween articles, the symbols and traditions of Halloween have been passed down from generation to generation.
"Halloween was typically viewed as a holiday for adults until the 1920s when trick-or-treating first emerged," Schneider said.
Throughout the 1920s, teenagers committed acts of vandalism on Halloween by removing stairs, tearing down and changing signs and knocking over outhouses, causing Halloween to be a problem in communities.
"The vandalism was stopped when businesses and organizations teamed up with the concept of having young people and children go house-to-house," Schneider said. "Children were given candy and harvest goods. It was viewed as a bribe, a treat for behaving."
Others symbols such as witches, black cats, jack-o-lanterns and devils associated with Halloween also have a history.
"Back into the early ages, groups of people got together and celebrated Halloween in their own ways," Stuart said. "Bonfires were built and dances were done, and eventually the image of witches came from this, especially in the 17th and 18th century."
Schneider said the black cat symbol came from sightings people had of cats searching for food, typically while gathered around bonfires in dark forests. Eventually, cats became associated with Halloween. Black cats in particular were feared because people were afraid of blackness and the night.
"Sacrifices were done on Halloween as a giving for the spirits, and goats were normally what was used as a sacrifice," Schneider said. "The face of a goat and what is termed as the face of the devil are the same illusion."
Schneider said the jack-o-lantern is now an American Halloween symbol that was adapted from the Celtic tradition of using potato lanterns at their harvest parties.
According to Schneider, Halloween is the second most celebrated holiday in America, surpassed only by Christmas.
"In 2002, Americans spent roughly $8 billion on Halloween," Schneider said.
Reuters, reviewing a new book, (September 2002):
A book to be published this week says that Britain's Queen Victoria may have been illegitimate, possibly undermining the whole royal family's legitimacy, the Sunday Times reported. In his book"The Victorians," acclaimed biographer A.N. Wilson alleges that Victoria's mother, Princess Victoire of Leiningen, had a lengthy affair with her Irish-born secretary Sir John Conroy and that he, rather than Prince Edward, the Duke of Kent, was Victoria's real father. Buckingham Palace said it would not comment on the allegation.
W. Joseph Campbell, in a letter to the Washington Post (August 24, 2002):
Charles Krauthammer invoked one of American journalism's most dubious anecdotes -- the purported vow of William Randolph Hearst to"furnish the war" against Spain over Cuba. Hearst's vow, supposedly contained in instructions cabled to the artist Frederic Remington in Cuba in 1897, almost certainly is apocryphal.Editor's Note: In an email to HNN on Nov. 16, 2003 Mr. Campbell wrote:
It's perhaps American journalism's best-known, most-recounted anecdote. In an article published in Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly in summer 2000, I addressed the evidence about the purported Remington-Hearst exchange and concluded that it's almost certainly apocryphal. [This] URL --http://academic2.american.edu/%7Ewjc/wjc3/notlikely.html links to the article, which is posted at my Web site. I subsequently expanded the article into a chapter in my book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies (2001, paperback, 2003).
James Loewen, author of Lies My Teacher Told Me, as quoted August 23, 2002 in an article describing an upcoming lecture:
"I’m going to be arguing that we now look at John Brown through a lens that was crafted in 1916," Loewen said about his upcoming lecture.
"I’ll be telling people about how the nadir of race relations in this country was from 1890 to 1930," a time that saw the re-birth of the Ku Klux Klan and the Woodrow Wilson presidency, which, Loewen said, was the nation’s most racist administration.
"In this period, our view was formed of John Brown."
To illustrate his point, he’ll show a photo of Brown taken in 1858 that shows the abolitionist clean shaven,"looking kind of like a business man."
He’ll compare that to a painting made in 1935, well after Brown’s death, in which a raving Brown sports the long beard for which he’s known. Finally, he’ll show a review of a recent book about Brown, the headline of which is,"He took orders only from God."
"It’s bad history," Loewen said.