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10 Huge Misconceptions About Famous Medieval Figures

by Joshua T. Garcia
fact checked by Jamie Frater

Renaissance thinkers didn’t heap much praise on the Middle Ages, but the period is full of inspiring figures who performed epic deeds. They’ve stuck with us for hundreds of years, but in many ways, they’ve changed as much as our technology. Here’s a handful of renowned medieval heroes and what we’ve gotten wrong about them.

10 Machiavelli Loved Republics And Hated Principalities

Niccolo Machiavelli was born in 1469 as the Middle Ages were coming to an end. With feudalism on the way out, many Europeans began to question the legitimacy of monarchical power. A native of Florence, Machiavelli was consumed with political thought, and it was at these political crossroads that he penned his legacy.

Machiavelli’s best-known work is The Prince. Completed in 1513, The Prince has been criticized as a guidebook for tyrants. It contains advice on monarchical rule of a polity and suggests tactics that seem amoral, despicable, and dishonest, all apparently in the name of the greater good. The book is often cited as giving rise to the phrase “the ends justify the means.”

The year before the book’s completion, the Medici family returned to power in Florence after a brief period of expulsion. They were not a group to be trifled with. Concerned with consummating as much power as possible, they had little tolerance for dissension. Consequently, they felt the need to torture Machiavelli and the rest of his republican buddies.

That’s right: Machiavelli was a great supporter of republicanism, not the monarchy. His republican ideals were largely expressed in The Discourses on Livy. When the Medici came to power, he was charged with conspiracy against the rulers, dismissed from his political office, and imprisoned and tortured for a year.

After his release, Machiavelli wrote The Prince. He dedicated it to Lorenzo de Medici, a man partly responsible for his torture. It’s possible that Machiavelli was simply writing The Prince to appease the new rulers of Florence and thereby avoid further torture. It’s also possible that Machiavelli simply changed his mind, but since The Discourses were written around 1517, it’s likely that Machiavelli still held his republican beliefs. Therefore, though widely considered practical and good advice for a ruler, it’s entirely possible to read The Prince as satire or sabotage, with the intention of bringing the Medici to their knees to make way for a Florentine republic.

9 Gutenberg Did Not Invent The Printing Press

With Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press, Europeans were able to share and distribute information more effectively than ever before, permanently altering the political and artistic landscape. So influential was Gutenberg’s invention, a recent Economist poll ranked it as a more important event than the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.

The catch is, Gutenberg didn’t invent the printing press. His printing press, completed in 1439, made the invention readily available and distributable in Europe, but he can’t be credited with its original invention. In fact, it’s quite possible that his printing press was heavily “inspired” by existing printing presses of the time.

These presses largely came out of Asia. Chinese and Korean inventors had created printing presses around a century before Gutenberg. Given that heavy trade was occurring between Europe and Asia in the 15th century, Gutenberg may have had knowledge of the Asian printing technology.

The Chinese had been experimenting with the process for hundreds of years. In fact, printing blocks had been in development since 2300 B.C., courtesy of the Sumerians. The Chinese were printing books with woodblocks in the mid-800s, and a man named Bi Sheng invented movable type in the 1000s. A notable example of a mass-produced medieval Chinese book is The Book of Agriculture, written by Wang Zhen and printed in 1313.

It was a Korean monk named Baegun who created metal movable type in 1377. These lasted longer than wood. He used these to print a book on Buddhist wisdom. After that, Gutenberg had only to figure out how to build a printing press that could be mass-produced.

8 William Wallace Wasn’t Gibson’s Face-Painted Commoner

Legendary Scottish rebel William Wallace became a household name thanks to Mel Gibson’s Braveheart—a 1995 film that recounts Wallace’s leadership during the First Scottish War of Independence in the late 13th century. In Braveheart, viewers are introduced to a short, peasant Wallace who wears kilts and blue face paint, loses his wife in defiance of the horrifying prima nocta law, has an affair with a French princess, and inspires the Scots to fight for freedom.

The problem with Braveheart is that it’s incredibly inaccurate. While the basic framework of Wallace’s life remains intact, the film is a relatively poor depiction of Scotland’s medieval hero. Wallace was no serf—he was a lesser nobleman whose father was a landowner. He was later knighted and made Guardian of Scotland by King John Baliol, Robert the Bruce’s predecessor. He was also much taller than his cinematic portrayal, standing at around 198 centimeters (6’6”) to Gibson’s 178 centimeters (5’10”).

What about Wallace’s love interests? Wallace’s wife was a woman named Marion Braidfute, who lived in the English-controlled Lanark Castle and married Wallace in secret. When the English found out about the marriage, they did kill Marion, but the reason seems to have been more territorial than anything. Prima nocta is almost certainly a long-standing fabrication, used to convey questions of morality to audiences. The French princess, Isabella, was around nine years old at the time of the events of the film and was living in France.

Braveheart also does a great injustice to Wallace’s brothers-in-arms, Sir Andrew de Moray and Richard of Lundie. They were actually co-leaders of the band that attacked Lanark. While Richard of Lundie eventually defected to the English, de Moray was made Guardian of Scotland alongside Wallace, meaning that they were both effectively given the powers of the King. De Moray was as important as Wallace, but was killed in 1297.

As important as Wallace and Andrew de Moray were to the conflict—and their contributions were by no means trivial—they are overshadowed by Robert the Bruce. The Scottish surrendered in 1302 and Wallace was executed in 1305. That left Bruce to win Scotland’s independence without their help in 1306. It was Bruce’s efforts that actually led to the independence of Scotland in 1314, rather than the residual effects of Wallace’s.

Last but not least, the film’s costuming is a farce of time travel. Kilts weren’t worn until several centuries after the film takes place, while blue face paint stopped being used several centuries before.

7 El Cid Fought For Muslims

El Cid - Spanish hero
Rodrigo Diaz is one of Spain’s most recognizable figures. In the eighth century, a group of Muslims from North Africa, called the Moors, had invaded and conquered Spain. Diaz—known as “El Cid” to the Moors and “El Campeador” to the Christians—is regarded as a pivotal figure in the Christian effort to drive the Moors out in the late 11th century. For this reason, Diaz was and has been championed as a hero of Christian Spain, such as in the 1961 film El Cid starring Charlton Heston.

In reality, Diaz was a hero for hire. The Moors’ money was just as good as the Christians’, so he fought for both sides equally. When his original employer, King Sancho II, was assassinated, Diaz continued his service to Christian Spain under Alfonso VI. When Diaz made an unauthorized raid into Toledo, he was exiled from Alfonso’s kingdom. In exile, Diaz abandoned Christendom and happily agreed to fight for the Moors, battling alongside Muslim commanders in numerous strategically important battles.

In fact, Diaz had first made contact with the Moors in 1065, the same year Sancho ascended to the throne. Fighting for the Muslim dynasty of Saragossa, Diaz defeated anyone who threatened King al-Mu’tamin, Christians and Moors alike. Alfonso swallowed his pride to ask for Diaz’s help against the Moors in 1087, but it wasn’t long before he was back in Saragossa.

In 1094, Diaz conquered Valencia on his own and established a fiefdom with combined Muslim and Christian inhabitants. Though Valencia was nominally tied to Alfonso’s Christian Spain, it was independent for all intents and purposes. Despite his prominence as a Christian general, the events of Diaz’s life suggest that he was motivated more by money than religion in war.

6 Richard The Lionheart Probably Couldn’t Speak English

Thanks to movies set around the time of the Third Crusade, you’re probably familiar with Richard the Lionheart, ruler of England from 1189–1199. He’s often portrayed as one of England’s most courageous, powerful, and inspiring kings, a fierce leader who earned the respect of his legendary opponent, Saladin.

Maybe King Richard I was brave and fierce, but he certainly wasn’t proud of being English. In fact, he may not have even been able to speak the English language. For a time, the language of English nobility was actually French, thanks to the Norman subjugation of England by William the Conqueror in 1066. During his 10 years as England’s king, Richard spent only a handful of months within the country and even considered selling it. Most of Richard’s time was spent away on campaign in the Middle East or in France.

Richard had a rough time as ruler. Soon after his coronation, he went off to fight in the Third Crusade, having taken a crusader’s vow. On his way there in 1190, Richard’s fleet was wrecked near Cyprus, where he and his men received poor treatment from the island’s ruler. As a result, he conquered Cyprus and deposed its king, but his army could not take Jerusalem and he eventually decided to leave.

He shipwrecked again. This time, instead of seizing territory from an unfriendly king, Richard was captured by the Duke of Austria. His ransom was equivalent to a quarter of every Englishman’s yearly income. He was released in 1194. The rest of Richard’s life was spent campaigning in France. At age 41, Richard was hit by an arrow and mortally wounded while besieging a French castle in 1199. He pardoned his killer on his deathbed, but shortly after he died, the archer was flayed and hanged.

5 Joan Of Arc Didn’t Actually Fight In Battle

An unexpected but extraordinarily successful leader, Joan of Arc provided the French with some much needed morale during the Hundred Years’ War. Allegedly inspired by voices of saints, Joan was captured by the English and burned for heresy in 1431, but the French finally won the conflict around 30 years after her death.

Joan of Arc never killed anyone. She didn’t even actually fight. Sure, she was on the front lines—and was wounded as a result—but she served as an inspirational figure for the French army, not a combatant. Donned in a specially-crafted suit of armor, Joan would raise aloft her iconic battle standard during combat to rally her troops on to victory.

Joan of Arc was born around 1412 in Domremy, France, the daughter of a peasant farmer. Domremy itself was actually on the border between France and Burgundy, a hotbed of conflict. Joan visited a nearby town, Vaucouleurs, where she convinced a captain to allow her to travel to Chinon to visit the dauphin (heir to the throne), Charles.

Whether he believed her testimony or not, Chinon put his trust in Joan. Joined by her brothers and French general La Hire, Joan and the French army liberated Orleans. She went on to inspire the French to several other major victories, ultimately leading to the coronation of Charles in Reims. Joan was also heavily involved in reforming the army. She expelled prostitutes and mandated church attendance and confession. She banned swearing, looting, and harassing. She played a major role in the army’s tactical decisions as well.

Joan of Arc was canonized in 1920. Remembered as a national icon in France, her life is celebrated every second Sunday in May. She is also honored with a feast on May 30.

4 Dracula Wasn’t Associated With Vampirism Until Bram Stoker’s Dracula

Dracula is the supernatural villain in Bram Stoker’s novel of the same name, a menacing threat to a group of hapless Brits and their elderly Dutch advisor, Van Helsing. The novel and its derivatives popularized the vampire with modern Western audiences.

Stoker took inspiration for his novel from the folktales of southeastern Europe, but he also drew heavily from the historical character of Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia, also known as Vlad the Impaler or Vlad Dracula. Despite being the central villain of Stoker’s vampiric tale, the Hungarian noble was not associated with vampirism until the novel was published.

Vlad was born in Transylvania—now part of Romania—in the Kingdom of Hungary in 1431. His father, Vlad II, was the ruler of Wallachia and fought with the Christian Order of the Dragon (“Dracul”) against the Ottoman Turks. Wallachia was a deadly stomping ground, a bloody barrier between the antagonistic forces of Christianity and Islam. A diplomatic meeting between Vlad II, his sons Radu and Vlad III, and Sultan Murad II resulted in Vlad II’s imprisonment. He was released under the condition that he leave his sons behind, but he was later killed by local warlords.

Vlad III was eventually released and became the ruler of Wallachia. He may not have been a vampire, but he was out for blood. He had all of the disloyal warlords killed by inviting them to a banquet and stabbing them. He also repelled several major Turkish invasions. He earned his nickname by impaling his enemies upon a sharpened pole through their rectum and out their neck, shoulder, or mouth. The pole would then be placed in the ground and the victim put on display. Vlad reportedly killed around 80,000 people, around 20,000 of whom were impaled and displayed.

Vlad was heralded as a Christian hero for his efforts against the Turks, even receiving commendations from Pope Pius II, but it was not to last. Vlad was ambushed and killed in 1476, much to the delight of Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II, who had conquered Constantinople in 1453.

3 Macbeth Was A Just And Protective Ruler

You’re probably most familiar with Macbeth because of William Shakespeare’s play of the same name. The play follows Macbeth, a proficient Scottish general and thane, who assassinates King Duncan. Macbeth, with guidance from three evil witches and pressure from his wife, takes the throne for himself, robbing Duncan’s son Malcolm of his right to rule. Macbeth proves to be a rather poor leader. A combined popular army of Scottish dissenters and English allies overthrow him and Malcolm is placed on the Scottish throne.

Shakespeare’s play was politically relevant in the early 1600s when it was first performed, especially in its commentary on the relationship between England and Scotland. But Shakespeare knew better than to let historical accuracy get in the way of a good story. In reality, King Duncan was an incompetent warmonger who led Scotland into disastrous military campaigns. Did Macbeth kill him? Possibly. Macbeth may have even joined up with Duncan’s Norse opponents against him. In 1040, Macbeth was proclaimed king of Scotland. His Norse allies, led by Thorfinn, were given land in Scotland as well.

During his reign, Macbeth tried to repair the damage caused by Duncan. He rebuilt the Scottish countryside and salvaged relationships with other nations. Meanwhile, Malcolm was able to find support in England. Under English law, he had a legitimate claim to the throne as a descendant of Duncan. Macbeth did not. The same rule did not apply in Scotland. Supported by England, Malcolm invaded Scotland and killed Macbeth in 1057, but Scotland resisted Malcom’s kingship. Macbeth’s stepson Lulac and old ally Thornfinn campaigned against him, but their efforts were for naught. Malcolm became King of Scotland in 1058.

2 Robin Hood May Have Been A Common Bandit

Robin Hood’s identity has become murkier with each retelling of the famous outlaw’s exploits. Sometimes he’s a noble, sometimes an archer of fortune, and Disney even made him a fox. Whatever the details, Robin Hood is consistently portrayed as an outlaw who robs the rich and gives to the poor, hiding out in Sherwood Forest with his band of Merry Men.

The first known literary reference to Robin Hood was in 1377. Some scholars suspect the literary Robin Hood was probably inspired by a real person. The tantalizing truth is that there were plenty of Robin Hoods in 13th-century England. They crop up all over the legal records as epithets for criminals who wore, well, robes and hoods. The “real” Robin Hood may have been nothing more than a common peasant bandit, looking to make some quick cash.

A plausible Robin Hood can be found in Roger Godberd, a yeoman peasant who robbed travelers and poached deer, along with a band of outlaws. He was even arrested by the Sheriff of Nottingham. Another possibility is William Wallace, Scotland’s famous guardian, who fought against the English during the First Scottish War of Independence in the late 13th century. Wallace and Robin Hood share many attributes. Wallace was an outlaw in English law, had a love interest named Marion, was none too friendly with the local sheriff, and hid in Selkirk Forest with a group of warriors. Wallace’s seal even features a longbow. However, it’s not likely that such a strong icon for Scottish nationalism could so quickly become ingrained in English popular culture.

The real identity of Robin Hood—if he has one—may forever remain a mystery. Allegedly, Robin Hood’s grave can be found in Kirklees Park. The grave of his famous companion, Little John, is supposedly in Derbyshire.

1 King Arthur Was Possibly A Roman Soldier

Speaking of questionable historicity, the search for the real King Arthur rivals his quest for the Holy Grail. Some Arthurian scholars are absolutely convinced the fictional English king must have some historical basis—they just can’t nail down a “who.”

Three popular candidates for King Arthur include Owain Ddantgwyn, Lucius Artorius Castus, and Ambrosius Aurelianus. Ddantgwyn was a sixth-century Welsh king. His title was “bear,” which is “Arth” in Byrthonic. His father was named Enniaun Yrth, which is strangely similar to Uther-Pen-Dragon, the father of King Arthur. Ddantgwyn was succeeded by his nephew, much like the legendary Arthur was overthrown by his.

Castus, on the other hand, was a Roman cavalry officer who led horsemen around the world in the second century. Perhaps an inspiration for the Knights of the Round Table? His family name, you may have noticed, was Artorius.

Last, but certainly not least, is Ambrosius Aurelianus, a fifth-century British king of Roman origin. He defended the Britons against the Anglo-Saxons and was viewed favorably by historians.

Arthur may have simply been invented by Welsh historian Nennius, who could have retroactively inserted him into the Saxon conflicts of the 500s. Nennius’s histories contain the first known mention of Arthur in print, around the year 800. Nennius mentions Aurelianus, but treats him and Arthur as two separate figures.

Garcia has also contributed to KnowledgeNuts.

fact checked by Jamie Frater