What historical era was way different from what most people think?

Jul 2018
67
United States
#1
Whether it's the Wild West, Ancient Greece, or prehistoric times, what historical era is popularly misunderstood?

I think there's always a lot of exaggeration and embellishment in periods that serve as settings for fiction (Golden Age of Piracy, Wild West, etc.).
 
Jan 2015
2,813
MD, USA
#2
Um, all of them?

I mean, if history was not generally misunderstood, there'd be no need for historians, and no debate among them. This is clearly not the case! I don't remember seeing a popular article about something historical, or hearing/reading a general conversation on most any historical subject, that did not involve some kind of misunderstanding or even blatant falsehoods.

Matthew
 

Linschoten

Ad Honoris
Aug 2010
15,231
Welsh Marches
#3
Speaking from a European perspective, most people simply have no conception of how utterly different ancient Greece and ancient Rome were from the West as it has developed from the Early Modern period, since we have recreated the ancient world as a sort of ideal ancestral culture. Consider the beginning of this video, which shows how someone came to really feel this (he might have added the place that displays of gladiatorial fights to the death and mass slaughter of wild animals played in Roman culture):


When lecturing on ancient philosophy, I used to tell students to start by banishing the comfortable modern conceptions of these cultures from their minds, and to consider that they were no less strange and alien to them than those of medieval Japan and Aztec Mexico.
 
Feb 2019
17
Denmark
#4
The Middle Ages. People often refer to the medieval period as being a period of very little progress in terms of human rights, caring for the sick/elderly etc.

But in-fact the Middle Ages had abolished both slavery and in some places - like Denmark in the 1350's capital punishment was temporarily ended by Valdemar IV Atterdag, due to the plague. And the plague embettered the lives for the survivors, mainly the peasants, because there were so few peasants remaining, that they could demand better conditions.

The care of the sick was also way better in the Middle Ages before the Reformation, because of the (early) Christian traditions about caring for the weak. This caring for the weak was completely abolished in the years following the Protestant Reformation, because the Church had lost all power and the Crown has ceased all property of the churches/monasteries, and the governing people who should take care of the sick/weak were more focused on saving expenses. Add that capital punishment was established for the unemployed - again, I'm referring to it from a Danish history, but I doubt it was much different in other protestant countries.

I think that if I were to live a peasant's life and had to choose between the year 1354 and 1534 - I'd choose the first.
 
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Mar 2016
560
Australia
#5
The medieval era in Europe, and nothing else comes close. The popular conception of it is a period of stagnation and backwardness because of the overbearing presence of the Church, which stifled intellectual and scientific pursuits and indoctrinated the common folk into blind worship. It's depicted as a time of the noble classes oppressing the serfs and peasants and getting away with it, and kings are great lords are depicted as tyrants with 20th-century-era levels of dictatorial powers and are held completely unaccountable. Wars were waged on a near-constant basis and many scores of the lower classes died for the whims of their superiors, while the infamous Inquisition hunted down, tortured and burned thousands as heretics.

Needless to say, almost all of this is false, or at least greatly exaggerated and distorted. Not only was the Church the only organisation/group of people that were literate for the entire Early Medieval Era and much of the High Medieval Era too, but they worked on preserving and copying countless works of literature, science and philosophy, not only of Christian writers but also Pagan and Muslim ones (yes, even the Church saw the value in Islamic written works - their hatred of Islam was not so overbearingly cartoonish). Thousands of monks spent their entire adult life solely dedicated to this invaluable work, while priests and other monks organised 24/7 charity services through their churches in their local communities for the homeless, the sick and the poor. No secular government did anything like this. Other Church members served important roles in the government, from scribes to secretaries to ambassadors. Oftentimes the Church and its 'staff' (for lack of a better term) were invaluable members of small communities and in some cases protected them against the secular government's authority. The Papacy often acted as a proto-United Nations type institution which would attempt to open up negotiations and broker peace between warring Christian states (the Popes of the 14th century attempted this many times during the Hundred Years War).

The degree to which nobles could behave oppressively towards serfs and peasants is also dramatically exaggerated. In most Western European countries it was illegal to murder a serf or peasant, and all of them had the right to issue complaints to the local court. Especially in England the rule of law was (mostly) upheld and respected even in the Early Medieval Era. Sometimes if the courts proved ineffectual or unjust, even the local bishop could become involved and take the side of a peasant or serf that has been wronged, and they could not be ignored by the local lord (who also had no power to suppress the words or actions of a bishop).

The common 21st century conception of a medieval monarch is one that wields absolute power and is not beholden to anyone, but this couldn't be further from the truth. Medieval monarchs were no 20th century dictators that purged dissenters en mass - almost without exception they relied heavily on their feudal lords - dukes and barons and earls - to administer their lands on their behalf, and the legal obligations of a king to his vassal were just as strong and enforced as the those of the vassal to his king. Monarchs that refused to cooperate with their vassals were almost always overthrown, because the king had very little real power independent of his vassals. A king had no legal right to interfere with the daily administration of a vassal's own holdings unless it clearly involved affairs such as treason or war.

As for wars, they were almost always small-scale affairs relative to wars in the Early Modern and modern eras, with armies very rarely numbering over 10,000 on each side, and even then that was with large kingdoms such as England and France. Casualties were only a very small proportion of the army, and wars were waged on a fairly strict seasonal basis over spring and summer; the bulk of the army - the peasants - were expected to remain at their land for much of the year for farming purposes (which was very important for rulers as well).

And finally, the Inquisition. The dreaded Inquisition that persecuted, tortured and executed scores of heretics and witches. Well, not quite. I recall reading a while ago that the number of people that were actually executed were dramatically smaller than was commonly perceived. The Inquisition was primarily an investigative organisation, not 'judge, jury and executioner'. It was remarkably easy for people accused of heresy to be spared; in most cases they simply had to publicly recant their heretical beliefs. Just a few simple words. You didn't even need to believe it; just say it. Like false apologies courts make people do now. It was only if one refused to recant, or was a repeat offender, that they would probably be executed. And even then a common peasant was very unlikely to be the target of the Inquisition. They knew that peasants were not intelligent enough to properly understand any heretical beliefs they were being led into; rather, the Inquisition targeted leaders of communities like mayors, sheriffs, priests, etc. People that had real influence over other 'smaller' people.
 
Mar 2019
5
Amsterdam
#7
I would say all and every era before ours is in a way has in a way twisted perspective. For the simple reason that we never lived there and also lack of historical records. Of course that changes the closer we get to our our Era.
 
Jan 2016
1,045
Victoria, Canada
#8
The common 21st century conception of a medieval monarch is one that wields absolute power and is not beholden to anyone, but this couldn't be further from the truth. Medieval monarchs were no 20th century dictators that purged dissenters en mass - almost without exception they relied heavily on their feudal lords - dukes and barons and earls - to administer their lands on their behalf, and the legal obligations of a king to his vassal were just as strong and enforced as the those of the vassal to his king. Monarchs that refused to cooperate with their vassals were almost always overthrown, because the king had very little real power independent of his vassals. A king had no legal right to interfere with the daily administration of a vassal's own holdings unless it clearly involved affairs such as treason or war.
This is all very true, but it should be noted that "absolute" monarchies were a giant improvement over feudal monarchies from the perspective of your average peasant or labourer. The kings of (especially early-high) medieval Europe had very little power over their vassals, or right to interfere with administration in those vassals' lands, but what this meant in practice is that even middling and minor lords had the ability to twist administrative and legal proceedings strongly in their favour, and immeasurable opportunities and incentives to do so since their realms of legal/administrative authority lined up exactly with their extensive private assets. Royal justice and administration provided by a strong centralized monarchy was far less arbitrary and absolute than local noble justice and administration, despite the grumblings of that nobility (in the case of early modern Europe) that their sacred rights were being taken away. It is only in the mid-late 19th and especially 20th centuries that centralized states gain the ability to interfere in the lives and rights of their citizens to the same extent that a feudal lord of medieval Europe could interfere with the lives and rights of his or her serfs -- before that point centralization and consolidation at a socio-political and especially legal level almost always meant a lifting of burdens and arbitrary exactions for the common man (hence being one of the main themes of the French Revolution -- not to imply that the centralizing reforms involved therein were all entirely positive), not their imposition.
 
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Oct 2014
77
Osaka
#9
Speaking from a European perspective, most people simply have no conception of how utterly different ancient Greece and ancient Rome were from the West as it has developed from the Early Modern period, since we have recreated the ancient world as a sort of ideal ancestral culture. Consider the beginning of this video, which shows how someone came to really feel this (he might have added the place that displays of gladiatorial fights to the death and mass slaughter of wild animals played in Roman culture):


When lecturing on ancient philosophy, I used to tell students to start by banishing the comfortable modern conceptions of these cultures from their minds, and to consider that they were no less strange and alien to them than those of medieval Japan and Aztec Mexico.
Great points in this post.

I don't agree with Holland's implication that the modern world and morality comes from Christianity, but then why would I? Japan is not a historically Christian society.
 
Jul 2018
67
United States
#10
That's really interesting JeanDuke. I've never heard that perspective before. Can you suggest any further reading on this?