A character in one of my works-in-progress right now is an English knight from the early 1400s. Because of that, I’ve been doing a lot of research about England in the late Middle Ages, just so I can understand what he does and doesn’t understand about the modern world. I know lots of writers of sword-and-sorcery fantasy study of medieval England, too! I’ve learned that some things I believed about the Middle Ages, because I’d heard them said a bunch of times, weren’t true at all.
Girls had to get married when they were 12 or 13.
When we’re learning about history, we always read the most about the ruling classes, and this skews our perspective. Royal and wealthy families often arranged early marriages between their children because they were political and economic alliances.
Even then, 12 or 13 wasn’t average. This blogger looked at 66 aristocratic marriages in England and France from 1180 to 1423, and the average age of the brides was 17. That’s young, but not shockingly young, to my mind — my own parents got married when they were both 19. In the present-day United States, 18 is the legal age for marriage, and in most states, a person can get married at the age of 16 or even younger with parental consent (I personally think this should be changed). The average age for the grooms in these upper-class medieval marriages was 23.
A lot of women from poorer families didn’t get married until they were in their twenties.
Here’s something I find interesting about medieval wedding: you didn’t need a church, a priest, or even witnesses, though those could be a good idea. You could just say, “Hey, I marry you!” (in middle English, of course), have the other person say, “I marry you too!”, and that was that.
Everybody drank beer because they couldn’t find clean water.
I think this is the most counter-intuitive myth I ever heard about medieval England. Why would they have trouble finding good drinking water while people in other places and eras did just fine? They had fresh streams in England, didn’t they? They did drink a lot of weak ale, but they drank water, too. This myth is debunked here and here.
Swords were big clunky things that weighed about twenty or thirty pounds.
Absolutely not. You can read about this in detail on the website for ARMA (Association for Renaissance Martial Arts — nice acronym, no?) Between the 10th to the 15th centuries, the average sword weighed about 2.87 pounds, or 1.3 kilograms.
I’ve seen this misconception echoed in fantasy fiction, where someone tells a boy he wouldn’t even be able to lift a proper sword. In reality, a thirty-pound sword would be too heavy for most guys to fight with. There are documented historical accounts of European women picking up swords and doing battle in the Middle Ages as well, which would be unlikely if swords had weighed that much.
Incidentally, armor wasn’t as heavy and clunky as many people imagine, either.
They burned a lot of witches.
People often think of the Renaissance in England as beginning in 1485. If you go by that, witch trials were much bigger in the Renaissance. The infamous book The Malleus Maleficarum (The Witch’s Hammer), which I’ve blogged about before, was published in 1486, and it fueled many witch hunts. Most of the executions for witchcraft in England were much later than that, in the 1600s. Many executions were by hanging.
In medieval England, church officials didn’t necessarily like “cunning folk” who supposedly practiced helpful magic, but people rarely did anything about it. Witchcraft wasn’t even outlawed until 1542.
There were zero people of color.
Not according to Arthurian legend or to the artists of the time. Check out this tumblr (you can select the century of your choice on the sidebar on the right.) I think the important thing to remember is that some people travelled huge distances even during ancient and medieval times. They built empires, fought Crusades, and went on business trips to other continents. While medieval Europe must have been very white, it wasn’t exclusively so.
Everyone had disgusting table manners.
I had to research this one for a particular scene in my story. In medieval England they used knives and spoons, but not forks, other than a two-pronged thing to hold a roast while you carved it. But even if they did eat with their fingers, the nobility, at least, weren’t super gross at the table. Everyone washed their hands first, and they tried not to stuff their mouths, spill things, or make loud smacking noises. They wiped their mouths on napkins, and they didn’t drink broth out of a bowl — they used spoons for that.
If you know about some other misconceptions about England in the Middle Ages, let us know in the comments. Thanks for reading!