19 Historical Myths You’ve Always Believed That Are Completely False

History is full of fascinating stories and events, but it’s also prone to being misremembered, misrecorded, and inaccurate! Unfortunately, certain misconceptions become so ingrained in popular culture that they are rarely corrected. This article exposes 19 historical myths you might have believed (until now) that have actually been debunked or corrected.

The Wright Brothers Invented the First Airplane

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While the Wright Brothers did indeed make the first sustained, controlled heavy aircraft flight in 1903, they weren’t the first to fly an aerial machine. The National Air and Space Museum confirms, “Sir George Cayley (1773–1857) built the world’s first hand-launched glider in 1804. It was five feet long and was the first example of the configuration of a modern aircraft.”

Vikings Were Bloodthirsty Raiders

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While Vikings did engage in violent raids, pillaging foreign settlements, that is only part of the story. History shows they were also skilled traders, artisans, and seafarers who established extensive trade networks, founded farming settlements, and engaged in cultural exchanges, sharing knowledge, traditions, songs, and stories.

The British Defeated Napoleon Alone

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While the British army played a pivotal role in the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, ultimately leading to Napoleon’s downfall, they weren’t the only force opposing him. The Prussian army (from modern-day Germany and surrounding countries like Poland) was also involved under Field Marshal Blücher and helped tip the scales in favor of the Allied forces.

The Roman Empire Fell in 476 AD

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In 476 AD, the Western Roman Empire officially collapsed after being overrun by Germanic tribes from the north, but that was only half of the area occupied and controlled by the Romans. The Eastern Roman Empire, also known as the Byzantine Empire, thrived for another thousand years until 1453.

William Tell Shot an Apple Off His Son’s Head

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This dramatic story of a skilled marksman fighting against an oppressive regime is probably false. The Smithsonian says there’s historical evidence supporting the tale, which supposedly sparked Swiss independence in the 15th century. Similar stories appear in various cultures throughout history, suggesting a common folklore rather than a true story.

Joan of Arc Was Accurately Named and Illiterate

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Renstore reveals, “Neither was her name Joan nor did she come from Arc. Though she was illiterate, she could sign her name. When she did, she signed it ‘Johanne’ or ‘Jehanne.’ It was the French feminine form of ‘John,’ which was translated to ‘Joan’ by her English captors.” Although initially illiterate, she eventually learned to write (poorly) and even penned letters that exist today.

King Arthur Existed

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Sadly, the legend of King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table is just that—an English legend. The tale probably originates from Celtic myths and perhaps real historical figures that have been adapted and inserted into the folklore narrative. Time reports that there is zero historical evidence to suggest King Arthur himself ever existed as a real monarch.

The American Revolution Was Solely About Taxation

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The American Revolution began in 1775 and led to the formation of the independent United States, but it was fueled by a complex web of factors. Although many of us believe that taxation without representation was the primary force, political grievances (like limited self-governance and abuses of power by the British Crown) also contributed.

The Black Death Only Affected Europe

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The Black Death was a devastating bubonic plague that wiped out vast numbers of people living in Europe in the 14th century, but that is not where it originated. Historians believe the plague came from Central Asia, in modern-day Kyrgyzstan. It wrought a terrible toll on human populations wherever it spread, including most of Asia, Africa, and Europe.

The Mona Lisa Was Smiling

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The woman’s enigmatic smile in DaVinci’s world-famous ‘Mona Lisa’ is one of the painting’s most debated aspects. Scholars have interpreted her expression as a subtle smile, a smirk, a sad acceptance, or even an ambiguous neutrality. The true meaning behind her expression is entirely unknown, lost to history after the artist’s death.

The Discovery of Penicillin Was Accidental

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The discovery of penicillin by Alexander Fleming in 1928 is portrayed as a serendipitous ‘eureka’ moment that changed the world. According to The Conversation, Fleming’s bacteriology background and excellent observation skills were vital to his recognizing the mold juice’s potential as an antibiotic. And, even then, his discovery was dismissed for many years.

The Mummies of Ancient Egypt Were Cursed

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The idea that disturbing the tombs of ancient Egypt brought misfortune is entirely false. When archaeologists opened King Tut’s tomb in 1922, several excavators and even the team’s benefactor, Lord Craven, died shortly afterward. This was due to coincidence and the stagnant, undisturbed air in the tomb, which contained molds and bacteria new to modern times.

Thomas Edison Invented the Electric Light Bulb

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Like many scientific inventions and discoveries, Thomas Edison is widely credited with inventing the light bulb in 1879, yet he couldn’t have done so without the contributions and previous inventions of his colleagues and fellow scientists. Humphry Davy and Warren de la Rue had made significant advancements in electrical illumination before Edison even began his work.

The Swiss Invented Chocolate

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While Switzerland is now known for its delicious chocolate, the origins of this sweet treat lie in Mesoamerica, with the ancient Olmec and Mayan civilizations. They consumed chocolate beverages made from ground and roasted cacao beans as early as 1500 BC. The Swiss merely refined and popularized chocolate as we know it today.

Romans Spoke Latin

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Latin was undoubtedly the official language of the Roman Empire, used for government, law, and literature. However, as the empire expanded and incorporated other peoples, various regional languages and dialects coexisted alongside Latin. Greek held significant importance in the eastern part of the empire, and Aramaic and Egyptian were spoken in certain regions as well.

Cleopatra Committed Suicide By Snake-bite

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While most historians agree that the last Pharaoh, Cleopatra, did take her own life, the method by which she did so has been long lost to history. The popularized tale is that she allowed a poisonous asp (Egyptian cobra) smuggled to her in a fruit basket to bite her. However, she may have suffocated, starved, or even poisoned herself instead.

The Discovery of Fire Was a Single, Accidental Event

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Archeological evidence suggests that various populations of prehistoric humans probably discovered how to start and control fire gradually through various methods. Methods could have involved harvesting fire from natural sources like lightning strikes, wildfires, or even volcanic eruptions! It’s unlikely that a random, lucky spark prompted an instantaneous campfire.

The Salem Witch Trials Were All About Witchcraft

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The infamous Salem witch trials of 1692 are often portrayed as a hunt for witches in the small, pagan community of Salem, Massachusetts. However, the events that began the hysteria and capital punishment were fueled by various factors, including religious fervor, political rivalries, and personal grievances between townspeople, as well as suspicions of witchcraft.

Napoleon Bonaparte Was Exiled in Isolation

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The common teaching is that Napoleon was stranded on a barren, uninhabited island called St. Helena in the Southern Atlantic. However, the island was far from lonely and had a diverse community of British officials, soldiers, and civilians. During his exile, Napoleon even had a large house with staff, gardens, and access to books and news!

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