I should note before hand that numerous Protestants, as well as Atheists & Secularists, were a big factor in slandering the Middle Ages.
Christians are to have an obligation to the truth, not to power or politically useful lies. Therefore, when we get it wrong, we must admit our error and correct it.
Joanna Arman, studied British Medieval History (2014)
Lots of great answers here. I’d almost ask what don’t movies get wrong? Almost everything is wrong in most Medieval movies. I will add a few of my own observations here
1. Everyone was terrified of witchcraft and anyone could be accused of witchcraft for the slightest thing.
I wrote a much longer and more post on this subject here: Joanna Arman’s answer to Why was witchcraft so popular during the medieval times?
However, I’ll briefly repeat myself here. This is one of the movie tropes that really get my back up. Historians have now demonstrated there were literally no witch hunts in the Middle Ages and most of the paranoia about witchcraft was actually a feature of the Early Modern period, specifically the 16th and 17th century.
Its made out that a person could be accused of witchcraft for having a skin condition or a birthmark: and yet there was literally a King of Jerusalem who had leprosy. He wasn’t accused of ‘witchcraft’. King Henry IV of England had a serious skin condition, and so did Robert the Bruce in his later life.
People don’t understand that the Medieval attitude to sickness and physical ailments. They did not see them a sign of evil, rather they saw them as the consequence of living in an imperfect world and bought about by man’s original sin (Garden of Eden and all that).
However, they also saw physical suffering as a way to atone for or expiate one’s sins. To suffer was to identify with the sufferings of Christ.
The belief that Saints and relics had supernatural power were all pretty much normal aspects of Medieval religion. Yet we’re supposed to believe that any woman who used healing herbs would be accused of being a ‘witch’: despite the fact that there were literally books on herbalism written by monks.
Again, this arises from a misunderstanding of Medieval religion; they believed that plants, animals, rocks, minerals, the stars and cosmos were all created by God, and to harness their properties for benefit of humanity was seen as perfectly legitimate. There was nothing wrong with using herbs and plants for medicinal purposes, in fact it was positively encouraged in some circles.
Medieval people did not attribute anything they could not understand to ‘witchcraft’. They believed in the supernatural, yes, but they also realized there were things they didn’t know which weren’t supernatural. They didn’t agonize about them, they just thought that one day an explanation would be found.
Joan of Arc, who is often cited as ‘evidence’ for the Medieval paranoia about witchcraft was an exception, and contrary to what is popularly believed, she was not accused of the offense because she wore men’s clothes.
The real issue was that she claimed Saints appeared before her in corporeal form, touched her and spoke to her. That was seen as dangerously close to Necromancy (consulting with the spirits of the dead) and was the only form of ‘witchcraft’ that really could get you into hot water.
2. Hardly anyone could read or write/learning and literacy was suppressed.
I will add the caveat that in the Early Middle Ages (before 1066) literacy was generally more the preserve of the clergy, but not always. Things really began to change in the 12th century however.
By the 14th century it was quite common for laypeople to be able to read, at least in their mother tongue if not in Latin.
Eleanor of Aquitaine’s tomb effigy in Fontevrault abbey, Normandy shows her reading a book. This was not just an affectation. Eleanor was literate: some of her letters have survived, and the court of Aquitaine was known for fostering literature and poetry.
Anyone who could afford it could teach their children to read Latin or the vernacular. They didn’t even have to have a formal education: they might just pay a priest to do it using a Psalter or a prayer book.
However, boys and girls could also be sent to Abbeys to get an education and there is even evidence for the existence of schools as early as the 13th century Universities came into existence from the 1100s.
A Woman Teaching Geometry
It wasn’t just nobles either, Geoffrey Chaucer was the son of a wine merchant. Richard of Wallingford, the man credited with creating the world’s first mechanical clock (and writing a treatise about it) was a blacksmith’s son. Educated mothers were expected to teach their daughters to read and it was beneficial for women of the nobility and gentry would be able to do so in order to read through household accounts and other documents.
By the late Middle Ages, merchants expected marriageable daughters to be literate and numerate so they could help in their husband’s business.
The works of Chaucer and other Medieval writers also contained material satirical of the authorities and even of the church. The Medieval French Fableaux are an extreme example (and verging on pornographic, as a content warning). Priests, even Bishops wrote things critical of Popes and Kings.
This kind of goes along with the next point:
3: The Medieval Church was terrified of works by pagan and Muslim authors. They were considered evil, heretical and suppressed.
I consider this to be one of the worst calumnies placed upon Medieval Europeans. Its also, sadly, one of the most enduring. There seems to be very little basis for it except perhaps a temporary ban on Aristotle certain French Universities in the 13th century and the odd rant by clerics about monks reading secular books.
Think about it: Medieval medical theories were based on Galen, cosmology dependent on Ptolemy, much of philosophy was based on Plato and Aristotle. Even outside academic circles, Medieval people loved the classics and could not get enough of them.
Chaucer and Shakespeare wrote their own versions of Troilus and Cressida, a poem set during the Trojan war. Romances and stories set in ancient Rome, Greece or Troy were the mainstay of Medieval Literature. Geoffrey of Monmouth, a 12th century Welsh writer even tried to claim that the ancient Celtic Britons were descendants of Trojan exiles.
Illustration from 13th century Romance of Alexander. About Alexander the Great. Obviously.
In Dante’s Inferno, the poet is guided on his journey through heaven, hell and purgatory by Virgil, a roman poet who lived in the 1st century BC. Three of the Nine Worthies, people who were believed to personify noble or chivalric ideals, were classical pagan figures: Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great and Hector.
If you ever read Medieval Literature, from pretty much any time after the 11th century (and even some from before then), you’ll almost certainly find some reference to some classical writer or another.
4: Everything from the East/Islamic world was superior to anything from the West/Christendom.
I have to say that this movie trope really annoys me, because there is so much presumption involved, and it represents a form of cultural supremacy that I consider quite disturbing.
Several recent Robin Hood adaptation involve the hero giving up his traditional Anglo-Welsh longbow in favour of a ‘Saracen’ bow, usually some kind of recurve or composite weapon. We’re always being told that this was because ‘Saracen’ or ‘Arab’ bows were vastly superior and longbows were basically useless.
Now, I’m no archery expert, but I do know that Medieval recurve bows were very different to the modern ones, and that each type had its own respective strengths and weaknesses. I’m inclined to think that each bow was best suited to the environment in which the people who first invented them lived. The problem with using Mongol type composite bows in a place like England was that they were constructed with a type of glue, and in the cold and damp climate of the British Isles, that would probably have got wet, and gradually deteriorated.
We see something similar when it comes to swords. Hollywood makes out that Europeans only used straight swords and that curved single edged ‘Arabian’ scimitars were superior: because they’re from the East. No other reason. Two main problems with this: Europeans did, in fact, have a single edges sword. They were known as falchions.
The other point is that like bows, each type of sword had strengths and weaknesses. Falchions and scimitars were very good slashing and cutting blades, and seem to have been mostly used on horseback. Straight, double edges swords are better for thrusting blows, and seem to have been more effective against armoured opponents. Each type of sword is suited to the method of combat that was most common in the civilizations that gave rise to them.
Neither is inherently inferior or superior to the other simply because of the part of the world they originated from.
5: The Medieval Church was a greedy, corrupt oppressor of the people.
Whilst its true that there were individual churchmen who were corrupt and greedy, is entirely wrong to characterize the entire institution and everyone in it as such. Really, this is a post-Reformation and Post-Enlightenment idea that reflects the biases of writers from those periods.
The Medieval church actually provided many important services and functions, including hospitals and almshouses (which provided a place to live for the poor, disabled or elderly). They encouraged charity, an important aspect of society. Giving gifts of food or money to the poor were an important part of Medieval religion.
Image of a Medieval Hospital.
Churches in the early and high Medieval period also provided the mainstay of the educational system. Young boys and girls went to monasteries and abbeys to learn to read or write. Or else, they would have tutors hired- usually from among the clergy- to teach them those things. Schools were usually run by the church and the teachers would have typically been clerics. The church also had a strong connection with universities.
The church may have taken money or goods from people in the form of tithes, but they also provided work and livelihoods to many people. Builders, architects and stonemasons to build and maintain them. Shepherds and husbandmen to look after animals on church land, farmers to work said land.
People don’t understand the often mutually beneficial association between the church and the laity in the Medieval period, and how the money they took was often put to use for the greater benefit of the wider populace.