Biggest myths in world history? Help a school teacher

What do you think are the biggest myths in world history? I’m trying to put together a good list to help this public school teacher develop a class assignment and can use your help.

A recent email from a reader of the blog made this request:

I teach a 9th grade world history class and I’d like to have them attempt to prove/refute some myths of history. I discovered your site and thought I’d give this a try. I’m going to show them your piece about Gutenberg and the printing press as a template for exploring historical myths. Any help or suggestions you could provide about other topics would be appreciated. I’m looking for anything I can investigate from the 1500s to the late 18th century. Thanks

Here’s a few good ones to get things started:

What are some favorite world history myths you know and might be appropriate for a high school project? Bonus points if it’s 1500 to 1800, but any good ones are welcome.

Please leave a comment if you have ideas – thanks!

23 Responses to “Biggest myths in world history? Help a school teacher”

  1. Rob Donoghue

    There are entire books dedicated to this, and they tend to make for good reading. A few titles worth checking include:

    “Legends, Lies & Cherished Myths of American History” by Richard Shenkman
    “Legends, Lies & Chereished Myths of World History” by Richard Sheknman (Shenkman’s got several books like this)

    “Lies my Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook got Wrong” by James Loewen

    For my two bits, I’d go with the idea that “America never lost a war until Vietnam” – I am fairly sure the British of 1812 might disagree.

    -Rob D.

  2. Scott Berkun

    I can also recommend Lies my teacher told me – He goes too far at times in fixating on why people got it wrong, rather than explaining the truth, but it’s overall it’s a great start.

  3. Drew @ Cook Like Your Grandmother

    * Eating animal fats is bad for your heart.

    See any number of things from the Weston A. Price foundation, but best bet is “The Oiling Of America”. This is intentional misinformation that has been well funded for so long people don’t know it’s based on junk science.

    * All calories are equal, and reducing caloric intake will reduce body weight.

    Nope, it turns out some diets not only leave you feeling hungry, but even with identical caloric intake you don’t lose as much weight. This one is more a case of reality being complex, while modern society — and media in particular — gravitates toward simplistic answers.

    * Cancer and heart attacks aren’t really on the rise, they’re simply diseases of old age. Now that more people are getting old, more people are experiencing those conditions.

    No again. This one is an artifact of an exceptionally bad time for life expectancy during the industrial revolution, coinciding with the beginnings of accurate tracking of life span of poor people. Go back a few more generations and it seems people lived nearly as long as most wealthy societies do today.

    All three of these issues are controversial, with monied interests lining up to oppose them. I wouldn’t bet my next paycheck on any of them, but I’ve seen enough evidence to seriously question the conventional wisdom.

  4. Steven Levy

    There is a persistent myth that Washington was a great general and that thanks to his skills the American Revolution was sure to be successful. History is written by the winners, after all.

    Washington was a great leader of men, but he was a lousy leader of armies at the start of the war. For example, the fledgling colonial army should by all rights have been destroyed in the Battle of Brooklyn, given that GW deployed them in the wrong place, left a major road unguarded, had no spies on the British troop movements, and failed to either pull back or bring up reserves when the British landed tens of thousands of troops. Indeed, were it not for a surprise morning fog covering the US retreat, the bulk of the army would have been captured or killed.

    Likewise, he couldn’t get the pieces to fall into place for the Battle of Trenton (crossing the Delaware), since his subordinates failed to carry out orders to coordinate and his own crossing was hours delayed. Again, luck saved him — and us, I suppose — when the British/German troops holding Trenton, alerted to the possiblity of an attack, mistook a small skirmish for the attack and then stood down, allowing Washington’s small force to take them by surprise. And so on….

  5. J Wynia

    I’d mention the story of Paul Revere. Nearly everything taught about his “ride” are from a poem rather than anything historical.

  6. Sean Crawford

    I seem to recall reading that the definition of myth includes, “traditional story” which to me implies that one should be cautious before breaking a myth, just as one would think twice before breaking the prime directive. Maybe, like a planet, when a schoolchild is ready he will break the myth himself.

    It is a fact that the Argentine armed forces on the Malvinas (Falklands) had more weapons, more ammo, and more men than the British expeditionary force that sailed to fight them. There are many reasons why the Argentines had a poorer army, of course, including not being a democracy, but the most surprising reason given, by one newspaper, was this: The nation had “no soul,” they couldn’t even agree on what version of things to put in their school textbooks. I suppose they couldn’t agree on myths, either.

  7. Morten

    Well since your on the subject of Columbus, one of the greatest myths in history is that he acctually discovered the american continent. When in fact it was descovered 500 years earlier by the Norse.

  8. J.R.

    The myth of Americans winning the World War II (1900s)
    The myth of Americans landing on the Moon (1900s)
    The myth of Americans saving the world from weapons of mass destruction in Iraq (1900s)

  9. Bob K

    How about the myth of evolution of modern humans from an ape-like creature being scientific fact?

    BTW, I’m reading your, The Myths of Innovation right now. Nice work!

  10. Chris

    It’s often stated that you can see the Great Wall of China from the moon… but you can’t.

  11. E.A.Brown

    How about: Columbus went in search of the East for spices, because Europeans were eating spoiled food and needed spices to cover the taste?

    Columbus went looking for ‘the East’ to get stonking rich, just like every other adventurer. Spices were high-value, low-weight transportable items that provided a huge return on investement. It had nothing to do with spoiled meat(!) and everything to do with venture capitalism, as was in the 15th c.

    Europeans had very sophisticated and well-documented ways of preserving food – they just loved the exotic flavours of ‘the East’, just as we do today.


  12. Ben

    It’s not really history related, but the myth that humans only use 10% of their brains is pretty pervasive and doesn’t seem to have any basis whatsoever.

  13. Robby Slaughter

    The place to begin with is the excellent book by James Loewen, *Lies My Teacher Told Me.* (Amazon Link). I believe it includes both of these stories.

    Loewen writes extensively on the topic of myths about history, and I strongly recommend his work!

  14. Mary L

    Look up Gavin Menzies and his books 1421 and 1434. Explodes the myth about what started the Renaissance in Europe.

    The cool thing about his work is the contributions from the international community building up the original source material that supports his research. Great story teller, too.

  15. Mr. coolcat

    There was a time when most people believed the world was flat.

  16. Seamus Breathnach

    One of the biggest myths in world history is Christianity and the manner in which we read world history through christian eyes. Take the following example:

    — AND US!

    As one who watched both Professor Robert Bartlett’s ‘Normans’ and
    Dan Snow’s ‘Norman Walks’, let me say how much I enjoy the
    BBC’s sense of history and these two items in particular.

    Hitherto I have admired the BBC’s ‘sense of history’. But on recent reflection I find that I must reconsider this view. Indeed, I have to admit of a general problem that now pervades my entire viewing of these wonderfully formal historical offerings. One feels one’s prejudices drawing one decisively if reluctantly towards Pillars of Wisdom, where, as Oscar Wilde reminds us, even in a pitiable medieval gutter some unlikely spirits see the stars.

    The problem revolves entirely around our notion of the Papacy as well as our notion of the ‘Nation State’. We can’t resist the temptation to translate our present structural and ideological aufbau backwards, seeing the Nation States established and defined, the Kings in their indomitable position, and the poor sandaled church begging for crumbs. Nothing, of course, could be more erroneous.

    By my reckoning, the world was driven by unadulterated violence; armies and their retainers paraded up and down Europe in the unprecedented confidence that the sword was mightier than any passages from the Vulgate. In such an environment the Papacy was the most adored monarchy in the known world, with tribes from the latest conquered areas descending upon the Holy See with gifts for the Vicar. If you hadn’t soldiers bivouacked in your back yard, then you needed the next best thing, the patronage of the Pope and/or the constant supply of his favorite currency ‘gold, frankincense and myrrh, myrrh and more myrrh’. At Avignon they say the Popes hid their wealth in a false floor — where not even the Cardinals could poach it!

    In this total and totalitarian context, the Normans not only beat the crap out of everyone for not being Normans or good Christians, but they made French the language of the people for at least 400 years after their conquest. In administration, law, architecture — practically everything besides ostentatious piety — any notion we have — even of Saxon England — is reviewable backwards. The Pope had the power over all petty kings, such that he could interfere as he wished and appoint, promote and destroy as he pleased. It is this Pharaoh-like context that we fail to grasp, when we look backwards at the Dark Ages and the Middle Ages. Moreover, we forget that the real business of the Dark Ages was to promote religious and biblical knowledge while, at the same time, desecularising the entire data base of pagan and secular history and knowledge. If we understand this, then we understand the real power of the Popes, the real superstition of the people, and the manipulation of the peoples‘ fears of those who knew the Bible professionally and inquisitorially.

    What does such a world say of our idea of a secular ‘England’, a pagan ‘Ireland’ , ‘Scotland’, ‘Germany’, ‘Italy’, and the modern European Nation State?

    One cannot be blamed for thinking that during the Dark Ages and the Early Middle Ages, there was little or nothing known of the Nation States or how — if at all — they were conceived, save to say that however they were defined, it was done daringly against the will of the Papacy and its very pro-active protectors. If you gave lip to the Pope, you were giving it at various times, to a Lombard Monarch, a Prince of Francia, or looking down the nose of a Norman Rollo. And while the middle ages was ubiquitously violent and volatile — and can often be likened to a game of chess, played out for real by endless petty kings (mostly relatives) and neighbouring city states (especially in Italy) — the real governor of the European land mass, never to be found on a Chess Board, was the Pope. No one doubted the Pharaoh-like qualities of Christ’s Vicar on earth, Mr. Caesar himself, the Tutto Di Tutti Capi, the Pope of Rome.

    One must understand how superstitious the people were. It was a time when everyone was running off to Rome to pay one’s respects to the sole overlording religion in Italy. And when the Pope indicated how God willed a crusade, the people swarmed into the crosses — like Croker’s Cross in Kilkenny — and had themselves branded, to prove their intention of serving in the Holy Land.

    Although people can hardly imagine it now, the story of Jesus had been doing the rounds and, as Wycliffe had pointed out, mother Church became unimaginably wealthy — so much so, in fact, that corruption everywhere visible. The modes of corruption became so commonplace, that the Pope’s next move was to swamp Europe with young men called Benedictines, Franciscans, Dominicans, etc., etc.. The church enlarged ensured a measure of cleanliness and , by the by, became the biggest employer in Europe. Hordes of idle and unwanted young men and women who could not afford a horse, a sword, a helmet, a suit of mail, a kite shield, a long bow much less a romping great horse, flocked to the open embrace of an expanding religious empire! In a way, the crusades were a means of enlisting holy men into the church’ s existing military knighthood: innumerable religious orders, mendicant and militant alike, including the Knights Templars and the Normans, prepared to invade the world at the behest of Church and State. And this is an insight that ought not to be discounted today. When the RC Church recruits all over the world for people who are prepared to embark upon an individually inspiring career, they are in reality co-opted into a terrible army. The Jesuit colleges in India and the US (and wherever you like!) not only manage the media to the Holy See’s best interests, but their college graduates invade every President’s administration, whosoever is elected and whomsoever elects them.

    The emergence of the institution of the Papacy and its servants and agents, should always be kept in mind when measuring the ‘secular’ State. In the instant case , an eye to the Papal agenda is necessary both as a means of understanding the coincidence and agenda of the Normans, as well as the part played by the Papacy in those who act as ‘Fidei Defensores’. In this way, the military exploits of those who came before the Normans as well as those who came after are perfectly legible in terms of Papal manipulation . One is reminded of the Byzantines, for example, the Lombards, the Franks, and only then, when needs must, with the Viking-cum-Normans.

    The ‘Normans’ are neither the beginning nor the end of history; nor are they an item — however interesting — to be considered solely in their own environment. If — as we are tired of reiterating — ‘All history begins now, with our consciousness and knowledge of the past, and of what the past means for us now’, then the Normans are most instructive by reference to their relationship with the more enduring Papacy. While the genius of the bloody Normans was partly to be seen in their assimilability, the messianic designs of the Papacy are infinitely more significant to our understanding of Western and World history as a whole.

    With the present enthusiasm for Norman history and the Middle Ages at an unprecedented ‘high’, there is the very strong possibility that we (and the gurus at the BBC) may not see the wood for the trees, thereby missing one of the great opportunities (and to my mind ‘duties’) of public broadcasting, namely, to educate the public, thereby making the much more aware of the daily contemporary forces at play in our time.

    Although it might be reserved for another programme, it is unfortunate that this rather central aspect of the middle ages is never really captured by the historians. It is as if there is some protocol that precludes the influence and management of these military affairs by the Papacy from being recounted in the same breadth as the ‘secular powers’. It is as if the ‘Normans’ were entirely autonomous in their military agenda and the raging antagonisms between Papacy and Emperor, between the ‘spiritual sword’ and the ‘temporal sword’ was never an ubiquitous military reality.

    And this is my problem, mostly with Professor Bartlett’s otherwise excellent account. Catholicism’s (and Christianity’s) need for constant crusades is not just an incident of the twelfth century, but whenever the thinking public have reason to discard the Christian myth-makers, a new antagonism specifying the fears between Communism-and-Fascism or Jewry-and-Catholicism or Catholicism-and-Islam is made to appear on the world scene. This ‘historical’ division and its orchestrated amplification has its uses today as much as yesterday, and if we do not learn to recognise it for what it is, then we are doomed yet again to repeat it, and allow ourselves to be defeated by those powers who best use these religious division.

    And while Professor Bartlett is absolutely correct to point out that the Norman conjuncture has a significance for us all today, I would suggest that the most important aspect of this conjuncture is not so much a description of Norman triumphs (however important) but the continual alliances made by the Papacy with the most militarily gifted (and brutal) contemporaries available, whether they be Lombard, Frank, Norman, Spanish, Austrian, Italian, German or Croatian, or whether, like the Americans, they possess and are prepared to use the Atomic bomb.

    Which brings me to my second — and connected — problem!

    If, instead of following up the Invasion of Britain with the Norman exploits in Southern Italy, the story as told is reversed — that is, to demonstrate the exploits of the Normans in Southern Italy first, and the ensuing clash and shared agreement between Papal and Norman forces, then one might all the easier see the enduring deal which the Papacy struck with the Normans — reference being made perhaps to a similar deal being struck with Constantine as far back as the fourth century, and respectively with the Lombards, and with the Franks, etc..

    This perspective could well be moved forward through the crusades against the Pagans,Jews, Albigensians, Huguenots and assorted Protestants. Indeed, if we look at the reign of King John (1167 – 1216), we see this thesis of expanding Papal and Christian hegemony made perfectly real. And if we look to Wycliffe for an explanation of these events, it becomes clear that it is Papal greed that prompts a new consciousness of the nation state (of England), as well as the perpetual role adapted by the Roman Church in world politics.

    It is a thesis that is capable of being carried forward to the religious wars, the religious affiliations of Charles 1 (and his wife), as well as the litany of wars in Europe down to our own times. (Is Tony Blair’s position so different to that of Charles 1?)

    More recently, we can follow the thesis right down to crusade against the Masons, to the Cristeros War in Mexico in the 20s, to the crusade against the Communists in the 30s 40s and ad infinitum, inspiring protocols with Mussolini, Franco, Hitler, Salazar, Croatia, and the Americans, and even forward to the assault on Russia and Vietnam by the combination of JP11, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, and in our own time through the illegal war in Iraq and Afghanistan by Benedict XVI, Tony Blair and George Bush.

    Nothing, it seems to me, provides a greater threat to world peace than the present unstable state of Christianity. Without a crusade — or at least a juxtapositional defining of Christianity and Islam, Christianity and Atheism, etc. — Christianity sees itself as a wasting back-water. The several Jesuitical ‘Universities’ and colleges, and their allies all over the world (but especially in the US and India) are, it seems to me, on standby to create and amplify this focal antagonism. Whether in China, Venezuela, Britain or behind President Obama’s back, the same war that has raged throughout the entire Christian era still persists.

    Isn’t it time to drag Christianity into the open, unmask its janus-like militant/mendicant face, and observe its messianic heart ?

    The Christian Conquest, both in its religious zeal and its ancillary compulsion to conquer the world, has always been known to the world. That this struggle, constantly made universal by the relentless missionary zeal of the churches, has hardly been touched, much less analyzed. Dare one suggest to the BBC that Professor Bartlett’s account of the Normans be re-conceived in this light; that a discussion panel be invited to carry the exploits of the Normans forward into the succeeding centuries that have truly marred the landscape of Europe and the World. Isn’t it time to let history and our sense of history inform our present consciousness of its intimate ties with religious imperialism? Isn’t it especially opportune, now that the Catholic Church is visibly driving the world into an “Islam/Christian” , “Religious/Secular”, “Christian/Atheism”, “Darwinian/Creationist” divide, to examine the role of Christianity and the Papacy in this world-wide agitation for world dominance?

    It has been well said that ‘all history begins NOW’. Let us therefore use Professor Bartlett’s account of the ‘Normans’ as a starting point towards our understanding of NOW in all its mea-culpa dimensions!

    Seamus Breathnach

    NB: When the above article was presented to Indymedia Ireland for publication, it was met — not for the first time — with the following response (on Tuesday 24th August, 2010)

    Document Not Available
    Sorry. This story has been hidden due to a possible breach of the editorial guidelines and is under review by the editorial group. If you think that this story should be allowed to remain on the newswire, please check our editorial guidelines and if you think that your article does not breach any of these guidelines, you can contact the editorial collective to make your case.

  17. Neel

    The myth that Napoleon destroyed the Sphinx. It was an Islamic iconoclasts in the 14th century.



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