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No Trivial Matter

Accuracy in Medieval Trivia


Who can resist historical trivia? Those tasty little tidbits about life in the "olden days" are just too delicious to pass up. But when it comes to medieval trivia, beware. Many of the stray "interesting facts" you'll encounter about the Middle Ages cannot be considered at all accurate.

Medieval studies, much like ancient history, is fraught with common misconceptions. When dealing with a historical period about which more is unknown than known, it's easy for an unsubstantiated theory to work its way into the lore of our past and become entrenched in popular culture. Disproving some of these so-called "facts" can be exceedingly difficult -- even impossible; and while the theories themselves cannot be substantiated, they die hard.

Erroneous trivia comes in all flavors. Sometimes, it's a generalization or imprecise factoid that can lead people to make assumptions about the entire Middle Ages. For example:

In medieval times, silver was once considered more precious than gold because of its scarcity.1

Anyone reading this might think that silver was scarce throughout medieval Europe. Yet, while the Byzantine gold standard influenced other coinage systems in Europe for centuries, standards for various economies in Europe varied from region to region and from era to era. Silver was generally considered inferior to gold, and silver coins were almost always less valuable than gold coins of the same size or smaller.

In the eighth century, thanks in part to a gold shortage, Charlemagne's father Piippin the Short replaced gold with silver in the Carolingian economy when he introduced the denier coin. The silver-based system, later reorganized by Charlemagne, would serve as the basis for most medieval coinage in northern Europe.

There were definitely gold shortages in parts of Europe at various times, and there may once have been a silver shortage that lasted long enough for silver to be considered rare, and therefore more valuable than gold. But if so, this little tidbit of info does nothing to shed light on where or when the shortage took place.

A Scandalous Queen?

In some cases, eyebrow-raising facts are accompanied by one scandal too many. Take this remarkable woman:

Eleanor of Aquitaine accompanied her first husband, Louis, King of France on the second Crusade. At one point she dressed her ladies as Amazons and rode barebreasted.2

It's true that Eleanor rode on Crusade with Louis; she did indeed dress to resemble an Amazon, or so it is recorded in the chronicle of an eyewitness. And knowing what we know about the indomitable Eleanor, it's not inconceivable that she should have tried something as brazen as showing some skin. Yet if there is any contemporary documentation about Eleanor going bare-breasted, it remains obscure to the point of nonexistence.

This lovely little legend may be impossible to kill. Katharine Hepburn as Eleanor in The Lion in Winter delivered a delightful quote about the alleged incident ("Louis had a seizure and I damn near died of windburn... but the troops were dazzled."). Rumor has it that the item appears in a biography of Eleanor, though I have yet to find it. But even if it was printed in a history book, it's not necessarily the truth. Unless there is an opportunity to examine the sources this alleged biography used, the rumor can only remain a rumor.

Obviously, it's impossible to prove a negative; just because we can't find any evidence that Eleanor rode bare-chested doesn't mean she didn't do so. But such a scandalous act would have been extremely difficult to suppress, especially when those who chronicled events were not under the thumb of the pious Louis, or of anyone else who would not want the event recorded. Until someone shows you a 12th-century chronicle or letter that mentions Eleanor risking serious sunburn, it's probably safest to consider this a fable and nothing more.


1 This trivia bit was found at the FunTrivia.com website.

2 This came up in a discussion on our forum.

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