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10 Hidden Truths About Historical Artefacts and Inventions
By Gregory Myers,
Toptenz, 17 March 2016.

When it comes to history, while there’s still some mystery to our past, we tend to think we’ve got things pretty well figured out. Many people are convinced of the origins and truths behind many famous artefacts and inventions, even though the history of them is much more complicated and bizarre than most people realize. Just like someday people will likely stumble upon the remains of a floppy disk and wonder if it was a plate, many of the things that happened through the past have become distorted through the lens of history. For some of these, the truth is still out there to be found, and it’s only been confused by modern retellings and myths.

10. Iron Maidens Were Not For Torture


For those of you who don’t know, an Iron Maiden is an allegedly Medieval torture device shaped like a giant coffin that can fit a person. The door and the inside have giant spikes that slowly impale you as the door closes in on you. It’s easily the most metal torture device ever conceived, which makes sense considering a metal band has chosen it as its namesake. However, to the disappointment of Maiden fans everywhere, the torture device was never a real thing at all. The Iron Maiden was actually conceived by the 19th century version of a performance artist who cobbled it together from pieces of other old torture devices.

The artist and his friend gave it to a museum where it was mistakenly listed as a medieval torture device and before long the idea of the maiden was horrifying and captivating people all over the world. The point of the artists had been to show how awful the past was compared to the present, and to illustrate it by showing an example of what they thought the worst tortures of the past may have looked like. Instead, people were trolled into thinking that it was real, and now believe in a device that never existed. The truth is that they didn’t need to make a new device. Many medieval torture implements were more than brutal and horrifying enough that there was no need to make fake ones. Also, the maiden might be a painful way to kill someone, but it would have been impractical as a torture implement. Torture was generally used to extract a confession or get information - a device that killed someone so quickly and conclusively would not have been helpful for that purpose.

9. Chastity Belts Are Historically Controversial And Very Misunderstood


When most people think of chastity belts, they think of a time period in history when women were treated like objects in many respects. To many people, chastity belts are a vivid example of how women have been abused and used for sex throughout history. However, most of what people have been led to believe about them are wholly false. Museum exhibits showing what was supposed to be a prudish, relatively ancient device turned out to be made in the 19th century, and a couple that were from the middle ages were judged to actually be dog collars. Some historians and museum curators are coming increasingly to the conclusion that the vast majority (if not all) of said devices were made in recent years sheerly for the purpose of amusement.

Now, some have speculated that some very prudish 19th century parents may have used a device - very rarely - on daughters who they thought shouldn’t be acting on sexual urges, but there is very little evidence of that either, and even less that such devices were used in the middle ages. In fact, the only solid evidence of them being used in the middle ages was by the women of Florence, Italy. The important thing to note here is that the women were not forced into them, but instead used them as a means of protection in case the city was overrun. Back in the day, invading armies tended to rape women, so the women had an answer for that prepared just in case. This shows that the furthest back known use of the device was not as a patriarchal control mechanism, but a women’s self defense tool against rapists.

8. Powdered Wigs Were Designed To Hide The Symptoms Of Syphilis


Many people just think of powdered wigs as an incredibly odd fashion trend during an otherwise remarkable period of history, and just kind of pay it no heed. However, while it may have indeed been a silly trend, it didn’t begin with a whim that a wig covered in scented powder would look really good. It turns out that the reason that powdered wigs came into fashion in the first place is because most of the Western World was dealing with a raging bout of syphilis. Many, many men were affected, and the symptoms often were hurtful to people’s social standing when it came to their appearance. It could leave nasty sores, and it caused hair to fall out. This was particularly troublesome at the time, as baldness was definitely not in fashion. So, people started turning to wigs to save their reputations. Large, embroidered wigs could also help hide sores or other signs of syphilis.

Eventually King Louis XIV of France and King Charles II of England started using wigs when they contracted the disease, and before long everyone was wearing a wig whether they actually needed one or not. The powders that became so popular were used mainly to hide the foul scents that could be caused by the symptoms of the disease, and weren’t really a fashion statement in terms of colour. While powdered wigs became common among non-diseased mainly as a fashion statement, many people also preferred them because of how easy it is to deal with things like lice when you have little to no hair and wear a gigantic wig.

7. Plate Mail Was Not Impractically Heavy Like Many People Believe


A full suit of plate mail was something only the richer warriors in the middle ages could afford, if nothing else because of the incredible amount of metal required, not to mention the intensive labour involved. For this reason, it has become an iconic part of the time period and how we view it. When most people picture a knight they think of a warrior in full plate mail, and they also imagine him to be well protected, but heavy and cumbersome in battle. A warrior who is hardly able to move properly, and relies almost entirely on his advanced protection to save the day.

However, the truth is that a full set of plate mail was hardly all that heavy. Historians state that it was roughly the same weight as a fire-fighter with oxygen gear, which is coincidentally about the same amount of weight most modern soldiers carry into battle. Not only that, but because of how well the weight was distributed, they think this would have made knights in plate armour even lighter, and still extremely agile. It’s also been claimed that knights needed help onto their horses, couldn’t get back up if they fell on their backs, and couldn’t climb ladders in full gear; none of this is true. Knights were incredibly fearsome, lightweight, and agile warriors even donning full metal armour.

6. Medieval Moats Were Absolutely Disgusting Trenches Of Filth


When many people think of castles, they also think of the iconic moats that you see around most of them. In movies the water may look clean, or at least fairly normal or natural. Unfortunately, we can assure you that this was not at all the case. See, you may have noticed that most historically known moats weren’t really all that deep or all that wide either, which may have made people wonder why they were considered such a useful defense tool. The reason lies in how a medieval castle’s plumbing works. See, inside a castle’s walls all the primitive restrooms would drain down under the ground beneath the keep, and slide into the moat. In some cases, people would also fling any extra sewage into the moat if it wasn’t going in properly.

What this meant is that moats were a great defensive barrier because they were absolutely disgusting pits filled with the most vile filth imaginable. To put it bluntly, falling into a castle moat would be similar to falling into a modern day septic tank. Considering how limited medicine was at the time, and how easily you could contract a disease falling into a pit like that, it would almost certainly lead to a horrible death within weeks at best. This also means that while used for defense, it was hardly the primary purpose of a moat. It certainly doubled nicely as a protective measure, but it was also an integral part of medieval sewage technology.

5. Air Conditioning Is Not A Modern Invention


While we know that ancient people used various methods to insulate themselves from the cold, and had many methods of warming up, we don’t really think of them as having a way to really fight the heat. For the most part, people from the past are simply assumed to have toughed it out as best they could. However, humans are very ingenious creatures and considering that they’ve been having to deal with the heat for a very long time, our modern air conditioning turns out to not be the first major attempt at cooling. Now, while some civilizations in the Middle East built their structures in such a way as to properly circulate wind in an attempt to cool off using architecture, the ancient Romans were perfecting air cooling technology that was largely lost until recent modern inventions.

Back in the days of ancient Rome, it’s known that they possessed an aqueduct system that distributed water and removed waste water very efficiently throughout the city. It was easily the most advanced plumbing system anywhere in the world, and we wouldn’t see anything like it for a very long time either once Rome had fallen. Some emperors like Elagabalus took things a step further than most would and had huge mountains of snow imported in for cooling, but regular Romans had come up with ingenious ways of using the aqueduct system to circulate cool water through the walls of their house. This allowed a very advanced system of air cooling that would likely have also required a lot less power and upkeep than ours need today.

4. The Holy Grail Originated From Ancient Celtic Legends And Not The Bible


Everyone has heard of the legend of the Holy Grail, the alleged cup that caught the blood of Jesus Christ and was passed down from Joseph of Arimathea to various different groups or protectors, depending on who you ask. The story has featured heavily in Arthurian myth, where the king is obsessed with the finding of the Grail itself. Most of these stories attribute incredible power or knowledge to whoever possesses the grail, and many groups have been said to search for it throughout history in the hopes of enriching their existence. We all know these stories well, but what many people don’t realize is that the Arthurian legend most people know of is not based on biblical legend, but actually on old Celtic Pagan myths about a cauldron of the gods.

It all started in Celtic legends about their gods known as the Dagda. These gods leave a cauldron on earth that many men seek, and is known to heal wounds, and grant great power and riches to those who find it. Historians have explained that the Arthurian stories are basically a retelling of the story of a Celtic god King called Gwydion, who had very similar adventures to Arthur in pursuit of a Cauldron with almost the same attributes. While this may be surprising to some, it was also not uncommon for one religion to rewrite some of another’s tales when they came to prominence over the other faith. It would certainly not be the last time religions have repurposed historical myths for their own.

3. Modern Birthstone Legends Are Likely Little More Than A Marketing Ploy


You may have noticed that birthstone lists on jewellery websites seem to hardly ever be consistent. There are some gems like diamond or amethyst that seem to stay the same, but others seem to differ wildly based on the jeweller. Not to mention the countless sites that ascribe various mythological powers to each stone, most with very dubious sources in terms of where they got their historical information. This means that in general, there is a lot of misunderstanding about birthstones and where they actually came from. Many people know that they have an ancient origin, but aren’t aware of the details of it - nor are they aware that most common birthstones were decided upon by jewellers as a marketing ploy. Back in 1912 a bunch of American jewellers got together and came up with a quasi-official list, that still isn’t often followed by some sellers if it doesn’t fit their inventory. This list has been criticized by some for being designed mainly to sell as many shiny stones as possible, regardless of historical veracity.

The reason many people are disappointed with how jewellers went about this, is because the historical origins are being completely ignored. The very start of the birthstone stories began with a Jewish historian named Josephus, who believed that the breastplate of Aaron - a treasured armour plate from the bible with 12 sacred gems set in it - was connected to the 12 months of the year and to the signs of the zodiac. However, to add to the confusion, the writings of Josephus themselves have two separate and contradictory lists. Also, in modern birthstone lore people are expected to buy one for their birth month and wear it most of the year. However, when superstitions regarding birthstones first began among early Christians, the fashion was to wear the appropriate stone for the appropriate month that you were currently in, not just wear the one from your birth month all the time.

2. Globally And Regionally Organized Time Is A Recent Invention


Many people tend to take time for granted, but they forget that it’s an entirely invented construct designed to organize meeting places and make sense of our surroundings. Or to put it simply, time is relative to the place that we are right now, and the point of reference we’re using. While this may seem a strange way to mention time today, what with organized time zones throughout the world that work like clockwork (uh, no pun intended), the truth is that not even 200 years ago, even entire countries didn’t operate on the kind of standard, organized time system we have now. Even as recently as the mid 1800s many towns simply had their own timepiece that used the sun as a local reference for what time it was. This was simple and made perfect sense for the time period, as high speed travel and communication was not really particularly in use.

However, as train tracks started to expand throughout the country, it began to become imperative that there was a set standard for time. Without time being properly organized, trains would have a good chance of slamming right into each other, and there were in fact some avoidable train crashes before standard time was implemented. While early attempts at standardizing time and adding time zones had been attempted before, it was the dangers of the new railway system and the precision needed that finally created the catalyst necessary for it to become encoded into law in 1883. What this means is that not even 200 years ago, time was completely local and thoroughly disorganized throughout the world. It’s hard to even begin to imagine just how different having standard time has made everything.

1. The History Of Cars Goes Back Much Further Than Most People Realize


Most people think that the first cars were created in the early 1900s when Henry Ford’s experiments in gasoline-based engines began to pay off. As we all know, he started a motor company and perfected an assembly line process that quickly pumped out massive amounts of cars, and changed the face of the world forever. Before long, using animals to pull your transportation was a thing of the past, and burning fossil fuels became the new thing. However, what many people don’t realize is that the reason cars’ popularity is so recent is not because an automobile is a new idea, but because Ford was the first to perfect it in a way that made it appealing and somewhat practical to use - as well as the first person to find a way to easily mass produce said process. People had been experimenting with vehicles that could move without an animal’s help going back hundreds of years.

Back in the 1600s a skilled inventor named Ferdinand Verbiest built a self-propelled steam vehicle as a toy for the then-Emperor of China. This vehicle, however, was likely not large enough to hold or propel a person even when it was actually built, and was little more than a novelty. However, in the 1700s, a French inventor named Nicholas Joseph Cugnot invented something that could actually be described as the world’s first truly self-powered vehicle capable of carrying people. It was an absolute monstrosity of a steam powered creation that weighed roughly 2.5 tons, was a whale to steer, and could reach a speed of roughly five miles per hour at the best of times. Due to these limitations and the amount of energy required it just wasn’t seen as that practical or impressive, and people kept using animals to haul goods until Ford came along with a much improved version.

Top image: Nicholas Joseph Cugnot's steam car, Paris 1769. Credit: Unknown/F. A. Brockhaus/Wikimedia Commons.

[Source: Toptenz. Edited. Top image added.]