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Thomas Bailey Project: Historical Myths to Beware Of!

Thomas Bailey was fascinated with historical myths. He wrote several books about them and in 1968 devoted his presidential address to the Organization of American Historians to the subject. In his address he noted that myths are being debunked by scholars all the time but because the debunking often appears in obscure journals"the overburdened teacher" never hears of them. Thus, the myths remain in circulation.

Bailey's solution? He suggested that the chief historical societies create a" centralized Myth Registry, much as dissertation titles are registered, either by the author or by an appropriate abstracting agency. Then, with the marvelous data recovery processes now being perfected, the requisite information can be made speedily available upon request. Such an agency should be a gold mine for teachers, researchers, and especially textbook writers, who have a heavy obligation to keep abreast of this verbal Niagara."

No one took up Bailey's suggestion, but we think it was a good one and in our own way are going to use this site to fulfill his ambition. Whenever we come across articles in either scholarly journals or the media that purport to debunk myths of history we will post them on the site. Readers who want to suggest new listings can do so at the bottom of this article. Of course, we cannot vouch for the accuracy of any of the statements made in the articles listed here. Often, one person's myth is another person's fact.

  • Richard Jensen: The Myth of the Irish -- Just Where Are Those Signs Warning"No Irish Need Apply"?

  • Jonathan Dresner: A Teacher's Lament: Marco Polo

  • Ray Raphael: Are U.S. History Textbooks Still Full of Lies and Half-Truths?

  • Colin White: Trafalgar Myths

  • The Real King Arthur and Robin Hood vs. The Hollywood Version

  • How Did Captain Cook Really Die?

  • Did the Baron de Coubertin Really Revive the Olympics?

  • Did Orson Welles's Famous Mars Radio Show Really Set Off a Nation-wide Panic?

  • Franklin Never Flew Kite in Storm, New Study Says: Famed Inventor Used Made-up Story to Back Theory

  • 19th Century Photography

  • Halloween Wasn't a Pagan Holiday

  • Was Queen Victoria"Illegitimate"?

  • Hearst Never Sent His Famous Telegraph

  • John Brown Myths

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    The Real King Arthur and Robin Hood vs. The Hollywood Version (posted 7-16-04)

    Tom Spears, in the Montreal Gazette (July 11, 2004):

    No pennants flying. No drawbridges. No tall stone castles. No knights in shining armour.

    Fifth-century Britain, the time we give to King Arthur, was a time of small tribes in simple wooden buildings, before proper steel was invented, before the code of chivalry. Legend has built up tales of castles. History says these are castles in the air.

    So what would Arthur's court have looked like? Historians of early medieval times suggest it would be something quite different than Jerry Bruckheimer's extravagant King Arthur, which opened in theatres last week....

    "Forget the towers," says David Klausner of the University of Toronto's History department.

    Camelot - or any Celtic settlement of the time - was probably a village of a very few hundred inhabitants with a defensive wall of earth and wooden stakes, he says. Celts and Saxons alike built with the materials at hand, and in a forested Britain this meant huge trees.

    "The 5th-century court would have been a fairly brutal and practical affair - hardly any stone building apart from churches," agrees British historian Angela McShane-Jones of the University of Warwick. "Mainly wooden stockades and earthworks around important villages. The Saxons often avoided places where the Romans had been so they didn't take over their villas or anything."

    The weapons: Most of the legends tell of men in head-to-toe armour, including helmets that completely covered their faces so only the emblem on a shield enabled knights to tell which was which. Lancelot carried a red cross on his shield, for instance. (This helps the story along; one knight borrows another's armour and you instantly get all kinds of mixups.)

    They all had horses in the legend. They carried heavy lances and charged at each other when jousting. But full armour, jousting and the heavy lance were inventions of the high medieval armourers many centuries later.

    Fifth-century Britain had mostly small bands of foot soldiers, nothing like Mordred's fictional army of 100,000 men. They were far more lightly armed than later medieval knights. Some of their armour was leather and it didn't cover the full arms and legs, or faces. They had iron swords but not jousting lances, which made sense because they didn't joust.

    Had there been an Arthur, "he probably led a band of 40 to 50 men at the outside," Klausner says. "He needed to move very quickly," given the semi-historical record of battles against the Saxons that ranged over much of western Britain. "He probably was pretty agile, and you don't have agility with several thousand people."

    It's not believed they shot flaming arrows (as seen in trailers for the film), and their short bows weren't accurate or powerful, anyway. They probably didn't have heavy engines such as catapults throwing flaming heavy ammunition (also in the trailer).

    The Romans knew about these - the burning oily stuff was called "Greek fire"- but it was used against slow moving wooden ships or forts, not soldiers who could run out of the way.

    The war for freedom: Arthur in the film issues a stirring call for freedom, offering to release his foreign-born soldiers from the army if they get through their mission.

    Doesn't ring true, one expert says.

    "No 6th-century Briton would ever have phrased it that way," says University of Toronto historian Bert Hall. "Arthur, if he existed at all, was an exponent of keeping Britain under what remained of Roman culture and Roman rule." He calls this freedom business "the George W. Bush school of script-writing."

    Knights and ladies: Historians still argue about when feudalism began, but somewhere around the year 1000 is a popular starting point. French historian Marc Bloch defined it as a society with "subject peasantry; widespread use of the service tenement instead of a salary; the supremacy of the class of specialized warriors; ties of obedience and protection which bind man to man; and in the midst of this the survival of other forms of association, family and state."

    It had nothing to do with feuding, incidentally. The word comes from the old French word for faith, not feud. In any case, it wouldn't have applied to the real Arthur, if there was one.

    All of which means the refined knights and ladies of traditional Camelot stories are out of place by at least five centuries - longer in the case of legends with jousting, and wearing coloured "favours" from a lady, and the formal description of courtly love from Andreas the Chaplain in the late 12th century. (He was a French courtier who wrote a sort of art of dating book.)

    "Interestingly, the character of Arthur is mainly based on Malory's Morte d'Arthur, a poem which suggests that Arthur's court was guided by a chivalric code of honour and love and Christianity such as described in the Chanson de Roland,"McShane-Jones says.

    "The thing is that Roland is a couple of centuries after the putative Arthur and so their honour code was rather less chivalric and less straightforwardly Christian, too. The church was not unified under Rome until about the 8th century."

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    How Did Captain Cook Really Die? (posted 7-16-04)

    Maev Kennedy, in the Guardian (July 13, 2004):

    The unexpurgated version of the death of Captain Cook, presenting a more realistic version than the familiar heroic scene, has been rediscovered more than 220 years after the deaths of both the explorer and the artist.

    Cook died on a beach in Hawaii on February 14 1779, stabbed in the neck by an islander, in a skirmish which destroyed the previously excellent and profitable relations between the Hawaiians and the British sailors.

    A painting of the scene by John Webber, the official voyage artist, and innumerable engravings of it fixed it in legend: it shows Cook with his back to the mob, nobly signalling to his ships to cease firing on men armed only with spears and a few clubs.

    However John Clevely's version, based on first-hand accounts and sketches by his brother, a ship's carpenter with the voyage, shows Cook fighting desperately for his life, in the last minute of his life, his shot gone, about to club an islander with the butt of his rifle. Most of the islanders have heavy clubs, and others have picked up rocks. One is about to smash the skull of a fallen sailor and the bodies of several islanders are heaped at the water's edge.

    The painting, and three other watercolours also on display, was made in about 1784, but by the time it was engraved and published, only a few years later, the artist was dead and the engraving was altered to match the official version of the story.

    "The image of Cook signalling his ships to hold their fire made him a classic humane and heroic figure of the age of enlightenment," said Nicholas Lambourn, an art historian, at Christie's yesterday, where the painting went on public display for the first time.

    "Clevely's is less heroic but certainly more accurate."...

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    Did the Baron de Coubertin Really Revive the Olympics? (posted 5-21-04)

    Daniel Howden, in the Christian Science Monitor (May 19, 2004):

    Most true sports fans know that the Olympics were brought back to life in Athens in 1896 by the enthusiastic young Frenchman Pierre Fredy, better known as the Baron de Coubertin.

    In the 110 years since the Parisian baron founded the International Olympic Committee, he has enjoyed the unchallenged title of Olympiad revivalist.

    But as the 2004 Games return to their ancient birthplace in Athens this summer, the contributions of two other men - an Albanian-born Greek and a British doctor - have surfaced with the help of revisionist historians keen to explode the myth that the Olympic revival was exclusively the baron's brainchild.

    Tuesday the French capital, along with Moscow, Madrid, New York, and London, were selected as finalists to host the 2012 Games. The controversy over the Olympics' origin holds serious implications for the French bid, as their argument leans heavily on the baron's legacy. It also offers a reminder of the powerful current of nationalism that surges beneath the movement's surface values of global peace and fraternity.

    As the English writer George Orwell once said: "Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules, and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence; In other words, it is war minus the shooting."

    Indeed, says historian Konstantinos Georgiadis, the French baron was actually a "latecomer" to the idea of reviving the ancient Greek spectacle. Long before the Frenchman was born, both Evangelis Zappas in Greece and William Penny Brookes in Britain were producing their own version of the games. "Until recently everything we'd read about the history of the Olympics was written by de Coubertin himself and in most of the 12,000 pages he identified himself as the sole architect," says Mr. Georgiadis.

    Keen classicists
    Messrs Zappas and Brookes didn't know one another but as classicists were brought together by their admiration for the Greek poet Dimitris Soutsos. It was his appeal for a modern Olympics that inspired both men to separately launch their own games.

    Georgiadis' account "Olympic Revival" points out that the lavishly wealthy Zappas organized a national Olympics in Greece four decades before the IOC's 1896 revival in Athens. Born in Albania to Greek Orthodox parents, Zappas enjoyed a colorful career as a freedom fighter in the Greek War of Independence in the 1820s before making his fortune in the distillery business in Romania. He used his wealth to fund the first of a series of Olympiads in Athens in 1859.

    Meanwhile, Brookes had been producing his own games in the small Shropshire town of Much Wenlock. "I fear that Coubertin's vanity caused him to seek all the credit, and actively cover up the contributions of others, denying that the Zappas Games ever happened at all and omitting Brookes's name from his 'Memoires Olympiques,'" says American historian David Young, whose book "Olympics: The Struggle for Revival" highlights Brookes's contribution.

    The local festivals Brookes produced in his hometown evolved, by 1887, into the British Olympic Games. His games were especially noteworthy for exhibiting the first women's Olympic event (even though it was the admittedly less-than-athletic knitting contest). And it was Brookes in 1881 who proposed to the Greek government that the parallel games in Shropshire and Athens be "internationalized," according to an archive from the Greek newspaper 'Klio.' It was also the Shropshire doctor who first planted the Olympic idea in the young de Coubertin's mind.

    Seed of an idea
    In 1890 the Parisian visited the Much Wenlock Games. At the time, de Coubertin was convinced that France was in a state of decline. French schools were unsatisfactory, and the country had suffered military defeat in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870. The baron set about bringing Paris back to preeminence.

    In his memoirs, de Coubertin immortalized himself as an idealistic internationalist. But from Mr. Young's claims, it is clear that de Coubertin was focused on his native country. Indeed his main ambition was to stage the first Olympics in Paris, not Athens..