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A weekly show where we debunk common misconceptions. This week, Elliott discusses some misconceptions about history.

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Elliott: Hey there, I'm Elliott, this is Mental Floss on YouTube, today I'm going to talk about some misconceptions about history.


Misconception #1: The Spanish Inquisition was a huge and cruel historical event. Actually, experts now believe that the Inquisition was more humane than originally thought. According to historian Thomas Madden, "Most people accused of heresy by the Inquisition were either acquitted or their sentences suspended." In fact, there are cases of people deliberately blaspheming so that they get into Inquisition prisons, and out of the state prisons. Madden also notes, "Before 1530, the Spanish Inquisition was widely hailed as the best run, most humane court in Europe." Later, English Protestants exaggerated stories about the Inquisition.

Misconception #2: The Maya civilization suddenly disappeared. This might not be the big mystery that people like to think it is. According to a book from Stanford University, the Maya were the last kingdom in the New World to fall to the Spanish in 1697.

Misconception #3: The story of Lady Godiva's naked ride. I'm sure that you've heard this one, so I'll just give you a quick refresher. 11th century noblewoman, Lady Godiva, was fed up with her husband, who would place huge taxes on the people of Coventry. He told her that if she rode through the streets on a horse naked, then he would lower the taxes. So she did, after issuing a proclamation that everyone in the town must stay in their houses with their windows shut. One man, named Tom, didn't listen to the order, and that's how we get the expression 'Peeping Tom'. False. It's a fun story, but probably not true. We can't find evidence of the tale existing any earlier than 100 years after Godiva's death. Plus ,the first known source for it was an English monk named Roger of Wendover, who had a reputation for embellishing stories. And the 'Tom' part of the story is even newer, emerging in the 16th century.

Misconception #4: Slaves built the Egyptian pyramids. This one cannot be confirmed until we build a time machine, but there's actually evidence that the people who built the pyramids were paid workers. In 2010, archaeologists from Egypt uncovered tombs from 4,000 years ago of the people who built the pyramids. Evidence shows that they were poor workers from the Northern and Southern regions of Egypt, but they were respected for their work so they were buried within the tombs. Slaves wouldn't have been buried there according to experts.

Misconception #5: The Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves. The Proclamation was only directed towards the states that were rebelling. Abraham Lincoln wanted to hurt those states, so it didn't affect the slave states that were still loyal to the Union: Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri. It also didn't affect the parts of the Confederacy that had already been taken back over by the Union. Basically, the Emancipation Proclamation didn't free any slaves, because it was only directed at places that weren't listening to the federal government anyway.

Misconception #6: Benjamin Franklin discovered electricity. Actually, the English astronomer William Gilbert studied electricity in the 1600s well before Franklin was even born. As for the story about Franklin and his kite, he only described it briefly four months after it supposedly happened, the full tale wasn't written until 15 years later, when it was published by one of his friends, Joseph Priestly. We don't know for sure whether he experimented with a kite at all.

Misconception #7: Early humans died really young. We usually hear that the life expectancy from the Stone Age through the early 1900s was much lower than ours is now, so people tend to assume that people used to die around age 40. The problem here is how we calculate life expectancy, by including infant mortality rates, and that's why we should differentiate between life expectancy and maximum human life span, which has remained stable over the course of thousands of years.

Misconception #8: Nero played the fiddle while Rome burned down. As you may remember from History class, the Great Fire o Rome occurred in the year 64 CE, at the time, Rome had 14 districts, but the fire destroyed 10 of those, and the story goes that the emperor Nero played the fiddle while watching it burn, but we're pretty sure he didn't for a couple of reasons. First, the violin family of instruments wasn't invented until the 11th century, and second, Nero was around 35 miles away when the fire started. It wouldn't have even hurt him with his little imaginary violin.

Speaking of fire, Misconception #9: The Great Chicago Fire happened thanks to a cow. After the fire in 1871, the Chicago Tribune published the whole thing occurred thanks to a cow who knocked over a lit lantern while it was being milked. 40 years later, Michael O'Hara, the reporter who wrote the story, confessed that he made it up.

Misconception #10: A lot about gladiators. Quite a few things that we think we know about them, like thanks to the movie Gladiator, many believe that when an emperor puts his thumb down, the losing gladiator would be killed. We do know that there was a hand gesture that indicated this, but scholars aren't sure whether it was thumbs up, thumbs down, or a different gesture altogether. People also tend to believe that only men were gladiators, but that is not true. A female gladiator was known as a gladiatress, how cool is that? Finally, not as many died as you might think. According to historian George Ville, at the start of a fight in the first century CE, a gladiator had a 90% chance of surviving, but this number lowered as time went on. By the 3rd century CE, they probably had a 3 to 1 chance of living.

Thank you for watching Misconception on mental_floss on YouTube, which is made with the help of all of these wonderful people. If you have a topic for an upcoming misconceptions episode that you would like to see, leave it in the comments. See you next week. Bye.