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"Fake" History

  • The Great Wall of China is not in fact an ancient structure, built in the 2nd century BCE to keep out invading “barbarians.” It was in fact built under the Ming Dynasty in the 1400s, and although parts of it were built to follow previously-existing walls, there had never before been a single “great” wall. Nor is it visible from space. According to a NASA calculation, seeing the Great Wall from orbit would be comparable to seeing a popsicle stick from 350 km away with the naked eye.  (Thanks to David Wright, who says “So getting all spaced out about the Great Wall of China is a barrier to one thing—historical accuracy.”)
  •  In medieval Europe, noble lords possessed the “droit du seigneur;” that is, the right to have sexual relations with their serfs’ brides on the night of their wedding. Not so, says Lucie Laumonier. “This is of course a legend, forged by early modern authors, but which was ‘confirmed’ and rejuvenated by the 19th century French historian Jules Michelet. In reality, Lords were not authorized to do such a thing, but they could collect the "merchet" (a tax) when some of their dependent peasants married.”
  •  From the annals of feminist history: “No bra was ever burned at a feminist function in the 1970s,” says Nancy Janovicek.
  • Many people think that the Aztecs believed that Spanish conquistadores were gods whose return had been prophesied; this was held to be a major factor that contributed to the defeat and conquest of the mighty Aztec empire by a handful of Spaniards, especially when combined with steel weapons and armour, with which the Aztec were unfamiliar. 

    Not so, says Hendrik Kraay. This myth can be traced to a history of Aztec empire written by young Aztec noblemen in the sixteenth century, following the conquest. Struggling to explain the Aztec defeat, they condemned emperor Montezuma as weak, and constructed a list of omens that apparently predicted Spanish arrival. Later European writers used these myths to portray the Aztecs as a “primitive” people who would of course think of the “advanced” Europeans as gods.

    In fact, the first dealings between the Spaniards and the Aztecs were conducted entirely according to the norms of Mesoamerican diplomacy; when the Aztecs realized that the Spaniards intended to conquer them, they resisted determinedly. The Spanish prevailed because of resistance to Aztec rule among the subject peoples of the empire. “These indigenous allies,” says Dr. Kraay, “vastly outnumbered the Spanish and were key to their success; the Spanish triggered a rebellion against the Aztec empire and rode it to victory.”