Friday, October 22, 2010

A Small Misconception

Neville J. Angove

I was watching the TV program, "The Boneyard: Biowaste." In a segment on Tennessee's "The Bodyfarm" I was once again treated to a repetition of a common fallacy by someone who should have known better, but was too ignorant to do some elementary fact checking (similar to a 2010 journalist).

The chap who initiated The Bodyfarm commented that mediaeval knights were actually only small people, about five feet in height or so. This is a common fallacy, and the small suits of armour that have survived from this period, along with the fact that many commoner entrances only had small doorways, is used as evidence to support this misconception.

The average height prior to the 1800's was not much more than about five feet. This was due to poor diet. But poor diet was not a constraint amongst the wealthy. These people could afford suits of armour, for example. They could also afford large doors.
Several decades ago a museum guide commented that the kitchen doors to a mansion were small because of the average height of the users. Might be, except kitchen staff were unlikely to be poorly fed. The guide did not comment on why internal doors were as large as we use today, even those not seen by any visitors.

Small doors were common because of expense and defence. It cost money to make a large door or window, and only the wealthy chose to be ostentatious enough to do so. Of course, the back doors used by staff and hidden from view were only as large as needed. Smaller doors could also be only entered sideways, meaning that any invader had his defenceless back to one side.

It is true that a number of famous warriors were small. Admiral Nelson was small, but he had a commoner origin. Boneapart wasn't as small as we think, but he also had a commoner origin. But nobles were well-fed and were fairly large people. In fact, only oversized men could wear suits of armour and wield mediaeval weapons.

Little armour used in mediaeval times survived to this day. A recent survey of Agincourt could only discover one coin and part of a knight's spur. The rest of the metal was salvaged and recycled. The suits of armour that have survived were generally of two types: 90%-scale suits made by armorers as sales aids; or suits made for the adolescent males of wealthy noble households. None saw battle and so needed no recycling.

Anthropologists who have examined mediaeval noble skeletons and surviving armour and weapons, and historians who have looked at the forced evolution of horses, will correct these misconceptions.

This type of unchecked error passes into common knowledge because its suits the misconceptions of those who should correct them. Perhaps we like the idea of the old nobility being smaller than modern man, because it makes us feel better.

Unfortunately (and here I am on my hobbyhorse again), the Internet is very good at perpetuating fallacies, and destroying electronic evidences of the truth.