Since this is the end of the year, and things are a bit slow right now, I thought I’d possibly round out the year with a few musings about our ideas about Neandertals and also about the Middle Ages. There are lots of these myths in both areas, but just a few will suffice here, to give the Gentle Reader an idea of what is going on here.
They were dumb brutes who walked bent-legged
In reality, Neandertals were awfully smart to have survived for some 200,000 years, under harsh climates and often erratic conditions. They were pretty resourceful, too. For instance, it is now known that they made a kind of glue out of, among other things, birch pitch(in Europe, anyway). In the Middle East, they did the same thing with bitumen. The techniques of gluing, and then hafting a stone point to a shaft of some kind, required some pretty sharp thinking. Furthermore, it takes some knowledge and practice, and control of heat, to make glue out of things like birch pitch. As for walking bent-legged, well, the trouble with that idea is, it was based on a mistaken idea that a man with arthritis, who walked bent kneed because of it, was representative of the entire Neandertal population. This was the infamous La Chapelle aux Saintes fossil.
In medieval times, nobody ever bathed or washed.
In reality, medieval people, of all classes, bathed, or at least washed their hands with some frequency. In the 12th century, one Alexander Necker mentioned the frequency of bath houses in London. Some of these “bath houses” had other functions as well, but people did try to keep themselves clean. And some chronicler expressed surprise that King John of England(yes, the notorious one), liked to bathe twice a month! I suspect other people did, too. The problem, in medieval times was that collecting and heating bathwater was something of an “enterprise”, and unless you were high enough up on the food chain, this didn’t happen as often as it does today, when we have central heating and hot and cold water. The fact is, that later centuries were actually “dirtier”; especially after the second plague pandemic – the one known popularly as the Black Death, a lot of things had changed, including the climate, and it may have been more dangerous to bathe in relatively cold water(compromised immune systems, for example,might have made many people more vulnerable. 17th century France was apparently the “dirtiest” at the time; even the nobility then, rarely bathed, preferring to cover up their smells with perfume.
Neandertals were cold-adapted, and this led to their extinction when it warmed up, because they couldn’t stand the heat.
This one is sort of true, in that Neandertals exhibited a body type that is somewhat similar to that of some people who live in arctic regions today. Like modern Inuit, and some other northern people, they had short arms and legs relative to rather broad trunks(chests, waist, etc). This kind of adaptation conforms to what scientists refer to as the Bergmann and Allen rules; generally, organisms that live in warmer climates will be long and thin, and have long, thin arms and legs. President-elect Barack Obama conforms to this in his body shape, since his father was a Kenyan, and Kenya is a hot, sunny place. Many Kenyans are also like this. African elephants have big ears, presumably for this reason. Asian elephants, which apparently evolved in cooler climates, have smaller ears. And woolly mammoths had the smallest elephantine ears of all. Other organisms follow the same rules, north to south. Polar bears have very small ears, “grizzly” bears(Ursus arctos) have larger ears, and the most “southerly” bears in the northern hemisphere, “black” bears(U.americanus) have the biggest ears of all. It is no surprise, therefore, that Neandertals also followed this body shape rule, since they lived in a relatively cold climate. However, some “modern” humans take this particular “cold adapted” body shape, to mean that Neandertals preferred it cold. You can see evidence of this kind of thinking in Robert Sawyer’s Neanderthal Parallax series, where he has Neandertals keeping indoor temperatures about 5 degrees or so, cooler than “modern” humans would have them, indoors. Trouble is, (a) some “modern” humans like it on the cool side, too, and (b) Neandertals lived through warm periods similar to our globally warming climate, and became extinct in a cold period. Besides which, they lived in places like Israel, which isn’t exactly known to be “arctic”.
This particular myth about the Middle Ages is not all that different from the myth about the stupidity of Neandertals. The “medieval” version goes something like this: People in medieval times believed the world was flat and you could fall off the earth if you sailed far enough. A correlate of this is, that they were superstitious and “oppressed”, and went around burning witches all the time. As above, the reality is somewhat different. People in the Middle Ages did not have access to sophisticated equipment like, say, telescopes and microscopes; they had no way of knowing, exactly, what caused disease, nor what a gene was(this, by the way, is important in my Invaders trilogy, since the Neandertal heroine and her two male associates(not her love interest, however), does know what a gene is, though they don’t call it that. Be that as it may, medieval people had at least a crude understanding of things like inheritance, otherwise, monks(who were traditionally responsible for this), wouldn’t have been able to create warhorses for knights. In the earlier Middle Ages, these horses tended to be rather small by modern standards, but they were bred to be both tough and agile. And the best warhorses were often crossbreeds between Arabian or Barbary horses, Spanish horses and some “native” horses! They had no idea what a germ was or did, but in England, at least, there are some very early(Anglo-Saxon era) “leechbooks” which were compilations of the medical knowledge of the time. Again, these seem crude by modern standards, and some of the material in them is, well, hilarious by modern standards, but there were other things in them which were probably good advice(e.g. one leechbook suggested that women moderate their intake of ale and wine!). Even in the “earliest” Middle Ages, after the “fall” of Rome, there was at least some trade, and later, when things started to pick up again, there was a lot more of it. Not everyone could travel, of course, actually relatively few people did. But enough people traveled, by land and sea, to know the world wasn’t flat. This would actually be a relatively easy thing to figure out, especially if you were a sailor. As for “witches”, well, again, there wasn’t much in the way of “witch persecution” in the Middle Ages, anywhere. You would have to work very hard to get yourself executed as a “witch”(such people were usually called “cunning men” or “cunning women”, because they had some knowledge of herbs and the women, at local levels, were often midwives). You basically would have had to be known to be advocating what was thought to be heresy. This almost never happened, in part because the “higher ups” weren’t terribly concerned about individuals at the local level, and partly because the “cunning women” and “cunning men” probably had other things ont heir minds besides preaching or practicing “heresy”, even if the Church didn’t exactly approve of them.
These are just two examples of Neandermyths and “medieval myths”. There are a lot more I could mention, but that would make an endless blog. You, gentle reader, can surely think of more, if you’re interested. The point is, the mythmaking here is about groups most people know very little about, and, in the case of medieval people, have been filtered through such venues as Hollywood movies, to give us “moderns” some terribly strange notions. Since my Great Science Fiction Masterpiece has main characters who are Neandertals, and is set in medieval England, I feel it is my duty to try to correct these impressions.