The Middle Ages is one of the most interesting, complicated, and misunderstood epochs in human history, and the Medieval theme is one of Hollywood's favorites to play with. Some films and television shows such as Braveheart, Pillars of the Earth, Robin Hood, Merlin, and Kingdom of Heaven are set in the Middle Ages. Others like Game of Thrones, The Lord of the Rings, and The Chronicles of Narnia have decidedly medieval themes to them. Each of these Hollywood productions influence how people view the Dark Ages and perpetuate several myths about this period of history.
A staple of nearly every single Hollywood production of the Dark Ages is the use of torches because, well, it's dark and all, right? Wrong. Torches were certainly used now and then, no doubt about that, but they were not used anywhere near as liberally as Hollywood would have you believe. First of all, most torches would not be able to be lit for more than an hour, ruling out having them lining the walls of castles to provide light. Secondly, having torches inside would be a terrible idea given the small issue of smoke.
Most importantly, torches do not really provide much light. Movies are full of mobs carrying torches as they run through the darkness looking for someone, or people using torches to light their way. While a torch can certainly help you see the area immediately around you and cast light on large objects, it is not all that great for seeing more than a few feet ahead. If you were looking for someone outside in the dark, you would be better off ditching the torch, using the moonlight, and letting your eyes adjust to the darkness. If trying to get around your castle at night, a simple candle would suffice.
"Off with his head!" If you listened to television and the movies, you would think that the penalty for pretty much every crime was execution, usually on the whim of whoever happened to be in charge. In reality, the Middle Ages typically saw the death penalty reserved for only serious offenders who committed the crimes of murder, treason, or arson. Torture was not really widespread. The most common forms of punishment included public humiliation and fines. Repeat offenders were usually exiled. The Middle Ages also maintained trials for those accused of crimes; verdicts were not strictly the decisions of kings and noblemen.
Speaking of beheadings ...
Most shows would have us believe that the vast majority of those condemned to death were executed either by having their heads chopped off or by burning them at the stake. While death by burning certainly became more popular after the Protestant Reformation as a way for Catholics and Protestants to burn heretics, it was not that common before the 15th century. As for beheadings, they were not the huge public spectacles we have come to expect. Beheadings were usually reserved for the noble classes and done in the privacy of courtyards rather than in the town square. Also, it was very rarely one swing and done; the typical beheading took 4 or 5 swings to decapitate the head. If the executioner was unable to kill the convicted by that point, the person usually just ended up bleeding to death.
The most common form of execution in the Middle Ages was hanging. It was easy, it did not cost much, and you could let the bodies hang out for a bit as a warning to others. If a criminal was particularly hated, he would be hanged, drawn, and quartered, a very unpleasant form of punishment that popped up in 14th-century England as a penalty for high treason.
One of the most common foods at modern Renaissance Faires, Hollywood has helped perpetuate the notion that turkey legs were a favored dish of medieval folk, often accompanied by potatoes. The Middle Ages would have found this fascinating as both the turkey and the potato are native to the Americas and would not appear in Europe until centuries after the period. They sure do taste good though, don't they?
From our 21st-century perch of post-printing press hindsight and centuries of accumulated knowledge, it is easy for us to judge the people of the Middle Ages are being completely crude and ignorant. It was the Dark Ages! Nobody knew anything, and if anyone tried to learn something then the Catholic Church would just shut them up.
In reality, medieval people were not as ignorant as we make them out to be. For example, no European in the Middle Ages thought that the Earth was flat. The Church, rather than being an oppressor of scientific progress during the time, is largely responsible for saving much of Western Civilization's knowledge. Catholic monks, especially Irish ones, maintained huge libraries full of the works of Rome and Greece, spending much of their time copying these manuscripts. Monks were usually the most educated people in Europe. Women who entered nunneries were also granted unparalleled educations at the time.
The Middle Ages also saw the birth of many of the world's first and grandest universities. Oxford, Cambridge, Bologna, Salamanca; the Middle Ages saw the explosion of formalized higher education and the birth of advanced educational degrees. Modern medicine as we know had its roots in the experimentations done in the era, most of which, contrary to popular belief, the Church was completely fine with. The institutional advancements and protection of knowledge achieved by our ancestors in the Middle Ages made the Renaissance possible.
Next time you want to brush off medieval people as uniformly crude and ignorant, take a pause from roasting the turkey leg with a freshly-lit torch to thank them for creating universities and saving the works of the Ancients for us.