History’s biggest whoppers: Book explores survey of 2,000 years of outrageous untruths


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A Short History Of The World In 50 Lies by Natasha Tidd (Michael O’Mara £12.99, 288pp) 

Author Natasha Tidd tells us of the medieval chronicler, Gerald of Wales, who claimed he knew a man on whom tiny devils appeared every time he was confronted with lies.

Well, Gerald’s devils would be kept busy through any reading of Tidd’s lively survey of 2,000 years of outrageous untruths. She ranges from Julius Caesar’s claim that victims of a massacre in Gaul were not killed by his troops but committed mass suicide, to the evasions surrounding the nuclear accident at Chernobyl in 1986.

Not all the lies Tidd examines were life-threatening. Some were simply hoaxes. It’s hard to see much harm in the 1835 newspaper reports, published in the New York Sun, that the famous astronomer and inventor Sir John Herschel, using a giant telescope, had discovered ‘a whole society of sophisticated beings’ on the Moon. They were, he said, half-men, half-bats, and had built great temples and mammoth monuments.

If anything, the story added to the gaiety of nations, although Tidd argues that the Sun’s journalists had invented a new genre — fake news.

Author Natasha Tidd tells us of the medieval chronicler, Gerald of Wales, who claimed he knew a man on whom tiny devils appeared every time he was confronted with lies (stock photo)

Author Natasha Tidd tells us of the medieval chronicler, Gerald of Wales, who claimed he knew a man on whom tiny devils appeared every time he was confronted with lies (stock photo)

Earlier legends also gained traction because, as Tidd admits, ‘Sometimes in history, it doesn’t matter if a story is a lie, if that story is entertaining’.

She is referring to the myth that a 9th-century pontiff, later to be known as Pope Joan, gave birth in a crowded Roman street. She was thus inarguably revealed as a cross-dressing Englishwoman.

Her words could equally apply to the 14th-century book Travels Of Sir John Mandeville, which describes its author’s visits to ‘fantastical lands where griffins fly … and men have hooves for feet and heads for torsos’. Most of it was nonsense, of course, and the likelihood is there was no such person as Sir John Mandeville. However, it was widely read for centuries. Even Christopher Columbus used it as a reference work.

Not many of the 50 lies in Tidd’s book provided such harmless entertainment. The most dangerous resulted in huge loss of life. The Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer Of Witches) was a book by Heinrich Kramer, a 15th-century German priest with a reputation for embezzlement and theft, and a paranoid belief that witches were everywhere. It became a witch- hunter’s bible and, Tidd argues, played a part in the deaths of 50,000 supposed witches, mainly women.

Equally malevolent in its impact was the lie known as the ‘blood libel’ — the idea that Christian children were killed by Jews, and their blood used in sacrificial rituals. Tidd focuses on the case of two-year-old Simon of Trent (now Trento in Italy) who was found dead in 1475. He probably drowned accidentally, but the city authorities decided he was a victim of ritual murder. Jews were tortured into confessions and burned at the stake.

The case of Simon of Trent was still being quoted as an example of supposed Jewish infamy by Nazi propagandists in the 1930s.

Jews have all too often been the target of malign lies. The Protocols Of The Elders Of Zion, first published in 1903, purports to reveal an international Jewish plot to achieve world domination.

It is, of course, a forgery. Tidd calls it ‘a Frankenstein compilation of … anti-Semitic greatest hits’, but, as she continues, ‘Just because something is fake doesn’t mean it’s not dangerous’. It has initiated pogroms, contributed to the racial theories behind the Holocaust and is still quoted by far-Right groups today.

‘It would not be an understatement,’ Tidd writes, ‘to say that millions of people have died thanks to its contents.’ It would be comforting to think that history’s lies have grown less prevalent in the modern era but, as the Protocols shows, this is not the case. It’s no accident that nearly a third of Tidd’s book covers the 20th century. From British World War I propaganda, depicting the Germans as ‘one vast gang of Jack the Rippers’ indulging in ‘wild orgies of blood and debauchery’, to the attempted American cover-up of the My Lai massacre of unarmed civilians during the Vietnam War, the lies keep on coming.

The Dreyfus Affair divided France in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Alfred Dreyfus, an entirely innocent Jewish military officer, was convicted of espionage and condemned for life to the prison on Devil’s Island.

The evidence against him was a pack of lies. In his defence, the novelist Emile Zola wrote, ‘The truth is on the march and nothing will stop it’.

In this instance, Zola was right. The verdict against Dreyfus was eventually overturned. He was released and pardoned. However, A Short History Of The World In 50 Lies shows that the march of truth isn’t always unstoppable. Lies have their own power and momentum.



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