This article was originally published on HistoricTalk
There are many ways we learn about the past. Most frequently, through history books, TV documentaries, and online learning. But did you ever think you could actually learn something from looking at a meme? The internet is littered with thousands of history-related memes, and we’ve dug out the absolute best of them. For some seriously side-splitting history memes that might actually teach you something about the past, read on!
When Life as a Princess Wasn’t So Great
For all the women out there - how many times in jest have we told our partners we deserve to be treated like a princess? However, there are plenty of historical examples where this kind of wish may have led to more than expected. History is littered with examples of arranged marriages hoping they’d lead to greater unity and power. Remember Marie Antoinette? The Austrian princess was married off in 1770 to Louis, the French dauphin.
The aim was to strengthen the French-Austrian alliance. Unfortunately, legend has it that she was an unpopular queen who spent lavishly and showed little regard for ordinary people. She ultimately died by guillotine during the French Revolution in 1793. The life of a princess doesn't sound so great now, huh?
That Awkward Moment When a Discovery Isn’t Really a Discovery
This is an excellent example of what happens when we don’t challenge commonly held beliefs. The thing is, yes, Christopher Colombus did make four trips from Spain across the Atlantic between 1492-1502, looking for a direct route between Europe and Asia. Instead, he stumbled across the Americas, often referred to as the “New World.” The only thing is, there were millions of people already living there. Not to mention, the Vikings are also credited with the discovery 500 years earlier.
The Chinese lay claims to it too, and some historians and scientists credit the Polynesians. In other words, the truth is somewhat murky as to who actually discovered these lands. Oops.
When Salad Dressing Becomes a Whole Lot More
This one really cracked us up. Here’s someone’s clever and creative depiction of what happened to one of the most famous Roman Emperors in history: Julius Caesar. He died on the Ides of March, 15th March, 44 BC, after being stabbed 23 times by around 40 Roman senators. Caesar’s bloody and brutal murder ultimately led to several civil wars, the death of the Roman Republic, and the genesis of the Roman Empire.
Who knew that an image of a simple bottle of classic Caesar salad dressing and a chopping knife could lead to us giving you a brief low down on that moment in history?
They Knew How to Party in the Middle Ages
Here is a meme that takes a classical painting of a lady holding a gentleman’s head and hair as he vomits, and puts it to rhyme, with downright hilarious results. Although we’re loving this Old English YOLOTH version too. We’re guessing that in reality, this painting is probably an illustration of someone sick from a virus or something equally nasty, but that doesn't matter. Who knows, maybe they did know how to party back then.
The truth is, we all need a friend like this well-dressed lady, someone to hold our hair when a night out turns a little green after a one too many.
Makes Us Feel Better About Our Own Procrastination
The Cuban Missile Crisis was a dangerous moment in history. The US and Soviet Union were embroiled in a 13-day stand-off in October 1962. The latter installed nuclear missiles in Cuba. If your geography's a bit shaky, that’s a mere 90 miles from the US coast. Pictured here are President John F. Kennedy and his team considering how to neutralize a threat that many believed would bring the world to an end.
The US agreed not to invade Cuba, and in return, the Soviet Union removed the missiles, and we all lived to tell the tale as a nuclear crisis was avoided. Phew!
Those Lightbulb Moments That Changed the Course of History
What a meme! We love how it describes how the tyrannical King Henry VIII might have looked when he decided to leave the Catholic Church so he could divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry her lady in waiting, Anne Boleyn. The decision to break with Rome and the Catholic Church because he wanted a male heir led to The Reformation and the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Henry had six wives in total. What a ladies' man!
He annulled two marriages and had two wives beheaded. All of the heartache, murder, and terror he caused his wives was done in the quest for male heirs. Was it worth it? We think not.
It's Not Cheating Until You Get Caught
Yes, Alexander Graham Bell is widely credited with inventing the telephone. However, the truth is slightly more complicated and was only corrected a couple of decades ago. US Congress ruled in 2002 that, in fact, a poor Italian immigrant and mechanical wizard named Antonio Meucci invented the telephone in New York in 1860. But, unfortunately, Bell took Meucci’s materials, took out a patent 16 years later, and enjoyed all the credit.
Meucci took legal action but died. Thankfully, historians and Italian Americans fought hard to right this wrong and Meucci was finally given a ringing endorsement, albeit 113 years after his death.
No Drama at All
It’s a common belief that men start all the wars, and battles tend to be presided over by male leaders and male military personnel. A random memory search gives us both World Wars, both wars in Iraq, the Vietnam War - and that’s just for starters. Not only that, but women were less likely to support those wars. However, in the interest of balance, let’s take a look at female leaders.
University of Chicago researchers found that between 1480 and 1913, European states ruled by queens were 27% more likely to wage war than those ruled by men. Food for thought!
How It Feels When No One Will Listen
We’ve all had those moments when we’re trying to explain something important, and the person or people we’re talking to makes us feel like we’re talking to a brick wall, right? Here’s a meme that uses this image to show Galileo challenging the church’s belief that the Earth was the center of the universe. However, this image can represent many other situations throughout history. For example, Einstein and his theory of relativity.
Then there are various world leaders, past leaders, and celebrities who don’t believe global warming is real. We're sure you know who we're talking about. Or those famous people who believe in conspiracy theories, need we go on?
And We're Not Even Talking About Covid
There have been many pandemics throughout history, with the earliest on record during the Peloponnesian War in Athens in 430 BC. Since then, countries around the world have been ravaged by malaria, flu, smallpox, to name a few! However, here we have a simple yet grim depiction of the Black Death or bubonic plague, which raged throughout Europe between 1347-1351. Flea and bacteria-infested rodents are widely blamed for killing 25 million Europeans.
Scientists have traced the origin of many modern pandemics to this medieval period. However, there’s also some evidence to suggest that the Black Death was viral. So if you thought the Covid pandemic is the first of its kind, think again.
When Taking Advantage of a Pandemic Backfires
In response to this meme, there are screw-ups and majorly catastrophic decisions resulting in near population wipeouts. That’s where we’re at with this meme which tells this sorry tale in two short sentences. Yes, when England and Wales were being wiped out by the Black Plague, Scotland decided to invade northern England in 1349. The result? The Scottish caught the plague and there were thousands of deaths in Scotland, including 5,000 retreating Scottish soldiers.
This puts our day-to-day screw-ups into perspective, right? Overslept? Forget about it. Got too drunk at your work's Xmas party? No big deal. Waged war for your own gain and accidentally killed thousands of your own people as a result? That's worth a second thought!
The Wall Comes Tumbling Down
There are many famous walls in history, but one of the best known in modern history is the Berlin Wall, also known as the “Wall of Shame.” It separated East and West Germany between 1961 and 1989. The Soviet-aligned East German government built it to keep out fascists and stop East Germans from defecting to the West. While thousands succeeded in escaping by tunneling, climbing, and flying over the wall, hundreds of citizens also died.
When the East German government opened the borders on November 8th, 1989, the city's two halves celebrated and demolished the concrete wall, changing history forever.
What Happens When Something You Love Becomes Illegal
Here is a meme with a humorous take on a sobering time in American history. It is hard to imagine, but this actually happened. Prohibition on the manufacture, transportation, and sale of alcohol went into effect on January 17th, 1920. The result? A piece of law that was tough to enforce. There was a significant increase in bootleg alcohol production and sales, organized crime, and illegal drinking dens, aka speakeasies.
In other words, where there’s a will, there’s always a way. The fact that many Americans carried on boozing was one of the worst kept secrets of that 13-year long Prohibition Era.
Try to guess who all of these cartoons depict and the events these hashtags represent. Here’s what we’ve come up with so far: In the top left corner is King Henry VIII on the lookout for another wife. Underneath him is a reference to the American Civil War. Next is an Egyptian Pharaoh King and in the bottom right is Napoleon, while above him is the infamous Marie Antoinette.
We think the long-haired guy in the middle of the top row might be Jesus, referring to his equally famous and heavenly father. Cartoons make everything so much more fun!
The Ladies Sure Seemed to Like Him
No list of historic memes would be complete without an ample dose of King Henry VIII. Here someone with a great sense of humor has taken liberties with his portrait by putting a red rose between the monarch’s teeth so he looks like a Valentine's date no woman would want to accept. Not to mention, if she did say yes, we all know how that would turn out, right? Not well.
We especially like this history meme because its creator has quoted a couple of lines from superstar Taylor Swift’s famous song Blank Space to make their point. In this case, 'insane' in Henry's case might be accurate!
Well They're Not Wrong
British history is fascinating and rich in stories throughout the ages. It also appears to be popping up in our list quite a bit, and with good reason. But here, we’ve got a meme offering up the possibility of learning about history in an entirely different way. It’s an attractive set of red, green, and blue underpants, each printed with an iconic historical figure from a period of British history.
Unsure who these people are? From the top left: Queen Elizabeth I, King Henry VIII, and Anne Boleyn. Interestingly, all three are depicted in England’s most famous playwright's work: William Shakespeare. Not quite what period panties are all about, but also, why not?
It's a Losing Battle
Here’s a simple yet accurate way of portraying the difficulties during the period after the American Civil War. From 1865-77 it was a tough time when the US government, under President Andrew Johnson, had to attempt to rebuild a society split apart by the war and the abolition of slavery. Around this time, US Congress passed laws declaring “equality of all men before the law,” making African Americans full US citizens with voting rights.
There’s no room here for a crash course in this significant and turbulent period in American history. Nothing like a good meme to sum things up perfectly.
Flashing Is Never a Good Idea
Much is written about the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union, including fictional accounts in novels and movies alike. The Cold War began at the end of World War II, until December 3rd, 1989. This came about after a series of Eastern European revolutions and the end of the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan. However, we think that this small exchange between two people about that 40+ year-long time says it all.
We love that this meme creator has simply boiled that big and turbulent period of history between two superpowers down to just one sentence that simply tells it how it is. Do we really need to know any more?
When A Search For A New Life Doesn’t Entirely Go To Plan
Smallpox has had a massive impact on history. It dates as far back as the Egyptians. For example, the Mayflower set sail to America from Plymouth, UK, in 1620. Its passengers hoped for a new life in a new land, with religious freedom. While it’s documented that 20 people on the Mayflower died of smallpox, including their only physicians, Europeans actually brought the disease to America when they first began colonizing before the Mayflower set sail.
Edward Jenner created the smallpox vaccine in 1796. However, it wasn't until the 1980's that the highly contagious disease was eventually eradicated after at least 3,000 years and millions of deaths worldwide.
The Kitchen Accessory No One Wants
Here’s a gift that definitely keeps on giving! It’s the perfect addition to any Roman history lover’s kitchen: A Julius Caesar knife block, complete with around a dozen sharp knives to choose from. Of course, it’s the kind of item you have on display in your kitchen when your enemies or frenemies come to visit, right? We’re guessing we’re looking here at the defiant emperor shortly before he was assassinated by his senators.
Imagine each time you go to your kitchen to create the perfect meal, and you’re faced with this stark reminder of a brutal murder. Are you sure you still want that steak?
Well That Was Unexpected
War is no joke, and a war with 20 million deaths and 21 million casualties is no different. Here, however, are two simple yet effective drawings that tell the tale of how World War I began. First, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sophie were shot dead by a Bosnian Serb nationalist in Sarajevo on June 28th, 1914. This assassination sparked a series of events culminating in World War I.
Sometimes a simple drawing or two is enough to spark a conversation about a terrible time in modern history. These drawings show flags of countries drawn into the conflict between 1914 and 1918.
No Sleeping On The Job
So most of us know how the Bible story goes. After he is crucified, Jesus is buried in a tomb guarded by Roman soldiers at the request of Pontius Pilate. But, according to differing accounts in the Bible, the tomb was empty after that. Roman soldiers who fell asleep on the job were punished by death. So maybe the guy in this meme ought to be looking, you know, a teeny bit more scared?
The caption cracked us up. That said, we don't think Roman soldiers would have had access to mobile phones nor have worn bright blue tees...the hat looks pretty authentic though.
A False Sense of Security
Built by the French as a fortification against German invasion, the Maginot Line was famously a failure against precisely that. Built in the 1930s at a whopping cost of $9 billion in today’s dollars, the line was 280 miles long and made from reinforced concrete, underground bunkers, minefields, and gun batteries. It was also supported by 55 million tons of steel. Add all of this together, and, in theory, you have an impressive defense system.
What the French weren’t prepared for were the new tactics and fast and heavy armored German vehicles that simply went around the Maginot Line to invade France via Belgium in 1940.
Cup of Tea Anyone?
So a quick history lesson: In December 1773, a group of merchants and tradesmen called The Sons of Liberty disguised themselves as American Indians. They boarded several East India Company ships and threw 342 chests of cheap tea into Boston Harbor in protest against the Tea Act, imposed by a cash-strapped Britain as a way of raising money. It was seen as an enormous act of rebellion against British colonization.
Called The Boston Tea Party, Britain reacted with punitive legislation called The Coercive Acts to squash the rebellion. Further tea dumping demos followed. Britain didn’t surrender, and the American Revolutionary War followed.
Not Quite All The President’s Men
Although this meme refers to Nixon, one of the most controversial US presidents, this image was actually taken when Ronald Reagan was president. The event? It was CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite’s last interview with a sitting president, and what we’re looking at here is a champagne reception in honor of the legendary journalist. That said, yes, Nixon’s War on Drugs in the 70s was widely seen as having ulterior motives.
In fact, this controversial, costly, and ultimately ineffective policy was about criminalizing black people and anti-war activists to disrupt those communities. All so that Nixon could stay in power. And we all know how that ended…
Just Say Neigh
Once upon a time, there was a Roman Emperor called Caligula. He was the third Roman emperor and ruled from 37 to 41 CE. We could tell many stories about Caligula, not least that he was rumored to be unpredictable, mad, and tyrannical. Perhaps one of the most famous stories about him is that he loved his horse Incitatus so much that he lavished him with gifts, including a house.
It was rumored he wanted to make Incitatus a consul. The reality is that it’s unlikely this happened. But hey, never let the facts get in the way of a good story, right?
When You’re Really Out of Options
Napoleon is one of history’s most famous generals. He enlarged the French Empire over much of Europe during his reign. His empire briefly fell, and Napoleon went into exile on the island of Elba for ten months, returning to Paris in 1815. The Seventh Coalition, also known as The Hundred Day War, began. Austria, Britain, several German States, Netherlands, Prussia, Sweden, Switzerland, and Russia, stood against Napoleon to finally defeat him.
This image is actually of an eccentric millionaire and hand-to-hand combat expert called Anthony J. Drexel Biddle, Senior. The story goes, he ordered trainee marines to try and kill him, disarming them all….
We’re Really Not The Center of The Universe
Copernicus was born 548 years ago, in Poland in 1473. He was an astronomer who changed the world because he discovered the heliocentric system. In other words, the planets, including Earth, move around the sun. Copernicus was also a church canon, which was kind of his day job. The thing is, at the time of his discovery it was considered heresy by the Catholic church, which rejected the astronomer’s theory.
It is likely his thinking was first published in brief in 1514 and further expanded much later in 1543. In 1616 the Catholic church issued a prohibition against Copernicus’ theories.
If Selfies Were Oil Paintings
Before the invention of the internet and cameras, portraits were how we recorded ourselves. They also came to symbolize status, power, and wealth. So, in other words, they were a big deal. Given we live in a culture that allows us to alter and delete how we look if we’re unhappy with selfies and portraits, it’s hard to imagine how we’d fare if we were suddenly teleported back in time.
This portrait may be the only record of what this lady looked like. Imagine a life where you only had one expensive shot to immortalize your face. Fingers crossed it's a good'un.
On Your Marx
We’re guessing a teacher posted this image of socialist revolutionary, historian, and economist Karl Marx. It’s a great image to stir up some debate about history and class struggle, even 139 years after his death, right? One of his most famous books, co-written with philosopher Friedrich Engels, was the Communist Manifesto. However, he’s best known for Das Kapital, which formed the basis of Marxism. One of his major themes was class conflict.
More specifically, he focused on the struggle between the proletariat and bourgeoisie, hence the hilarity of this meme. Either way, while some still idealize Marx, he remains extremely controversial to this day.
Some People Just Can’t Deal With Rejection
Just for clarity's sake, no, Hitler did not start World War II because he got kicked out of art school, although yeah, maybe had he been accepted, things may have turned out differently. Or not. He applied and was rejected by the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna not once but twice and ended up making a living as an artist until he enlisted in the Bavarian army in 1914.
His path to power began in 1919 when he joined the German Workers’ Party, which became the Nazi Party. No one sane is in any doubt about what happened next. So we’ll leave it right there.
Off To The Tower
Yes, she literally lost her head. Anne Boleyn was King Henry VIII’s second wife. She was tried and found guilty of conspiracy against him, incest and adultery and sent to the Tower of London. She was tried and found guilty and was beheaded in 1536. Historians believe the charges were false and trumped up by Henry when she and he didn’t produce a male heir. Henry moved on pretty fast and married Jane Seymour.
Thankfully, Jane Seymour gave Henry the male heir he craved in 1537. Henry’s son eventually became Edward VI, but Jane Seymour died 12 days after her son was born.
How to Identify Friend or Foe
Much has been written about World War II. Historians, newspaper columnists, and novelists have all pitched in their take on World War II's battles and the countless military and civilian lives lost. Of course, the figures are inexact, but it’s estimated that anywhere between 35-60+ million people died during World War II. So, perhaps, some may think this veteran’s short, succinct words of wisdom on how to identify enemy fire are somewhat trite.
That said, perhaps he’s in a better position than most when describing what to do when you encounter a unit you can’t identify and how each nationality has a different battle style?
If You Tell Yourself Something Often Enough...
So here is a meme of a determined-looking guy staring in the mirror, illustrating what we are assuming is the widely held belief that introducing Christianity to the masses is a good thing. The alternative reality is that there's a well-founded link over the centuries between Christianity and slavery. However, it’s also the case that Christians were also enslaved, and Google tells us the whole topic is incredibly hotly debated.
We think this meme can easily be applied to any historical or life situation where if you tell yourself something often enough without questioning it, you start to believe it’s true.
When PDA Really Isn’t a Good Idea
If you’re not old enough to remember screen icon Marilyn Monroe famously singing Happy Birthday Mr. President to John F. Kennedy, that’s okay. This meme of Angelina and Brad laughing at something Jonah Hill clearly thinks is a no-no is a good reminder of that historic moment. Of course, we’re talking about Marilyn’s breathy on-stage public performance to celebrate Kennedy’s 45th birthday. The rumors of an affair between the two were already circulating.
Marilyn Monroe’s memorable appearance simply revived those inconvenient rumors, and according to historians, Marilyn and the President never met again after that night, and the screen goddess tragically died three months later.
Looks Like the Fidgets Spinners Won
Remember when fidget spinners were huge? Apparently, they were great stress-relief toys that quickly became addictive, although some schools banned them for being so distracting. But, their unfortunate resemblance to the radiation symbol is used in this meme to remind us of the fate of the abandoned Ukrainian city of Pripyat and its citizens. Now a ghost city, it’s a stark reminder of the explosion on April 26, 1986, at the nearby Chernobyl Nuclear Plant.
Fidget spinners have continued to be popular since they first appeared in 2017. However, their uncanny resemblance to something more sinister may be a bit too much for some. Now that we've seen it...we can't unsee it!
This Catchphrase Says It All
Okay, so here’s a popular catchphrase coined by Instagram and Twitter-famous Nick Joseph. He tends to say this when he and his pal play pranks. It quickly became a meme and is used here to illustrate when President Theodore Roosevelt read “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair. The novel is based on his covert explorations of the horrific working and living conditions of JS workers in the meatpacking industry. Roosevelt read the book and sprung into action.
Federal inspectors investigated and found workers living in terrible conditions, as portrayed in the novel. On June 30, 1906, historic legislation regulating the US food and drug industries soon followed.
One For Nostalgia Lovers
Here’s a meme for students of colonial history, and, naturally, it takes us right back to the 18th century. In 1775, at the Virginia Convention, American statesman, orator, and revolutionary urged his audience to take up arms and fight against British colonization. It was a decade before the American Revolution began, but his “give me liberty or give me death” speech inspired many looking to take up the call for freedom.
There’s nothing like a rallying speech as a call to action. We’re just wondering if all the 18th-century lovers on Twitter fulfilled this meme creator’s wish and retweeted her post.
Grown Men Playing Dress Up For Fun
War reenactments are a popular pastime, not only in the US but in parts of Europe too. Ever heard of them? It’s when grown men (yep, usually men) dress up in era-appropriate costumes and reenact famous battles. It’s really a thing, but in fairness, women, and children also participate in roles as civilians. Honest. The creator of this meme is poking fun at American Civil War reenactors fighting over the Confederate and Union flags.
Civil War reenactors sometimes call it “living history,” and, according to the New York Times, it’s a hobby in decline, with fewer attendees and long-time participants either dying or just getting too old to take part.