“Common Sense” Ways to tell (Historical) Fact from Fiction

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by Neil Godfrey

In the real world we know the importance of confirming the truth of important information. Does it come from a source we have good reasons to trust? Can we find independent verification?

Someone recently asked me if I could recommend readings that address the point I have made about how we (or historians) decide some person or event is a historical “facts” or a historical “maybes” or an outright fabrication. If there exists an abundance of literature explaining this with any sort of rigour it has eluded me. I’ll try to explain here how I came to my own understanding of this question. I’ll also make clear that there is nothing mysterious or technical about it but it’s nothing more than an application of how we approach any question seriously.

I have posted HISTORICAL METHOD and the Question of Christian Origins as a cogent explanation of how I believe historians do generally distinguish fact from fantasy whether they make their approach explicit or (more usually) undertake it as a matter of almost subconscious routine. On a reader’s recommendation this link is kept in the right margin of this blog for easy reference. My first attempt to address this question was a much lengthier Historical Facts and the very UNfactual Jesus: contrasting nonbiblical history with ‘historical Jesus’ studies posted in 2010.

kempWhen I first stopped to seriously ask myself this question quite some years ago I was frustrated to find so little in scholarly books, usually nothing, to help answer this specific question: How do we know a figure of the past existed if there are no surviving trustworthy contemporary sources to tell us so?

What I found helpful as I continued to think about this question was book by D. Alasdair Kemp, The Nature of Knowledge, that I had studied years earlier in a post-grad librarianship course. That is an excellent introduction to help one think clearly about the differences between scientific, social and personal knowledge and differences between data, information, knowledge, and so forth.

Forget ancient history for a moment. Kemp’s explanations pulled me up to rethink how we know for certain about anything in this world.

In the real world we know the importance of confirming the truth of important information. That confirmation can come from establishing the source of the news. Is it from a person or institution we have good reasons to trust? Or it can we find some independent means of verification?

Trust, but not blind trust

E-mail A as per Ministerial statement 18 Feb 2002
Source and copyright information at Wikinews

It was on the front page of our national newspaper that I first read the report that some refugees attempting to reach Australia held their children over the side of their boat and threatened to drown them if the naval vessel sent to stop them attempted to turn them back. This was in a source that one normally expects to be able to trust — one is aware of the reputation the publisher wants to protect, the training undertaken by the reporters, etc — but my instinctive reaction to the story was that it was bull dust. I’m a parent; I know lots of other parents; I have read widely and studied about parenthood and seen lots of parents in different cultures and of different ethnic groups; and I know that that’s not how parents behave. I have also seen lots of racism and I know that racist attitudes enable people to believe that certain groups do not behave in human ways.

So even though the story was from a generally trustworthy source I “instinctively” weighed it against other information that led me to reject its authenticity. It took some years, personal and political agonies, a divided nation, official inquiries, before the truth eventually “came out”: there was no truth to the story.

This is how historians “instinctively” work, too. Here is how a “fact” of the past lost its status as a fact and was moved into the realm of “we don’t really know” and even “probably not”.

Provisional status as a fact, to say the least

In 1961 historian E. H. Carr wrote the following about a gingerbread vendor who was kicked to death by a mob at Stalybridge Wakes in 1850.

At Stalybridge Wakes in 1850, a vendor of gingerbread, as the result of some petty dispute, was deliberately kicked to death by an angry mob. . . .  It was recorded by an eyewitness in some little-known memoirs . . . A year ago Dr Kitson Clark cited it in his Ford lectures in Oxford. (Carr, What Is History? p. 12 — I am bypassing Carr’s nuanced or semantically problematic discussion of different categories of past events.)

Lord George Sanger

The memoirs were those of Lord George Sanger, Seventy Years a Showman, first published in 1910. On the face of it that looks fairly secure. We’d expect professional historians like Carr and Kitson Clark to know and they do cite their sources.

But in 1997 another historian Richard Evans wrote the following:

A historical fact is something that happened in history and can be verified as such through the traces history has left behind. Whether or not a historian has actually carried out the act of verification is irrelevant to its factuality: it really is there entirely independently of the historian. This is why historians commonly speak of ‘discovering’ facts about the past, for instance, in coming across a source which tells them of this previously unknown incident at the Stalybridge Wakes. 

The likelihood of the gingerbread salesman’s unfortunate death being a historical fact in this sense is moderately but not overwhelmingly high, because the reference Kitson Clark used for it was not a contemporary one, but a set of memoirs written by ‘Lord’ George Sanger, and memoirs are notoriously unreliable even where they are giving eyewitness accounts of happenings in the past.

If I had been Kitson Clark, I should have looked for a contemporary document to verify my claim. It is for this reason, I think, not because it has not been widely quoted elsewhere (except in discussions of Carr’s What is History), that the status as a historical fact of the gingerbread salesman’s murder in 1850 must be regarded as still rather provisional, to say the least.

The seconder and sponsors for its membership of the (not very select) club of historical facts . . . must be . . . other, preferably contemporary, documents, and these so far have not been found.

Contemporary newspapers reported the fair very fully, but where Kitson Clark stressed the role of drink in leading to acts of violence, the papers noted that ‘very few drunken people were seen in the streets at any time during the wakes.’ There were descriptions of morris dancers and archery displays and accounts of an ascent in a balloon, but no mention of any violent incidents at all, though one paper did report the arrest of some petty thieves who had come over from Manchester. Kitson Clark cited Sanger’s memory of the Wakes as an example of the persistence of rough, brutal and drunken behaviour from the eighteenth century into the early Victorian era. The contemporary sources, which went out of their way to stress the ‘large audience’ which ‘patiently listened’ to the speeches of ‘a company of teetotallers’ who had come over to the Wakes on the Sunday, would seem to indicate the opposite.

Evans, Richard J. (2012-11-01). In Defence Of History (Kindle Locations 1478-1481, 1488-1503). Granta Books. Kindle Edition. My formatting and bolding.

(Had Richard Evans in 1997 been aware of memory theory now being touted as the new method to advance historical Jesus studies he may have worked his way through a different response to the nature of the source. As Professor McGrath has informed us, Biblical scholars are sometimes pioneers in historical methods.)

Sanger as source for vendor murder Josephus as source for career of Jesus
60 years after the event 64 years after the events
25 years at time of event Born 7 years after the events
Claimed to be eyewitness No source given
Contemporary sources fail to support Contemporary sources fail to support
Historicity provisional Historicity established

Contrast theologian “historians”

Notice the response of historian Richard Evans to the source here. It was a memoir published some sixty years after the event by someone who claimed to be an eyewitness when he was twenty five years old. Contrast the response of theologians who insist that a Jewish historian who was writing sixty years after Pilate’s governorship and who was born a year after Pilate left Judea is a secure source for information about Jesus. Even a memoir by one claiming to be an eyewitness of an event turns out to be a suspect source in the eyes of the historian.

Very similar to finding out about contemporary society

My intuition and reflections that led me to the conclusions I have posted on this blog about “tests” for the historicity of this or that person appear to be confirmed by the same historian, Richard Evans, when he writes:

In many ways it makes sense to approach such wider questions by looking at how we acquire knowledge about the past. Many of the problems involved in finding out about contemporary society and politics are very similar to those historians have to face.

So it seems. So why did it take so long for me to figure this out? Well, more difficulties attend ancient sources, as Evans points out:

Yet the past presents more difficulties because it is no longer with us.

There is indeed training required in how we approach historical documents. Yet even this training involves a measure of simply applying to old documents the principles we follow in everyday life. Can we find independent confirmation — preferably contemporary — of what we read? What do we know of the author of the document? And so forth.

When it comes to the finer points of epistemology and other issues historians have generally left such questions to others. Evans is addressing more philosophical questions than the one that is the point of this post but he is worth quoting again because his words point to a reaction we have quite often found displayed by some Biblical scholars:

Some [historians] have indeed argued that the nature of historical explanation is a topic best left to the philosophers. How we know about the past, what historical causation is, how we define a historical fact, whether there is such a thing as historical truth or objectivity – these are questions that most historians have happily left to one side as unnecessary distractions from their essential work in the archives. ‘Many historians,’ one observer has correctly noted, ‘are by instinctive inclination hostile to philosophical and methodological criticism of their work, often wishing to rely instead on “common sense”.’ 

. . . . . 

Some historians have even disputed the right of non-historians to write about the nature of historical knowledge and explanation at all. [Compare declarations by several theologians that anyone without their own specialist training has no right to find fault with their works on Christian origins/the historical Jesus – unless, of course, they agree with their assumptions and conclusions.] . . . Yet Hayden White, the influential American writer on the theory of history, has made the obvious retort that the ‘insistence that only historians know what historians really do is similar to modern scientists’ objections to being studied by sociologists, ethnographers, philosophers and historians.’ Historians are therefore denying to other disciplines a right they claim for their own.

Evans, Richard J. (2012-11-01). In Defence Of History (Kindle Locations 213-250). Granta Books. Kindle Edition.

Common sense “for most of us”

No doubt many of us will instantly raise eyebrows at the appeal in the quotation above to “common sense”. Evans will not surprise us when he writes:

Moreover, while ‘common sense’ may not exactly be coterminous with ‘prejudice’ and imbued with ‘a potential for repressive bigotry’ . . . it certainly varies wildly from epoch to epoch and culture to culture.

‘Common sense’ in the medieval and early modern periods, for example, included the notion that human action was guided by divine (or diabolical) inspiration, and that disease was frequently caused by black magic or witchcraft. The recounting of miracles was part of the ‘common sense’ of medieval historiography.

Evans, Richard J. (2012-11-01). In Defence Of History (Kindle Locations 2561-2566). Granta Books. Kindle Edition.

Evans was addressing another historian’s appeal to what was clearly “common sense” to “most of us” — meaning most of his peers. In other words, the historian was asserting that peers who agreed with him displayed “common sense” while implying that those who disagreed lacked this attribute.

The give-away here is, of course, Roberts’s phrase ‘for most of us’, which implicitly ejects from the community of historians those who do not write [the same sort of history as Roberts writes] and are therefore not one of ‘us’. This does not really do justice to the breadth and diversity of historical scholarship today.

Evans, Richard J. (2012-11-01). In Defence Of History (Kindle Locations 2566-2568). Granta Books. Kindle Edition.

How to conclude this post? Maybe a pointer once again to HISTORICAL METHOD and the Question of Christian Origins will do.


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Neil Godfrey

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8 thoughts on ““Common Sense” Ways to tell (Historical) Fact from Fiction”

  1. When considering the usefulness of a document as evidence, a fundamentally important element that historians ignore but the legal system requires is authentication, which essentially is the step of showing that the document has survived unchanged from the date it was purportedly authored and, therefore, is available as evidence of anything at all. A document that cannot be authenticated cannot be used as evidence. Biblical historians, whether OT or NT, have no problems relying on admittedly inauthentic (or “forged,” as Ehrman has labeled them) documents. As far as I am concerned, this lone fact renders their work as little more than fan fiction.

    Another thing that historians of all stripes ignore but the legal system requires is the concept of hearsay, which cannot be offered to prove the truth of the matter asserted, but can be used, for example, to prove the author’s then present state of mind. Even if I were able to authenticate the works of Josephus, which I cannot due to numerous obvious interpolations, I cannot use what Josephus had to say about what others allegedly said except perhaps, for example, as evidence that the reason he wrote a refutation of Apion’s works at least 40 years after Apion died as evidence that many people circa 90 CE believed that Jews were not an ancient race but a modern cultic phenomenon.

    1. Hi Scot

      You’ll be pleased to find that there are guides to graduate students about to embark on serious historical studies that advise them of the different types of forgeries and pseudepigrapha that do exist and how to handle each type (e.g. Howell and Prevenier’s From Reliable Sources).

      You don’t see any cause for optimism in the historian Evans pointing out that the historicity of an incident must remain “provisional, to say the least” because its only source was a (hearsay) memoir of one who claimed to be an eyewitness?

      Ancient historians are notorious for relying upon hearsay but then again they were not writing history in order to accurately record the past but to teach readers lessons. And even then some of them (e.g. Herodotus) would question the hearsay reports they heard and express their scepticism to their readers.

      I personally have been disappointed in a few historical works written by people unfamiliar with the methods of historians yet boasting of the way their legal training makes their work more reliable.

  2. This post seems right. Ask ” historical Jesus” people to do real history, or go away. While for that matter, ask historians to do better, for their own part.

    What is common sense for historians though, might be useful: methodological naturalism.

    And any figure who works many, many supernatural miracles, should be suspect.

  3. As synchronicity or if you prefer “meaningful coincidence” would have it I came across another of Evan’s books –
    Lying About Hitler: History, Holocaust Holocaust And The David Irving Trial – while reading this post.

    “Richard J. Evans, a Cambridge historian and the chief advisor for the defense, uses this pivotal trial as a lens for exploring a range of difficult questions about the nature of the historian’s enterprise. For instance, don’t all historians in the end bring a subjective agenda to bear on their reading of the evidence? Is it possible that Irving lost his case not because of his biased history but because his agenda was unacceptable? The central issue in the trial—as for Evans in this book—was not the past itself, but the way in which historians study the past.”

    Also this article by Richard Carrier Ignatian Vexation (http://richardcarrier.blogspot.com/2008/09/ignatian-vexation.html)

    echoes similar themes that Neil/Tim has articulated here many times – practices by NT scholars generally are not those followed by the historical/classical disciplines. It is worth re-reading.

    My great frustration when reading NT scholars is that their assertions and assumptions are not reducible to some form of archaeological evidence. If that is too stringent then at-least simply state that “we do not know!”

    Next target is The Nature of Knowledge by D. Alasdair Kemp – thanks

  4. Common sense, in this case used by some historians, functions more like a black box that one inserts questions into and then expects the correct answer to pop out.

    But just like history itself (and many other rational approaches to epistemology) one has to ask what the nature of the black box is. How did it come about? What outside forces led to its production? What sort of questions was it meant to answer? What sort of questions is it bad at answering, ones we should take with a grain of salt?

    1. One bias that many see in historians, is their desire to tell a consistent narrative, or story. Too many things are cut out for the sake of a consistent “story, ” with just one theme.

      Poststructuralists were exasperated by especially the all-encompassing “grand narrative.”

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