How Historians Know Their Bedrock Facts

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by Neil Godfrey

Only the most manic conspiracy theorist would question the fact that the Battle of Hastings took place in 1066, or that a man landed on the moon in 1969, or that the Holocaust took place. . . . . It is a fact that Caesar crossed the Rubicon and invaded Italy in 49 BC; going back to the sources in an attempt to prove or disprove this would be as much a waste of time as reinventing the wheel.

(Morley, 59)

When the ancient historian Neville Morley wrote those words he unfortunately made it sound tedious to go back and pore through papers and documents and books to find out “how we know” they happened. But it is not a difficult task at all, especially now that since Morley wrote we have a vastly improved internet fact-finder.

Two of Morley’s examples are not at all problematic. We know we have abundant contemporary sources to verify the moon landing and Holocaust. But what about the facts in medieval and ancient history?

Here is how we know . . . .

the fact that the Battle of Hastings took place in 1066

Search for “Battle of Hastings” and “Primary sources”. In quick time you will find the data that has long assured us that this battle happened and it was in 1066. Example: Spartacus Educational — Battle of Hastings. One sees at the top of that page a link to Primary Sources. If you haven’t already, click on it. In front of will be a list of the following and even more conveniently translations of the texts:

(1) Message sent by William of Normandy just before the Battle of Hastings took place (quoted by William of Poitiers in Deeds of the Dukes of the Normans (c. 1070)

(2) Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, D Version, entry for 1066.

(3) William of Malmesbury, The Deeds of the Kings of the English (c. 1140)

(4) William of Poitiers, The Deeds of William, Duke of the Normans (c. 1071)

Sources: Wikipedia

A message by William of Normandy himself? Quoted by a contemporary? That looks strong evidence, but is there corroboration from another source?

A Chronicle of the time. Now that’s strong. “D Version” looks a bit baffling but a bit more searching will bring up an explanation that the particular manuscript in mind is that of Worchester.

Number (4) is a bit late so we would have to read it to check on the sources the author used. That’s not very difficult nowadays, either. Just one more click away.

That’s how we know the Battle of Hastings took place in 1066. Sources from contemporaries.

Here is how we know . . . .

that Caesar crossed the Rubicon and invaded Italy in 49 BC

Again, a little hunting and pecking on the web, or looking up a scholarly publication about the event, or asking a classicist, will quickly inform us that we have Julius Caesar’s own “memoirs” or “commentary” on the Civil War in which he tells us that (and when) he crossed over into Italy with his army, thus precipitating the Civil War.

We have Julius Caesar’s own written account of the circumstances that led him to cross into Italy in the Commentaries on the Civil War (1:8) (Don’t be put off by Caesar’s odd-sounding practice of referring to himself in the third person.) Caesar did not explicitly mention the provincial border he crossed (he only said he marched into Italy as far as Rimi or Ariminum twelve miles south of the river) but we have the explicit reference to the Rubicon in a written speech by Cicero, Caesar’s contemporary. And then we have several later historians who had access to archives writing about Caesar. But on the combined strength of Caesar’s own testimony and the testimony of his contemporary we can safely say that Caesar did indeed cross the Rubicon thus precipitating the civil war.

What we don’t know as a fact . . . .

Morley explains:

It is an equally indisputable fact that Caesar says in his account that he was compelled to do this for fear of what his enemies might do otherwise. It is a matter of opinion and argument whether it is a fact that this was the real reason for his action – especially as other, less charitable, accounts of his motives have also survived. The statement ‘Caesar crossed the Rubicon for fear of his enemies’ is a fact only if you accept one interpretation of the sources (taking Caesar at his word) rather than another (well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?).

(Morley, 59)

Caesar’s motives are a matter of debate and argument. We may be convinced that fear was his real motivation and therefore believe it is a fact, but our belief will always be open to question and challenge. Our conviction that a particular motive drove Caesar is not a bedrock fact in the sense of his crossing the Rubicon is a fact.


Another example: ‘The massive influx of slaves into Italy, especially after the final defeat of Carthage in 146 BC, brought about the catastrophic decline of the Italian peasantry’. It’s the sort of sentence that crops up in exam papers with the word ‘Discuss’ added at the end, and the key to answering such questions is to identify which of the ‘facts’ it offers need to be subjected to careful criticism. It is certainly a fact that Carthage was finally defeated by the Romans in 146. It is also a fact that large numbers of slaves were imported into Italy during the second and first centuries BC (though some historians have recently started to wonder quite how ‘massive’ this influx was: something which has been a generally accepted fact for decades or centuries can easily become a matter of dispute, or even abandoned altogether. In other words, don’t rely too heavily on older textbooks.). The final part of the statement is the crux of the matter. It is a fact that some Roman writers describe the crisis of the peasantry and blame it on the import of slaves, but plenty of historians have argued that the sources should not be taken literally and that there was in fact no such decline. The student is being asked to review the evidence and the way in which earlier historians have interpreted it to establish whether it is a fact that the peasantry declined, and, if so, whether it is a fact that this decline was caused by the influx of slaves.

(Morley, 59f)

Morley’s definition of a fact . . . .

Staff photo

I disagree with Morley’s definition of a fact although I can understand his point. He writes

A fact is an interpretation that is so widely accepted that it can be taken for granted – until it is challenged.

(Morley, 60)

The context of that definition is his earlier point that today “the world is round” is a fact but in the pre-scientific past “the world is flat” was a fact. No (though I understand his point). Morley has elided two different concepts here. Today it is a fact that most people believe the world is round but it is also a provable scientific fact. In the past (let’s say, since the view that the earth is flat was not as prevalent as commonly assumed) it was a fact that “most people believe the world is flat” but it was not a scientific fact.

True, we can say that “most people believe” the Battle of Hastings took place in 1066, but what makes it a fact is the virtually unchallengeable primary sources, sources by contemporary eyewitnesses and documents left by the main participants. The only way we can imagine challenges to that kind of evidence is that they come from (in Morley’s words) “the most manic conspiracy theorist”.

What Morley has failed to notice, it seems, is something other ancient historians such as M.I. Finley have pointed out, and that is that historical facts are established by primary sources, or sources produced by witnesses, contemporaries. Sometimes these sources are lost and the historian has to rely upon later (secondary) sources making use of those earlier documents.

The importance of scepticism and testing the documents

Neville Morley’s book is more about how a historian should “write history” as its title suggests so we will allow him some slack for a less than rigid definition of how a historian establishes bare basic facts of the past. His subsequent advice cannot be faulted, however (bolding is mine; italics are original):

It should be obvious by now that I have little time for the sort of history that ‘lets the facts speak for themselves’. Facts don’t speak: the historian who tries to listen to nothing but the facts will produce an interpretation that is driven by his own unconscious preconceptions, assumptions and prejudices. . . . .

How should we do ancient history? No historian would disagree with the idea that we need to read both ancient sources and modem interpretations carefully and critically. We have to remember that the ‘facts’ are, in both cases, presented to us in the context of a particular interpretation; no account ever offers us just the facts, free from any trace of an argument. To make proper use of these facts, we need first to identify the underlying argument and the assumptions on which it rests. Whatever you do, don’t just believe everything you’re told; every statement should be taken apart and scrutinised before, reluctantly, you accept that it might conceivably be true. Those of you who find it difficult to break the habit of obedience to authority that was so carefully instilled in you in school could try turning to the reviews in journals like Classical Review, Journal of Hellenic Studies, Journal of Roman Studies, Greece & Rome and the Bryn Mawr Classical Review (published electronically) where you’ll often find a ready-made critique of the argument and assumptions of the books on your reading list.

When we write ancient history, we need to be equally critical. We need to know what we’re doing, and to tell our readers what we’re doing, when we make use of a particular bit of evidence or build up our grand interpretations, rather than behaving as if the whole process is completely natural and unproblematic. We should take nothing for granted; we should certainly not behave as if our interpretations, our assumptions, even our choice of words are somehow given, inherent in the evidence, entirely neutral.

(Morley, 93f)

In that middle paragraph Morley is telling readers that they should not even believe (without justification) everything in the basic textbooks they have been assigned to read. If the author does not tell you how he or she knows or decides X is a fact then a good rule of thumb is to reserve judgement until one knows those reasons. I am not saying we should disbelieve everything until proven, but that a healthy scepticism listens and makes inquiries and learns.

There’s a blind spot, though, among many scholars of Christian origins. That blind spot is the assumption that the canonical gospels are derived from oral sayings or written documents that had their beginnings, however indirectly, from the events and persons they narrate. Unlike most other historical or biographical works of ancient times the gospels do not attempt to give their readers confidence by identifying the sources of their accounts nor do they attempt to let readers know something about the authors and why the readers can trust them. (Not even the prologue of Luke helps since it is so vague and brief.) In other words, when it comes to the narratives of the canonical gospels we have nothing like the contemporary or independent sources that are available to give us assurance that, say, the Battle of Hastings happened in 1066 and Caesar crossed the Rubicon.

But the problem gets worse. If we follow Morley’s advice we must first ask what type of literature the gospels are and even IF they are indeed attempting to present real history or biography. A related pursuit is to establish what we can know for certain about their sources. If it turns out that a comparative literary analysis demonstrates that a common source for many of the details and structures of their narratives are borrowed and reworked from the Hebrew Scriptures then we find ourselves even further from the confidence we would like to have that they are in any way related to genuine past events.

Biblical scholars have applied redaction criticism, criteria of authenticity and “memory theory” to the gospels in attempts to get closer to the history they believe must lie at their root source. None of those methods can ever offer the confidence that good old contemporary and independent accounts can offer. Not even the crucifixion of Jesus can reach the level of certainty that we have for the Battle of Hastings and the crossing of the Rubicon.

Morley, Neville. 1999. Writing Ancient History. Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press.





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6 thoughts on “How Historians Know Their Bedrock Facts”

  1. Here are my brief comments regarding historical method and the implications of putting those methods to work on any given text, controversial or not. I studied under Dr. Thomas L. Thompson and his influence on my life regarding historical methodology has been very helpful (along with many others ), leading to minimalist views regarding the so-called “past”.

    This new blog by Neil is helpful. Thanks! Anyways…..

    So hopefully, not to misrepresent my former professors and mentors in clear historical and biblical critical method of ancient scriptures, etc. I would say this…

    “History” should not be so easily and equivocally identified with what is called “the past” simply based on claims. A much more critical historical perspective and “proofing” of this or that event or saying should be seen in terms of “perceptions” or “interpretations” of the past that must be carefully scrutinized for their sources and also some perceptions and conclusions more probable than others.

    I have been helped by realizing that any so-called past history is not based on possibilities but on probabilities.

    Determining what “actually” happened in many contexts is quite difficult and no metaphysical theory of any-kind can overcome this real problem in a real world of our flesh-material based senses in the modern world. Introducing any kind of theology is ludicrous since so much would have to be proved just to get to some theological premise which would bring on Ockam’s Razor to cut off parts of one argumentative ass as it swings from one new unproven a priori to another!!! I think presuppositional apologetics or history is fallacious to the core.

    Oh well… So let it be written, so let it be done :))))

    1. Hi Martin,

      My views have also been strongly influenced by TLT and other “minimalists”. In posts like the one above I try to take just a small element of the question of method to discuss.

      Yes, all facts are at one level interpretations and it is impossible to have total objectivity in any pure sense, and the past is perception, etc. But at the same time for all practical purposes we cannot deny that there really was a major terrorist attack on the U.S. 9/11 in 2001; yes London and Darwin were really bombed during WW2, etc. Yes, the event is a perception and we cannot capture the full reality of in our imaginations, but “it” still happened, even if we can never access every aspect of it. But we could never apprehend every aspect of any event even when we are eyewitnesses.

    2. I should add that the term “history” is really quite nebulous. In this post what I am referring to as “history” is particular historical “facts” found in the primary sources. In the back of our minds when discussing something like bare facts we have the question of the historicity of Jesus. We usually find these bare events established in chronicles, monuments, and so forth. In another sense by history we mean “narrative” — and actually that’s primarily the focus of Neville Morley’s book. Historical narratives are very fluid and variable and subject to revision and even obliteration. But none of that fluidity will ever change the bare fact that the earth existed and the sun shone and a battle was fought at Hastings in 1066.

      I used to say that the inquiry into the historicity of Jesus is not even a “historical” question because history is so much more than establishing a “fact” that, say, an engraved tombstone is evidence that such and such once lived within certain years. But there are indeed historians dedicated to trying to establish if and what actually happened or who ruled when.

  2. I concur with your comments. Thanks for the added qualifications. In earlier posts I tried to respond to things said by Paxton and some others that we couldn’t really prove anything. I think that is false. And quite often we overstate or understate the facts of any given case.

    I am also getting fed up with the apologists who call themselves historians eg. Mike Licona , etc.I wouldn’t call him a historian but a NT apologist who has a Ph. D. I don’t think any of these apologists have really proved anything and moreover , not one of these apologists has made any real contribution to biblical studies in their respective field (NT), including Craig.They just keep spouting outworn and questionable things.

    At Marquette I took the bulk of my Ph. D course work (2 full years with distinction) in Christian origins and history as well as numerous courses on the history of hermeneutics and yet I am somewhat reticent to call myself a historian in the sense that theses apologists are doing so. My 4 year undergraduate degree consisted of lots of liberal arts and history as well. My MA as well. I did not want to become an apologist or “theologian” or whatever without getting a good basis in Biblical languages, philosophy, logic/critical thinking and history.

    I think the landscape of apologetics is getting worse and worse for the apologists.

    1. Indeed. I am currently digitizing for personal use my copies of the Jesus Seminar’s 2 volumes (Gospels and Acts of Jesus) and cannot help but think with deep regret of the way their work seems to be so largely dustbinned by so many scholars who really are effectively apologists. I know, I disagree with the methods of the Seminar, but I can at least respect them as genuine attempts with some valid justifications to find more about the Jesus figure, which is a lot more than I can say about so much that stains the scholarly scene today.

  3. My dear Neil, these ancient texts can cause the most serious ” Charlie horses ” in our souls and minds as we reflect upon them. Here is my favorite and I will in the future expand upon it.

    Most Christians would accept the GJohn as God (and or Jesus) talking to them today, and not give a damn about contexts regarding ancient texts. So they like John 14:6 and stick it to every “unbeliever” -atheist (note.. too here there are no “atheist” crowds in the NT! Everyone is either a Theist (monotheist eg. Jesus) and the rest are polytheists and mixtures of every kind of distortion or belief in Judaism or Paganism!

    Yet in that same book Jesus clearly says “Not one person knows the
    father except the son, and Not one person knows the son except the father.” So the only one who knows God the Father is Jesus and vice versa. Sorry Christians. You have just been busted by Jesus a long time ago. Cant live with that line of his. Too bad! You cannot make these texts say something else to soothe your total ignorance of god like the rest of us!!

    I know of no Christian today who can get out of this one in a rational way unless they diss the Same Jesus they are defending in the same text!

    I actually like the idea that a character came down from heaven and said no one knows God….meaning religionists re Jesus and God of every kind. So you don’t like this Jesus of John’s radical Gospel. Too fucking bad…..!! He is radical. To many….
    I simply like using the humanly constructed scriptures against over-confident readings of canonical texts backed up by some pseudo spiritual emphasis on a private reading by the holy spirit or such. BTW 2 Peter “outlaws” private interpretations or readings of the scriptures, whether Jewish, Petrine or Pauline!!!!!

    I love the unruliness of John’s Gospel. See . I am still a fan of using ancient texts against themselves, especially when they try to dominate who is the dom or domina in any given text.
    I abhor the hegemony of Christian interpretations of ancient texts that run contrary to their hermeneutical ideologies and idealisms.

    Christians have no monopoly on how these texts are to be read given the cultural capital their readings have had over many years. Jesus himself made clear that texts could be read in other ways? That is “different” or “heretical” ways! read Luke 10!!!!!!!! Again, as I see it Luke is trying to get his readers to adopt his own reading of the Jewish texts. Luke is clearly a propagandist for a particular perspective on the Jesus, not Christian movement of the first and early 2nd century history of the heresy or sect known as “Christianity”.

    My dear friends , there is nothing to fear if you read or interpret these texts differently than Christians and their ilk. Relax. Stand strong in your different interpretation or experience than normally expected by others. Be free from the fear of interpreting the Bible in the wrong way. Nothing will happen to you if you handle it respectfully and rationally as a collection of documents from a very foreign context and strange world that very few of us know experientially and in other ways.

    If I were ever to posit a theory of transcendence it would be a transcendence based on the power of language to change everything and everyone!

    So let it be said or written and so let it be done


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