2019-01-31

What Is a Historical Fact? – How Historians Decide

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by Neil Godfrey

Gingerbread vendor (Victorian Picture Gallery)

When I was an undergraduate history student the one book anyone doing the honours course was required to address was What Is History? by the renowned “red” historian of Soviet Russia, Edward Hallet Carr. One claim Carr made in the book was particularly controversial. It was his idea of what counted as a “historical fact”. For those who are rushing through, the gist of what he said was that X is not a historical fact unless and until a historian writes about it and uses it to successfully support a hypothesis that is accepted by his academic peers. For those who are not so pressed for time, here are Carr’s own words:

Let us take a look at the process by which a mere fact about the past is transformed into a fact of history. 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. Is this a fact of history ? A year ago I should unhesitatingly have said ‘no’. It was recorded by an eye-witness in some little-known memoirs2; but I had never seen it judged worthy of mention by any historian. A year ago Dr Kitson Clark cited it in his Ford lectures in Oxford.3 Does this make it into a historical fact ? Not, I think, yet. Its present status, I suggest, is that it has been proposed for membership of the select club of historical facts. It now awaits a seconder and sponsors. It may be that in the course of the next few years we shall see this fact appearing first in footnotes, then in the text, of articles and books about nineteenth-century England, and that in twenty or thirty years’ time it may be a well-established historical fact. Alternatively, nobody may take it up, in which case it will relapse into the limbo of unhistorical facts about the past from which Dr Kitson Clark has gallantly attempted to rescue it. What will decide which of these two things will happen ? It will depend, I think, on whether the thesis or interpretation in support of which Dr Kitson Clark cited this incident is accepted by other historians as valid and significant. Its status as a historical fact will turn on a question of interpretation. This element of interpretation enters into every fact of history.

(Carr, p. 12)

E. H. Carr

Our interest is generated by the context of asking questions about ancient history and particularly the Bible. I have addressed the question from several angles relating to what we know of how historians (e.g. Thucydides) who lived in ancient times worked and in how historians (e.g. Finley) of ancient times make judgements about the ancient sources. Here we look at a more general discussion of how historians decide what is a fact.

Did It Actually Happen? (Getting Muddled with Philosophy)

Notice that Carr does not deny the “fact” of the murder of the Stalybridge gingerbread seller. He is simply disputing its status as a “historical fact” without doubting its status as a “mere fact about the past”.

And his evidence?

An eyewitness record, he says.

2. Lord George Sanger, Seventy Years a Showman (2nd ed., 1926), pp. 188-9.

He cites the second edition but the Amazon kindle preview tells us it was first published in 1910. Even that appears incorrect because the earliest Worldcat record I see places its earliest appearance in 1908.

That’s an eyewitness account 58 years after the event.

Carr was engaged in a philosophical discussion of the nature of history and accordingly took us a step further, to its use by a historian, Kitson Clark, in his lectures at Oxford:

3. Dr. Kitson Clark, The Making of Victorian England (1962).

It is at this point that Carr arouses the ire of many of his more conservative peers. What Carr believes historians should understand is that every “historical fact” comes with some ideological baggage. It is always used to support or dispute a historian’s hypothesis.

To set out a simplistic example: Does the historian use the murder of the gingerbread vendor as evidence in arguing the hypothesis that there existed a class war of the kind Karl Marx said is the fundamental dynamic of history? Or perhaps the historian uses that fact as part of a larger case to argue against the class struggle hypothesis. It is in that sense that history is “relative” and “ideological” and that the “facts of history” can be said to be “relative” to a historian’s point of view and “ideological” in nature.

It does not mean that the fact of the past itself depends upon the historian’s whims or ideological beliefs. Carr was talking about how a “mere fact about the past” was used in a historical narrative or argument. The “mere fact of the past” was not in dispute per se.

In the words of the historian Richard Evans,

Carr engages in lively arguments with many other historians about the nature of history. He challenges and undermines the belief, brought to university study by too many students on leaving high school, that history is simply a matter of objective fact. He introduces them to the idea that history books, like the people who write them, are products of their own times, bringing particular ideas and ideologies to bear on the past.

(Evans, p. 1 f.)

Did It Actually Happen? (Getting Irate with Ideology)

Geoffrey Elton

Another prominent historian, Geoffrey Elton, took on Carr with a passion. These were the “history wars” of the 1960s. Somewhat distorting what Carr was in fact arguing, Elton dived in:

Mr Carr holds that there is a ‘process by which a mere fact about the past is transformed into a fact of history’. He quotes the case of a man who was killed by a rioting mob in 1850 and says that this event, once no fact of history at all, is on the way to becoming one because it has been mentioned in one book. It will achieve full status when it gets into one or two more historical accounts. The difference between facts about the past and facts of history hangs upon ‘the element of interpretation’ which the historian adds to the former in order to create the latter, though general acceptance of the interpretation offered is required before the fact’s new status is secure.

This is really an extraordinary way of looking at history; worse, it is an extraordinarily arrogant attitude both to the past and to the place of the historian in studying it. A man was kicked to death in 1850: that is a fact, an event, which took place and which nothing now can either make or unmake. It is quite immaterial whether the fact is known to an historian or used by him in analysing a problem. If the event were unknowable—if no evidence of it had survived at all—it would certainly be neither fact about the past nor historical fact—it would have ceased to exist and that piece of potential history would never have materialized—but it would still, of course, have occurred, independent of any historian. However, the event can be known, and that is all that is required to make it a ‘fact of history’. Interpretation, or general acceptance of a thesis, has nothing whatsoever to do with its independent existence. The point matters so much because Mr Carr, and others who like him think that history is what historians write, not what happened, come dangerously close to suggesting either that it does not much matter what one says because (interpretation being everything) there are always several reasonably convincing interpretations of any given set of events, or that history is altogether unknowable, being merely what happens to be said by a given historian at a given moment.

(Elton, 75 f.)

So far we have seen two historians at war with each other accepting the idea that the gingerbread man was killed in Staleybridge in 1850. Despite the mis-aimed shot by Elton it is evident that both Elton and Carr have no dispute (despite Elton’s inference) that that murder happened. Elton is offended by Carr’s suggestion that that event’s status as a “historical” fact is open to question. As outsiders we can see the difference is one of semantics and definitions; so far there is no suggestion that any historian should look at the evidence and ask, Did this happen or not?

So far.

But first let’s recapitulate with a comment on the conflict between Elton and Carr by another historian, one closer to our time, some thirty years after Elton’s The Practice of History.

Richard Evans observed and commented on the semantic confusion that lay at the root of Elton’s ire against Carr. Evans says it more clearly than I think I did, so here is his explanation:

In putting forward this view, Elton was disagreeing strongly with E. H. Carr’s definition of a historical fact. Carr argued that a past event did not become a historical fact until it was accepted as such by historians. His example was the fact that a gingerbread seller was kicked to death by a crowd at Stalybridge Wakes in 1850; until mentioned by George Kitson Clark in a book on Victorian England, this was not, Carr says, a historical fact. Historical facts were therefore constituted by theory and interpretation. They did not exist independently. There is a semantic confusion here which has caused endless trouble ever since Carr fell into it, and it needs clearing up before the discussion can proceed. 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. Where theory and interpretation come in is where facts are converted into evidence (that is, facts used in support of an argument), and here theory and interpretation do indeed play a constitutive role. For historians are seldom, if ever, interested in discrete facts entirely for their own sake; they have almost always been concerned with what Ranke called the “interconnectedness” of these facts. Thus the fact of the gingerbread salesman’s death can be used as evidence in a number of different ways, according to the historian’s purpose: as an aspect of crowd behavior in this period, for example, as part of a study of food supplies, as an example of festivals and leisure pursuits, as an element in a history of the Manchester area, and so on. Nevertheless, while it is multifaceted as evidence, the gingerbread salesman’s death is singular as fact. Facts thus precede interpretation conceptually, while interpretation precedes evidence.

(Evans, 65 f.)

Okay, I hope that’s clear enough now.

Did It Actually Happen? (& How Do We Know?)

So far, however, we have not been examining that eyewitness account that is our entire basis for knowing about the murder of the gingerbread vendor. We have seen that the report was published 58 years after the event. Let’s now leave aside the ideological debates about the nature of history itself and examine just how reliable our evidence might be. We continue with Richard Evans:

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 long after the event, and memoirs are sometimes unreliable even where they are giving eyewitness accounts of happenings in the past.

Richard Evans

58 years certainly opens up room to question the reliability of the account. (We have seen other historians point to gaps of thirty and even twenty years as opening up room for doubt between report and event.) So what is a historian to do?

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 provisional, to say the least. The seconder and sponsors for its membership of the (not very select) club of historical facts awaited by Carr must be not other historians but 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 behavior from the eighteenth century into the early Victorian era. The contemporary sources, which went out of their way to stress the “large audience” that “patiently listened” to the speeches of “a company of teetotallers” who had come over to the wakes on the Sunday, would seem rather to indicate the opposite.

(Evans, 66 f.)

There it is. Evans in one sense can be said to have proposed the fact of the murder of the gingerbread seller as a hypothesis. The source for the event appeared 58 years after it supposedly happened.

How to test that hypothesis?

Answer: Go to the contemporary sources, the newspapers of the day.

And what does the historian find? Evans found that Kitson Clark used Sanger’s 58 year old memory to make a point about the brutality of early Victorian society. (As Carr would have said, the “fact” was being given an ideological twist to support a hypothesis about the nature of society.) But Evans examined the contemporary sources and found that Sanger’s memory was not supported by the news reports of 1850. It may have been that the newspapers completely missed the incident that would have been so unexpected given all else that was known of the atmosphere and details of the wake. But even if so, the historian cannot speak with any confidence in Sanger’s memory. He cannot rest a case on appeal to the “fact” of the murder of the salesman.

On one occasion an expert in history stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to know a historical fact?”

“What is written in Masters” he replied. 

He answered, “Confirm and verify with independent, contemporary witnesses.”

“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will be able to have good grounds for justifying what you write.”

But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is an independent contemporary witness?”

In reply Jesus told him the story of Kitson Clark’s appeal to the 58 year old memory of George Sanger of the murder at Staleybridge wake, how Carr relied upon the report of Kitson Clark, and how Elton relied upon the report of George Sanger, and how Evans checked the contemporary newspapers, and how the newspapers failed to mention the murder but portrayed a peaceful crowd listening to speeches about the evils of drink.

 “Which of these three do you think was the more reliable historian?”

The expert in the law replied, “The one who made judicious use of independent, contemporary witnesses.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”


Carr, Edward Hallet. 1964. What Is History? Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Elton, G. R. 1969. The Practice of History. Sydney: Collins.

Evans, Richard J. 1997. In Defence of History. London: W. W. Norton.


 

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Neil Godfrey

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12 Comments

  • 2019-01-31 23:46:25 GMT+0000 - 23:46 | Permalink

    I wish a lot more people understood the process of deciding what is historical fact. Even more, I wish in this era of increasing amounts of “fake news” and “alternative facts” that they used the process themselves to decide what it’s safe to believe and what they should treat with skepticism. Thanks for this post Neil.

  • Clarke Owens
    2019-02-01 01:17:48 GMT+0000 - 01:17 | Permalink

    IMO, Evans is correct to see the difference between Elton and Carr as semantic, but I think his resolution of the issue makes the same mistake, e.g., when he says “the status as historical fact” remains provisional. His reference to “historical fact” here is what Carr would have called ” a mere fact about the past.” He is assuming (and he may be correct; I did read the Carr book, but I no longer have a copy, and it’s been a while) that Carr requires historical treatment in order for a fact to be a fact about the past. It’s possible Carr says this, but it’s not in the passage quoted or discussed above. Carr’s idea above is simply a recognition that history is a discipline. Facts about the past do not become facts in the context of a discipline until treated by the discipline. They become more truly “historical facts” to the extent that they are thus treated historically, but they do not therefore become more or less facts about the past; but the common understanding is that the two terms (historical fact and fact about the past) are identical, so this confusion arises. Evans is quite right about how one would go about corroborating the provisional fact, but I’m not convinced that Carr would argue otherwise. It would be helpful if all scholars put brackets specific to their discipline around their chosen “facts.” If the defenders of the historical Jesus, for example, were to say that the HJ is universally accepted among people in departments of religion, using criteria of “history” specific to their disciplines, it would be much more palatable, and more truthful, than saying, in effect, that no serious scholar or other person having proper credentials to understand the issue disagrees with the idea. The latter formulation is an over-reach. Carr, by the way, says terrible things about literature.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2019-02-01 01:56:03 GMT+0000 - 01:56 | Permalink

      I think you might be correct. I won’t say you are correct as a fact because I find myself getting a bit muddled about what is meant by the word fact each time it is used in the words I quoted, then in the words I wrote, and then sometimes in your comment — whether we mean in each instance a fact that happened or a fact that is historical, which is probably the same as a fact that happened, but it might not have happened, at least until someone checks, and even then the question might not be settled….

      Everything was simpler before chroniclers became historians.

  • Peter Grullemans
    2019-02-01 01:54:10 GMT+0000 - 01:54 | Permalink

    Thank you Neil. This opens up a fantastic contemporary topic, namely the “news” and “record” of the 911 attacks and allows us to compare it with the Bible “history”. Did 911 really happen ? No one alive today would deny it. I would say even I am a decent witness. But the question is who did it and why ? Who stands to gain from the incident ? Who might cover up the truth ? Even Noam Chomsky, historian and statesman, does not believe that it was perpetrated by other than Muslim extremists. I disagree with him because while I agree that it probably was Muslim extremists who flew the planes into the buildings, it was obviously part of a much larger plan to demonise Islam and justify attacking Afghanistan and Iraq. It is a modern day conspiracy. I recommend presentations by reputable engineers and scientists (e.g. Architects and Engineers for 911 Truth; Rev. David Ray Griffin – Professor of Religion, Philosophy and Theology :

    Gore Vidal, renowned author, exposes the complications, his father having been involved in hijack response designs that should have ensured the planes did not strike the buildings :

    When we attempt to make judicious use of independent, contemporary witnesses, the official story being written into history, is a fake news. It is fraud and amounts to propaganda for the US military industrial complex and the international elite who control our world. Consider :

    The immediate removal of the metal remnants of the collapses, sent overseas for recycling in such a way as to prevent their proper examination on site
    The bizarre explanation that the whole of the US defence force could not be mobilised to stop the planes in time as they happened to be on training missions
    The collapse within hours, like a controlled demolition, of the 47 story World Trade Centre Building Seven (WTC 7) was officially reported as fire damaged and structurally weakened from falling debris from the twin towers
    The extremely important nature of the data destroyed in WTC 7 supposedly without off-site back-up. These included confidential reports on the Enron oil spill and records which may have led to indictments of several corporations
    The official explanation that the entire metal columns of the three buildings collapsed from the heat of burning jet-fuel whereas no other buildings in history of the same construction had experienced such a result even from higher temperatures
    That not a single photo of the plane (or the actual object) before it hit the Pentagon building has ever been made available to the public or investigators despite multiple cameras having filmed the event
    That the shape of hole in the Pentagon made by the object cannot be explained by the shape of a passenger aircraft with wings and engines impacting cement walls
    Osama Bin Laden’s first reported reaction to the accusations against him was to say that he was glad it happened but that he did not do it
    News stories rushed out to the public on the day of the attacks included a clip of Palestinian children dancing in the streets with joy. These were later removed when it was discovered that this was old footage dressed up as propaganda
    The proposition that the invasion of Iraq was necessary to prevent further such terror attacks from alleged “weapons of mass destruction” promoted as directly tied to the 911 incidents. Later this was proven to be based on lies
    Fervent stock exchange trading in options in the weeks before the event that indicate inside knowledge of the effect on the shares of the insurance company that had to pay out for the destruction of the buildings
    That the Bush family as a result of the state of emergency declared on the day, were able to effect a transfer to them of millions of dollars in maturing securities that otherwise would have led to public knowledge thereof
    That the Taliban offered the US that they would arrest Bin Laden and present him for trial in an independent country
    The immediate removal of the metal remnants of the collapses, sent overseas for recycling in such a way as to prevent their proper examination on site
    That the accused and key witness in the investigation (Osama Bin Laden) was eventually killed by the US government and could not give evidence under oath about the crime and the charges against him
    A passport remnant of one of the hijackers was said by the US government to have been found in the rubble – so unlikely given that the fire was aid to have melted the building’s steel columns

    When the 911 Memorial Museum opened a few years ago it sanctioned this propaganda as false history :

    https://www.911memorial.org/museum

    Adult tickets for admission and tour are $US46 and you can donate too. I often meet Americans overseas and ask them what they think about the report about Building 7. Most are not even aware that there was a third WTC building !

    History in the making ! If this fraud can be achieved today, amid our amazing technology and acces to information, how much more could it have been done by the Romans for the Bible.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2019-02-01 02:12:34 GMT+0000 - 02:12 | Permalink

      Your hypothesis is that the fact of the 911 attack was the work of a conspiracy.

      It would be a mistake to assume each of the claims that you present is either true as to fact or true as to implied context. In other words, before taking each point for granted, one ought to ask what evidence is advanced for the claim, who presents the evidence, and explore further discussions that present each piece of evidence in a more complete context.

      I do not believe for a minute that there was any conspiracy behind 911 of the type you are suggesting because conspiracies are only successful historically when they are confined to the work of a very few individuals (such as the real conspiracy that did exist on the part of the 19 hijackers and presumably some general idea of what was to happen on the part of their financier). To imagine a conspiracy that requires scores and hundreds of persons maintaining secrecy strains credulity beyond breaking point.

  • Peter Grullemans
    2019-02-01 05:43:17 GMT+0000 - 05:43 | Permalink

    My common sense tells me that virgins don’t get pregnant. When that is combined with other miracle stories, resurrections and visions I suspect that the whole story is made up. Same with 911. Just looking at the Building 7 part tells you that the official report is is a hoax – 47 story buildings do not collapse at free fall. May I ask you (1) if you knew about and (2) what you considered about the destruction of Building 7 ? “Hundreds of persons maintaining secrecy” is not a fair analysis. Did hundreds of thousands of persons maintain secrecy about the Bible ? No, they were and still are ignorant, impotent, apathetic, indifferent and sincerely deluded. But in my opinion, they are wrong, while the winners write history.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2019-02-01 07:14:19 GMT+0000 - 07:14 | Permalink

      Yes I have read engineers explanations of the collapses. There is no mystery.

  • Peter Grullemans
    2019-02-01 08:01:08 GMT+0000 - 08:01 | Permalink

    Neil what do you mean that there is no mystery ? Are you saying that you believe the official US government report, and that you see no reason to infer a cover-up from it ?

    • Neil Godfrey
      2019-02-01 20:43:24 GMT+0000 - 20:43 | Permalink

      I think it’s important to seriously look for alternative viewpoints and explanations and never to be committed to any one until one has attempted to assess fully the pros and cons. I also sometimes wonder if certain suspicions of conspiracies are generated by certain political or ideological assumptions.

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