The Problem of Historical Truth

In my previous post about the pitfalls of online research, I began by alluding to the unreliability of newspaper reports. If you were to read reports on an important item of news in a number of different newspapers, you frequently might be forgiven for thinking that they were actually talking about completely different events. There will be political bias, of course, and the prejudices and agendas of reporters and editors alike. Are the individuals in an armed insurgency terrorists or freedom fighters? It is a point of view. Are strikers in an industry greedy mischief-making saboteurs, or victimised and mistreated victims of greedy corporations? Again, it is a point of view.

It can be very hard today to see through the fog of opinions and misinformation on any topic. How much more so when we delve back into time?

History is written by the victors. For example, what we know about Caesar’s campaigns in Gaul and Britain were written largely by the Roman conquerors, especially Caesar himself. Most of what we know of the reign of Ashoka, in India, comes from the edicts that he caused to be inscribed upon the remarkable number of rocks and pillars that are still in existence.

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Even tales written by the vanquished are likely to be inaccurate, of course. The cruelty of the victors, their barbarity; all of their actions will be exaggerated.

The historian understands that information comes largely from primary and secondary sources. A primary source might be, for example, an account written at the time (Caesar, above) or Parish registers of births, marriages and deaths. These sources are considered to be most likely to be accurate, being compiled at the time of the events described, but clearly they might all be deliberately or accidently falsified. Secondary sources might be newspapers, which are largely made up of analysis and opinion, and therefore considered to be an interpretation of information that has been derived from another (hopefully primary!) source.

A primary source is also referred to as evidence, yet I wonder whether a better distinction would be made if ‘evidence’ referred only to unwritten sources; archaeological remains, buildings, pottery, jewellery and coins and their like, which, whilst needing interpretation, are unlikely to be prey to the kind of distortions that written sources might be. Caesar, after all, might have claimed to take ten thousand prisoners when he only took five hundred, yet pottery of a particular type that is found at a particular spot, tells a story that needs to be interpreted, yet is unlikely to be a falsehood.

We need to be careful, though, when it is interpreted in light of contemporary writing, to avoid the temptation of unconsciously corroborating those writings.

Having written the above, we do have to take a certain amount on trust, because it is not practical to question everything in the world that we come across.

Yet, just because we discover that Troy really does exist, does not mean that all of the stories of the Iliad are now, somehow, all true. That would be like an author writing an incredibly impossible fantasy tale, in which the city of Vienna still exists and features, yet claiming it must be true because Vienna is a real place.

During the first year of World War One, a fictional short story ‘The Bowmen’ was published in the London Evening News by Arthur Machen. In this tale, he describes a battle between English and German soldiers at Mons, in France, in which the beleaguered British were aided by the sudden appearance of phantom archers who intervened to keep the British safe. Although this was fiction, the story quickly ‘went viral’, as we might put it today, and was readily believed by many in Britain. Of course, there was a feeling then that the British were good and the Germans evil, and so it was natural that God might intervene to help and protect them. A far stronger belief in God, in those days, also contributed to the feeling that it was natural to find that a miracle had occurred.

Although Machen republished the tale in a book with a long introduction explaining that it was fiction, and examining reasons the public thought it was true, not only did the belief persist, but further reports of angels on the battlefield began to appear. As a child in the 1960’s, I remember reading an account of this in a comic, with it presented as the truth. In 2001, the Sunday Times reported that photographic evidence to support the story had been discovered, although this was proved to be a hoax.

The Sunday Times also published exerts from Hitler’s Diaries in 1983, until these, too, were proved to have been forged.

Memories are notoriously unreliable. I was reading just a few days ago of an experiment where a group of people were encouraged to discuss childhood memories, with selected members of the group feeding in deliberately false information. After an initial hesitation, it seemed that all of them accepted these false memories as real, even to the extent of agreeing that they had taken part in a balloon ride, when they had not, and describing what they had seen from the balloon, and their feelings during the ride. The point being that they came to believe these were their own, real, memories.

How reliable are our own memories, then? And what can we trust? Clearly, there must be a lot of historical narrative that has been honestly recorded, that is simply not true, and we are unlikely to ever know what it is.

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43 thoughts on “The Problem of Historical Truth

  1. This is an excellent post, Mick. Indeed, you’ve put your finger on it: all historical accounts must be taken with a bushel of salt. As police officers know, if you question ten honest witnesses to a motor accident you’ll get ten different accounts of it. Read a report about an incident in The Times and it may appear to be an entirely different event from what The Guardian, let alone The Sun, related. Yet journalists are not allowed to lie.

    Hayden White wrote an iconoclastic book about the impossibility of writing historical ‘truth’: MetaHistory (1973). Essentially, he said that all historicism is creative writing. At the time, historians were outraged but historians have since accepted he was right. There’s a even a sect of them – the New Historicists – who blatantly write fiction. ‘We’re doing no more than Carlyle or Macaulay ever did,’ they argue. They might have a point.

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    1. Thanks for your comments, John. I suppose that I could sum up my thoughts as ‘you can only know is true what you yourself have witnessed, and that is likely to be wrong, anyway.’ I feel that we are just a dangerous step or two away from deep philosophy. Quantum History, anyone?
      The Hayden White book sounds interesting. I should really add it to my huge list of books to read but, then again, he probably made it all up anyway…

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Mick! You have written a post which is thought provoking and true. A large part of history comes from written details, memoirs etc. it is very difficult to establish it’s authenticity and neutrality. for example, the royal court of Jaipur was very active in recording every detail of city happening including the events in royal family. There was separate department to record events.but they have been recorded from certain perspective. to this day they are only records on certain matters there are no alternative records. also viewpoints are subjective, as you rightly mentioned

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    1. Thanks, Arv. Yes, when there are no alternative records on an event, we are only reading one ‘side’s’ perspective. Indeed, that is often the reason those records are made; they become the ‘authorised version’ of those events, and it becomes hard to challenge them at a later date.

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  3. Interesting piece, Mick. I worked on a newspaper, as a photographer, for a few years. In the end, I left simply because I kept coming across stories in the paper that were different from those I had witnessed as the attending photographer. The journalists, in spite of John’s suggestion that they are not allowed to lie, had embellished or altered the facts of the stories to such an extent that they had become all but unrecognisable. I could only recognise them because they were accompanied by the photographs I’d taken. Did this duplicity take place on a national newspaper? No, it was a crummy little weekly local rag. But the stories were ramped up to make them salacious and appealing to readers so that we could sell more papers. And this is what happens with the bulk of our national papers. It’s also the reason I now never read a newspaper. Of course, the other aspect of journalism is political: right wing people read the Telegraph because it echoes their views of the world, regardless of truth. The same goes for most of the press.
    As for the willingness of people to believe in what they are told, you have only to examine religion to see how incredibly easy it is to persuade folk that the inexplicable and incredible is the ‘truth’. Any reading of most religious texts will reveal huge inconsistencies, interior contradictions and accounts that are clearly pure fantasy, yet billions of people willingly subscribe to such lies and live their lives according to their dogma.
    And, of course, facts, particularly scientific ones, change with time as more and more discoveries are made. It wasn’t so very long ago that most ‘chemists’ considered the existence of phlogiston a fact. And Pluto was defined as a planet until a very short time ago.
    It raises the uncomfortable questions: what is truth, what is a fact?
    My own take on it all is to believe what seems reasonable in the absence of evidence to the contrary and to discount as a matter of course the spoutings of politicians, prophets and almost everyone considered an ‘expert’ in any subject. And to question everything.
    Great article for discussion, Mick. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Stuart. I was certainly hoping to stimulate discussion when I wrote the post.
      As far as religion is concerned, I decided that i would try to keep that out of the discussion. I think that the various arguments around truth and religion are too obvious and predictable to have a place here, and need to be confined to an arena of their own.
      I don’t think that journalists tell lies, as a rule, but I do think that many of them tend to be willing to stretch and embellish the truth to a point where it can become unrecognisable. The little first hand contact that I have had over the years with them would tend to agree with that.
      And, yes, those to the right will likely read the Telegraph, whilst those to the left will likely read the Guardian, but whilst my Mother in Law who leans one way will read both of those papers – ‘to see what the enemy is up to’ – I’m not sure that she really will learn anything extra that way. How do you determine what is true and what is false?
      And that brings us back to square one. I agree; question everything, take nothing for granted.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Just a small codicil regarding journalism, Mick. I was witness to an event that was manufactured by journalists (they persuaded a couple of schoolchildren to burn items of school uniform and then printed a story suggesting there had been a rebellion at the school!). Whilst in N.Ireland covering the troubles there, as a guest of the local garrison, I was told by endless people that the troubles would have ended years ago if not for the inflammatory stories published by the newspapers. And I was once chased through the grounds of a university by angry students who knew I’d taken a set of pictures, one of which I’d sent to the telegraph only to have it captioned with a pack of lies by the editor! I think you’ll understand why i distrust journalism, especially as produced by Murdoch’s crew.

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        1. I think that’s quite understandable, Stuart. I should have written that I don’t think most journalists tell lies, because there are clearly some most unscrupulous and unsavoury ones around. Phone-tapping comes to mind, as does entrapment, for example. Always, if they are found out, it is ‘in the public interest’ – in other words, it titillates and it sells newspapers.

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    2. To bring religion into a discussion is always hazardous, of course, yet even scientists can exhibit the same rigidity of belief systems. I once attended a Humanist meeting where a scientific speaker scoffed at the notion of ghosts. “If the existence of ghosts was proven indisputably by research, would you then believe in ghosts?” I asked. “No,” he scoffed. “I would suspect either chicanery or experimental error.” Curiously, that arch-sceptic Richard Dawkins is guilty of falling into the belief trap. What is radical atheism if not a belief system?

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      1. They can exhibit the same rigidity indeed, John, and Richard Dawkins seems a good example. I have often thought that he shows the same arrogance and inflexibility of mind that he accuses religion of, but without the touches of humanity that he supposedly champions. I believe that when he was once asked if religion might be justified by giving the grieving or the dying some solace, he simply answered ‘no’.

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      2. I’ve long thought that there are certain scientists for whom science is a religion, as politics becomes a religion for certain politicians. It suggests that religion, which we might translate as ‘belief’ is an integral part of being human. Belief is, of course, entirely subjective and has little to do with evidence, proof, or a rational point of view. I prefer the ‘open mind’ approach. I suspect there will always be phenomena and aspects of life for which we will never find a satisfactory explanation. The universe is a complex place and we are but grains of sand amongst the quadrillions. I’ll stick to my agnostic views, even though many consider such a stance as a cowardly position on the fence. For me, uncertainty is the rule, and I’ll live with that lack of ‘knowing’ rather than cling desperately to some divisive dogma.

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        1. Lord, no! Being agnostic is not cowardly, by any means. It’s an acceptance that there is no hard evidence either way, that there are many things that we simply do not know (yet?). I suspect that many who profess either a religion or none are really agnostic – if they have any doubts about their position, then I suppose they must be agnostic. Closet Agnostics?

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          1. Yes, Mick, it’s interesting that people’s public postures and private beliefs have often differed, even through the most rigid periods of conformity. In Victorian days, the closet Freethinkers outnumbered the pious (as Emerson once observed). Even under Queen Elizabeth I – when atheism was a hanging crime – I suspect there were more agnostics or atheists in England than Christians. The English had been forced through four changes of religion in 40 years. No wonder a lot of folk were bemused – and began thinking for themselves!

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            1. And no bad thing. The doubters of any religion never cause trouble for their neighbours, although they may call retribution down upon themselves. It is only those of unbending certainty that set out to annihilate everyone else.

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          2. I don’t personally believe (sic) that being agnostic is cowardly. In fact, I think it contains elements of courage, in that it requires one to live a life full of uncertainty. And I’m sure you’re right, Mick, about the closet agnostics; shame they lack the courage of their… ‘convictions’, now there’s a wonderful oxymoron!

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  4. Thanks Geoff. That’s an interesting post at the other end of that link, which I’ll have to return to to re-read. That is the sort of discussion that can easily occupy an evening, and slowly fade away as everybody loses the threads!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Great post. Mick. True, memory can be unreliable, but it’s also what gets us out of bed in the morning (because we remember what we have to do today), dress for the occasion (whether it’s work, the gym, or the local market), behave appropriately, and go home again.

    The thing that really interests me is what we call “False Memory Syndrome”. Knowledge of which has been around for yonks and was used as a devotional aid in the Middle Ages. I suspect the generic term for that is “imagination”. We love imagination, earlier societies were, quite rightly, suspicious of it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m very interested to hear that was used as a devotional aid – I’ve never heard of that before, and can’t really guess how it worked. Would it be the priests telling the acolytes that they had had a divine vision or a visit from the Devil?

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  6. Ah. I’ve just read your comment. No, the example I’m thinking of related to being present at the birth of Christ. The advice was, immerse yourself in the sights, sounds, smells of a stable, keep on doing it, and before long you will have a sense of being there. You will be present at the birth of Christ.

    I’m hazy now, because I came across this in a book, Perkin, http://www.theguardian.com/books/2003/apr/19/featuresreviews.guardianreview7 (It may have been an excerpt from something by Earl Rivers.) I mentioned this to a friend who was doing her MA in medieval history, and she said, “Oh, Margery Kempe used to do that.”
    I loaned my Perkin book to a fellow history nerd, and he hasn’t returned it, so I can’t check the details.

    I’m doing all this from memory, you understand. 😉

    What struck me was (1) I proceed along these lines when I’m working with my fictional characters, and (2) therapists are reported to have worked in a similar way to help their clients “recover” memories. As in, Think about it long enough, and you’ll remember it.

    You sure will, but…?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for that reply, Denise. Google completely failed me; all it came up with were references to the witchcraft trials.

      It sounds really odd to me – immerse yourself in the sights, sounds and smells of a stable and sooner or later you will have a sense of…being in a stable. Presumably the subjects were encouraged to attend births, as well. Personally, I prefer the idea of ‘contemplation’, which seems to be more a Christian version of meditation, rather than the modern definition of ‘thinking about’ something.

      I think a lot of us go along those lines with our fictional characters. I spend a lot of time deciding what decisions they would make, what their likes and dislikes would be…almost trying to become those characters. If we can come to almost believe they exist, it becomes easier to write about them.

      I can certainly see the point about the therapists. Some projects nowadays are helping elderly people who have the onset of dementia to live better quality lives by placing them in an environment that resembles that of the time when they were in their, perhaps, twenties. Thus they might have furniture, clothing, meals etc as they would in, perhaps, the 1950’s, prices in the community shop would be similar and would be in pre-decimal currency (in UK – we went decimal in 1971), all the music would be of that time…you get the idea, I’m sure.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Characters, Mick: as writers, I believe we need to empathise with them of course. But, more than that, we need to know them so well that we can inhabit their skins so that we live vicariously through them, experience what they go through, think like them, understand them fully. It helps, of course, if you have a multiple personality disorder!

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  7. I’ve come to learn that I can’t trust my own memories or interpretations of events, or sometimes even feelings. Where does that leave me as a writer? Who knows. But, on the bright side, I think it encourages empathy. I can keep an open mind because I know my truth isn’t necessarily The Truth … and maybe the person I’m listening to or reading has a clue I’m missing. Or, maybe they don’t.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thanks for commenting, Monica.

      I don’t suppose that anyone can really trust their own memories, it is just that many people don’t realise that. At least as writers we have the advantage in that we can still forge all of these events into a form that suits us and, and as has been mentioned elsewhere already, if no one can fully trust their memories, and we can never, completely, believe any version of history or current events, then we are free to create our own history which is, perhaps, as viable as any other.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. I empathise with you, Monica. And I think empathy is the single most important quality for a writer of fiction, assuming, of course, that imagination is also present. The entirety of our world is unreliable, so it is perfectly valid for us to invent our own worlds and people them with characters formed from our experience combined with imagination.

      Liked by 2 people

  8. Yes, I’ve read of some experiments very similar to the ones you mention at the end of your post. In fact, it’s possible they were the same experiments. Young adults were interviewed about a childhood incident. Later, a parent talked to them about the same incident and deliberately added some false details during the discussion. At a later date, the young adults were interviewed again and many of them had incorporate the parent’s information and referred to it as if it had happened.

    The point one researcher made is that it’s something of a misnomer to call it a false memory. For the person who has it, it’s as real as any other memory. It just that the incident it records didn’t never actually happened.

    Of course, that’s only what I remember about the experiment…

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Great point! I’ve long felt that it is very hard to know what the truth is these days, but as you pointed out, this is nothing new. People communicate their own perspective, not necessarily lying, but we see and hear everything through our own filters, and our filters are unique to each of us. I used to think I could rely on my memory, but that’s often wrong, as well. And not just because I’m getting up there in years; I learned long ago that the way I remember something may or may not be the actual way it happened. I think it’s good to take all “facts” with a grain of salt!

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  10. Nice post. I agree with you on each and every point. The same is with Alexander. We know that he is great. But really?!
    It applys to today’s newspapers too. Not many newspapers are free from political influence. Its the same with whole media. Then comes stings, which are good but are also politically motivated.
    Everything is politically influenced in today’s world.

    A suggestion:- Use read more tag or use themes which use read more tags to reduce clutter on home page 🙂

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  11. Pingback: Resources for Writers – #1 – Mick Canning

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