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.
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.