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How do historians deal with information that has no other sources than gossip?

I mean facts (or "facts") that are not covered by primary sources, but are widely known from gossip. Usually this information is related to human sexuality as it was somewhat hidden in sources, but are "known". Some may be related to other imperfections like kleptomania and so on. Some of course are trivia or anecdotes, but may say much about specific persons and explain some decisions, if they were true.

Examples of such gossip, legends etc. are

  1. Alexander the Great, Emperor Hadrian, Leonardo da Vinci and many others were homosexual
  2. Elizabeth I Tudor was a virgin
  3. Elizabeth Bathory drunk virgins' blood
  4. There was a woman pope (Joan)
  5. There was a man in Iron Mask held in prison
  6. all what Marquis de Sade did
  7. Circumstances of Felix Faure's death

etc.

Please note I don't say that any is true. Some probably are backed with sources (I've found them in my memory), but they are to show what I mean.

I understand that historians should be sceptic, but if gossip is related for 2000 years?... And it is important to have good overview of person's acts?

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4  
They treat them as gossip. I'm not sure what the question is. Gossip doesn't say anything about a person, but may say something about what other people thought of that person. –  Lennart Regebro Oct 29 '13 at 6:43
    
I mean that for example there is a gossip that a commander was spent a night with some woman and next they he lost a battle and many soldiers died. There is no source for this, but it happened 2000 years ago and there is a gossip. Should this gossip be treated as a source or just "we don't know why he lost"? –  Voitcus Oct 29 '13 at 6:54
    
Should historical works even mention gossip existence? –  Voitcus Oct 29 '13 at 6:55
3  
Sure, it can mention it. Historical gossip is also history. –  Lennart Regebro Oct 29 '13 at 7:00
    
How often is gossip just noise, and not signal (fact)? If gossip starts to take effect however, it becomes a cause of history. –  jjack Jul 27 at 18:23

2 Answers 2

up vote 6 down vote accepted

Historians treat gossip (or, in French, "rumeur", and I understand your question in this way) in two ways:

1) as something to debunk. Unsubstantied facts that need (apparently, again and again) to be put to rest.

2) as a social fact. If someone or a lot of people or a crowd believe in gossip it's not the truth of the gossip that is important but its role in motivating agents to act. The Bastille was attacked to liberate the prisoners. There were 7.

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Well yes... but let's say (for an example) there is a gossip of the pope Joan. If it were true, this would be very important fact in history, saying also other things about people of that time (eg. it was easy to cheat like this way, which would lead to a conclusion, this could have happened more times). But now we can't prove it - it's a legend, or gossip, what should historians do? Ignore? Fight? Investigate? Copy with an annotation it is a gossip, but risking that a reader will not remember correctly and believe? –  Voitcus Jul 28 at 5:24
    
I think that goes under 1). Debunking is in fact a result of historical research. The other result would be a verifiable fact or a probable fact (without going on what's a fact...). So pope Joan. Proof of existence, no. Proof of rumor, yes. Cui bono? Deliberate spreading of rumor benefits who? Spontaneous rumor? etc. It depends of the subject of your research. It could be about the gossip of pope joan.... –  Gil Oliveira Jul 28 at 12:26

Unless the event is contemporary, gossip never comes out of a vacuum. It always has a source of some kind that is relating it. In those cases, the historian considers the track record and perspective of whoever it is relating the gossip, or the newspaper in which it appeared.

Additionally, there are two major ways to verify any information, including gossip:

(1) Is it consistent with other known or supposed independent facts? In the same way that you might question a group of criminals separately to see if they all tell the same story, a historian examines different independent pieces of evidence to see if they are consistent. Obviously, each piece must be independent from the other.

(2) Is something missing? An effective way to discredit a piece of spurious misinformation is to see if something is missing. For example, once I read a sensational chain email claiming that someone was putting AIDS-tainted needles in coin returns. Obviously it was false, because if it had been true, newspapers would have been reporting it. Also, the email conspicuously lacked any verifiable information: there was no place given, no dates, no hospitals or doctors cited, no police department mentioned; there was a complete lack of verifiable data. When an item lacks verifiable details and no reputable source is repeating the fact, that is usually strong evidence that it is misinformation.

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"Unless the event is contemporary" - the whole of this answer is perhaps also pertinent to contemporary events, e.g. the numerous "urban legends" running around the Internets. –  ALAN WARD Jul 27 at 20:05

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