The study of history heavily relies on textual records, which are, to some extent, value-laden or subjective. Worse still, since peer-review was not a strict practice in the past, it is fairly possible that some historical claims, however convincing, might have been deliberately fabricated or distorted. This is especially possible in cases where there were very few people who witnessed a certain event, making it easy for them to exaggerate or deny what they saw.

Historians consult many primary sources to verify the historicity of certain event. But what if there's only one or very few primary sources? How can they make sure that these sources are true and accurate? Or can they?

  • J. Jeffers of the British History Podcast suggests that first, we use the records we have, and second we examine analogous cultures/events for plausibility. Of course the foundational assumption is that you've read all the primary and the credible portion of the secondary research. – Mark C. Wallace Apr 19 '16 at 19:34

They have to be careful, and even so there are controversies and mistakes.

  • What is known about the author, and did he or she have an agenda? Consider the Donation of Constantine.
  • Do any artifacts support the story? Schliemann's discovery of Troy is an example.
  • Are there any other sources? Would one expect other sources if the story was real? Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
  • A good example of this in action is the (now disputed) story of the Viking Blood Eagle. For detractors, it fails on all above accounts. It was never reported until long after Christianization (where presumably they had an interest in playing up the brutality of heathens), and all references trace back to only two original sources. – T.E.D. Apr 19 '16 at 16:24
  • Great answer! I just have two follow-up questions - Are historians open to the possibility that, in some cases, there is no way to verify if a purported event really happened? And is there any Skeptic Movement in the discipline of History as there is in Science? – user17259 Apr 19 '16 at 22:16
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    @T.E.D. : note, that this can go both ways. One can question a theory by pointing it out that some groups could have gained an advantage by propagating it, but this shouldn't be taken alone as a definitive proof against it. The modern discrediting claim can be influenced by one's ideological views just as the original theory was. Yes, someone back then could have had an interest in playing up or down something, but just the same, someone today might have an interest in presenting that past group as liars. – vsz Apr 19 '16 at 23:11

This is a very valid question and the answer, traditionally, is that the historian uses their judgement in combination with logic and collateral information to evaluate claims.

First of all, many historians make no claim as to the authenticity of the information they are reporting, they just report it. For example, Herodotus will just say "so-and-so told me thus and such". Sometimes he will say "I found this unbelievable because..." and then give his reasons.

Many historians do not even do this, they just accept what they read and repeat it uncritically. For this reason you can find the same mistake being repeated over and over in many books. For example, the main source of information on the American Revolution is the book Storia della guerra dell' Independenza d'America (1809) by the Italian Carlo Botta. This book was translated into English and widely used by American historians to "document" the American revolution, even though Botta did not speak good English and had never even been to America. Consequently, American history books are loaded with incorrect or garbled information that Botta either made up or exaggerated.

To answer your question more specifically, a historian can infer what happened by using logic and collateral information. For example, you will see the claim sometimes that the Soviets colonized Prussia with Russians after they conquered it in World War II, but if you actually go to Kaliningrad, formerly known as Konigsberg, you will find many Poles there, and they are in fact by far the dominant group. From this you could infer that a systematic effort was made to introduce Poles into conquered Prussia, even if you did not know this from documentary evidence. You can use collateral evidence to infer what must have happened, even if it is undocumented or documented incorrectly.

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