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.
    – MCW
    Commented Apr 19, 2016 at 19:34
  • (1) It's worth remembering that we rely on textual records because, unreliable though they are, they are usually much more reliable than tradition or legend. (2) We can never be sure. At best we can become increasingly confident in a source based -- mostly -- on how consistant it is with other sources also believed to be reliable.
    – Mark Olson
    Commented Apr 8, 2022 at 14:34

3 Answers 3


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.
    Commented Apr 19, 2016 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
    Commented Apr 19, 2016 at 22:16
  • 2
    @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
    Commented Apr 19, 2016 at 23:11
  • @T.E.D. Your point is good, but the Blood Eagle may not be the best example since our primary sources from the pre-Christian North are pretty meager. Having a first mention in post-Christian sources is to be expected regardless of factuality.
    – Mark Olson
    Commented Apr 8, 2022 at 14:29
  • @MarkOlson - That comment was almost a decade ago dude. IIRC, the point was more that it was long after, not just after. The sagas for instance IIRC were generally written down post-christianization, but composed pre (so its better to think of them as contaminated by post-Christian views than completely created under them). However, its also quite possible you've got a good point and I was simply wrong.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Apr 8, 2022 at 14:59

While historical veracity may have, at one time, depended on a multitude of written historical texts as well as the "authority" of the historian, history is, thankfully, increasingly multidisciplinary:

Biologists use DNA to ground truth population dynamics in ways historians can only dream of. For example, an entire Biblical story line can be discarded as nonsense by DNA analysis of Middle Eastern peoples.

Palynologists studying lake sediments can determine a regional climate, local flora, and even determine the carrying capacity of a region for feeding it's people. Was it possible for this bronze age city to really have hundreds of thousands of citizens at the same time, despite what historical texts say?

Microscopists use sophisticated imaging techniques to ferret out invisible details from artifacts. Steadily degrading mint marks in Roman coins indicate inflation and overproduction of coins to combat it. Hard proof that citizens were being ridden hard by their government and were very unhappy, despite whatever propaganda Cato had written to the contrary.

I love the story of how, practically overnight, nuclear chemists used carbon dating to overturn a thousand years of "expert" historical analysis that said all European culture was derived from the Greeks.

Some history may be forever unknowable, but increasingly, other disciplines are providing extremely useful tools that can verify what historians think they know and discard what is bias, propaganda, lies, fantasy, or outright nonsense.


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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