4

The sources of interest I have in mind are primary and secondary sources. The disagreement over sources should be due to disagreements over reliability of sources.

Edit: made the question clearer

  • Ignoring egregious examples such as holocaust denial. Are you after examples were the same source is viewed as reliable by one historian and unreliable by another, when both are working at the same time? – KillingTime Apr 15 '18 at 8:34
  • Yes that is what I'm looking for. – gerald ek Apr 15 '18 at 9:43
  • 6
    Tons. Happens pretty much every time there's a disagreement in the sources. – Semaphore Apr 15 '18 at 12:13
  • Are there any famous examples? – gerald ek Apr 15 '18 at 12:38
  • 4
    So . . . can the Gospels be used as documentation of the life of Jesus of Nazareth? – pokep Apr 15 '18 at 17:59
17

As @Semaphore has observed in the comments, this is something that happens very frequently. The reason comes down to how historians use sources.


When I studied the subject, many years ago*, my tutor suggested seven guidelines:

  1. If all the sources agree about an event, we can consider the event proved.
  2. However, majority rule does not apply; Even if a majority of sources relate events in one way, that version will not be accepted unless it can pass the test of critical textual analysis.
  3. In general, a source where part of the account can be confirmed by referring to independent authorities, can probably be trusted in its entirety – even if it is impossible to similarly confirm the whole text.
  4. When two sources disagree on a particular point, we generally prefer the source with the most "authority". This will be the source created closest in time to the event in question, by a person with particular expertise, or by an eyewitness.
  5. In general, eyewitnesses are preferred, particularly when they are dealing with events known by most, or at least many, contemporaries.
  6. If two or more independently created sources agree on a matter, the reliability of each is reinforced.
  7. When multiple sources disagree, and we have no other means of evaluation which source is "best", then Occam's Razor applies. Good historians choose the source which seems to accord best with common sense.

(Ironically, she never quoted her source for these guidelines).

Clearly, several of these guidelines are subjective - particularly the last one! It is not surprising then that interpretations of events often vary according to the personal views or prejudices of particular historians (leaving aside the minor detail that "new evidence" (which is often just new interpretations of existing evidence) is always good for creating controversy and stimulating book sales!).

A couple of fairly well-known examples from British history would be:

  • The dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII. This is often said to be simply the result of Henry's break with Rome, although a number of historians, including, for example, Suzannah Lipscomb in her book 1536: The Year that Changed Henry VIII, have argued for a rather different interpretation based on the evidence.
  • The murder of the Princes in the Tower. This is frequently attributed to Richard III, but some historians have argued that others were responsible. The arguments in this case generally arise over whether the "evidence" of Richard's guilt is actually Tudor propaganda.

*Almost so long ago that Pontius was still a Pilate, and Centurion was a rank and not a tank!

  • 3
    +1 and a * for the Pontius reference. He was cabin boy when I was a student. ;-) – TheHonRose Apr 15 '18 at 14:08
  • Now it nags me to not get it: Tim P. or Chris P., or someone else? (& isn't the tank quite outdated now) – LаngLаngС Apr 15 '18 at 14:35
  • @LangLangC The phrase really just means "a long time ago". I was a pad brat, so it's a phrase I grew up with from the 1960s, and it remained in British Army parlance until at least the mid 1990s.. The long version was "Back when Pontius was just enrolling for Pilate training ..." (Pilot and Pilate being homophones). I do actually remember the Centurion tank (I got a ride in one when they were being replaced by Chieftains). I've also heard it with "Spartan" instead of "Centurion", but I prefer the original form because it adds emphasis (& the Centurion was actually a tank!) ;-) – sempaiscuba Apr 15 '18 at 19:08

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.