Short Reads

How Do Historians Evaluate the Thruth of a Claim?

>>> Original comment on AskHistorians

Historians don’t state facts randomly. They don’t fabricate them either. They follow what we call the Historical Method, or Quellenkritik, or Critique historique.

What’s the Purpose of the Historical Method?

Human societies leave written or non-written documents. For the sake of this argument I will only focus on written documents, especially since non-written documents are more often related to archaeological or art history studies than historical studies. Those scientific disciplines are deeply connected and they feed off each other but they each present specific methods related to their fields of inquiry. The written document is the specificity of the historian. Therefore I’ll mostly focus on that.

The 17th century saw the rise and triumph of centralized states in Europe. Those states heavily relied on an administrative workforce to control, regulate and expand their authority. If the verbal agreement was still paramount in the 15th century, it wasn’t the case anymore. However, a greater number of “paper pushers” meant that you needed to ascertain the validity of written documents. How could you be sure that a royal or papal letter was legitimate? You had to know how the documents were made and what they displayed. It became even more crucial when kings and princes pushed territorial claims as casi bellorum to legitimize going to war with their neighbors. Louis XIV, for example, became an expert at that game.

In the meantime, Jesuits were poking anywhere they could. They were highly educated, quite erudite, and they loved to prove people wrong—which partially contributed to their downfall. A group of them, the Bollandists, settled in the Low Countries and specialized in proving that hagiographies (the biographies of saints) were full of nonsense and historical inaccuracies. It threatened the livelihood of several religious congregation which relied on popular pilgrimage. Who would worship a relic that contained the bones of a made-up saint?

Dom Mabillon rose to the challenge, on the matter of old Merovingian charters, and came up with a method to prove or disprove the validity of a document. He fathered diplomatic, the study and science of authentic documents. Do you wonder how Sherlock Holmes solved A Scandal in Bohemia? Well, he showed quite the diplomatic prowess in the very first chapter when he identified the origin of the paper upon which a letter was sent to him. We know Sherlock Holmes only solved murders through hard science: Sir Conan Doyle obviously thought of diplomatic as one of them.

The scene is actually a very good imaginary depiction of what a diplomatic examination should go for.


The note was undated, and without either signature or address.

“There will call upon you to-night, at a quarter to eight o’clock,” it said, “a gentleman who desires to consult you upon a matter of the very deepest moment. Your recent services to one of the royal houses of Europe have shown that you are one who may safely be trusted with matters which are of an importance which can hardly be exaggerated. This account of you we have from all quarters received. Be in your chamber then at that hour, and do not take it amiss if your visitor wear a mask.”

“This is indeed a mystery,” I remarked. “What do you imagine that it means?”

“I have no data yet. It is a capital mistake to theorise before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts. But the note itself. What do you deduce from it?

I carefully examined the writing, and the paper upon which it was written.

“The man who wrote it was presumably well to do,” I remarked, endeavouring to imitate my companion’s processes. “Such paper could not be bought under half a crown a packet. It is peculiarly strong and stiff.

“Peculiar—that is the very word,” said Holmes. “It is not an English paper at all. Hold it up to the light.

I did so, and saw a large E with a small g, a P, and a large G with a small t woven into the texture of the paper.

“What do you make of that?” asked Holmes.

“The name of the maker, no doubt; or his monogram, rather.”

“Not at all. The G with the small t stands for ‘Gesellschaft,’ which is the German for ‘Company.’ It is a customary contraction like our ‘Co.’ P**, of course, stands for ‘Papier.’ Now for the** Eg**.** Let us glance at our Continental Gazetteer.” He took down a heavy brown volume from his shelves. “Eglow, Eglonitz—here we are, Egria. It is in a German-speaking country—in Bohemia**, not far from Carlsbad**. ‘Remarkable as being the scene of the death of Wallenstein, and for its numerous glass factories and paper mills.’ Ha, ha, my boy, what do you make of that?” His eyes sparkled, and he sent up a great blue triumphant cloud from his cigarette.

The paper was made in Bohemia,” I said.

“Precisely. And the man who wrote the note is a German. Do you note the peculiar construction of the sentence—‘This account of you we have from all quarters received.’ A Frenchman or Russian could not have written that. It is the German who is so uncourteous to his verbs. It only remains, therefore, to discover what is wanted by this German who writes upon Bohemian paper, and prefers wearing a mask to showing his face. And here he comes, if I am not mistaken, to resolve all our doubts.”


The first thing you look for in a document is the date, the signature and the place it was made if there is any indication of it. Most medieval charters were already very specific on such things and mentioned who ordered the document, who wrote it, who signed it, to whom it was addressed, where it’d been written, etc. Sherlock had no such luck: no date, no signature and no address were displayed on the Bohemian letter.

That’s why he looked at the material aspect of the document: the paper. Merovingians documents were often written on papyrus (that’s why many of them didn’t survive the passing of time). Late medieval charter was commonly written on parchments. Early modern documents are often written on paper. There are several kinds of papyri, parchment and paper. Those many and various types have been recorded by historians since Mabillon. Brichet has given an extensive directory on watermarks, for example. That’s what Sherlock goes for once he’s observed the letter was written on paper. Paper very often displayed a watermark before the industrial era. It showed its place of origin, which workshop had crafted it. I personally observed watermarks in a 15th century manuscript and it greatly helped me to date when it was made thanks to Brichet’s directory.

Last but not least, Sherlock delves into a bit of philology. His observations are a bit blunt but they illustrate what to go for once you’ve dealt with the material aspect of a document: look closely at grammatical structures, lexicography and syntax. That’s how Lorenzo Valla proved, back in the 16th century, that the pope’s territorial claim to central Italy was based on a fake document! Once you know how Cicero wrote, for example, you can spot whether he’s the author of a Latin text or not.

There is one thing Sherlock left out, however, and that is paleography: the study of the written word. What are their shapes? We do not write today as people used to write. There are regional and historical trends. I could open a digitized manuscript online and determine whether it dates from the 15th or the 14th century or if it was made in Italy or Germany only by looking at its scripta. I do have Derolez’s directory about gothic scripts at home.

So this is the purpose of the historical method: to ascertain through empirical observations whether a document is true or false.

The Heuristic Process

So let’s say you have a document, any kind of written document. Nice! What do you do first to ascertain its authenticity? Well, you don’t directly look for clues. No. You build a database. You try to find as many documents as you can relate to the very document you have at hand. That’s what Mabillon did. He went all over Europe to find more and more medieval charters to help him come up with his method. How do you know if a Merovingian charter is authentic or not? You first have to look at hundreds of them, very closely.

Today you could go on Google and type what you’re looking for but, believe it or not, most of the time it won’t help you if you’re searching for a very specific historical subject. Google is specifically designed for commercial purposes. Websites that comply to SEO tactics will get better chance to appear on the first page. It’s not a neutral search engine. You have to know about other databases too. Or you can go old school: dive into a bibliography about the topic that sparked your interest. A bibliography is basically a book that only contains book titles and gosh is it useful!

You can find bibliographies at the end of monographs or scientific articles too. Historians are especially fond of them. We have rules on how to write them, with Latin abbreviations and everything. A good history book has pretty much as many pages of notes and bibliography as it has of ‘content’. Every single fact stated MUST be based on a document of some kind: either another peer’s research or a primary source.

The aim of the heuristic process is to know as much as you can about the chain of information. Someone claims something: where did he get it? What’s the very base of his claim? Is it grounded on an authentic primary source? Sometimes you’ll find contradicting information and that’s when things get really interesting.

The External Examination of Documents

A document always rely on a specific material. Is it paper? Parchment? Stone? Something else entirely? What is it made of? As we’ve seen with the Bohemian letter, the material aspect of a document can tell us a lot about it.

The external examination of a document doesn’t stop there. How was the document made? Which process did it go through? Scientific contributions, for example, are not only written and published, they’re also read and validated by other scholars before being published. Then, they can be discussed through reviews. Reading book reviews are a lot of fun sometimes: if you’re lucky that’s where academics go very ugly and personal on each other. It doesn’t help you a lot in your research, sure, but it’s quite entertaining. It’s like a Twitter brawl but with style.

The material aspect and the writing process of a document are very important to ascertain its value. Those famous Lincoln’s quotes of yours, where can you find them? Are they written on a letter written by Lincoln himself? Who wrote them down? When? How? And why? I could claim Gandalf said the Force is strong with Bilbo Baggins but I couldn’t come up with a single line in the Hobbit to back up my claim unless I forge my own edition of it, for example. I’m not saying that Lincoln’s quotes are false. I’m just saying: where do you find them? What’s the original document that contains them? Is that original document an authentic or fake document? Those questions need to be answered before moving forward on any interpretation about Lincoln’s presidency and political ideology.

The Internal Examination of Documents

Once we’ve seen what a document’s made of and how it was made, we can start to look at what it contains. Now that we know what ink was used to write on that 13th century parchment, what do we read?

The internal written structure of a document is often predetermined by its pragmatic goal. Why was the document written? Is it an executive letter from a government official? Is it a judicial record? Is it a personal journal? Is an article in a newspaper? Those various forms of written documents each show a very different use of language. A poem could be full of very valuable historical information, but it’s also designed to sound pretty or to be thought-provoking, for example. In the Late Middle Ages, verses were considered to be only fit for fiction on the basis that the truth couldn’t be conveyed if the language had to abide to too many rhetoric rules. Did it rhyme? It couldn’t be historically accurate, clerics thought. We know today that prose chronicles also show a lot of literary prowess and expertise that tarnish or embellish the truth. That’s why we can’t only rely on Froissart’s to understand what happened during the first half of the Hundred Years’ War. We have to look at official records, accounting documents, pieces of legislation, judicial archives, etc. Archive documents tend to be closer to facts than narrative sources because they’re less concerned with literary reception and social praise. A few medieval chroniclers understood it pretty well and actually copied official records within their narratives to give it more weight and legitimacy.

Let’s get back to that Lincoln’s quotes. Let’s say they were found in actual 19th century documents. Do the letters in which we find them match Lincoln’s literary style or lack thereof? I stated that it was quite easy to identify Cicero once you knew his style, the same goes for every author. If you push it even a bit farther, you could conclude a thing or two about an author’s psychology. The act of writing implies making choices. What choices did your author do? Why? If he was writing freely his choices and his psychology will appear even more clearly than if he were writing from a pre-established form. Knowing about an author’s psychology can help us ascertain if he’s being truthful or not.

We can also learn a lot someone’s intellectual background only by reading his writing closely. There is an actual field of study dedicated to account for every explicit or implicit quotes in Latin medieval chronicles. When he edited De rebus circa regni Siciliae curiam gestis, Eduardo D’Angelo (2014) established the exact proportion of quotes from Pagan and early Christian authors within the text. We know that the author of De rebus Siciliae actually read Cicero’s Pro Sestio, for example, or Virgil’s Aeneid. These kinds of observations can help us to date a document when everything else fails. Monstrelet talks about Froissart’s chronicle: he obviously wrote later than him. It’s like spotting a Starbucks cup on a popular fantasy TV show. It’s evidence.

Why Do History Change Over Time?

It’s very simple: the more we study a subject, the more we know about it. When historians first wrote about the Crusades in the 19th century, there was a lot they didn’t know about it because there were still tons of documents to uncover. We have miles and miles of unclassified archives. I mean metric tons of paper, parchment and whatnot that contain God knows what. We still have a LOT to discover.

When Huizinga wrote about the “Fall of the Middle Ages” he didn’t take many sources into account. He built his view of the 14th and 15th centuries solely on narrative sources. Vale has shown how the results of his compulsive monograph were biased because of that. Now add non-written documents to your analysis and it’s another story altogether that you have to write!

The main difference between the historian and the conspiracy theorist is that the historian will not only show you one compelling proof: he will show you ALL the evidence he found, acknowledge what he didn’t take into account (and why) and discuss everything said evidence for what they’re worth. A conspiracy theory flashes forward from one argument to another to build its case. The historian takes his time and his book might be Bible heavy instead of ten-minute YouTube short.

Someone is making wild claims? Slow him down. Stop him every. Step. Of. The. Way. “Where did you get your information? Is that source reliable? Why do you trust it? Etc. Etc.” And don’t let any fancy rhetoric fool you. Hard evidence is hard.

4 thoughts on “How Do Historians Evaluate the Thruth of a Claim?”

  1. The philosophy of history (as in, critical methodology, analytical method, and the way historiography is always framed by current priorities) is something I like more than the contents of history: it is, of itself, a fascinating field. I studied this post-grad under Prof. Peter Munz, a student of Karl Popper (here’s his Guardian obit: https://www.theguardian.com/news/2007/mar/12/obituaries.mainsection ) and have applied the lessons into my work as a professional historian. I think one of the main problems with ‘conspiracy theories’ is that they obviously have no such critical faculty when dealing with ‘evidence’, and typically no broad context to provide a context within which to place the individual items they find (or, conversely, the broad context is one that rejects all ‘conventional’ explanation). On the other hand, most conspiracy theories seem to be useful proof of the remarkable ability humans have to find patterns where none exist, and then act as if those patterns were real.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve touched on conspiracy theories with Joan of Arc’s birth and alleged royal blood 😉

      Have you read Marc Bloch’s book on the historical method? What a timeless classic. It must have been translated into English by now…

      Liked by 1 person

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