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When passing on facts about the past, disseminators of popular history are in constant danger of misinforming the public. In journalism today, it has become commonplace to employ fact-checkers to assess statements made by public figures. As a fact-checker for BBC History Magazine and other publications, as well as a trained historian, it is my job to verify the historical details in articles, to ensure the greatest possible veracity. Yet, as the Italian writer and philosopher Umberto Eco wrote in his 1980 novel The Name of the Rose, echoing St Paul, “we see now through a glass darkly, and the truth, before it is revealed to all, face to face, we see in fragments (alas, how illegible) in the error of the world”.

What we know about the past is based on incomplete evidence, the meaning of which is often obscure. This being the case, how can we, and ‒ more importantly ‒ why should we fact-check history? After all, what are historical “facts”?

The English noun “fact” ultimately derives from the Latin word factum for “an act, a deed, something done”. Originally this had a specific legal meaning, though the Oxford English Dictionary now lists 10 broader definitions, plus a wide variety of senses. Two of the most frequently used are clearly distinct. The difference, especially when applied to history, between “that which is known (or firmly believed) to be real or true” and “a thing that has really occurred or is actually the case” is considerable.

The former assumes facts are unavoidably subjective, and only our current assessment of reality; whereas the latter asserts that historical facts are fixed and absolute truths. In practical terms this is a false dichotomy. While there have, of course, always been disagreements about the nature of truth – indeed over whether it exists at all – most sensible people grant that it does, but that it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to attain fully.

Improving our view of history

As new evidence appears, or old evidence is reinterpreted, our view should improve. The great French medieval historian Marc Bloch firmly believed that our “knowledge of the past is something progressive, which is constantly transforming and perfecting itself”. After all, the Sumerian King List, the earliest versions of which date to the late third millennium BC, was once considered the essential historical source for the political history of ancient Mesopotamia. Yet we now know that a number of kings it contains were entirely fictional, as were many of the dates and events.

Likewise, a considerable proportion of ostensibly early medieval charters from across western Europe are later forgeries ‒ mainly produced in the 12th century ‒ and this was only properly understood from the 19th century. With such discoveries, our understanding of what constitutes historical facts must change. This process cannot be dismissed as unnecessary “revisionism” or “rewriting history”. If that is your position, you may as well believe in the discovery and settlement of Britain by Brutus, the supposed descendant of the mythical Trojan Aeneas, an idea once commonly accepted in medieval England thanks to the proliferation of the Brut Chronicle.

Given the propensity for our “facts” about history to alter, what sources of information exist that we can reliably check against? What if these are themselves wrong? It is admittedly easy to acquire the cynical belief that history comprises nothing but lies and mistakes inexorably laid down over the centuries. Yet therein lies a post-truth world, one that should be swiftly rejected, for it allows for the arbitrary denial of anything, not least the greatest crimes of history, such as the Holocaust.

Getting the dates right

We can do better than that. If false information can spread faster online today than in the past, books and articles by reputable authorities are likewise more accessible. Some sources are more trustworthy than others, and these can be rapidly cross-checked for disagreements. What soon becomes clear is that experts make and perpetuate basic mistakes. Even the dates they ascribe to events, a staple of history, are sometimes wrong. This is partly because dating systems were, and are, multifarious and bewildering.

Some ancient Greeks might have dated by the Olympiad, the Romans by who held their consulships. The Maya, like many Mesoamerican civilisations, confusingly used not only a 365-day calendar cycle and a 260-day ritual cycle, but also marked events or the deeds of their leaders from a base date at the beginning of a cycle of 5,125 years.

The Christian system of dating events from the birth of Christ – Anno Domini (“in the year of the Lord”) or AD, secularised today as CE, or Common Era – might seem simple and clear. After all, it has become increasingly used since its invention by the Scythian monk Dionysius Exiguus (Denis the Little) in the sixth century AD, especially after the later addition of BC for the years “before Christ”. Yet we don’t know when Christ was supposedly born. Possibly it was in 4 BC or before. There is also no year 0 between 1 BC and 1 AD. The modern Greek government fell foul of this by erroneously marking the 2,500th anniversary of the 480 BC battle of Thermopylae in 2020.

This Mayan calendar illustrates the intricacy of the Mesoamerican civilisation’s date-keeping, involving three systems based on cycles of different length (Photo by Iberfoto / Bridgeman Images)
This Mayan calendar illustrates the intricacy of the Mesoamerican civilisation’s date-keeping, involving three systems based on cycles of different length (Photo by Iberfoto / Bridgeman Images)

Then there are repeated confusions between the Julian (also called Old Style) and Gregorian (New Style) calendars. The latter was introduced in 1582 by Pope Gregory XIII, advancing the calendar a number of days to correct discrepancies from the solar year, but this was not adopted everywhere immediately. Britain did not switch until 1752 (to considerable protest at having allegedly “lost 11 days”).

This means that for every event before the changeover we have two potential dates we could use. Russia did not give up the Julian Calendar until 1918. So, as far as we are concerned, the 1917 February Revolution took place in March, and the Bolshevik October Revolution (“Red October”) actually occurred in November.

Many people often assume that years start on 1 January, our “New Year”, but even in Europe this is a fairly recent innovation. Depending on when and where we are talking about, a new year might begin at any point between Christmas and Easter. Medieval and early modern England generally switched years on 25 March (Lady Day). Therefore, for us, Charles I of England was executed on 30 January 1649, but at the time it was still 1648. Regnal years were also often used: counted from a ruler’s accession, or sometimes their coronation. These can be simpler if known and fixed, but not always. Spare a thought for scholars of King John, whose regnal year began on Ascension Day, a moveable feast that shifted in line with Easter.

Problems with terminology

Like dates, terminology is often problematic. Just as to an archaeologist Stonehenge is not really a “henge”, since true henges have external banks and internal ditches that delineate a central area, historical terms can be misapplied. Even well-informed military historians refer to the German army in the Second World War as the Wehrmacht. This actually comprised all armed forces, including the Kriegsmarine (navy) and Luftwaffe (air force). What they really mean is the Heer.

Words used to describe territorial entities are especially misused. It has become convention to refer to the “western” and “eastern” Roman empires as if they were recurrently distinct entities from the third century AD. Just as there were often co-emperors, in principle it was still one Roman empire. Likewise, because we place undue importance on the collapse in the west at the end of the fifth century, the Roman east then transforms in our minds into the Byzantine empire, even though it arguably remained Roman until the Ottomans took Constantinople in 1453.

To complicate matters further, the Frankish king Charlemagne was crowned emperor of the Romans in AD 800, then later, from 1254, a portion of his conquests became known as the Holy Roman empire, which, as Voltaire pointed out in 1756, “was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire”.

When we use terms casually outside of their appropriate period, the passing of time rapidly loses meaning and our understanding of it becomes incoherent

Naturally, we cannot always avoid inserting anachronisms, because history is complicated and we do not live in the past. Yet, when we use terms casually outside of their appropriate period, the passing of time rapidly loses meaning and our understanding of it becomes incoherent. It does to the historical record what burrowing rodents do to the archaeological stratigraphy. Even the most prestigious institutions do this. A recent exhibition at the British Museum included a label referring to an exchange of gifts between “English” and “French” Neolithic chieftains.

Such errors carry serious risks since they offer a false impression of continuity that suits those modern ethno-nationalists who might wish to mistakenly connect a people with a place. In these cases, anachronistic geography should always be carefully caveated to account for the impermanence of states and nations.

Pyramid scheme: the lies of Herodotus

Why a fictional account of the building of Egypt’s Great Pyramid has thrived for 2,500 years

If you’re looking for an example of how a falsehood can flourish for millennia, transforming popular perceptions of a historical event, then look no further than the ancient Greek historian Herodotus (c484–c420 BC). Herodotus is considered the “father of history”, yet he passed on many dubious “facts”.

Few of these have been more enduring than the idea that the pyramids of Giza in northern Egypt were erected (c2575–c2465 BC) by a vast army of maltreated slaves. According to Book II of his Histories, in building the “Great Pyramid” the pharaoh Khufu (called Cheops by the Greeks) “compelled all the Egyptians to work for him”, “in gangs of a hundred thousand men, each gang for three months” for 20 years. This, we are told, “brought the people to utter misery”.

Egyptologists now explain that such slave labour did not really exist in ancient Egypt. The pyramid-builders were a mix of 4,000–5,000 permanent skilled workers and some 20,000 temporary labourers, who assisted for a few months at a time, probably during the annual Nile floods when agricultural work was on hiatus. All were paid, in graded notional rations of bread and beer that were tradeable for other goods and services.

Yet the truth didn’t prevent Herodotus’s description taking root, and his version of how the Great Pyramid of Giza came into being was repeated by later ancient writers. Some, like the Jewish historian Josephus (AD 37–100), conflated his builders with those people of Israel held in slavery in Egypt described in the Old Testament book of Exodus. This idea was echoed in 1977 by Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin and still persists in the popular consciousness of Christians in the west.

Even if we ignore the questionable historicity of biblical narratives, the supposed events of the book of Exodus are in any case cautiously dated to the 13th century BC, more than a thousand years after the pyramids of Giza were built.

Need for clarity

Beyond the details and terminology, we often encounter broader problems with the sense of the history presented to the reader. Sometimes what is meant is simply unclear. Statements that are vaguely stated or poorly framed can convey to readers further erroneous information. “Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan led the first circumnavigation of Earth” would be an example of this. Actually, Magellan himself died halfway round; it was Juan Sebastián Elcano who led the expedition on its return.

Often, ideas have just become too entrenched in popular culture to question, and so historians include them thoughtlessly. There’s seemingly nothing wrong with the statement: “The Great War ended in 1918.” But, technically speaking, though hostilities had largely ceased by the armistice in November 1918, the war itself was brought to an official end somewhat later, by the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, plus Trianon and others.

Likewise, we can’t mistake unqualified value judgments for facts. You cannot state that Thomas Edison “was the greatest inventor of electrical appliances” or that “Kublai Khan decreed the stateliest pleasure-dome” without making clear that these assertions are based on, say, total annual sales of devices or palatial construction costs.

Some speculation is, of course, perfectly acceptable. Pedantry should never stifle imagination. It is conjecture, tested against the available evidence, that keeps historical discussion fresh and appealing, as well as pushing the boundaries of enquiry. This is so long as the degree of certainty is clear to readers. It is also fine to include hearsay or interpretations that pass to us by tradition, as these add colour to depictions of the past. History would be cold and dull were all the anecdotes and half-truths expunged, leaving just those things historians deem worthy of near absolute certainty. Again, only clarity is required. The phrase “King Harold was struck in the eye by an arrow at the battle of Hastings” gives the false impression that we know this for sure. It is far better to state that “according to popular belief, King Harold was struck in the eye”.

The usefulness of history

You may ask, why does all this matter if people read about history for entertainment? To engage with the past as (following LP Hartley) “a foreign country” where people “do things differently”, is certainly enjoyable escapism. Arguably, were this its only purpose, factual accuracy might not be all that important. But history is useful. Only by knowing about the past can we properly understand the present.

Whether unintentional misinformation or deliberate disinformation, inaccuracies can steadily distort the picture we get and so negate its usefulness. Once they begin circulating, false ideas about history are naturally inclined to then stick resiliently to our collective memory. Many people still believe in a historical King Arthur, or that the pyramids in Egypt were built by slaves. This phenomenon has been observed almost as long as there have been historians. Thucydides, writing in late fifth-century BC Greece, noted that “most people, in fact, will not take trouble in finding out the truth, but are much more inclined to accept the first story they hear”.

Pedantry should never stifle imagination. It is fine to include hearsay or interpretations that pass to us by tradition, as these add colour to depictions of the past. History would be cold and dull were all the anecdotes and half-truths expunged, leaving just those things historians deem worthy of near absolute certainty

This alone should convince as to the value of fact-checking. But I would argue that it should be applied far more widely to combat the misuse of popular history. Because, when people consciously or unconsciously twist historical details to suit their purpose, it can have very-real often-destructive effects in the present day.

For a recent – albeit extreme – example, look no further than Russian president Vladimir Putin, who circulated an essay in July 2021 in which he argued that Russians and Ukrainians have been “one people” across more than a thousand years. Replete with errors of detail and terminology, allowing him to misrepresent how national identities and states develop, the essay formed his theoretical justification for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Suffice to say, had the document been properly fact-checked before publication, Putin could not have made such a claim.

Unavoidably, some historical evidence and its interpretation is, and will remain, under dispute. Our purpose in fact-checking history articles is not to arbitrate opposing views; academic history should do this through the peer review process. Instead, if we eliminate the deliberate or accidental spread of unsubstantiated information, we help facilitate wider appreciation of the past by affirming common ground.

If we do this, we can still share in history’s most universal function: to understand time, and our place in it. Then again, one cannot be sure even about the facts I have asserted here. Hopefully someone will have checked them too.

This article was first published in the November 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine

Authors

Dr Robert Blackmore is a historian of the Middle Ages and a fact-checker for BBC History Magazine