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Tomorrow is a mystery,
but yesterday is

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Secrets of times gone by
History is an account, mostly false, of events, mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers, mostly knaves, and soldiers, mostly fools.
—Ambrose Bierce[1]

History is the study of past events, especially those that have been recorded in writing.[2] It also draws from other disciplines, such as archeology. Practitioners of history, i.e. historians, engage in a continual effort, attempting to sort out exaggeration from devaluation, lies from less serious lies, and mistakes from oversights, with the ultimate goal being to present the past in a manner that is as accurate as possible. History has existed as an academic discipline since the late 19th century, but the practice of recording and interpreting history dates back at least as far as Ancient Greece.

Views of history[edit]

How history is viewed, by and large, depends on who needs to tell the story, and what their goal is. Ironically, history itself is almost always less about the past than it is about the present. Most "history" that has ever been told to anyone carries an agenda. That is, someone chooses the particular story they choose, with the particular interpretation on it, to explain something about their particular view of their world, right now.

How the past plays out, and therefore the story historians tell of it, has been perceived differently by people in different times and cultures. For instance, ancient societies such as the Babylonians and the Hellenic Greeks tended to think of history as a circle: as time progressed, events would repeat themselves, although under different circumstances each time.

By contrast, medieval and renaissance scholars and chroniclers viewed history as a progression through a sequence of different ages, starting with the creation of the world and ending with the Second Coming of Christ and the judgment of mankind. It was usually believed that there were seven such ages.

In contrast to medieval practice, Tom Holland draws an especially sharp distinction between history and theology:

Whatever their personal religious convictions may be, modern historians do not generally explain past events as the workings of divine providence. All aspects of human society - even beliefs themselves - are now presumed to be products of evolution.[3]

Modern academics tend to look at the past and the study of it less as a specific series of events that have unfolded and that need to cataloged (with some true sense that the "truth" of what happened in these events can be uncovered), but rather as a way to understand the players in any given event, and the various views about the events. They have recognized that since what is being studied is often written records, a scholar must take into account that each writer had biases and an agenda, and that scholars themselves have biases and agendas. Modern historians understand that by and large, history is a creation.

Historical method[edit]

Depending on the place and time, history as has been classified either as a part of the humanitiesWikipedia or as a social science[4][5]. Regardless of classification, modern historical research aims to follow certain techniques and standards.

All other things being equal, the closer a piece of evidence is to an event the more it is valued. These approach yields these descending levels of evidence:

1) Contemporary evidence: Material that dates to the time the person or event actually happened - such as documents, media coverage, or eyewitness accounts.

2) Derivative evidence: Material that incorporates or relies on contemporary evidence that has since been lost, such as accounts of events written in ancient times.

3) Comparative evidence: Material that gives details that can be checked against known phenomena of the time.

Historians evaluate this evidence in two primary ways: source criticism and synthesis.

Source criticism[edit]

This entails determining the reliability of a given source,[6][7][8], procedures regarding contradictory evidence, [9] and quality of possible eyewitness evidence[10] including indirect witnesses and oral tradition.[11] Historical Anthropology tries to take this to the next level by looking at cultural dynamics that could influence what events are recored as well of how they are reported though being formed in the 1960s the field is quite young.

Synthesis: historical reasoning[edit]

This entails argument for superior explanations (that is, determining which theories are more likely to explain a given bit of evidence?)[12] sometimes using statistical inference[12]:48 and/or argument by analogy.[12]:85

Great man vs. great moment[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Great man theory

For most of its existence history has assumed the "great man theory", i.e., that human events are almost entirely the product of "great men" whose charisma, intelligence, wisdom, or political skill shaped their world. Such hagiographic or sycophantic narratives suited societies accustomed to monarchism and aristocracy. However, this approach often is not supported by the records of the time.

The counter-thesis, first suggested in 1860 by Herbert Spencer[13] but expanded in the 1970s thanks to system theoryWikipedia[14] proposed that "great" men were the product of the economic and social forces around them and that anyone else in that particular place and time could have done more-or-less the same thing.

James Burke's 1978 Connections TV series popularized the "great moment" concept by showing inventions as the product of a series of interconnecting economic and social forces rather than as the product of great men.

Consider the transistor in the context of this great moment concept. Julius Edgar Lilienfeld patented the field-effect transistor in Canada in 1925 and in the United States in 1926 and 1928; and German inventor Oskar Heil received a patent in 1934. But the high-quality semiconductor materials and technological advances needed to make such transistors economically viable didn't exist in either the 1920s or 1930s. So the patents basically sat collecting dust until Bell Labs in 1947 and Compagnie des Freins et Signaux in 1948 used them to produce the point-contact transistor.

The Watt steam engine provides another example of a Great Moment. The steam engine had been around for decades (as Thomas Newcomen's atmospheric engine) before James Watt made an improvement… which created a new problem. The new design required a precision unavailable in Newcomen's day; but (fortunately for Watt) a cannon borer that had exactly the precision he needed had been developed. As result, Watt got credit for "inventing" the whole steam engine rather than simply improving it.

In his Cosmos show Carl Sagan portrays the European discovery of the Americas as a great moment: "The lure of the spice trade, improvements in navigation, competition among rival European powers. The discovery of America around 1500 was inevitable."[15]

Dating events[edit]

One of the biggest problems with figuring out when an event occurred is that, in the past, there often was no standard method of denoting time. Instead, people tended to use regnal years (how long a sovereign had reigned) or Olympiads (four-year periods starting 776-772 BCE), neither of which started on January 1. Regnal years were inclusive; for example Queen Elizabeth II's 1st year of rule was February 6, 1952 to February 5, 1953. Compounding matters is the fact that, despite the Julian calendar reform of 46 BCE (708 AUC), during the Middle Ages the start of the New Year changed from January 1 to various other dates such as December 25, March 25, September 24, or whatever day Easter happened to fall on for those using Liturgical years.

It would be as if one said Pearl Harbor was attacked in the 9th year, 12th month of the rule of Roosevelt and the 15th year 12th month of Emperor Shōwa; if you didn't know the actual dates they began ruling (January 20, 1933 and December 25, 1926 respectively) you would have to know or have a way to cross reference when Pearl Harbor was attacked. Things would be further complicated: before Roosevelt March 4 was when a President was sworn in; and Japanese Emperors are given posthumous names - so no contemporary record of an "Emperor Shōwa" exists, even though there is a Japanese Era called Shōwa.

Even when there are actual months and years given, changes in the calendar can have strange results. This is why 46 BCE (708 AUC) is 445 days long and places that changed from the Julian Calendar (O.S.) to the Gregorian calendar (N.S.) suddenly 'lost' at least 10 days. For example, Shakespeare and Cervantes can at first appear to have died on the same day (23 April 1616) but in reality their deaths are 10 days apart. This is also why the October Revolution of 25 October 1917 O.S. happened on 7 November 1917 N.S. (a 12-day difference) Some Orthodox Churches still use the Julian Calendar, resulting in the births, marriages, and deaths they record potentially being at odds with the civil (Gregorian) calendar.

Thus, if the only references available use regnal years, references to Olympiads, Liturgical years, or a lunar calendar they must be cross-referenced to events with a known date.

Even when temporal markers do exist in writings they can produce historical nonsense when cross-referenced. For instance, in Demonstrations (74) Irenaeus states "For Herod the king of the Jews and Pontius Pilate, the governor of Claudius Caesar, came together and condemned Him (Jesus) to be crucified." The problem is that when cross-referenced to Josephus, Paul's writings, and Roman records this is a historical impossibility. Josephus firmly states that Pilate was called to Rome by Tiberius (born Tiberius Claudius Nero, but adopted as Tiberius Julius Caesar and reigning as Tiberius Caesar Divi Augusti filius Augustus), who died before Pilate got there, which sets the end of Pilate's rule as no later than 15 March 37. Paul's own writings set his vision no later than 37 CE. However, Claudius Caesar (officially: Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus) didn't start his reign until 41 CE and of the three Herods given the title of "king of the Jews" only Herod Agrippa I ruled during the time of Claudius and he only held that title from 42-44 CE.

Written by the victor; History as propaganda[edit]

History is written by the victors.
—Winston Churchill (allegedly)
History consists of the tales we like to tell each other about our predecessors. And every generation constructs its stories to suit its own outlook and agenda. [..] Propaganda, thy name is History.”
—Terry Jones (2004) "Chapter 8: The King" Terry Jones' Medieval Lives

It's often said of history that it is written by the "winners," for they generally control the media and academic narrative. This same phenomenon holds not merely with literal victors, but also with dominant segments of society. Most history has been conveyed through literature; people too poor to be educated or those who work too hard to have time to write, these peoples have been unable to tell their stories. Dominant classes have frequently discounted narratives of the working class and various minorities, finding them "irrelevant" to the "significant" history. However, more than once the ruling class and the writing class were not the same. For instance, the Vikings are portrayed so overwhelmingly negative in sources written during their heyday because the Old Norse had next to no writing, but the cities and cloisters the viking raiders attacked did. And after getting your skull bashed in by some bearded guys with funny helmets, you are not exactly inclined to pen a nuanced defense of the Nordic proto welfare state or their egalitarian views of women.

Of course this is not literally true: the great Athenian historian (and slightly less great general) Thucydides was on the losing side in the Peloponnesian War, and there are a myriad German books about the First and Second World Wars. But equally, few books are written by dead people, or published by those without access to printing presses. And even when written by the losing side, they may reflect the beliefs and ideologies of the victors.

It would be more accurate to say history is a form of propaganda; not so much what actually happened but what someone wants the reader to believe happened. Terry Jones' Medieval Lives shows just how inaccurate the "history" we are taught can be. For example, one of myths taught as fact for a long time was Columbus proved the Earth was round. [note 1] In fact, illustrations and works of fiction from the middle ages portray the Earth as a globe. For example, Gautier de Metz's Image du Monde (1245) has an illustration depicting the Earth as a globe and Dante's Divine Comedy (1320) has the protagonist emerging in the southern hemisphere seeing constellations unknown to people in the northern hemisphere.

And this historical revisionism need not take decades or even years to happen. In the case of Abraham Lincoln it happened in a matter of days. It can be argued from the contemporary material that Lincoln was perhaps the most hated President of the United States, North or South. But his assassination on a Good Friday changed all that. By Sunday morning the North had turned Lincoln into a kind "American Moses who brought his people out of slavery but was not allowed to cross over into the Promised Land"[16] and later the South would eventually portray him as their "Greatest Friend" who if he had lived would have spared them from Reconstruction.

Even the date when an event happened can be propaganda. Take when WWII began for example. There are contemporary reliable sources that present Dec 7, 1941, Sept 3, 1939, Sept 1, 1939, and Sept 18, 1931 as start dates and these dates appear in modern reliable sources as well. They are all trying to present a particular view of the reasons behind the start of WWII. If you want to present the League of Nations as ineffectual clueless bumblers then you go for the Sept 18, 1931 date.

Even relatively well recorded history can be distorted for propaganda purposes. For example, Joseph Goebbels commissioned the movie Titanic (1943) with the goals of showing the superiority of German filmmaking and that the disaster being the result of British and American capitalism.[17] In the movie, the Scottish Ship's First Officer William McMaster Murdoch was replaced by a German named Peterson to bolster the idea of a German officer being braver and more selfless than the British officers.[18] The film's epilogue was "the deaths of 1,500 people remain un-atoned, forever a testament of Britain's endless quest for profit."

Popular history[edit]

Popular history differs from history as propaganda in that it is due to poor research rather than an intentional act. This fact doesn't change that it also makes statements that are not accurate.

For example, an episode of HBO's Brain Games asked which of the following Sarah Bernhardt (who died in 1923) could not have done: appeared in a silent film, made a film with sound, made a hit recording, or be heard on the radio. We are told that she could not have made a film with sound because "talking pictures did not come on the scene until 1927".

Problem is that is not true. Edison's Kinetophone which allowed you to have a record play in conjunction with film was invented in 1896[note 2] and a sound picture using this method was shown at the Paris Exposition in 1900. The name of that film was Le Duel d'Hamlet and starred Sarah Bernhardt![note 3] Sadly the cylinder recording that contained Sarah Bernhardt's voice has been lost (the picture itself has survived) but even without it there is Little Titch y sus Big Boots (1900), Cyrano de Bergerac (1900 film),Wikipedia and the 1912 Edison's Kinetophone demonstration film to show that Brain Games didn't do its research.

Popular history tends to arise from simplifications of complex events given in early education being taken into the popular consciousness as fact; "You don't need to know that there were other Socialist states than the USSR in 1939" becomes "There weren't any other Socialist states than the USSR in 1939". This results in such minor, well-intentioned simplifications and dumbed-down accounts becoming widespread myths, causing academics much heartache as well as headache trying to explain that, actually, Mongolia, Tannu Tuva and parts of China (Jianxi and Sinkiang) were all Socialist too.

Another source of popular history is people unknowingly borrowing from propaganda or popularization of certain events. The Spanish Inquisition and Christopher Columbus are prime examples. From 1500 on the Spanish Inquisition was superior to the secular courts to the point people would do things to get into the Inquisition court.[citation needed] Meanwhile, the popular conception that Christians of the time thought the earth was flat and that there were fears Columbus's crew would fall off the edge of the world stems from Washington Irving's A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus,Wikipedia which cast Columbus as a crusader against ignorance.[19]

Academic history[edit]

The study of history as an academic field dates to the 19th century, when historians begin to adopt a small measure of the scientific methods for studying source materials. They also adopted a new objectivist ideal of history that broke with earlier approaches. The new role of the historian was to show history "as it actually happened", and not to pass judgment or impose his own views on the sources. Key figures in this development were the German historians Leopold von RankeWikipedia and Theodor Mommsen.Wikipedia A different Anglo-SaxonWikipedia historical tradition evolved independently, largely empirical but with wide variations. With the benefit of retrospect, one can look at the supposedly 'objective' 19th century histories of J.R. SeeleyWikipedia (a propagandist of Empire) or W.E.H. LeckyWikipedia (an Irish unionist and opponent of mass democracy) and see very clearly a rich variety of bias. British historiography was for almost a century dominated by the Whig Interpretation of History, which regards history as a chronicle of perpetual progress. MacaulayWikipedia was the greatest proponent of this school. It still has some adherents, though it has been a long time since it has had any meaningful influence on British historiography.

In the early 20th century, the French Annales school,Wikipedia which among others numbered the historians Lucien Febvre,Wikipedia Fernand BraudelWikipedia and Marc Bloch,Wikipedia was notable by introducing social scientific methods and turning away from the traditional focus on political and diplomatic history.

In recent years, the traditional academic approach to history has come under attack from the post-modernist school, inspired by theories from literary and cultural studies. In most cases these attacks have been deflected, due to the resurgence of a traditionalist school led in Britain by G.R. EltonWikipedia and in the USA by the colorful J.H. Hexter.Wikipedia Postmodernism's ultimate contribution to historiography was to instill a greater skepticism of historical certainty and force historians to confront the inherent weaknesses of the source material from which they based their analyses. In a broader sense, postmodernism proved unworkable as it implicitly condemns any value judgments. The obscuritan nature of this sophistry is wonderfully dissected by Richard J. EvansWikipedia in his In Defence of History.

Academic history and the Bible[edit]

Christian apologetics frequently makes extraordinary claims - including that history proves that Jesus was God. Those who have not studied the New Testament and Old Testament at the degree level, however, are unlikely to know enough to assess these claims. In fact, those engaged in religious studies (and related fields) as a secular, academic discipline, do not concern themselves with whether Jesus was divine. Moreover, as leading bible scholar Bart Ehrman points out, in the three earliest gospels Jesus himself cannot be cited as claiming to be God:

During his lifetime, Jesus himself didn't call himself God and didn't consider himself God, and ... none of his disciples had any inkling at all that he was God....If Jesus had not been declared God by his [posthumous] followers, his followers would'™ve remained a sect within Judaism, a small Jewish sect...[20]

In a nutshell[edit]

See also[edit]


  • Evans, Richard J.: In Defence of History (London, 1997)
  • Iggers, Georg I.: Historiography in the Twentieth Century. From Scientific Objectivity to the Postmodern Challenge (Hannover, 1997)
  • Jenkins, Keith: Re-Thinking History (London, 1991)


  1. The Earth was known to be round as far back as the 6th century BCE. Plus, Columbus never even came close to circumnavigating the world. He couldn't have proven it to be round in any event.
  2. The Dickston Experimental Sound Film (1894-5) demonstrates an early version of the process.
  3. The movie poster for the film shows her standing next to a camera and phonograph.


  1. The Devil's Dictionary. Castle Books, NY, 1967
  2. "Definition of HISTORY". 2023-06-22. 
  3. Tom Holland: In the shadow of the sword: The battle for global empire and the end of the ancient world. London: Little, Brown: 2012; ISBN: 978-1-4087-0007-5 (page 10).
  4. Landes, David S.; Charles Tilly (1971) History as Social Science Prentice Hall
  5. Scott Gordon and James Gordon Irving, The History and Philosophy of Social Science. Routledge 1991. Page 1. ISBN 0-415-05682-9
  6. Garraghan, Gilbert J. (1946) A Guide to Historical Method, Fordham University Press: New York . ISBN 0-8371-7132-6)
  7. Olden-Jørgensen, Sebastian (2001). Til Kilderne: Introduktion til Historisk Kildekritik (in Danish). [To the sources: Introduction to historical source criticism]. København: Gads Forlag. ISBN 978-87-12-03778-1.
  8. Thurén, Torsten. (1997). Källkritik. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell.
  9. Howell, Martha & Prevenier, Walter (2001). From Reliable Sources: An Introduction to Historical Methods. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. ISBN 0-8014-8560-6.
  10. Shafer, R. J. (1974) A Guide to Historical Method, The Dorsey Press: Illinois . ISBN 0-534-10825-3.)
  11. Garraghan, Gilbert J. (1946) A Guide to Historical Method, Fordham University Press: New York . ISBN 0-8371-7132-6)
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 McCullagh, C. Behan (1984) Justifying Historical Descriptions, Cambridge University Press: New York . ISBN 0-521-31830-0.
  13. Spencer, Herbert. The Study of Sociology, Appleton, 1896, p. 34.
  14. Burke, James Connections (1978; 2007) ISBN-13: 978-0743299558
  15. Cosmos Episode 8: "Travels in space and time"
  16. Tagg, Larry The Unpopular Mr. Lincoln: The Story of America's Most Reviled President Savas Beatie
  17. Dunbar, John N. (2014) A Critical History of History in Motion Pictures. Author House. pp.389-91. ISBN 9781491868720
  18. Fiebing, Malte (2012) Titanic:: Nazi Germany's Version of the Disaster
  19. The Truth About Columbus and the Round Earth by Today I Found Out (September 26, 2017) YouTube
  20. http://www.npr.org/2014/04/07/300246095/if-jesus-never-called-himself-god-how-did-he-become-one