Going against the grain of the historical source

It’s a curious thing that although historians have always had historical sources at their disposal, the need to verify the truthfulness of a given source is a recent development in the history of history . Since the foundation of history as an intellectual endeavour (for Herodotus, the Greek word historia means inquiries) and a source of knowledge, historians have only intermittently questioned their sources, especially when the suspicions were too great for the sources to be taken at face value. But for most of Western historical writing, sources were indeed taken at face value – and in some circles, they still are.

One of the greatest achievements in historiography has been exactly this, the suspension of belief that a source is what it purports to be. Source criticism really took off when the seduction of sources softened its grasp. The lure of the surviving record (admittedly a tautology) has prompted many historians to jump to conclusions when historiographical distancing would have been a more salubrious measure.

Contemporary history writing, especially the kind which proceeds from academic research, knows the importance of exercising suspicion vis-a-vis the source material and is not afraid – or at least one hopes – to go against the grain of the record, exposing its weaknesses (contradictions, bias, willful deception). But to arrive at this mature stage of development, the science of history had to let go of the allurement, however strong it may have been, of the source as a presence against the backdrop of absence. For it’s always tempting to fall prey to what there is when most of what should have survived is no longer there – and to trust it blindly.

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