eli5: How do we know that historically accurate things are.. historically accurate?

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Let’s go back to the 1600’s. Stuff happened. How do we know this stuff happened – the way people dressed, ate, acted? Is it a collective of surviving evidence gathered from the time? How do we know that written statements from the time period weren’t bullshit? Do we just agree that we can form a general picture of what happened in the past from the surviving evidence?

(1600s used as an example, this applies to general history. I assume things get more questionable the further you go back)

Thank you for indulging a historically-challenged idiot who’s had a few whiskeys.

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We don’t really. Most of what we know comes from stories passed down, paintings, artifacts etc. We try to peice it together the best we can, but we can’t be 100%.

Its not just recent history either. Dinosaurs probably didn’t look like we think they looked. We just guessed. Modern theory is that the TRex had feathers, very crazy.

Its fun to think what they will think about us 1000 years from now. Maybe all the Golden arches will make them think we worshipped a clown who loved hamburgers.

As with any time in history, you rely on corroborating evidence. If you only find one thing indicating something, you’re completely correct that it could be fabricated, exaggerated, or in some way false. But if you have many pieces of evidence from various sources that all state the same thing, it raises the confidence level in regards to accuracy. Best if you can find evidence from independent sources which may not share the same cultural biases.

Sometimes you can’t find this kind of supporting evidence, in which case you might make note of it in case something new shows up to support it. You also have to account for bias since, as the saying goes, history is written by the victors. It can be challenging, as often times the stories of the losing side are destroyed or forgotten, and thus historians may never have a full, complete picture of some events.

We have lots of written records of things happening in the 1600s that we know are utterly bullshit and just made up for various reasons. This is a lot of what historical researchers have to dig through to find out what is real and what is made up or misinterpreted. It is very important to historians to not only look at what was written or what artifacts remains from something but also look at their history in the mean time. A lot of historical texts are just made up for one reason or another so you need to look at who the authors are, what their sources are and what their motives are. Even if you have multiple sources saying the same thing it might be that they are actually just quoting the same unreliable source. And it is a similar issue with artifacts. People made forgeries and repaired or embellished real artifacts.

This is why historical research takes so much time and effort. You can not just go to the library and read through a few old book and start writing your own book based on these. You need to actually do lots of research for every single piece of fact to try to find independent sources for them. One of the reasons why it is easier to study historical warfare then other aspects of life is because you often have records of the wars from both sides so you can compare them. When you get first hand records of people at a battle saying they saw the lord and savior himself come down from the skies to rain lighting bolt upon the enemy you might not want to take this quite so literally but rather look at how the enemy depict the battle scene.

History is something that’s always evolving because we don’t have a complete picture of everything that happened in history and as we learn more, what we know changes.

Take for example, the city of Troy and the story of the Trojan War. The ancient Greeks and Romans believed they were real, but history back then wasn’t very rigorous and the focus was more on the story. When history became a more rigorous field, a lack of evidence meant that for a while Troy and the Trojan War were thought by most historians to be entirely mythical.

However, in the late 1800s, a the ruins of an ancient city was discovered and was close enough to the descriptions of the ancient stories that it’s believed to be Troy so now the stories are believed to have been loosely based on actual events.

Read War and Peace by Tolstoy. It’s basically a treatise on how history can never be truly accurate because it is written by the victors, doesn’t take into account different perspectives (i.e., a peasant vs. a lord), and a lot of other reasons. There is also a story in there somewhere.

Some words didn’t exist yet. Cowabunga!

Writers have plenty of letters from that era. That seems to be the jumping off point. Everyone is British, for some reason.

You don‘t. There is a „best approximation“ but historically accurate is never 100%, not even close.

Humans are not good historians. We tend to storify history and to interpret intent according to our own mindset.

Example: the outbreak of WW1 is well documented. But even there, historians still have major differences.

As with any time in history, you rely on corroborating evidence. If you only find one thing indicating something, you’re completely correct that it could be fabricated, exaggerated, or in some way false. But if you have many pieces of evidence from various sources that all state the same thing, it raises the confidence level in regards to accuracy. Best if you can find evidence from independent sources which may not share the same cultural biases.