Pseudohistory is a form of pseudoscholarship that attempts to distort or misrepresent the historical record, often using methods resembling those used in legitimate historical research. Pseudohistory frequently presents a big lie or sensational claims about historical facts which would require the revision (re-writing) of the historical record. The related term cryptohistory applied to a pseudohistory based upon or derived from the superstitions inherent to occultism. Pseudohistory is related to pseudoscience and pseudoarchaeology and usage of the terms may occasionally overlap.
Definition and etymologyEdit
The term pseudohistory was coined in the early nineteenth century, which makes the word older than the related terms pseudo-scholarship and pseudoscience. In an attestation from 1815, it is used to refer to the Contest of Homer and Hesiod, a purportedly historical narrative describing an entirely fictional contest between the Greek poets Homer and Hesiod. The pejorative sense of the term, labelling a flawed or disingenuous work of historiography, is found in another 1815 attestation. Pseudohistory is akin to pseudoscience in that both forms of falsification are achieved using the methodology that purports to, but does not, adhere to the established standards of research for the given field of intellectual enquiry to which the pseudoscience claims to be a part, and which offers little or no supporting evidence for its plausibility.:7–18
Writers Michael Shermer and Alex Grobman define pseudohistory as "the rewriting of the past for present personal or political purposes".:2 Other writers take a broader definition; Douglas Allchin, a historian of science, contends that when the history of scientific discovery is presented in a simplified way, with drama exaggerated and scientists romanticized, this creates wrong stereotypes about how science works, and in fact constitutes pseudohistory, despite being based on real facts.
Robert Todd Carroll has developed a list of criteria to identify pseudo-historic works. He states that: "Pseudohistory is purported history which:
- Treats myths, legends, sagas and similar literature as literal truth
- Is neither critical nor skeptical in its reading of ancient historians, taking their claims at face value and ignoring empirical or logical evidence contrary to the claims of the ancients
- Is on a mission, not a quest, seeking to support some contemporary political or religious agenda rather than find out the truth about the past
- Often denies that there is such a thing as historical truth, clinging to the extreme skeptical notion that only what is absolutely certain can be called 'true' and nothing is absolutely certain, so nothing is true
- Often maintains that history is nothing but mythmaking and that different histories are not to be compared on such traditional academic standards as accuracy, empirical probability, logical consistency, relevancy, completeness, fairness, honesty, etc., but on moral or political grounds
- Is selective in its use of ancient documents, citing favorably those that fit with its agenda, and ignoring or interpreting away those documents which don't fit
- Considers the possibility of something being true as sufficient to believe it is true if it fits with one's agenda
- Often maintains that there is a conspiracy to suppress its claims because of racism, atheism or ethnocentrism, or because of opposition to its political or religious agenda"
Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke prefers the term "cryptohistory." He identifies two necessary elements as "A complete ignorance of the primary sources" and the repetition of "inaccuracies and wild claims".
Other common characteristics of pseudohistory are:
- The arbitrary linking of disparate events so as to form – in the theorist's opinion – a pattern. This is typically then developed into a conspiracy theory postulating a hidden agent responsible for creating and maintaining the pattern. For example, the pseudohistorical The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail links the Knights Templar, the medieval Grail Romances, the Merovingian Frankish dynasty and the artist Nicolas Poussin in an attempt to identify lineal descendants of Jesus.
- Hypothesising the consequences of unlikely events that "could" have happened, thereby assuming tacitly that they did.
- Sensationalism, or shock value
Categories and examplesEdit
The following are some common categories of pseudohistorical theory, with examples. Note that not all theories in a listed category are necessarily pseudohistorical; they are rather categories which seem to attract pseudohistorians.
Ancient aliens, ancient technologies, and lost landsEdit
Immanuel Velikovsky's books Worlds in Collision (1950), Ages in Chaos (1952), and Earth in Upheaval (1955), which became "instant bestsellers", demonstrated that pseudohistory based on ancient mythology held potential for tremendous financial success and became models of success for future works in the genre.
In 1968, Erich von Däniken published Chariots of the Gods?, which claims that ancient visitors from outer space constructed the pyramids and other monuments. He has since published other books in which he makes similar claims. These claims have all been categorized as pseudohistory.:201 Similarly, Zechariah Sitchin has published numerous books claiming that a race of extraterrestrial beings from the Planet Nibiru known as the Anunnaki visited earth in ancient times in search of gold and genetically engineered humans to serve as their slaves. He claims that memories of these occurrences are recorded in Sumerian mythology, as well as other mythologies all across the globe. These speculations have likewise been categorized as pseudohistory.
The ancient astronaut hypothesis was further popularized in the United States by the History Channel television series Ancient Aliens. History professor Ronald H. Fritze observed that the pseudohistorical claims promoted by von Däniken and the Ancient Aliens program have a periodic popularity in the US: "In a pop culture with a short memory and a voracious appetite, aliens and pyramids and lost civilizations are recycled like fashions.":201
The author Graham Hancock has sold over four million copies of books promoting the pseudohistorical thesis that all the major monuments of the ancient world, including Stonehenge, the Egyptian pyramids, and the moai of Easter Island, were built by a single ancient supercivilization, which Hancock claims thrived from 15,000 to 10,000 BC and possessed technological and scientific knowledge equal to or surpassing that of modern civilization. He first advanced the full form of this argument in his 1995 bestseller Fingerprints of the Gods, which won popular acclaim, but scholarly disdain. Christopher Knight has published numerous books, including Uriel's Machine (2000), expounding pseudohistorical assertions that ancient civilizations possessed technology far more advanced than the technology of today.
The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion is a fraudulent work purporting to show a historical conspiracy for world domination by Jews. The work was conclusively proven to be a forgery in August 1921, when The Times revealed that extensive portions of the document were directly plagiarized from Maurice Joly's 1864 satirical dialogue The Dialogue in Hell Between Machiavelli and Montesquieu, as well as Hermann Goedsche's 1868 anti-Semitic novel Biarritz.
The Khazar theory is an academic fringe theory which postulates that the bulk of European Jewry are of Central Asian (Turkic) origin. In spite of mainstream academic consensus, this theory has been promoted in Anti-Semitic and Anti-Zionist circles alike, arguing that Jews are an alien element both in Europe and in Palestine.
Holocaust denial and genocide denial in general are widely categorized as pseudohistory.:237 Major proponents of Holocaust denial include David Irving and others, who argue that the Holocaust, Holodomor, Armenian genocide, and other genocides did not occur, or were exaggerated greatly.
An alternative chronology is a revised sequences of events, which deviates from the standard timeline of world history accepted by mainstream scholars. An example of an "alterative chronology" is Anatoly Fomenko's New Chronology, which claims that recorded history actually began around the year 1000 AD and all events which allegedly occurred prior to that point either never really happened at all, or are simply inaccurate retellings of events that happened later. Another, slightly less extreme example, is the New Chronology of David Rohl, which claims that the accepted timelines for ancient Egyptian and Israelite history are wrong.
In the eighth century, a forged document known as Donation of Constantine, which supposedly transferred authority over Rome and the western part of the Roman Empire to the Pope, became widely circulated. In the twelfth century, Geoffrey of Monmouth published the History of the Kings of Britain, a pseudohistorical work purporting to describe the ancient history and origins of the British people. The book synthesises earlier Celtic mythical traditions to inflate the deeds of the mythical King Arthur. The contemporary historian William of Newburgh wrote around 1190 that "it is quite clear that everything this man wrote about Arthur and his successors, or indeed about his predecessors from Vortigern onwards, was made up, partly by himself and partly by others".
The Shakespeare authorship question is a fringe theory which claims that the works attributed to William Shakespeare were actually written by someone other than William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon. A similar revisionist fringe theory is the Christ myth theory, which claims that Jesus of Nazareth never existed as a historical figure and that his existence was invented by early Christians. This argument currently finds very little support among scholars and historians of all faiths and has been described as pseudohistorical.
Confederate revisionists (a.k.a. "Civil War revisionists"), Lost Cause of the Confederacy, and Neo-Confederates argue that the Confederate States of America's prime motivation was the maintenance of states' rights and limited government, rather than the preservation and expansion of slavery.
Most Afrocentric (i.e. Pre-Columbian Africa-Americas contact theories, see Ancient Egyptian race controversy) ideas have been identified as pseudohistorical, alongside the "Indigenous Aryans" theories published by Hindu nationalists during the 1990s and 2000s. The "crypto-history" developed within Germanic mysticism and Nazi occultism has likewise been placed under this categorization. Among leading Nazis, Heinrich Himmler is believed to have been influenced by occultism and according to one theory, developed the SS base at Wewelsburg in accordance with an esoteric plan.
The Sun Language Theory is a pseudohistorical ideology which argues that all languages are descended from a form of proto-Turkish. The theory may have been partially devised in order to legitimize Arabic and Semitic loanwords occurring in the Turkish language by instead asserting that the Arabic and Semitic words were derived from the Turkish ones rather than vice versa.
A large number of nationalist pseudohistorical theories deal with the legendary Ten Lost Tribes of ancient Israel. British-Israelism, also known as Anglo-Israelism, the most famous example of this type, has been conclusively refuted by mainstream historians using evidence from a vast array of different fields of study.
The "Ancient Macedonia continuity theory" is another pseudohistorical theory, which postulates demographic, cultural and linguistic continuity between Macedonians of antiquity and the main ethnic group in the present-day Republic of Macedonia.
Josiah Priest and other nineteenth-century American writers wrote pseudohistorical narratives that portrayed African Americans and Native Americans in an extremely negative light. Priest's first book was The Wonders of Nature and Providence, Displayed. (1826). The book is regarded by modern critics as one of the earliest works of modern American pseudohistory. Priest attacked Native Americans in American Antiquities and Discoveries of the West (1833) and African-Americans in Slavery, As It Relates to the Negro (1843).
Pre-Columbian trans-oceanic contact theoriesEdit
Most theories of pre-Columbian trans-oceanic contact, excluding the Norse colonization of the Americas, and other reputable scholarship, have been classified as pseudohistory, including claims that the Americas were actually discovered by Arabs or Muslims. Gavin Menzies's book 1421: The Year China Discovered the World, which argues for the idea that Chinese sailors discovered America, has also been categorized as a work of pseudohistory.:11
Psychohistory was the ill-fated attempt to merge psychology with history, replacing historical method. Its most notable proponent is Lloyd deMause, the founder of The Journal of Psychohistory. Mainstream historians have categorized it as pseudohistory.
The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail (1982) by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln is a book which purports to show that certain historical figures, such as Godfrey of Bouillon, and contemporary aristocrats are the lineal descendants of Jesus. Mainstream historians have widely panned the book, categorizing it as pseudohistory, and pointing out that the genealogical tables used in it are now known to be spurious. Nonetheless, the book was an international best-seller and inspired Dan Brown's bestselling mystery thriller novel The Da Vinci Code.:2–3
Another example of religious pseudohistory is the thesis, found in the writings of David Barton and others, asserting that the United States was founded as an exclusively Christian nation. Mainstream historians instead support the traditional position, which holds that the American founding fathers intended for church and state to be kept separate.
In her books, starting with The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921), English author Margaret Murray claimed that the witch trials in the early modern period were actually an attempt by chauvinistic Christians to annihilate a secret, pagan religion, which she claimed worshipped a Horned God. Murray's claims have now been widely rejected by respected historians. Nonetheless, her ideas have become the foundation myth for modern Wicca, a contemporary Neopagan religion. Belief in Murray's alleged witch-cult is still prevalent among Wiccans, but is gradually declining.
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- In a 2011 review of the state of modern scholarship, Bart Ehrman (a secular agnostic) wrote: "He certainly existed, as virtually every competent scholar of antiquity, Christian or non-Christian, agrees" B. Ehrman, 2011 Forged : writing in the name of God ISBN 978-0-06-207863-6. p. 285
- Robert M. Price (an atheist who denies the existence of Jesus) agrees that this perspective runs against the views of the majority of scholars: Robert M. Price "Jesus at the Vanishing Point" in The Historical Jesus: Five Views edited by James K. Beilby & Paul Rhodes Eddy, 2009 InterVarsity, ISBN 028106329X p. 61
- Michael Grant (a classicist) states that "In recent years, 'no serious scholar has ventured to postulate the non historicity of Jesus' or at any rate very few, and they have not succeeded in disposing of the much stronger, indeed very abundant, evidence to the contrary." in Jesus: An Historian's Review of the Gospels by Michael Grant 2004 ISBN 1898799881 p. 200
- Richard A. Burridge states: "There are those who argue that Jesus is a figment of the Church’s imagination, that there never was a Jesus at all. I have to say that I do not know any respectable critical scholar who says that anymore." in Jesus Now and Then by Richard A. Burridge and Graham Gould (Apr 1, 2004) ISBN 0802809774 p. 34
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