How do I know if I'm reading a good/up to date history book?

Kaodi

Hero
I feel like right now we may be at one of those inflection points in history where a lot of stuff is about to get reassessed.

But tangentially I think I have come to dislike the quote, "Those who are ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it," because the truth is that there is absolutely no conceivable way not to be ignorant of history as there is a lot of history and our knowledge of it is infinitesimal by comparison. I mean, the quote is true, so to speak, but the way it is usually used gives the mistaken impression that there is some contingent of people that are not ignorant of history.
 

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Autumnal

Bruce Baugh, Writer of Fortune
A lot of stuff has been reassessed and new consensuses formed in the last 30 years, among professionals. We’re in the midst now of seeing that work gathered up in surveys that are readable by the general public. (We’re also getting fresh battles over who constitutes that public, with reactionary attacks on the whole idea of paying attention to anyone but them.)
 

I don't necessarily think that Boudica is insufficiently attested - I'm just suspicious that her character might be a literary distillation of the complex events surrounding a violent uprising.
The trouble with this theory is that we've seen it countless times before, about virtually every historical character (and many events) who there isn't hard evidence for, usually a few decades before evidence emerges and once again that "this person was entirely made up" is seen to b untrue or less likely and suddenly no-one ever thought that (which I don't hate at all - I'd much rather people be allowed to change their opinions than be dogmatic, it's just kind of funny). So you'll forgive me for being somewhat skeptical when I see it dragged out not for first or second time or even the tenth (I'm not attempting to suggest you dragging it out by yourself - it's a common theory).

I mean, it's not necessarily wrong, but I feel like making up characters entirely is quite outside of Tacitus' apparent wheelhouse (he's certainly not writing for maximum excitement despite the odd flourish) - it's not really something people, even exaggerators and storytellers typically do much re: major events of their lifetime or very recently before. Especially as they live with fear of contradiction and mockery. Whilst Tacitus is the closest surviving account of Boudica, I very much doubt that at the time it was the only written account of the events in Britain at that period in Rome, and Romans would remember their uncle's and grandad's stories and so on. I feel like if Tacitus made her up entirely he might have been subject to a degree of ridicule.

It's something you see more often from professional/focused writers of history, particularly those writing long after the fact, like our friend Cassius Dio. He doesn't have to worry about contradiction, really, he can just read the available history books, talk to people, and make stuff up.
 

Blue Orange

Gone to Texas
I like to get sources from a few different time points if I really want to know something (as opposed to a historically-inspired game where, hey, maybe Zhuge Liang really was a wizard). After all, the reassessors have their own biases we may call into question in forty years.

Probably the big thing is to think about what biases the person writing at the time may have--to take the most obvious example, British nineteenth-century historians were pro-imperialist, twenty-first-century historians are anti. But apart from the winds of history, most people want to think well of their nation (and in some time periods and places, might have been imprisoned or killed if they spoke ill of it). I remember picking up a French world history book and the American revolutionary stuff was all about the intellectual influence of the lumieres and the French support for the Americans. We may not want to admit it while their descendants are invading Ukraine, but it was the Russians who sacrificed the most to stop Hitler (25-30 million dead), which naturally gets elided in American Cold War movies made while Russia was Hollywood's geopolitical enemy.

Another thing is that if you really want to go deep on primary sources, you are going to have to learn other languages, and that winds up being a hard barrier for most at some point since you can't learn every language in the world.

It's worth noting that some stuff, like Holocaust denial, wasn't taken seriously even at the time.
 

The trouble with this theory is that we've seen it countless times before, about virtually every historical character (and many events) who there isn't hard evidence for, usually a few decades before evidence emerges and once again that "this person was entirely made up" is seen to b untrue or less likely and suddenly no-one ever thought that (which I don't hate at all - I'd much rather people be allowed to change their opinions than be dogmatic, it's just kind of funny). So you'll forgive me for being somewhat skeptical when I see it dragged out not for first or second time or even the tenth (I'm not attempting to suggest you dragging it out by yourself - it's a common theory).
I am not aware of any widespread historiographical tendency to question the historicity of a character, and to later revise that view and affirm their existence in the light of new evidence. In fact, I cannot think of a single instance of this occurring. Perhaps you might provide some examples?

Even if this were the case - and it's not, by the way - I'm not sure why the existence of such a general historiographical tendency should inform our particular assessment of Boudica's story, which should be judged entirely on its own merits.

I very much doubt that at the time it was the only written account of the events in Britain at that period in Rome, and Romans would remember their uncle's and grandad's stories and so on
Relying on hypothetical sources which we don't have and which may have never existed doesn't really help. We have Tacitus.

We can trust that there was a violent uprising against the Roman government, and that the Iceni and Trinovantes were involved. We can reasonably trust that an Iceni queen was involved, although the account of her absolute centrality to the uprising might elicit some scepticism, and her "actual name" is questionable. We should be highly sceptical of the specific account which led to her rebellion (her flogging and humiliation; the violation of her daughters). We should ignore the speeches given by Boudica and Suetonius - these are obviously fabrications. We should doubt whether she poisoned herself - Tacitus adds this embellishment to his own account years later.
 

MGibster

Legend
I like to get sources from a few different time points if I really want to know something (as opposed to a historically-inspired game where, hey, maybe Zhuge Liang really was a wizard). After all, the reassessors have their own biases we may call into question in forty years.
I took a graduate level course on Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement. It was a graduate level class so there were only 8 students and rather than lecture we had discussions on various subjects. One day the professor said something like, "So what do you think of King's decision to allow children to participate in a protest he knew was likely to turn violent?" Some of us had the look of a deer in the headlights and none of us really knew how to answer. King is synonymous with the American Civil Rights Movement (at least in popular culture), and to critcize King was to critcize the very movement itself. It can be really difficult to offer anything resembling criticism of a figure you like and especially if you venerate them. I imagine the same is true of those we've villainized.
 

I am not aware of any widespread historiographical tendency to question the historicity of a character, and to later revise that view and affirm their existence in the light of new evidence. In fact, I cannot think of a single instance of this occurring. Perhaps you might provide some examples?

Even if this were the case - and it's not, by the way - I'm not sure why the existence of such a general historiographical tendency should inform our particular assessment of Boudica's story, which should be judged entirely on its own merits.
It's almost like the second paragraph completely undermines the apparent good faith question of the first one lol. I mean, hypocrisy on my part, but if you want someone to do the research to answer a question like the first, you might not want to write a whole second paragraph showing you're absolutely not open to argument. Just a tip for the future!
We can trust that there was a violent uprising against the Roman government, and that the Iceni and Trinovantes were involved. We can reasonably trust that an Iceni queen was involved, although the account of her absolute centrality to the uprising might elicit some scepticism, and her "actual name" is questionable.
It's weird that you think we're disagreeing on that when I'd say the exact same thing based on our available information.

The actual name of almost all figures and groups in Celtic Britain (and indeed many other peoples the Romans interacted with) is open to some variable degree of question. The Romans mangled them just as badly as later explorers and imperial/colonial powers would bend, spindle, fold and mutilate the names of countless people, groups, places and so on.
We should be highly sceptical of the specific account which led to her rebellion (her flogging and humiliation; the violation of her daughters). We should ignore the speeches given by Boudica and Suetonius - these are obviously fabrications. We should doubt whether she poisoned herself - Tacitus adds this embellishment to his own account years later.
Agreed, but again a little confused because you appeared to me to be saying there was "this person was 100% created from whole cloth to represent the situation", rather than merely "the actual specifics are very dubious".
 

Agreed, but again a little confused because you appeared to me to be saying there was "this person was 100% created from whole cloth to represent the situation", rather than merely "the actual specifics are very dubious".
Not at all. In fact I specifically wrote that I do not think she is insufficiently attested - I think she meets a minimum bar (barely) for historicity. She’s not like Arthur or Romulus or Gilgamesh. But all of her characteristics, the specific nature of her vendetta, her central role in the uprising, her name, her death - these might well be literary fancy. We are left with “a Celtic queen was involved with a rebellion against the Romans in 60-61 CE,” which we could probably guess if we’d never even heard of her.

When I wrote she was a “distillation,” it’s because her story embodies a variety of - no doubt genuine - grievances which the native Britons had against their occupiers.
 
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Autumnal

Bruce Baugh, Writer of Fortune
Yes. Reading critically while your inner voice is cheering and laying out dessert is very hard. For me it’s a toss up between that and reading critically when a book is loathsome and howlingly wrong in major ways but also has some crucial data and genuinely insightful analysis.
 

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