History is a pack of lies

Napoléon said history is a pack of lies, agreed upon.

Actually that’s not exactly right. He said, “Mais qu’est alors cette vérité historique, la plupart du temps? Une fable convenue.” Translated, that would be “What then is the truth of history, generally? A fable agreed upon.”

But he didn’t claim originality there. It’s been a popular idea, both before and since. For a breezy summary see “What Is History But a Fable Agreed Upon?” at Quote Investigator <quoteinvestigator.com>.

My favorite version of this comes from one of my old college professors — Objectivity is nothing more than consensual subjectivity.

I try to remember this when doing genealogy. Some people will tell you they know the answer, based on their own research. And their “research” is often nothing more than a statement they found on the Internet or in an old book somewhere. No citation, no analysis.

These are the people who are most shocked to hear that experts doubt. This surprise is the first and best evidence that a fellow researcher is working at an entry level.

They don’t yet know reality, even genealogical reality, is consensual. Given, the available evidence, if there is any other reasonable answer, you’re still working in the world of theory and possibility. What you want, what we all want, is to get to a point where there is consensus.

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