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How do historians treat gossip?

How do historians treat gossip?


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How do historians deal with information that has no other sources than gossip?

I mean facts (or "facts") that are not covered by primary sources, but are widely known from gossip. Usually this information is related to human sexuality as it was somewhat hidden in sources, but are "known". Some may be related to other imperfections like kleptomania and so on. Some of course are trivia or anecdotes, but may say much about specific persons and explain some decisions, if they were true.

Examples of such gossip, legends etc. are

  1. Alexander the Great, Emperor Hadrian, Leonardo da Vinci and many others were homosexual
  2. Elizabeth I Tudor was a virgin
  3. Elizabeth Bathory drunk virgins' blood
  4. There was a woman pope (Joan)
  5. There was a man in Iron Mask held in prison
  6. all what Marquis de Sade did
  7. Circumstances of Felix Faure's death

etc.

Please note I don't say that any is true. Some probably are backed with sources (I've found them in my memory), but they are to show what I mean.

I understand that historians should be sceptic, but if gossip is related for 2000 years?… And it is important to have good overview of person's acts?


Historians treat gossip (or, in French, "rumeur", and I understand your question in this way) in two ways:

1) as something to debunk. Unsubstantied facts that need (apparently, again and again) to be put to rest.

2) as a social fact. If someone or a lot of people or a crowd believe in gossip it's not the truth of the gossip that is important but its role in motivating agents to act. The Bastille was attacked to liberate the prisoners. There were 7.


Unless the event is contemporary, gossip never comes out of a vacuum. It always has a source of some kind that is relating it. In those cases, the historian considers the track record and perspective of whoever it is relating the gossip, or the newspaper in which it appeared.

Additionally, there are two major ways to verify any information, including gossip:

(1) Is it consistent with other known or supposed independent facts? In the same way that you might question a group of criminals separately to see if they all tell the same story, a historian examines different independent pieces of evidence to see if they are consistent. Obviously, each piece must be independent from the other.

(2) Is something missing? An effective way to discredit a piece of spurious misinformation is to see if something is missing. For example, once I read a sensational chain email claiming that someone was putting AIDS-tainted needles in coin returns. Obviously it was false, because if it had been true, newspapers would have been reporting it. Also, the email conspicuously lacked any verifiable information: there was no place given, no dates, no hospitals or doctors cited, no police department mentioned; there was a complete lack of verifiable data. When an item lacks verifiable details and no reputable source is repeating the fact, that is usually strong evidence that it is misinformation.