Middle English histoire, historie,
from Anglo-French estoire, histoire,
from Latin historia,
from Greek, inquiry, history, from histōr, istōr
knowing, learned; akin to Greek eidenai
First Known Use: 14th century
For this particular topic, this definition is applicable: “a chronological record of significant events (as affecting a nation or institution) often including an explanation of their causes.”
We’re talking here about written history of events, and specifically secondary sources. See a discussion of sources here
, and primary sources in particular here
When talking about “revising history,” we’re talking about revising secondary sources, not primary sources. A primary source doesn’t get revised. It’s contemporaneous testimony from someone who was there. What gets revised is our understanding of what those primary sources mean.
Now we need to talk a little bit about how historians work. They start by asking a question regarding a historical event. To answer that question they do research in primary and secondary sources to find out what happened. Based on their research and their insight into the event they come to a conclusion on the answer to their question and conclusions about the event. Answering that question leads to other questions to be answered, which are researched, and so on until they have findings about that historical event. Then they publish their findings and those findings are reviewed by other historians to ensure they’ve handled the evidence correctly. You can see more on this here
, and here
A conclusion about a historical event based on primary source evidence is one that can be defended. If enough people are convinced of its accuracy, it then becomes the dominant interpretation of the event. Unfortunately, we don’t have 100% complete information about any event. We obviously can’t read the minds of people who lived many years ago, so we have to rely on the historical record which consists of written evidence, archaeological evidence, and other records. Also, each historical actor experienced the same event in different ways, so what one person writes may differ markedly from what another person writes, and both could be correct. Because we don’t have 100% certainty we have to interpret the past. See here
for two perspectives on this. If there was not going to be any revision of interpretation, then all we would need to do is have one book about each historical event. You’d read that book and that’s all you would need to know. But things change. New evidence is uncovered. Perhaps someone finds an old book and some letters are in the book. Or perhaps a trunk filled with letters that has been in storage is discovered. These new letters are additional evidence, and perhaps they impact our understanding of a historical event. The new evidence just might mean we have to alter our interpretation of the event. In other words, we have to revise our interpretation. Another way historical interpretation is revised is if we approach an event from a different perspective and view the evidence through that new perspective. It may force us to revise what we previously thought.
This is something historians do all the time. So really, when people complain about “revisionists” and “revisionist history,” they’re complaining that historians are doing what they’re supposed to be doing–looking at the evidence and revising our understanding of it based on a new understanding of the evidence or based on new evidence. Revisionism, then, isn’t necessarily a bad thing provided it’s done through an honest handling of the evidence and is based on primary source evidence, and not a partial reading of that primary source evidence. Revising history isn’t a bad thing, but lying about history, abusing historical sources by claiming they say what they don’t say, and misclaiming facts are bad things. That’s not revisionism, that’s simply bad history.
So next time you come up against someone using bad history, call them on bad history. But don’t call them revisionists, because all historians are revisionists, and we wouldn’t want them to be anything else. We want them to revise our understanding of events based on new evidence. We want them to revise our understanding of events based on new perspectives and different ways of thinking about and approaching events.