A lot we learn as history never happened. “What’s the dividing line between romanticism, pseudohistory, and plain old error?” That comment under my May 30 post, “Time Travel Fallacies,” gives a lot to grapple with. Here’s a start.
I’d define pseudohistory as an account of the past that meets three criteria:
1. It purports to be true.
2. It either contradicts or goes far beyond the evidence.
3. It has an agenda.
Holocaust denial is a familiar example. Matriarchal prehistory, Neopaganism that poses as ancient, and Afrocentrism are less insidious, and more likely to be taken seriously in my circles (meaning I’ve probably just offended somebody). They may be less insidious, but not harmless when they’re taken as history rather than myth.
Taking pseudohistory as fact encourages a habit of devaluing evidence for the sake of an agenda. It’s fine for an agenda to shape the questions we ask. It can draw attention to peoples and issues that were traditionally ignored, or to longstanding assumptions that need reexamination. But to serve us well in the long run, the answers need to emerge from the evidence, not what we wish the evidence showed.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.