“Why do we need to cross-check?”
“To make sure it’s not wrong.”
“How does cross-checking make sure it’s not wrong?”
“It makes sure the bits fit together, sir.”
“It does indeed,” I thought.
The First Year history class are learning to read history with a critical eye, they are learning to evaluate sources, they are learning to ask why historical accounts may be the way they are.
The skills will probably never be applied to historical research, but they may serve them well in other spheres.
Spheres like the research of family history where even the most basic of cross-checks would reveal the genealogical nonsense of some people’s family trees.
A cross-check should suggest to someone that the date of a person’s baptism is unlikely to be prior to their date of birth and that the likelihood is slim of them being married after they have died. (Of course, if you are a Mormon, you can be baptized after you are dead, but presumably not before you are born).
Similarly, when Ancestry suggests that there may be some aristocratic forebear, it would be useful to consider how likely it would have been that a knight of the realm who held office at the court of the Tudor monarchs would have countenanced the marriage of his daughter to a landless labourer.
This was the case when, following one branch of my own family back into the Sixteenth Century, (the Church of England baptismal records extend back to 1538), I met with a suggestion that Sir Richard Rich was one of my forebears.
Most people familiar with accounts of Sir Richard Rich would probably not want to admit any connection, but some people had added him to their family tree with hearts and other emojis typed after his name. It was obviously nonsense, but it was equally obvious that they believed themselves to be descendants of Rich, a man “of whom,” the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper said, “nobody has ever spoken a good word.”
How do those inclined to make spurious links imagine Sixteenth Century society? Is is seen as a place where princesses marry paupers? Is it some fairy-tale land where everyone lives happily ever after?
Perhaps the current cult of “celebrity” has persuaded people that their perception of contemporary social mobility may be retrojected five centuries.
Any faculty at all for looking at history in a critical way would persuade people that the past was very definitely another country where they definitely did things very differently.
The First Year students would hopefully not make similar mistakes.