For the last few days, I have been thinking about categories of historical knowledge. There are lots of different kinds, but there are a few in particular I want to focus on.
First, you’ve got things that everybody knows. By everybody, I don’t mean historians, I mean more or less everybody. For instance … I dunno … “in fourteen hundred ninety-two / Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”
Next, you’ve got your things that nobody knows. Again, by nobody I don’t mean nobody — but the things that knowing means you must be a specialist in that area or at least have done some recent reading on the subject. I dunno … “Contemporaries referred to the consulship of 59 BC as ‘the consulship of Julius and Caesar’.” Your typical Rome viewer does not know that, I wouldn’t think.
But in the middle there is a special kind of fact — the fact that, as far as I can tell, everyone knows, but that everyone still acts like nobody knows. The example that prompted this thought was “Vikings didn’t have horns on their helmets,” but I’m sure you could think of other examples. “Roman buildings were brightly coloured, not white,” maybe, or “Napoleon wasn’t actually short.”
You can go anywhere on the internet and find people being all “DID YOU KNOW: Vikings didn’t have horns on their helmets! It’s a popular misconception.” By this point the number of people explaining the misconception must far outnumber the people who believed in it.
Just at a glance, it’s interesting that the examples I can think of are all positioned in opposition to how things are portrayed in popular culture — or possibly, how they were portrayed when the speaker was younger? So maybe there’s that.
I suppose my question is: do we have a word for that?
(Side note: I think that “the Civil War wasn’t about slavery” which goes to show that an opinion flying in the face of conventional wisdom needn’t be right as long as it positions you as a savvy insider.)