What Rumors Have Taught Me about Knowledge

Rumors have interested me for a long time—not merely the occasional bits of chatter from my work life but rumors as historical phenomena. In my second semester of undergraduate studies, one of my professors mentioned in passing that the rumor about Christopher Columbus’s return from his first voyage travelled from the Iberian Peninsula to Paris faster than the actual messenger dispatched with the news. Although I have never found any confirmation of that story, it continues to resonate. With that professor’s comment, I began saving any article about rumors I ran across to my computer for future use.

I took up this theme for my second book project. While still in the early stages of research, I set out on an archival exploration at the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond, and obviously I started by requesting everything “rumor” I had found in the online finding aid. But when the boxes and folders arrived and I began to comb through the documents, a couple things became apparent.

First, the archived rumors concerned all areas of political, social, and cultural life. They involved politicians being accused of alcoholism, for example, women refuting allegations of involvement in affairs, and loose talk about slave revolts. Many people felt very passionate about maintaining their reputation or they sought to obtain reliable information in moments of crisis. Rumor was omnipresent, a seemingly normal part of everyday life. Second, much to my surprise, most of the documents that had been labeled as “rumor” material did not even contain that word.

Take, for instance, a piece from the Virginia Historical Society’s manuscripts collection that was described in the online finding aid as “Letter, 1845 Nov 20 Elizabeth Wood … to her friend Louisa P. Baxter … About the false rumor that Elizabeth is still interested in marrying Prof. R.” The author herself had used very different language:

You spoke of the report about Professor R. + myself. I assure you I have not the least idea of marrying any one + least of all him. There have been many stories told about that matter, one of which is that after discarding him repeatedly I am trying hard to get him to return—a report as untrue as it is unfounded.[1]

Instead of describing whispers about her supposed romantic involvement as “rumor,” a derogatory term in this period too, she had spoken more carefully of “reports” and “stories.”[2] Yet the detached, almost neutral tone Baxter had tried to maintain in her letter was lost in the finding aid’s description.

This experience has taught me two lessons that directly concern the history of knowledge. The first concerns the materials that historians use in order to create knowledge. Archives have a history themselves and are already interpretations of the past. They do not provide us with mere raw materials that we can mine and process for our research. The summary of Baxter’s letter in the finding aid captures its spirit well enough, but the archivists who prepared the entry added another layer of meaning to the letter. They used “rumor” in a derogatory fashion to describe what they took the letter to be about.

In other contexts, I have found that these archival interventions create a narrative layer, an independent storyline, so to speak. In my research into talk about slave revolts in the antebellum South, the content of the letters and diaries cataloged in the archives is described in the same way Baxter’s letter was—as “rumor.” The reason for the archivists’ word choice becomes clearer when comparing talk about slave insurrections in the South with the actual statistical occurrence of such revolts. Few of the alleged conspiracies actually resulted in any physical violence against white people. In our contemporary web-oriented lingo, most of these incidents could be described as hoaxes. The archivists likewise used a disparaging term: “rumor.” Yet, this dismissive label disregards the reality of historical actors, the fears and hopes they experienced while trying to make sense of what was happening around them.

We need to remind ourselves that archives are institutions of power. They determine which materials to keep and which to discard. In the process, they not only decide about the specific materials to preserve and make available to researchers but ultimately also whose voices can become audible. On top of that, thankfully, archivists make these troves of materials accessible to researchers through their finding aids, helping us to find our way around the collections they host. At the same time, from my own experience these condensed versions of the collections can become judgements and proto-interpretations of the source materials themselves. Therefore, as grateful as we historians are for such work, we need to reflect critically on such archival decisions in order to learn what blind spots they might create. Ideally, we need to apply the same rigorous methodology of analysis that we have long brought to bear on our source materials to the institutional contexts in which we find our documents. Their archive-related biases have to become part of our stories as well.[3]

A second lesson builds on this observation: as compelling as the term appears, rumor is an insufficient category for historical research. My twenty-year-old self from that undergraduate seminar would probably be deeply disappointed about the dismissal of rumor in this way; however, in the case of my archival findings in Richmond, “rumor” only became an interpretation in hindsight. Used naively, the term can produce a teleological narrative that focuses only on the falseness of people’s testimony. It implies meaning in the story that the authors of the documents did not themselves experience, obscuring possibilities attendant on what they lived through.

For the young women, plantation owners, slave patrollers, and other white people who wrote about uprisings of the enslaved in an effort to make sense of things, the events they described were very real at the time. As they experienced fear or “excitement,” a historical term often used to describe panic or which was countered with “logic” and defiance, these historical actors used writing as a coping mechanism to deal with their emotions or to regain control over a crisis by producing knowledge about it. If we merely focus on the outcome of their stories—they turned out to be false—we are in danger of silencing the voices of historical actors and they ways in which they changed.

If we were to take seriously the situation in which they wrote, if we understood the act as as a meaningful moment, we could find out more about the dynamics of knowledge production and about plausibility and credibility as criteria. “Rumor” alone cannot capture this multifaceted process of coming to terms. We need broader, more inclusive categories that help us capture the dynamics of communication and knowledge production in periods of great uncertainty and insecurity. Therefore, I suggest that we speak of “uncertain knowledge”—instead of “rumors”—as a means to integrate the shifting realities people experienced. With its emphasis on process rather than outcome, the term allows us to bring together a host of different moments, concepts, and techniques of producing knowledge on an everyday level, whether gossip, reports, or hearsay.[4].

In fact, the term “uncertain knowledge” reflects older understandings of “rumor.” Sheridan’s 1780 General Dictionary to the English Language defines the latter as a “flying or popular report, bruit, fame,” for instance.[5] This description of rumor paints a dynamic picture of movement and exchange, of people trying to make sense of what is happening around them. Such uncertainty helps us to understand which categories people used, who or what they deemed credible sources, and where they went to get reliable information.

These observations are not limited to the production of everyday knowledge, however. They have ramifications for our general understanding of knowledge in history. Rather than just seeing knowledge as a teleological history of progress that leads, for instance, to the discovery of a certain chemical formula, we need to focus on the many sidetracks, moments of failure, and serendipitous situations in which knowledge was uncertain and needed to be verified. Our research needs to focus on both the conditions for the production of knowledge and on the processes of coming up with plausible explanations. This analytical back-and-forth allows us to analyze both the structures of knowledge and the actors producing and circulating it.

Sebastian Jobs is Assistant Professor at the John F. Kennedy Institute, Free University of Berlin. His forthcoming book is entitled “Rumors of Revolt—Uncertain Knowledge of Slave Insurrections in the American South, 1791–1865.”

  1. Elizabeth Wood to Louisa P. Baxter, November 20, 1845, Mss1 H6795 a 11–14, Virginia Historical Society, Richmond, VA.  ↩
  2. Some contemporary dictionaries described rumor as a collective story, for example, Noah Webster, An American Dictionary of the English Language (New York: S. Converse, 1828): “to report, to circulate a report,” https://archive.org/details/americandictiona01websrich. Others, like Jacob’s Law Dictionary of 1811, did not even bother with a definition, instead referring readers to the entry for “false news.” See Giles Jacob, The Law-Dictionary: Explaining the Rise, Progress, and Present State, of the English Law … Corrected and Greatly Enlarged by T. E. Tomlins (New York and Philadelphia: I. Riley & Byrne, 1811), https://goo.gl/S8vUqV.  ↩
  3. Sebastian Jobs and Alf Lüdtke, “Unsettling History: Introduction,” in Unsettling History: Archiving and Narrating in Historiography, eds. Sebastian Jobs and Alf Lüdtke (Frankfurt am Main: Campus, 2010); Ann Laura Stoler, Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008).  ↩
  4. Sebastian Jobs, “Uncertain Knowledge,” Rethinking History 18, no. 1 (2014): 2–9, https://doi.org/10.1080/13642529.2014.873577  ↩
  5. Thomas Sheridan, A general dictionary of the English language… . (London, 1780), https://archive.org/details/generaldictionar00sher.  ↩
Suggested citation: Sebastian Jobs, “What Rumors Have Taught Me about Knowledge,” History of Knowledge, January 4, 2018, https://historyofknowledge.net/2018/01/04/what-rumors-have-taught-me-about-knowledge/.