Two European temperature reconstructions for the past half-millennium, January-to-April air temperature for Stockholm (Sweden) and seasonal temperature for a Central European region, both derived from the analysis of documentary sources and long instrumental records, are compared with the output of climate simulations with the model ECHO-G. The analysis is complemented by comparisons with the long (early)-instrumental record of Central England Temperature (CET). Both approaches to study past climates (simulations and reconstructions) are burdened with uncertainties. The main objective of this comparative analysis is to identify robust features and weaknesses in each method which may help to improve models and reconstruction methods. The results indicate a general agreement between simulations obtained with temporally changing external forcings and the reconstructed Stockholm and CET records for the multi-centennial temperature trend over the recent centuries, which is not reproduced in a control simulation. This trend is likely due to the long-term change in external forcing. Additionally, the Stockholm reconstruction and the CET record also show a clear multi-decadal warm episode peaking around AD 1730, which is absent in the simulations. Neither the reconstruction uncertainties nor the model internal climate variability can easily explain this difference. Regarding the interannual variability, the Stockholm series displays, in some periods, higher amplitudes than the simulations but these differences are within the statistical uncertainty and further decrease if output from a regional model driven by the global model is used. The long-term trend of the CET series agrees less well with the simulations. The reconstructed temperature displays, for all seasons, a smaller difference between the present climate and past centuries than is seen in the simulations. Possible reasons for these differences may be related to a limitation of the traditional ‘indexing’ technique for converting documentary evidence to temperature values to capture long-term climate changes, because the documents often reflect temperatures relative to the contemporary authors’ own perception of what constituted ‘normal’ conditions. By contrast, the amplitude of the simulated and reconstructed inter-annual variability agrees rather well. ©2010 Springer Science+Business Media B.V.