Saturday, May 11, 2013

History: Truth or Spin?

Much of the motive to explore history is to discover how we got to where we are today. It's a common step from there to seeing the historical process that has resulted in our present state as somehow inevitable.The conventional thread of most histories thus tends to justify the winner, and to assert a continuum of rightness from whatever period is under consideration up to the present day.

Consider the history of England as an example. Though post-Enlightenment, materialist historians might bridal at literally admitting it, there is a strong suggestion of the hand of God in the process, for each monarch reigns officially "by the Grace of God" and is "our undoubted queen (or king)" by virtue of that unbroken thread of right causality.

And then there is the other history of England. The one set by the wayside at each turning that either maintained the sovereignty despite a period of opposition, or shifted the sovereignty to new or premature hands and required justification, usually by disparaging the loser.

Henry VI must be portrayed as a near imbecile and Richard III a child-murderer for Henry Tudor to be embraced as God’s chosen King Henry VII. Edward II must be an outrageous homosexual to justify his queen’s seizing power from him on behalf of his young son, Edward III. But a catamite of King Richard I is said to have been hurled from a parapet by Richard’s followers who were aggravated that he spent his time at dalliance with the boy instead of attending to the business of crusade. Yet Richard’s homosexuality has not sullied his glorious reputation. In his case there was no regime change that needed to be justified.

The deep-delving historian often will find two or more sets of records from a period under study, the separate threads divided by the partisan leanings of the events' witnesses. Should this be surprising? Read the handbill news sheets of the time of George Washington’s presidency and you’ll find there were those who fully believed Washington was a secret agent for the French and a traitor to the interests of his country. Had the British vanquished the colonial rebels, that view of Washington might have become standard history. England was at odds with France, and France was the rebel colonists' chief ally.

Though George Washington as France's agent now seems utterly absurd to most Americans, arrays of spin can be pitfalls for any historian who attempts to assert a single “truth.” And when the era under study was filled with embittered and contending parties, the pitfalls are everywhere. 

Take for example the apparently miniscule and simple issue of how King Henry III of England identified himself during the battle of Evesham in 1265. Historians agree that he was traveling with – or under the control of – the Parliamentary party whose military leader was Simon de Montfort; that, when the cortege was pursued and eventually surrounded by the armies of Prince Edward, Henry accompanied the Montfortians into battle dressed in borrowed armor that concealed his identity; and that in the heat of the battle he cried out, “Don’t kill me!”

But did he say, “I’m Henry of Winchester, your king! Don’t kill me!” Or did he say, “I’m Henry of Monmouth! Don’t kill me!” This might seem a trivial question. The first is what one would expect of a competent, elderly monarch seeking to be rescued by Edward’s monarchist forces. They are the words a well-meaning historian constructing a consistent thread would put in Henry’s mouth. Yet the second outcry has the surreal ring of truth. The bright spark of the unexpected that real life often displays.

The historian faces the choice of conventionality, in keeping with the consistent monarchical thread, or of adherence to a reconstruction of the evidences surviving of, in this case, the Parliamentary partisans. For if the king said, “I’m Henry of Monmouth” (and the chronicler who recorded this added by way of explanation, “he was simple”), then here is witness that the king was in his dotage and incompetent – and the Parliamentarians were justified in controlling his actions for the sake of the realm. 

Monarchist or Parliamentarian – the record splits along political lines, the very lines that were essential to the issues in contention at the time.
If so seemingly small a particle of history can display such partisan weighting, what can be said of larger issues? And where lies truth? Is it the stream of events as interpreted by those who would justify history as leading inexorably to the present status quo? Or might it be tweezed out of the losing party’s surviving scraps of evidence? Or is it truly lost – if indeed a single truth ever existed?

Only the naïve maintain they know the truth of eras that were split and fractured by partisan politics. Or, in any comlex issue, that an objective truth ever can be asserted beyond question.

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Katherine Ashe is the author of the  four volume Montfort novelized series