The Future of History

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Chapter and Verse

A few years ago, while I was researching another of my projects, my wife (Kim) and I went to a County Records Office somewhere in England.

There was a document I wanted to find.  Basically, it proved the existence of a certain Anne Whately.

We've known for a long time that the first marriage licence issued to William Shakespeare allowed him to marry one Anne Whately of Temple Grafton.  The next day, two Stratford farmers coughed up a fair amount of money to make sure that young will married one Anne Hathaway of Stratford (optimistically described as a 'maiden').

The document was there, and yes, it proved that Anne Whately did exist, and that the Shakespeare family would have known of her.  Job done.

At the counter, Kim couldn't resist asking if anyone else had wanted to see this document.  Scholars, perhaps, or students?  The staff looked blank.  So Kim told them that they'd got a very important document there - it proved the existence of the woman William Shakespeare had wanted to marry, as opposed to the woman he ended up marrying.

Quick as a flash, a guy with a beard came hurtling over and said something along the lines of:

"Well, of course, the official line on Anne Whately was delivered by Professor Samuel Schoenbaum, who said that she was a clerical error.  The clerk at the Worcester Consistory Court got her name wrong."

Under other circumstances, I might have been inclined to argue.  However, what I really wanted was to get out of there fast and keep the secret to ourselves, at least until I get round to writing that book.

But, at the same time, I was flabbergasted.  We - that is, my wife -  had just announced that we had found documentary proof that Anne Whately existed.  And straightaway a guy had told us that she didn't exist.  Had he asked to check the document? No.  He just told us what Professor Samuel Schoenbaum (who also hadn't seen the document) once said about her.

I mention this because I'm anticipating a great deal of this sort of thing when my ARTHUR book comes out very shortly.  I think of it as the 'Chapter-and-Verse' tendency.

You announce a discovery.  You have documentary proof.  But they don't want to see it.  Because somebody once said ...

It's like dealing with theology students.  You tell them that the Earth revolves around the Sun, and they'll quote you no end of learned sources who insist that it doesn't.  They won't look at the evidence.  They just go looking for something that somebody else once said.  "Well, of course, Samuel Schoenbaum said she didn't exist - ergo, she can't have existed."  But here's the evidence that she did.  "Well, Professor Schoenbaum said ... "

There's going to be a lot of that sort of thing.  Someone once pretended to look into something with a view to disproving it - the equivalent of a policeman standing by a road accident saying "Move along, please, move along, there's nothing to see here."  And their judgement is endlessly quoted at anyone who asks awkward questions in the hope that certain issues (such as Arthur having been Scottish) will go away.  It's the default position of the self-appointed experts.  Rather than considering new evidence, they all line up to discredit it (without looking at it) because somebody once said something else.

It's like that old joke: History never repeats itself, but historians only repeat each other.

So I've snuck a wee quote from Andre Gide into the start of my ARTHUR book:

"Alas! there exists an order of minds so sceptical that they deny the possibility of any fact as soon as it diverges from the commonplace.  It is not for them that I write."

At least take a look at the evidence before quoting whatever Professor Dumbledore said, chapter and verse!

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