Early Modern Post

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News and the Shape of Europe, 1500-1750

This is a re-blogged conference announcement from the two-year Leverhulme project ‘News Networks in Early Modern Europe’

(aka me/my employer – my project profile can be found here: http://newscom.english.qmul.ac.uk/staff/networkfacilitatorprofilepage.html)

Early Modern News Networks

Conference at Queen Mary, University of London, 26-28th July 2013

Registration open: http://newscom.english.qmul.ac.uk/events/items/83801.html

Join us this July for the final event in the News Networks calendar: a three-day symposium on ‘News and the Shape of Europe, 1500-1750’.  This major news history event will feature 40 speakers from across Europe and the Americas, and will contribute to a new pan-European history of news, which has been the driving force behind and ultimate aim of the Leverhulme international network, News Networks in Early Modern Europe.

How did news cross Europe, and how did news make Europe? News in early modern Europe was a distinctively transnational phenomenon; its topics were international in scope; the forms and terminologies of news, as well as the news itself, crossed national boundaries; practices of news-gathering relied on networks of international agents; it was widely translated; it travelled along commercial routes, or through postal networks that were…

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Freelance research and the sixteenth century CV

This blog has been the oft-ignored ugly sister to my ADD PhD, the latter always clamouring for more and more attention, and probably pulling the blog’s hair when it thought no-one was looking. Being busy with writing up said PhD, and teaching, and working on projects to make ends meet, was an unarguably excellent excuse for not writing more blog posts.

However, as I confessed in the last post over two months ago, I’ve now finished my PhD. And as you can see from the sub-clause, finishing it hasn’t led directly on to a whole lot of free time.

So, what happened? Like with any all-consuming project, I think you make a deal with yourself that in exchange for ridiculous working hours and vein-popping stress levels, once the project is over you will have free time and instant bliss. And like any promise you bribe yourself with, it never quite works out like that.

The bottom line is, I’ve finished my PhD, and whilst that’s brilliant, I’m now unemployed, and I find myself at the bottom of another mountain to climb. It can take a little while to get your head around that, whilst simultaneously dealing with the real-world demands of paying rent and feeding oneself.

That’s what I’ve been doing since finishing: meeting real-world demands and scoping a route up the mountain.

I’ve been lucky enough to get a bit of freelance work to help with both of these (researching the plague in early C17th London for an American academic – you’ll have to wait for his next book for that, though). That, thankfully, was straightforward paid work; it’s the other time-consuming occupation that I want to talk about today, the route planning and ground-laying for the next step in the academic career – planning that isn’t paid but that amounts to very real work and takes a heck of a lot of time.

To get an academic job, I’m going to have to publish an article or two, and maybe try to publish my thesis as a book, which will absorb a huge amount of work and time, but will not be (in the first instance) remunerated. I will have to keep giving papers at conferences, and review books, to keep my foot in the door and my face recognised. In the academic world, as far as I know, none of these activities are paid, but are rather expected aspects of your full-time, well-supported university post. If you have one.

At my level, the idea is that all this work will be for deferred favour, for an increased chance of a job in the future. And – because this is another mental side effect from doing a PhD – this made me think of one of my thesis chapters.

If you were of a reasonable background in the sixteenth century, an educated gentleman, say, then you might be looking at the church or the law for your livelihood. One possibility would be to get noticed by a patron, and move into politics and crown service. If you were really skilled and really lucky, this might open further opportunities and sinecures. One way of getting noticed was to travel abroad under the encouragement and approval of a patron (not least to get your passport for you), and to send them news and intelligence of foreign lands. In a pre-multimedia, even pre-newspaper, world, the access granted by travel and the skills of researching and writing were valuable, and could land you a job in the Elizabethan polity: to scale that mountain you needed both a patron, and to demonstrate your skills.

Demonstrating your skills and pitching for favour could be done in the form of transmitting regular news, and by writing reports and topographical accounts of the host court and country; like the Venetian relazioni (diplomatic reports), but without the diplomatic salary. Travel and information gathering by the gentleman and nobleman essentially acted as both training for the next generation of political figures, and as an ad hoc intelligence service for the crown, and the best thing was, the crown rarely paid for it.

The problem, for the aspirant at least, was needing to secure patronage in the first instance – they would need to move in circles where they could build such contacts – and of course needing to support oneself whilst essentially working for free, or for unreliable or irregular returns.

Your young gentleman abroad was either supported by well-off kin, or commissioned by a patron, like the earl of Essex supporting Francis Davison in his travels in Europe. If the ‘commission’ was encouragement and instruction, but no money – i.e. deferred favour – then the traveller would be at risk of slipping from information gatherer to intelligencer-for-hire, from gentleman abroad to prison spy. If there was no encouragement and no money, then movement, whether physical or social, was impossible. Elizabethan society was far from meritocratic, but there was sometimes space for accession if one had the right contacts, experience, brains, and luck.

I am certainly not saying that we’re in the same state now – in fact, I just got some freelance work from asking around on twitter (the ultimate example of a move from patronage and closed elites to widened access and opportunity). However, working for free – building and displaying your experience – is still expected if you want to enter certain careers, and no more so than in straitened times. There’s no shortage of recent news stories highlighting the unfairness and social disparity in requiring incomers to an ever increasing number of careers to work for free; you need that well-off kin or patron. Internships and doing unpaid work to benefit your CV is all very well if a) you have support from elsewhere, and b) there’s actually a job at the end of it. I’ll keep you posted.


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Digital Humanities, the Devonshire Manuscript and social knowledge

As frequent readers may have guessed, I have in recent months been getting more and more interested in that nebulous world often described as the ‘digital humanities’ (they might also have noticed the shameful lag between the last post and this – my excuse is that I’m a couple of short months off submitting my phd (hopefully!), so please forgive my laxity).

Now, I don’t have to tell you that the broad church of digital humanities involves more than online publishing, whacking texts on the web for all to see. It’s true that DH offers exciting possibilities for elegance and efficacy in digital publication, regarding content, browsing, searching and so on (look at CELL’s dateline view for the correspondence of Thomas Bodley project, for instance). But the digital humanities are also moving towards the kind of activity and interaction that is in concept, design and process web-based. That is, it is not just about making the non-digital digital, it is about opening up and thinking up whole new ways of working, researching, editing and writing.

Front matter in the courtly anthology the Devonshire Manuscript (note Mary Shelton's name). c.1530s-40s.

The Devonshire Manuscript project masterminded by the Electronic Textual Cultures Lab at the University of Victoria is a great example of this, and I urge anyone interested to get involved.

The manuscript is a verse miscellany dating from the 1530s and 40s, for which there is no authoritative published edition. That is about to change. However, instead of producing a single-instance, single-authored transcription of its content, the ETCL are developing a social edition of the manuscript, that is at present available online here.

The ‘social edition’ aspect of it means that anyone is free to adapt, update and add to information on the manuscript and its many features, creating a pooled wiki-type knowledge base from which the final version will benefit. It is important to note that this will avoid the dangers of a lack of authority or accuracy, concomitant with a free-for-all wiki approach, by reintroducing authorial checks and balances at the end of the process.

The editors are keeping track of all user updates, and will review the project in July when turning the online version back into an authorised publication, to be published by Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies.

The project demonstrates real awareness of the advantages and risks involved in social knowledge contribution in that there is a sense of culmination, an end point at which authorial control can be re-established, contributors can be credited for their input, and the role of the editor again becomes central in deciding how best to amalgamate and solidify the working text.

So, what is in the Devonshire Manuscript? It is well known in literary circles as a key source for the poetry of Sir Thomas Wyatt, but its nature as co-authored miscellany means there is a richness to its material, scribal and paratextual features that is only now being fully explored. It contains multiple hands from key figures around the court of Henry VIII, and has been called ‘the richest surviving record of early Tudor poetry

Sir Thomas Wyatt, 1503-1542

and of the literary activities of 16th-century women’.[1] The online version at present offers transcriptions with scholarly apparatus, as well as an impressive amount of contextual, textual and bibliographic material, all of which is open to addition by whoever has knowledge to offer: just click ‘edit’.

This is a socially-mediated, socially-constructed text, and so to have its publication echo its origins so beautifully is a fantastic idea. The very fact of the manuscript being a co-authored court anthology and thus a point of intersection for so many different people, poems, themes and contexts means that it lends itself particularly well to social editing. Opening the text up to the scholarly community allows those with the relevant special interests to contribute as much or as little as they know and want to share.

I’m a firm believer that the process of building knowledge works best when based on sharing; not just in terms of wide and accessible transmission but in terms of collaboration in the building itself. The open source movement in computing is an incredible working example of this, but I think we can do more in the humanities (the regular non-digital kind) in terms of collaborative research.

The greatest insights come from collaboration, and there is nothing like discussing your ideas verbally to sharpen them. It is perhaps strange, as a friend remarked last night, that the PhD is a process involving 3-4 often somewhat solitary years spent writing your words in relative isolation, but nonetheless a process whose worth is eventually measured by a verbal defence – the dreaded viva. That may betray my own personal anxieties at this time, but I suggest that if you’re part of the humanities research community (and if you’re not, for that matter) consider how much you actually talk about your own work and ideas, and how much you do or could do collaboratively – save the polish for the final version and let’s open up the process a little bit, it’ll be the better for it.

[1] Colin Burrow, “How to Twist a Knife,” London Review of Books 31.8 (2009): 3, 5. Quoted in <http://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/The_Devonshire_Manuscript/General_Introduction> [accessed 04.03.12]

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Preoccupied with archives? Or, what is my PhD for?

Sometimes you go to a lecture, maybe a very good lecture, maybe by a bona fide expert and writer of books you admire, but a lecture nonetheless that you just can’t follow, no matter how many times you try to pull yourself back to the thread of it. You’re sure that what was said was of great relevance, importance and gravitas, but really you only came away with a partial, distorted understanding, leaving most of the rest to the ether.

What good is the lecture if it doesn’t take the audience with it? Does it have to sacrifice its content in order to make itself accessible, or would just a few more explanatory sentences here and there be enough to let the non-expert comprehend its aims and intentions?

I don’t need to rehash what is going on in higher education funding in this country, in fact to funding for the social good in general. There’s been no attempt to hide it, little attempt to sugar-coat it. Perhaps this is because there has been a prevailing fatalism, an acceptance that such cuts were probably not far off from necessary, and that it was all going to happen anyway.[1]

Funding for the humanities has been slashed and burnt. And perhaps our biggest failing is not explaining why this is so detrimental to society at large. Explaining back in my home town in, oh, the ‘real world’, why I was studying English Literature at university was one thing, explaining what I was doing with four years studying sixteenth century diplomacy another.

It has never been so important for us to articulate an answer. We must explain the public good of the university, and the PhD, if we expect people to care about their future.

History has fared slightly better than English Literature at defending its relevance in the modern world. On the whole the PR has worked well: people understand what ‘History’ is, they understand the importance of it. Understanding the past will elucidate the present, so the axiom goes; there are even attempts to accord it a place in informing policy.[2] It has a public face, with multiple media outlets that demystify the subject in its widest form, and slowly embed in society a subconscious acceptance of its real importance, whether it’s Melvin Bragg’s In Our Time or The Great British Bake Off pausing footage of icing and beating to provide a cameo role for 1940’s rationing or the Georgian cupcake.

What of English literature? And what of the research PhD, now (with multiplied fees) impossible to undertake without ever-shrinking funding sources or masses of private wealth? The former is a popular subject, but the sense in society at large that it is little more that reading some books is commonplace, and has gone largely unchallenged.

I could not be a stronger believer in the importance of a degree in English, and of research culture in general. Both are about equipping us with the critical skills that are at the very core of what protects us from the worst in human history.

An education in reading critically, questioning assumptions and constructing argument is our best defence against fundamental belief in whatever guise it may take – it is the unquestioned, anti-pluralistic ideology that is at the heart of all our evils. The intellectual community have a responsibility to read and write and argue, have a responsibility to keep us in check. Of course anyone without such a training shares in this responsibility, but these are our skills, this is what we can offer.

At the same time, the student and the scholar are also engaged in pursuing their own often niche subjects. This is, in my view, of equal merit to a more widely applicable critical faculty, and to a training in science or engineering, say. But the new idea in science, medicine and so on is more obvious, more PR-friendly. Who really cares if I write something new on the letter-writing processes of a long-dead diplomat?

In an immediate, practical sense there seems to be a hierarchy here, but this misses the point. We should never, nor do we have to, choose one at the expense of another. I’m not going to save lives doing what I’m doing, but a world in which all that matters is the fact of living is not one I want to be a part of. The arts and humanities do more than enrich our society; they are the expressions of it, they are its voice, and they are not an optional extra. The stuff of interest and of intellectual challenge, the exploration of the world of ideas and of language, this is what makes us human.

I feel this bubbling under the surface, under my skin, and my feeling is that the next few years are crucial not just in deciding the realities of the future of higher education, but in setting how we think about it. We should not accept our fate and wait grumbling for the flood.

To academia, and especially young academia (the postgrads, the early career lecturers): we need to stand up, we need to raise our voices and take ownership of the education system we comprise. We need to occupy the universities, occupy the archives – not in the sense of setting up tarps, but in the sense of taking responsibility for them, for using them and explaining the importance of that use. Because if we don’t explain why what we’re engaged in is so necessary for society, we’ll be left lecturing to the ether.

[1] This, of course, is a generalisation about wider society and wider academia. There have been many, many political demonstrations, not least the Occupy movement, and for a voice from academia see the alternative white paper on higher education that was signed by over 400 academics.

[2] Take a look at the excellent History and Policy website as an example of this. I especially like the article on torture during WW2 and during the modern ‘war on terror’ as a convincing illustration of the persuasive power of precedent.


‘Studied for Action’: How do we do digital?

Last Thursday saw our first day back at school, and there was real excitement at discussing CELL’s plans and projects for the year ahead. One project in particular elicited a murmur of curiosity and approval: in collaboration with Princeton University, CELL will create an online edition of sixteenth century polymath and prolific annotator Gabriel Harvey’s copy of Livy’s history of Rome.[1]

Harvey's marginalia in Livy

The volume is heavily inscribed with Harvey’s extensive marginalia, and yet has not received the critical attention it calls out for in large part because this very same annotation means that a standard print edition just cannot do it justice.[2] The scholarly article can only describe so much to the reader; the book itself is always at one remove.

But! The recent explosion in interactivity online, and the opportunities it holds for making a truly ‘dynamic edition’ possible, might just change all that. Anthony Grafton, Arnoud Visser, Lisa Jardine and Matt Symonds will be working out how best to do this, and in this process – and this is what gets me – be echoing a corresponding intellectual navigation traversed centuries before by Harvey and his contemporaries. Digital is the new print.

The printing press was invented in the fifteenth century, with the sixteenth seeing up to a tenfold increase in the number of books churned from their bulky frames. Thus the sixteenth-seventeenth centuries saw an emergent book culture, as societies transformed around the accessibility of the written word. What we are living through is an emergent digital culture: similar negotiations to that of the Renaissance reader with their book are being made now on how we interact with and use this new media.

Take that delicious clue-holder of the early modern reading experience, marginalia, as an example. This is at root inscription by the reader in the margins of the printed text in a book. It might be to trial a pen or a new script, just to doodle, to note down a reminder or something much weightier, or to interact with, interpret or guide one through the contents of a text. All of these I saw recently on Wynken de Worde’s excellent blog on the marginalia in Caxton’s printing of John Gower’s Confessio Amantis, amazingly including a deed of the transfer of land written into the blank space beneath the text.

This goes to show that early modern interaction with a text could be unlike what we might expect or do ourselves. We jot down notes on spare scraps of paper precisely because of their throwaway nature, rather than in the sacred leaves of a published book, whereas someone then might be more inclined to write in the nice white expanse in a large printed volume, because it ensures its permanence. Additionally, when paper is expensive and writing involves fetching ones materials (including your homemade ink), sharpening your quill, dipping, writing and sealing, the whole process is much lengthier and more involved than grabbing your nearest biro (even when it has inevitably run dry from being abandoned sans lid).

Manicule or hand-shaped pointer in the margin of a letter

This sees early modern readers navigating, trialling and creating different ways of using and interacting with the printed book, just as we are now navigating and creating a digital culture as it grows around us.

The speed with which technological advances become a ubiquitous part of our lives gives an air of normalcy to what is actually still very culturally new. It has become so easy, so user-friendly, to live much of our lives online, that discourse and philosophical questioning of the subject is lagging behind, occasionally sprinting to make up the distance with the odd breathless panic about privacy on facebook.

Social networking is the beast that is most exciting, fearsome and, despite this, omnipresent. Children and teenagers are increasingly ‘plugged-in’; growing up like this is radically new, and we wonder how it feels. Google+ has just been released to the public, a new strain of this online species of socialising site, and one with wide-reaching ambition. Perhaps it is the very thing that makes it exciting that makes for a sense of fear; the ambition feels global, the drive to connect and share everybody and everything takes no prisoners. This is ideology: the removal of privacy and so the risking of the individual for the sake of the collective.

We haven’t quite decided whether we should limit or love this connectedness. Is the fear that comes with such a muscular newcomer founded, or is it just that: fear of the new? It’s hard to imagine a world without the printing press, and even harder to imagine resistance, or even righteous hatred or real fear, at its stupendous promise.

There is risk here, there are challenges, but there are also opportunities for use not yet thought up. I mean this both in society at large, and in terms of academic work, and in the latter case (excitingly) for more than just accessibility; for active exploration of texts. There is much work to be done…

[1] T. Livius Patavini, Romane historiae principis, decades tres, cum dimidia (Basle, 1555).

[2] For an important exception, see: Lisa Jardine, A. T. Grafton, “Studied for action’: How Gabriel Harvey read his Livy’ , in Past and Present, Volume 129, p.3-51 (1990)


The Hand of the Author

Last week, I had a conversation with a friend of mine who wants to become a documentary film maker on the subject of the fallacy of objective truth in story-telling, and of the merits of ‘fessing up to a subjective approach or attempting to obscure the presence of the story-teller. The subject was equally relevant to our respective aims of becoming something of a narrator, whether in modern documentaries or historical research.

Erasmus pens a quick letter

I had been writing on the very same topic earlier that day, in work defending my methodology centred around using archival detail and analysis of early modern handwriting to support inferences on the possible motivations of compilers of sixteenth century diplomatic letter-books. I had quoted handwriting expert and scholar Tom Davis in discussion of the lack of, and arguable lack of need for, certainty in historical narrative, and reproduce it here:

‘Scholarship about the past is not scientific: one cannot rerun the past in laboratory conditions in order to test predictions about it. History has few certainties: it is a structure of probabilities and possibilities and conjectures that would not meet the exacting standards required by a court of law or a forensic science laboratory, but does not have to.’[1]

One might wonder whether it is wise to accept, and even draw attention to, the potential weaknesses and lack of certainty in one’s argument, but I would argue that here and in the wider world, this is not only acceptable but our real responsibility as would-be figures of authority, that is, as setters of narrative.

That is not to say that a weak argument is defensible, only that a strong one does not need to close the door on development or even partial refutation. How does this philosophy hold when one uses methodologies founded in the scientific world, in this case, the ‘forensic’ analysis of handwriting? This approach can be extremely tempting for scholars: it seems to promise hard evidence and perhaps scientifically-grounded ‘fact’ of the type rare in the pursuit of the 400-year old life experience.

Concurrently, it exposes one’s argument particularly keenly: what can be proved can surely be disproved? However, rather than seeking or claiming watertight proof, perhaps we should aim in identifying hands to a personal certainty, where we are as confident as we can be, and also use hand identification in conjunction with other evidence in order to persuade the reader.

Davis may deny the need for the ‘exacting standards’ of a legal court (which also obviously uses handwriting identification), but what standards, then, should we adhere to in an historical context?

Mark Taviner in his PhD on sixteenth century diplomat and adviser Robert Beale comments on how an extreme familiarity with certain hands, built up over years of dedicated archival research, has been the casual methodology of great Renaissance scholars, but is not such an easy, or authoritative, method to mimic as a student or early career researcher.[2]

The hand-writing of diplomat Thomas Wilkes?

Taking inspiration from Davis and forensic graphologists, he makes a rather wonderful suggestion: listing references for known examples of handwriting for various statesmen, where each example is in printable format, he suggests scholars create their own reference book of hands, to be carried to the archives, ready to be flicked through when needed. Perhaps the access and space provided by the internet can develop this further, and someone can create an open-contribution database of common hands to provide a quick and easy, and authoritative, reference point…

We should argue our theories and narratives with well-founded conviction, the kind of conviction that comes from knowing your evidence as well as you possibly can (perhaps to the point of making your own Renaissance hands cheat-sheet). Yet this should not lead us to pretend that we have uncovered an objective narrative that was lying in wait for us like a Pompeii under ash or a Viking hoard underground. We uncover facts and likelihoods like archaeological treasure; putting these into a narrative unavoidably involves mediation and interpretation, and we should not erase our own presence in this process.

The same applies for anyone wanting to persuade the public, whether specialists in a certain field or lay persons: we must remain aware that anything beyond bare fact is someone’s, perhaps our own, version of events, and even that bare facts are also subjective, in that their selection necessarily excludes other information. Fear the fundamentalist narrative wherever you find it; accept pluralism. This post echoes previous ones in its message, but – my hands are up – it is only because the subject is on my mind, and it bears telling twice: liberally season the information you consume with a proverbial sprinkling of salt; it tastes better that way.

[1] Tom Davis, ‘The Practice of Handwriting Identification’ in The Library: The Transactions of the Bibliographical Society, Volume 8, Number 3, September 2007, pp. 251-276.  p269

[2] Mark Taviner, ‘Robert Beale and the Elizabethan Polity’, Unpublished PhD. Thesis, (St. Andrews, 2000)

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Trust me, I’m a writer.

I wasn’t going to stay on the subject of the accuracy and objectivity (or not) of reported news, but sometimes you have to go where the story is, and in both recent media and recent reading I’ve been coming across the unashamed inventing of facts. Incidentally, I don’t intend to have all my posts relate old and new (a format done so much better by Lisa Jardine in her radio 4 Point of View pieces), but bear with me.

The excellent article by Charlie Brooker on the coverage of the Norway massacre was Brooker at his best, and articulates much better than I could how shocking, distasteful and racist the reportage was immediately following the event, where somehow, without any evidence whatsoever, the actions of a white, blond Islamaphobe were assumed to be that of an anti-western al-Qaida cell.

English control of Irish lands in 1494, and under Elizabeth I and James I

At the moment, I’m trying to improve my knowledge of 16th century Ireland, and since I don’t have a lot of time for this I’m having to rely on just a few pieces of mainly secondary criticism. What I’m digesting is a particular historical narrative: ‘History’ is a story, it’s a version of events not the events themselves. This is old hat, but easily forgotten, especially when you’re searching for a quick low-down on a subject. Anglo-Irish history is one of those areas that one has to tread even more carefully around, where early and not-so-early sources can contain real bias, and I’m very conscious of getting it ‘right’.

A writer cannot help but approach a subject with a degree of bias; this is the result of being just one individual in a greyscale world of billions. Sometimes, subconsciously you bring your own interests to an interpretation; sometimes, this bias is 100% intentional. Take for example the bill of attainder, or piece of legislation declaring guilt without trial, prepared by the Irish council on the Irish rebel/magnate/king (depending on who you ask) Shane O’Neill after his assassination.

Sir Henry Sidney was Elizabeth I’s chief governor in Ireland from 1566-71 and 1575-78, and began a campaign against O’Neill in 1566; a priority on which the success of Sidney’s deputyship would rest.[1] Despite Sidney’s earlier campaigns going badly, and the actual death of O’Neill being by the hands of his long-term enemies the MacDonnells, the bill of attainder creates a very different impression.

The attainder works to concrete not just an English version of events but one that specifically favours Sidney. The role of Lord Deputy was famously risky in terms of reputation and political standing; at the time of Sidney’s posting, the personalised nature of governance there meant that responsibility for gains and losses fell to this single figurehead. A crown representative abroad, whether Lord Deputy or ambassador, was inherently vulnerable to political attack from his enemies at home, by virtue of his geographical estrangement from the court.

Sidney, for example, had to battle against the negativity and ‘slander’ of his predecessor the earl of Sussex, an enemy of Sidney’s patron the earl of Leicester.[2] Rather than defending themselves by making their presence felt at court, by vocally representing their cause in person, estranged subjects were often forced to defend themselves by pen and ink; inscribing the facts to their own benefit in letters and discourses, trying to literally ‘set’ the record, straight or otherwise.

Sir Henry Sidney (1529–1586), attrib. Arnold Bronckorst, 1573

Something like this is happening in the O’Neill attainder, where Sidney’s failed military campaigns are not mentioned and his predecessor Sussex is excised entirely; it is written instead that the ‘arrogant, undutifull and trayterous’ O’Neill ran amok ‘untill the arrival of Sir Henry Sidney’ – cue Sidney striding onto the narrative stage like some caped crusader.

Sidney is granted agency as the one who ‘did pronounce him a rebell’, and, side-stepping any possible political machinations behind the murder and the lack of personal military success for Sidney, the actual activity of the assassination becomes the climax of an extended tale of ‘quaffing and drinking of wine’, complete with sexual insult and gruesome detail.[3] Sidney glows as ‘prudent, and well disposed…most fit…truly beloved’ and O’Neill meets a fittingly barbarous end: for a piece of legislation the attainder is at times a dramatic read, obscuring less desirable aspects in the sound of its own trumpeting praise.[4]

So, in the absence of facts or where facts are undesirable, the unfettered writer can adhere to the popular narrative and bang their drum, using the trigger event to compose the story they wanted to publicize. The problem is, write something down and it takes on something of fact, even if later disproved; the ire and fear conjured by asserting the Islamic terrorist connection outlasted the claims of al-Qaida responsibility, even leaving aside the bizarre second-wave of fear that blamed Muslims for being a provocation to the mass murderer’s actions. It adds to a wider narrative.

When you approach an unfamiliar subject, you can try to read several accounts, and of course do so critically, but at the end of the day you put trust in what you read; it’s up to the reader to select reliable sources of authority, use critical reading to judge them as such, and the apparent authorities to deserve positive judgment. We can do better.

[1] Ciaran Brady, The chief governors : the rise and fall of reform government in Tudor Ireland, 1536-1588, (New York : Cambridge University Press, 1994) p125

[2] Brady, p115

[3] Brady, p130

[4] James Butler (ed.), The Statutes at large, passed in the Parliaments held in Ireland (Dublin: George Grierson, 1786-1801), vol.1, p326