Early Modern Post


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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