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.
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.’
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.
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.