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On Historical Evidence Post by :ID3000 Category :Essays Author :Hilaire Belloc Date :April 2011 Read :1043

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On Historical Evidence

The last book to be published upon the last Dauphin of France set me thinking upon what seems to me the chief practical science in which modern men should secure themselves. I mean the science of history--and in this science almost all lies in the appreciation of evidence, for one of the chief particular problems presented to the student of history at the present moment is whether the Dauphin did or did not survive his imprisonment in the Temple.

Let me first say why, to so many of us, the science of history and the appreciation of the evidence upon which it depends is of the first moment. It is because, short of vision or revelation, history is our only extension of human experience. It is true that a philosophy common to all citizens is necessary for a State if it is to, live--but short of that necessity the next most necessary factor is a knowledge of the stuff of mankind: of how men act under certain conditions and impulses. This knowledge may be acquired, and is in some measure, during the experience of one wise lifetime, but it is indefinitely extended by the accumulation of experience which history affords.

And what history so gives us is always of immediate and practical moment.

For instance, men sometimes speak with indifference of the rival theories as to the origin of European land tenure; they talk as though it were a mere academic debate whether the conception of private property in land arose comparatively late among Europeans or was native and original in our race. But you have only to watch a big popular discussion on that very great and at the present moment very living issue, the moral right to the private ownership in land, to see how heavily the historic argument weighs with every type of citizen. The instinct that gives that argument weight is a sound one, and not less sound in those who have least studied the matter than in those who have most studied it; for if our race from its immemorial origins has desired to own land as a private thing side by side with communal tenures, then it is pretty certain that we shall not modify that intention, however much we change our laws. If, on the other hand, it could be shown that before the advent of a complex civilization Europeans had no conception of private property in land, but treated land as a thing necessarily and always communal, then you could ascribe modern Socialist theories with regard to the land to that general movement of harking back to the origins which Europe has been assisting at through over a hundred years of revolution and of change.

It sounds cynical, but it is perfectly true, that much the largest factor in the historical conception of men is assertion. It is literally true that when men (with the exception of a very small proportion of scholars who are also intelligent) consider the past, the picture on which they dwell is a picture conveyed to them wholly by authority and by unquestioned authority. There was never a time when the original sources of history were more easily to be consulted by the plain man; but whether because of their very number, or because the habit is not yet formed, or because there are traditions of imaginary difficulty surrounding such reading, original sources were perhaps never less familiar to fairly educated opinion than they are today; and therefore no type of book gives more pleasure when one comes across it than those little cheap books, now becoming fairly numerous, in which the original sources, and the original sources alone, are put before the reader. Mr. Rait has already done such work in connection with Mary Queen of Scots, and Mr. Archer did it admirably in connection with the Third Crusade.

But apart from the importance of consulting original sources--which is like hearing the very witnesses themselves in court--there is a factor in historical judgment which by some unhappy accident is peculiarly lacking in the professional historian. It is a factor to which no particular name can be attached, though it may be called a department of common sense. But it is a mental power or attitude easily recognizable in those who possess it, and perhaps atrophied by the very atmosphere of the study. It goes with the open air with a general knowledge of men and with that rapid recognition of the way in which things "fit in" which is necessarily developed by active life.

For instance, when you know the pace at which Harold marched down from the north to Hastings you recognize, if you use that factor of historic judgment of which I spake, that the affair was not barbaric. There must have been fairly good roads, and there must have been a high organization of transport. You have only to consider for a moment what a column looks like, even if it be only a brigade, to see the truth of that. Again, this type of judgment forbids anyone who uses it to ascribe great popular movements (great massacres, great turmoils, and so forth) to craft. It is a very common thing, especially in modern history, to lay such things to the power of one or two wealthy or one or two bloody leaders, but you have only to think for a few moments of what a mob is to see the falsity of that. Craft can harness this sort of explosive force, it can control it, or persuade it, or canalize it to certain issues, but it cannot create it.

Again, this sort of sense easily recognizes in historic types the parallels of modern experience. It avoids the error of thinking history a mistake and making of the men and women who appear there something remote from humanity, extreme, and either stilted or grandiose.

In aid of this last feature in historical judgment there is nothing of such permanent value as a portrait. Obtain your conception (as, indeed, most boys do) of the English early sixteenth century from a text, then go and live with the Holbeins for a week and see what an enormously greater thing you will possess at the end of it. It is indeed one of the misfortunes of European history that from the fifth century to at least the eleventh we are, so far as Western European history is concerned, deprived of portraits. And by an interesting parallel the writers of the dark time seemed to have had neither the desire nor the gift of vivid description. Consider the dreariness of the hagiographers, every one of them boasting the noble rank and the conventional status of his hero, and you may say not one giving the least conception of the man's personality. You have the great Gallo-Roman noble family of Ferreolus running down the centuries from the Decline of the Empire to the climax of Charlemagne. Many of those names stand for some most powerful individuality, yet all we have is a formula, a lineage, with symbols and names in the place of living beings, and even that established only by careful work, picking out and sifting relationships from various lives. The men of that time did not even think to tell us that there was such a thing as a family tradition, nor did it seem important to them to establish its Roman origin and its long succession in power.

Next it must be protested that the smallness and particularity of the questions upon which historical discussion rages are no proof either of its general purposelessness nor of _their_ insignificance. All advance of knowledge proceeds in this fashion. Physical science affords innumerable examples of the way in which progress has depended upon a curiosity directed towards apparently insignificant things, and there is something in the mind which compels it to select a narrow field for the exercise of its acutest powers. Moreover, special points, discussion upon which must evidently be lengthy and may be indefinite, are peculiarly attractive to just that kind of man who by a love of prolonged research enlarges the bounds of knowledge and at the same time strengthens and improves for his fellows by continual exercise all the instruments of their common trade. Take, for instance, this case of the little Dauphin, Louis XVII. It really does not matter to day whether the boy got away or whether he died in prison. It does not prolong the line of the Capetians--the heir to that is present in the Duke of Orleans. It does not even affect our view of any other considerable part of history--save possibly the policy of Louis XVIII--and it is of no direct interest to our pockets or to our affections. Yet the masses of work which have accumulated round that one doubt have solved twenty other doubts. They have illuminated all the close of the Terror; they are beginning to make us understand that most difficult piece of political psychology, the reaction of Thermidor, and with it how Europeans lose their balance and regain it in the course of their quasi-religious wars; for all our wars have something in them of religion.

Three elements appear to enter into the judgment of history. First, there is the testimony of human witnesses; next, there are the non-human boundaries wherein the action took place, boundaries which, by all our experience, impose fixed limits to action; thirdly, there is that indefinable thing, that mystic power, which all nations deriving from the theology of the Western Church have agreed to call, with the schoolman, _common sense_; a general appreciation which transcends particular appreciations and which can integrate the differentials of evidence. Of this last it is quite impossible to afford a test or to construct a measure; its presence in an argument is none the less as readily felt as fresh air in a room; without it nothing is convincing however laboured, with it, even though it rely upon slight evidence, one has the feeling of walking on a firm road. But it must be "common sense"--it must be of the sort, that is, which is common to man various and general, and it is in this perhaps that history suffers most from the charlatanism and ritual common to all great matters.

Men will have pomp and mystery surrounding important things, and therefore the historians must, consciously or unconsciously, tend to strut, to quote solemn authorities in support, and to make out the vulgar unworthy of their confidence. Hence, by the way, the plague of footnotes.

These had their origin in two sources: the desire to show that one was honest and to prove it by a reference; the desire to elucidate some point which it was not easy to elucidate in the text itself without making the sentence too elaborate and clumsy. Either use may be seen at its best in Gibbon. With the last generation they have served mainly, and sometimes merely, for ritual adornment and terror, not to make clearer or more honest, but to deceive. Thus Taine in his monstrously false history of the Revolution revels in footnotes; you have but to examine a batch of them with care to turn them completely against his own conclusions--they are only put there as a sort of spiked paling to warn off trespassers. Or, again, M. Thibaut, who writes under the name of "Anatole France," gives footnotes by the score in his romance of Joan of Arc, apparently not even caring to examine whether they so much as refer to his text, let alone support it. They seem to have been done by contract.

Another ailment in this department is the negative one, whereby an historian will leave out some aspect which to him, cramped in a study, seems unimportant, but which any plain man moving in the world would have told him to be the essential aspect of the whole matter. For instance, when Napoleon left Madrid on his forced march to intercept Sir John Moore before that general should have reached Benevente, he thought Moore was at Valladolid, when as a fact he was at Sahagun. In Mr. Oman's history of the Peninsular War the error is put thus: "Napoleon had not the comparatively easy task of cutting the road between Valladolid and Astorga, but the much harder one of intercepting that between Sahagun and Astorga."

Why is this egregious nonsense? The facts are right and so are the dates and the names, yet it makes one blush for Oxford history. Why? Because the all-important element of _distance_ is omitted. The very first question a plain man would ask about the case would be, "What were the distances involved?" The academic historian doesn't know, or, at least, doesn't say; yet without an appreciation of the distances the statement has no value. As a fact the distances were such that in the first case (supposing Moore had been at Valladolid) Napoleon would have had to cover nearly three miles to Moore's one to intercept him--an almost superhuman task. In the second case (Moore being as a fact at Sahagun) he would have had to go over _four miles_ to his opponent's one--an absolutely impossible feat.

To march _three_ miles to the enemy's _one_ is what Mr. Oman calls "a comparatively easy task"; to march four to his one is what Mr. Oman calls a "much harder" task; and to write like that is what an informed critic calls bad history.

The other two factors in an historical judgment can be more easily measured.

The non-human elements which, as I have said, are irremovable (save to miracle), are topography, climate, season, local physical conditions, and so forth. They have two valuable characters in aid of history; the first is that they correct the errors of human memory and support the accuracy of details; the second is that they enable us to complete a picture. We can by their aid "see" the physical framework in which an action took place, and such a landscape helps the judgment of things past as it does of things contemporary. Thus the map, the date, the soil, the contours of Crecy field make the traditional spot at which the King of Bohemia fell doubtful; the same factors make it certain that Drouet did not plunge haphazard through Argonne on the night of June 21, 1791, but that he must have gone by one path--which can be determined.

Or, again, take that prime question, why the Prussians did not charge at Valmy. On their failure to do so all the success of the Revolution turned. A man may read Dumouriez, Kellermann, Pully, Botidoux, Massenback, Goethe--there are fifty eye-witnesses at least whose evidence we can collect, and I defy anyone to decide. (Brunswick himself never knew.) But go to that roll of land between Valmy and the high road; go after three days' rain as the allies did, and you will immediately learn. That field between the heights of "The Moon" and the site of old Valmy mill, which is as hard as a brick in summer (when the experts visit it), is a marsh of the worst under an autumn drizzle; no one could have charged.

As for human testimony, three things appear: first, that the witness is not, as in a law court, circumscribed. His relation may vary infinitely in degree of proximity of time or space to the action, from that of an eye-witness writing within the hour to that of a partisan writing at tenth hand a lifetime after. That question of proximity comes first, from the known action of the human mind whereby it transforms colours and changes remembered things. Next there is the character of the witness _for the purposes of his testimony_. Historians write, too often, as though virtue--or wealth (with which they often confound it)--were the test. It is not, short of a known motive for lying; a murderer or a thief casually witnessing to a thing with which he is familiar is worth more than the best man witnessing in a matter which he understands ill. It was this error which ruined Croker's essay on Charlotte Robespierre's Memoirs. Croker thought, perhaps wisely, that all radicals were scoundrels; he could not accept her editor's evidence, and (by the way) the view of this amateur collector without a tincture of historical scholarship actually imposed itself on Europe for nearly seventy years!

And the third character in the witness is support: the support upon converging lines of other human testimony, most of it indifferent, some (this is essential) casual and by the way--deprived therefore of motive.

When I shall find these canons satisfied to oppose the strong probability and tradition of the Dauphin's death in prison I shall doubt that death, but not before.


(The end)
Hilaire Belloc's essay: On Historical Evidence

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