What is truth? Part 2: History

by Vincent Guy

Section of the Bayeux Tapestry

Henry Ford said “History is bunk”. Hold on while I correct that: “History is more or less bunk.” (Chicago Tribune, 25 May 1916).

History is not bunk. However, sources differ, interpretations vary, experts make errors, things we are quite sure about collapse when examined closely. The history we think we know cannot be taken for granted.

At junior school I had a pencil marked with all the Kings & Queens of England starting, of course, with the Norman Conquest: 1066 (the most famous date in British history). So the date of the Battle of Hastings was embedded in my juvenile head even before it was confirmed for me by Sellars and Yeatman’s 1066 and all that (1930). A firm fact which nobody disputes. And I should know, I was there. Well, my ancestor was. Clear in my mind’s eye since childhood is a figure in the Bayeux Tapestry: a horseman, above him the words: HIC GUIDO EST (Here is Guy). Quite fortuitously, as I was preparing this piece, I came across a print of the Bayeux Tapestry in a charity shop. There is no Guido. Only Wido. And he didn’t even appear at the battle, though he played a significant earlier role, kidnapping Harold some years before the invasion. (See the picture above)


Oh, and that arrow in Harold’s eye: pretty dubious. Scholarly opinion is that it was an image for propaganda, making a more striking picture than his probable fate: hacked to bits by the Norman troops. Anyway, his body was never found, so we lack observable data.

And it wasn’t really at Hastings that the Normans conquered the Anglo-Saxons, but seven miles away at a place since named “Battle” (So perhaps we should refer to The Battle of Battle). The real Battle of Hastings was in 1067 when the townsfolk rose up against the oppressor, who duly slaughtered them. Had my schoolboy pencil lied? I was rather proud of knowing this little fact. Sadly, in fact-checking for this article, the only source I can find is a website for the area’s tourists, which hardly counts as solid ground - https://www.silvertraveladvisor.com/review/place/194801-hastings-battle-of-hastings-1067

Every schoolboy knows that the Roman Empire fell when the Huns sacked Rome. Though the lad may be hazy on the exact date, around four hundred and something. To hand as I write is the British Museum magazine for Winter 2021 with an article on this very point. The city of Rome staggered on after the Huns had done their worst, but the centre of power moved to Constantinople. We may call that the ‘Byzantine Empire’, but the locals all thought of it as the ‘Roman Empire’; until quite recently the Greeks of Anatolia were known as Romoi. (See Patrick Leigh-Fermor’s travel books.) Meanwhile, Charlemagne established the Holy Roman Empire, citing something called the Donation of Constantine as evidence that the Eastern Roman Empire had thrown in the towel. Actually, the Donation story was a lie. Although Voltaire, in his Essai sur les mœurs (1756), described the Holy Roman Empire as “neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire”, it was still definitely there, at least until Napoleon put an end to it in 1804. Meanwhile the Catholic Church carried on from Rome regardless, as it still does, tellingly described by Gibbon (1776) as “the ghost of the Roman Empire sitting crowned upon the grave thereof”. (See E J Watts: The Eternal Decline & Fall of Rome, 2021)

About Napoleon our schoolboy knows at least three facts: Wellington defeated him at Waterloo, he was short, and he wrote to Josephine telling her not to wash as he was on his way to her embrace. I’ll deal with these in reverse order:

Napoleon’s correspondence has been obsessively studied. There’s no record of his tastes in the bedroom.

He was of average height for the time, but usually seen flanked by his Garde Impériale, who were recruited for their impressive height and presence. The enemy English took literally the cartoons of Gillray, who depicted “The Little Corporal” as a dwarf.

The Plumb-pudding in danger (with Napoleon on the right)

Cartoon by James Gillray

He certainly lost at Waterloo, but a strong case can be made for the decisive blow coming from the Prussian general Blücher. Later, one of the British officers built a model which emphasised Blücher‘s role; Wellington conducted a far-reaching campaign to suppress it. (See Wellington's Smallest Victory: The Story of William Siborne & the Great Model of Waterloo, Peter Hofschröer, 2004 )

Above I used the phrase “Every schoolboy knows…”. Like many I thought this was originally coined by the Victorian historian Macaulay, but Mark Lieberman’s Language Log traces it all the way back to 1783, in Hugh Blair’s Lectures on Rhetoric. And the Roman writer Cicero came up with something pretty similar: “Pueri omnes perdiscant…(All boys learn…)

Marie Antoinette didn’t produce many memorable utterances, but we all know she did say “Let them eat cake”. In the original French it is even more refined: “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche”. But did she? Unfortunately, no written record of this is available. The nearest is in Rousseau’s Confessions (1782) where he vaguely attributes something similar to “une grande princesse”.

Nonetheless, similar suggestions are still being made. Chatting with friends in Greece I hear that Khanum Erdogan, the Turkish president’s wife, has advised cash-strapped women in the market to “just eat one meal a day”. Trying to check this online I find The Express has her telling the women to eat smaller portions and prepare careful shopping lists. The Mail Online tells us that while two million Turks survive on just £3 a day, the president's wife boasts of drinking specialist white tea at £1,500 a kilo and drinking it from gold-leaf glasses. Neither story is exactly the same as the tale from my Greek friends. Nor do the Mail or Express come high on my list of trustworthy sources.

History”, as Churchill famously said, “is written by the victors”. Hold on, what Churchill actually did say, to Parliament in 1948, was distinctly less succinct, if more witty: “For my part, I consider that it will be found much better by all parties to leave the past to history, especially as I propose to write that history myself.” Two years earlier, Göring spoke to the Nuremberg court, with that concentration of mind brought on by the prospect of being hanged, “Der Sieger wird immer der Richter und der Besiegte stets der Angeklagte sein. (The victor will always be the judge and the loser the accused)”. https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/173752

A howler from Simon Schama, candidate for our greatest living historian: in Landscape & Memory (1996) he attributes to Siegfried Sassoon the words “Hunting is the unspeakable in pursuit of the inedible”. This is not just wrong, it’s wildly unlikely given that Sassoon’s most famous book is Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man (1928). The quip is in fact by that inveterate townie, Oscar Wilde. Of course, we all make slips, even Homer nods. Trouble is, we lose faith in the rest of the text: what other errors might lurk unseen?

Wikipedia is becoming recognised as the lodestar of reliable information. In this month’s Prospect magazine (April 2022) E. Zuckerman explains how “loosely coordinated volunteers can consistently solve one of the hardest problems of our time: finding consensus reality in an increasingly disputed world “. For many people it is now our first port of call for checking facts. In its early years it was a bit of a joke, notoriously unreliable. Nonetheless, the only mistake I ever noticed was something iffy about Peter the Great’s wife. I had just read a book about the Tsar and found the Wiki point didn’t quite tally. But maybe the book was wrong, Wikipedia right. How is it on current controversial stuff like QAnon, meat-eating, nuclear power? On the details I can’t pronounce, but the approach seems pretty reliable, at least in the sense that I agree with it. The wisdom of crowds works.

As Cicero wisely put it: “Dubitando ad veritatem pervenimus (By doubting we approach the truth).”

My apologies: in fact, it was probably the monk Peter Abelard a thousand years later.