Where Truth lies

How many times have we read and heard in recent months that we are living in a ‘post-truth’ world? It’s ironic and something of a grim joke in the blackest humour, that Truth once mattered but its pursuit is no longer even pretended by the powerful. In truth (or rather, I believe) we can never in our world fully grasp Truth; it is ‘seen in a glass darkly’. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth trying.

‘The Weekend effect’ in NHS hospitals was used by the UK government to justify changes in pay and conditions for doctors in England, provoking unprecedented strike action and dividing public opinion. It was later declared to be an artefact caused by coding methods; the way events and patients are described and captured in databases had skewed public perceptions and fomented a civil war between government and medical professionals. Data is not truth, but it is often overvalued, or, one might even say, ‘pimped’. It’s ‘a given’ – that’s one possible translation of the Latin datum whose plural is data. This glissade from plural to singular is part of the trick: instead of a Multiverse we perceive a Monolith.

So many of our archives started life as legal and administrative records (like those NHS databases). Classic Jenkinsonian method encourages this kind of selection: the ‘transaction’ is all that the ‘record’ knows about. For all you non-archivists out there, Sir Hilary Jenkinson was the first Anglophone to write about archive theory and practice; he was a Keeper of the Public Records and so his work reflects that of the National Archives. His definitions suit government and business, but don’t necessarily produce the ‘records’ that bring us delight.

Sir Hilary considered that ‘The good Archivist is perhaps the most selfless devotee of Truth the modern world produces’. Really? Really and truly?

Are we sure we don’t distort the truth by the ways we select and arrange archives? classification by fonds & series is meant to preserve integrity, but sometimes destroys it. But generally our intentions are good. We value the integrity of the fonds, which might be a person, or a business, or an institution, and we value the original over a copy wherever possible. Whatever has been captured by the record process is preserved together with metadata that might aid trust and interpretation. It sounds like I (on behalf of archivists everywhere) am passing the buck, and I am. But can we trust the documents that have come down to us?

Let’s look at some historical records and consider their truthfulness:

Wills (religious & secular) – sometimes also contain confessions of faith or of conscience. They are heavily used by genealogists, and were first used for serious historical enquiry by Eamon Duffy to assess the pace and depth of the conversion of England to Protestantism. Wills were proved in ecclesiastical courts in England and Wales until 1857. Mediaeval Catholic wills only disposed of the ‘Soul’s Part’ of a testator’s goods; the remainder of his or her chattels, and all of their land, was distributed or descended according to Custom. To receive a bequest, in cash or in kind, was to accept an obligation to pray for your benefactor. So if there were any dispute about a will, it was wholly appropriate to hear it in a church court. Wills were often written for the dying by their parish priest or chaplain; they open with a declaration of faith and the committal of soul and body. Does committal to ‘all the holy company of heaven’ or a hope to be ‘numbered among the Elect’ testify to the creed of the testator or to that of his or her amanuensis?

How about secular Court records? Mediaeval local courts in England had Juries to swear to the truth of presentments. If the majority swore they believed a thing, then it became true. And the Anglo-saxon trial by compurgation or ‘wager of law’ might become little better than Mob Rule. The more hands you had on your side, the more credible your case. Sounds like the 52%, doesn’t it? Pity the poor outsider in a mediaeval English manorial court.

So much for local and parochial justice (and the records it has left behind). There are some very fancy legal judgments which are found in old bundles of title deeds which got rid of encumbrances on land. They are called Common Recoveries, and they are among the most impressive of administrative archives. Sometimes headed with a portrait of the King or Queen or the Royal Arms, always calligraphic, and always dangling a big royal seal in a metal box (if it’s been kept too hot and dry for many decades the fragments of wax will rattle about in it). A new student of Latin Palaeography might wade through its clauses, its allegations of wrongful dispossession, until he or she comes to the names of the villains, John Doe and Richard Roe – ‘straw men’. The allegations and the process are little better than pantomime and should not be taken at face value. Yes, there’s an underlying truth, which was that English Law would not let a landowner rescind his previous acts, particularly his family settlements. The best way, Lawyers felt, to wipe the slate clean and start again, was to get a judgment in the royal courts granting clean title to the landowner or his agent. But the means of achieving it was pure amateur dramatics.


A petitioner in the courts of Equity must have ‘clean hands’, and yet his sworn pleadings are routinely knotted together with falsehoods. How often have I read that parties faced each other armed to the teeth, or that evidence had ‘casually comen’ into the wrong hands, or that the plaintiff was a poor man, or that he promised to pray for long life and prosperity for the Judge?

These charades don’t mean we can write off such evidence. Often it’s all we have for the history of a family, a house, or a community. But you do have to read between (or behind) the lines. John Doe might be fictional, but the other people playing parts in the Common Recovery Pantomime were real enough, and their family and professional relationships revealed through their participation could be important. Some of the legal fictions I have mentioned are not very different from the exaggerations of everyday speech. Listeners filter them out – if they know what to expect.

I once took an introductory Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP) course, in which we were taught to listen for people’s ‘modalities’. We can all be either Visual, Auditory, Kinaesthetic, Olfactory or Gustatory. Our modality comes out in the language, the metaphors and expressions we use. Others can use this to ‘get alongside’ us, make us feel ‘we’re on the same wavelength’. You can use the same skills reading archives: don’t discard the predictable stuff, the metaphors, the common form, the legal fictions. It’s part of a pattern that will help you understand the people and the period better.

Truth is strong stuff: it can even be read in lies.



One Comment Add yours

  1. Paul Booth says:

    Nice piece, Peter.


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