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though it is important to have a chroniclers. He was nowhere so thorough conviction and apprecia- much as mentioned in contemporary tion of the worthlessness of narra- records. No trace of his descentives about remote and marvellous dants or connections could be found events when utterly unsupported at the end of the 16th century by contemporary evidence, the in- The list of bailiffs of Kussnacht vestigation of them is best left during the 14th century does not entirely to scholars and antiquaries. show the name of Gessler. Had The only possible arguments are, not early treatises discrediting the we would not say imponderable legend been burnt by the common they are of value in evoking the hangman, and their authors been sympathies of those who study threatened with a similar fate, we them, but they are such as cannot might have known more—that is, be weighed in the historical less. As it is, the Antiquarian balance.
Society of Lausanne seems to doubt New tests of historical certa nty Tell's very existence. However, may soon be established in the case from the early foundation of Tell's of the two ancient nations which Chapel on the banks of Lake Luhave bequeathed us ample contem- cerne in 1387—only forty years porary records in the shape of after his death and from the sculptures and inscriptions. We are institution in the previous year of all familiar, however, with two a religious service to commemorate plain proofs that their value, and how he lost his life during a flood that of coins also, may be reduced in the attempt to save a friend, we to a minimum at any time by im
to infer — what ? perial or national vanity or preju- “that an obscure peasant of this dice.
name did shoot an Austrian bailiff Domitian celebrated a triumph on the banks of Lake Lucerne, over Britain when his army had thereby causing a revolt; and that merely picked up shells upon the he was afterwards drowned, as opposite coast of Gaul. And our stated above." own London Monument,“ like a The case is most instructive, as tall bully, lifts its head and lies” showing how far down in European (did so at least till 1810), asserting history the legendary elements have that the great fire of 1666 was a survived, and also how necessary it plot of the Papists.
is to reject the dilemma, “ take all Let us come down as far as to or none,” and to maintain that A.D. 1307. Some of us have title something happened, though we deeds and letters in our family cannot know exactly what, only chests of this and earlier dates. being assured that it is not always Yet it is impossible to be sure of what is told in the story that is anything about William Tell except oldest, most famous, most interestthat the story of the apple is un- ing, most edifying. true, and was borrowed from a So much for notoriety. Equally Scandinavian legend, popular in remarkable and discouraging are many countries, about a hero named the phenomena to be met with in Toke, alias Eigil, alias &c., &c. The historical writings taken by themfirst history that contained his selves. famous adventures was published It is marvellous that the model 140 years after the current date of historian Thucydides should have his death.
Serious discrepancies had for his contemporary (though exist between different versions of senior) such an inveterate legendthe story as told by the Swiss monger as Herodotus, and that Tacitus (born A.D. 61) should have To complete the discomfiture of been as immeasurably superior in the controversialist who appeals to discrimination to Livy (died A.D. 7). history and insists on everybody
Then we must be prepared for taking his view, we have also to such startling omissions as that of consider how little is to be learnt the “rise of Methodism, from a from the three witnesses who history of the reign of George II., do always tell the truth ; how sel. and of allusion to the Chinese wall dom they speak, or else how enigfrom the travels of Marco Polo," matically. and for such discrepancies as be- A people's institutions, as distintween Clarendon's statement that guished from a code of laws inthe Earl of Argyle was hung (in vented for them by a native genius, 1661) and Burnet's (another con- or imposed upon them by a foreign temporary) that he was beheaded. conqueror, are the fruits of their
Again, the indirect and therefore past history, and the tree may be (if genuine) invaluable evidence known by its fruits. derivable from the autobiographies Thus, supposing the authentic and correspondence of distinguished period of Roman history to commen can only be received subject to mence at a time when there was one caution : “ To forge and coun- already in force a law that one of terfeit books, and father them upon the consuls must be a plebeian, it great names, has been a practice is an almost inevitable inference almost as old as literature.' Thus that at a previous period both were did Dr. Gauden publish " Eikon
“ Eikon patricians. Basilike as the composition of Our English law that we may not Charles I. Hence the least ana- be taxed without our own consent chronism in personal or political proves that taxation in old times or geographical allusions, or in the was both arbitrary and oppressive. use of words or idioms, outweighs But a student as far removed all notoriety in the matter of from ourselves as we are from the authorship, and every allegation Romans of B.C. 366 would never of a radical difference in style be- be able to guess from such a sketch tween the disputed and the recog- of our institutions as we possess nised compositions of the same of theirs, “how different was the author must be treated with respect. exercise of nearly the same nominal
Once more. Not only are medals legislative functions by Queen coined, trophies set up, inscriptions Victoria and Queen Elizabeth." engraved, and public buildings (Sir G. Cornwall Lewis). erected, in honour of events that The language of many mixed never took place, but a religious nations at many periods has told ceremony is often the
as clear a tale as Wamba read in stance” to a “lie,” e.g., the annual the words calf and veal, swine pilgrimage to Paray-le-Monial. and pork. But philologists are And while the names of places are not always unanimous, and often “fossil history”—as when history
history written solely by their Camargue is traced to Caii Marii aid is very sketchy, and seldom ager-they still more often give invites or settles any important rise to legends which have actually dispute. no foundation in fact, as when Alleged events, unsupported Mons Pileatus, the cloud-capped otherwise, may be strongly conpeak of Lucerne, was transformed firmed when subsequent undisputed into the scene of the banishment events can be represented as effects and suicide of Pontius Pilatus. which, according to established
physical and moral possibilities, nous arriverons à cette triste conand setting aside gratuitous sup- clusion, qu'il ne s'est rien passé positions, could have had no other depuis la création du monde. Ce cause. This is merely the circum- n'est pas que je méprise la critique; stantial evidence of law courts on au contraire, et je la préfere de a large scale, sharing all its beaucoup à l'éloquence chez ceux strength-as when the murder of qui me racontent le passé, mais Bishop Patteson by certain Poly- encore faut-il qu'ils me racontent. nesians proved their previous ill. Je demande à l'histoire de rentrer treatment by white men-and all dans le genre narratif.” its weakness, as when the murder What then can we do towards of Mungo Park merely indicated constructing the wished-for canons the brutal cupidity or ferocity of of historical credibility ? other barbarians.
We begin, of course, with careful Enough has now been said on definitions. the destructive side.
Historical events, as distinguished The reader will now accept as from personal details, are such as possibly applicable to the historical
concern whole nation, and problem which he himself may (except secret treaties and the most desire to solve the following like) are notorious throughout the dictum of Fitzjames Stephen : country, and usually also in “ Unless by
some unforeseen neighbouring countries. accident
materials should Credible means probable, i.e., come to light, any doubts about resting on evidence which in the this subject—whether they arise majority of similar cases has been from inherent improbabilities in verified, or at least is accepted as the story itself, from differences of true. detail in the different narratives, It must be noted that, as in or from general considerations as matters of "probability," so here to the untrustworthiness of also, antecedent likelihood must be historians writing on hearsay, and allowed to strengthen or weaken at a considerable distance from the the chances made out by evidence; events which they relate—are, and and moreover, when"our conviction must remain for ever, unsolved that a certain alleged event is true and insoluble."
would drive us into a change of
conduct or of sentiment, we require How many names in the long sweep of
the odds in its favour to be very time, That so foreshortens greatness, may but
great. The foundations must hang
correspond to the superstructure. On the choice mention of some fool that Next to definitions come axioms;
only, in this inexact science, we Brake bread with us, perhaps.
must use the less forcible LatinTENNYSON, Queen Mary, act iii., sc. 1.
derived equivalent,-assumptions. It is a relief to turn to the In historical as in legal investibright side of the picture. A gations we assume. writer in the Journal de Genève To resume, men tell the truth if thus recalls it to
they know it, and take the trouble, “Relevons encore un merite, assez and have no interest the other way. rare aujourd'hui, chez l'historien Events admitted to have happened de Voltaire : il raconte les faits ; must have been caused by previous les historiens récents n'écrivent events; and if history (not mythoguère plus que les contester ; s'ils logy) mentions a vera causa, i.e., vont longtemps encore de ce train, previous events such as might very
well have happened, any other Experience must furnish the hypothesis is gratuitous.
answer. Sometimes it is experience The undesigned consensus of of the particular authority we are independent authorities is convinc- valuing. If we have found him ing and conclusive as far as it goes evidently as well-informed as he (of this proviso more hereafter), professes to be on all points which whether the
the authorities (i.e., we can test by other authorities, persons who knew) are authors of we shall esteem him as well-inbooks, inscriptions, coins, &c., in formed as he professes to be on which case facts may be established other similar points. “out of the mouth of two or three Thus, Herodotus's statement that witnesses," or are merely “ folks,” Xerxes made a canal on the in which case they must be very isthmus behind Mount Athos hav. numerous, for only so is the ing been verified by the discovery populi vox Dei”
only so may of its channel, we have a reasonable constat be translated “it is well presumption that he has correctly known.”
described the whole route of the It is interesting to note how our Persian fleet and army. definitions bear upon our assump
But, unfortunately, it too often tions. The public importance of happens that we have only one historical events leads us to expect authority for certain events, and that many contemporaries did know that it relates no other events, or the truth about them, so that what at least no other similar events, was uncontradicted at the time which we can test, and so estimate ought not to be lightly discredited, its trustworthiness. while what was omitted at the Thus it is only in Herodotus time ought not to be easily ac- that we can find a record of, or even cepted.
an allusion to, the remarkable conThe magnitude of historical versations which he tells us Xerxes events forbids us to put aside held with Demaratus, the exiled alleged causes of admitted effects king of Sparta. In such cases our on the plea (which is, however, a resource is to consider what prosceptical man's only safeguard in portion of such conversations are the face of well- substantiated usually reported so eagerly and ghost stories and the like) that we faithfully as to reach a foreigner “cannot be expected to account for fifty years afterwards; and, when everything."
other writers give similar conversaThe great number of circum- tions which can be verified, what stances, important or unimportant, proportion of them are found to surrounding a historical event, be substantially correct. offer additional scope for unde- In like manner we calculate the signed coincidences, while it is also probability that writer has impossible to suppose-as may
** taken the trouble" to ascertain happen in the subjects of lawsuits the truth, and that the evidence and trials—that a false account is before us is not biassed by personal due to a conspiracy either of prejudice or national vanity. historians of multitudinous It is needless to point out how rumour-mongers.
great is the credibility of, say, a Next, to examine more closely democratical writer who records some expressions that have just democratical excesses and failures, been employed.
and of national chronicles or What kind of persons“ know the monuments which publish national truth” about historical events ? crimes or disasters.
So far we have been speaking of Thus the traditional site of a battle writers (including authors of in- has been verified by excavations. scriptions, monuments, and super- On the other hand, though the scriptions on coins) who could have existence of any current account known the truth, the only question must have had a definite cause, being whether they have the that cause may easily be conceived requisite discrimination
to be for ever undiscoverable ; nor research, and were free from bias can we recount any instance in - a question decided partly by which a history has been successcomparison with other autho- fully built up out of the ruins of a rities, partly by the writer's own “pure and simple” mythology. statements about the means he It is easy enough to omit or employed to ascertain the truth, explain away the miraculous or partly by the internal evidence of superhuman details when they do style and sentiments.
not interfere with the sequence of By the expression “ the question events. Thus the credibility of is decided” is meant that, after Livy's history after the war with examination, we can reckon our Pyrrhus is not at all impaired by authority among those which are a paragraph here and there about always, or usually, or as often as a rain of drops of blood, or an ox not, or sometimes, or very seldom, speaking with human voice. Thus, or never, to be trusted for such and
too, we may quite believe Xenosuch a kind of event. We can take phon's assertion that he won such the evidence
and such a battle after waiting 18, 38, 39, 40, o, or to the several hours for favourable omens, simple fact being (suppose) that without agreeing with him as to fifteen out of twenty contemporary the prophetic value of the entrails inscriptions record historical events inspected by his priests. But when as they really happened.
discarding the marvellous eleAs to persons who could not have ment” obliges us to reconstruct known the truth there is a great the whole narrative, as we must do controversy. Is contemporary evi- when we seek the foundation in dence indispensable ? i.e., evidence fact for a genuine myth, then the derived from what was reported result has no claims to be accepted. or recorded in some way by per
So it is with the Trojan war, sons who had arrived at years of and with what happened when discretion when the event took “good King Arthur ruled this place?
land.” We must beware of taking as an On the whole it is established by axiom either this favourite assump- experience that wherever the histion (so dear to Sir G. Cornwall torical faculty of a nation was too Lewis), or another antagonistic to undeveloped to produce among it, namely, “ There must be some them authentic books, monuments, foundation in fact for the current coins, or other records of public account, even though quite mytho- events, their unhistorical instinct logical, when any other account is was so active, or their “ talent for confessedly mere guesswork." For, silence" so great, that their tradion the one hand, the accurate pre- tions, historically speaking, are servation of historical events by worth little or nothing at all. Nor tradition is not only quite con- must there be any appeal to the ceivable, but has been proved in assumption of undesigned consome instances by the unexpected sensus.
Such tales are not supdiscovery of confirmatory records. ported by the undesigned coinci