The Amateur Side of the Hill

Consider this a historian-in-action thought piece, where I speculate on method, and whether I am convinced by an argument (that I haven’t read) based solely off of tea leaves offered by the author. And no, historians never ever make such summary judgments based off the slightest of evidence. Gripping (griping?) stuff.

Apropos a recent post on footnoting and historical evidence, I read an interesting yet odd interview of historian Tom Reilly (author of Cromwell: An Honourable Enemy and Cromwell was Framed) about his crusade to rehabilitate Oliver Cromwell (and his warts). Here’s the blog link – there’s a pop-up ad that you probably want to ignore, and you might want to check/clear your cookies after you’ve left the site if you have lingering doubts.

A self-proclaimed “amateur”, Reilly portrays himself pitted against politicized Irish academics, pedants who snipe at his citations rather than engage with his irrefutable evidence that Cromwell was dishonorably framed for murder. An interesting idea, though admittedly only one recent example in a series of revisionist histories seeking to rehabilitate Bad Guys of History. Unfortunately I don’t have the expertise or knowledge to settle whether Cromwell really ordered (or allowed) hundreds of Irish civilians to be slaughtered at Drogheda (you out there Wayne Lee?). For broad context I’d probably start with The Massacre in HistoryThe Age of Atrocity (pp 251ff discuss Reilly’s claims as it turns out) and Theatres of Violence. Nor have I taken the time to do much research on either Reilly or his books. That doesn’t, however, prevent me from wildly speculating about the ideas at stake. I am particularly intrigued by the broader issues raised in the interview and the publisher’s (Chronos Books) website.

If you’ve read the above-linked interview, you too may have quickly been put on guard after an initial anodyne question about the origins of Reilly’s interest in Cromwell (he lives in Drogheda, site of the most infamous of the Cromwell “massacres”). By the second question the interview quickly descends into an attack on those damn academics: “Describe how difficult it was for an amateur writing in the current formally academic controlled climate.” Hey, that’s my People! As someone who’s complained far too often about the dominance of amateur popular military history in his own research area, I hadn’t really considered there would be people complaining that published non-fiction works were vetted by experts in the field. Score one for the publishers-as-gatekeepers side, I guess.

In response to this question about the difficulties of an academic-controlled publishing climate, the interviewee spent a surprising amount of time complaining about the last thing I would have expected: the difficulty of footnotes. Turns out his press editor insisted he go back and add footnotes for all his sources, requiring him to imitate a variety of footnote formats from other books. My initial thought was that he should justifiably complain if his press didn’t provide him with a style sheet. But more eye-catching was that he interpreted the arcana of footnotes as a painful and unnecessary introduction to the “bewildering world of academia.” Looks like history publishers get criticized no what matter what they do: for not including enough footnotes, or demanding that they include any at all. One more point for the publishers-as-gatekeepers.

The rest of the interview focused mostly on Reilly’s take on the politicized Irish historical community (or at least some of them), and how they were peddling myth as national identity. Reilly certainly wouldn’t be the first to make this charge. At the end of the interview, I was still a bit confused about his specific argument, so I looked for some context by checking Wikipedia and the press website, which has a sensationalist summary of the (self-published) book:
…”amateur historian Tom Reilly again throws down the gauntlet to professional historians everywhere. This book contains original and radical insights.
Breaking the mould of the genre, for the first time ever, Reilly publishes the contemporary documents (usually the preserve of historians) so that the authentic primary source documents can be interpreted by the general reader, without prejudice.”

Odd. In general, I certainly second his desire to see more quoting of sources and less politicization in academic history. But in this case the tone of both interview and publisher website strike me as rather counter-productive. Unless you want to sell controversy of course.

All of which leaves me with numerous questions I’d pursue if I had the time. Many of the questions that immediately come to mind leave me a bit skeptical of Reilly’s case as soon as I voice them. Does the fact that English writers were “much more circumspect” about Cromwellian massacres than Irish authors provide evidence that the Irish authors were wrong, as Reilly apparently believes? More strangely, have historians been jealously hoarding shiny primary sources from the general public, like some fire-breathing dragon? On this I’m pretty certain the answer  is “No”: many of you know that it’s those who donate documents to the archives, and the electorate who doesn’t want to pay more taxes to publish these documents, that deserve most of the blame for those documents that are hidden. Every historian I know would love for all such documents to be freely available, and I can’t imagine there are many Irish historians who would protest greater dissemination either. Where Reilly interprets footnotes as an arcane secret language which only a cabal of professional historians and their acolytes can decipher, academic historians see them as quite practical attempts to actually encourage transparency.

More effort would uncover what exactly the academic historians’ critiques of Reilly’s works were, but his rebuttal to one review sounded uncomfortably like one of my second-year methods students who still thinks primary sources present a crystal-clear window to the past:

‘None of this is convincing’ said the Irish Times. ‘This is a painfully bad book’, said Dr Jason McElligott and he followed up with, ‘and it is tempting to suggest that its main use will be to teach students how not to conduct research, assess evidence or write prose.’ I [i.e. Reilly] was stunned. ‘But, the evidence, I cried. Look at the evidence’.

If one of my students were to respond to the Irish Times‘ critique by saying “But look at the evidence,” I’d probably suggest to that student that in order to rebut a criticism that you didn’t assess the evidence properly, you should do more than just reaffirm your contention that the evidence is self-evident – perhaps discuss what types of evidence were available, and evaluate their reliability. For that matter, I’d tell the hypothetical student that the historical evidence for an emotional topic like a massacre can be interpreted “without prejudice” only with great difficulty. I’d even suggest the student consider the possibility that those human beings creating those documents (hidden or not) might themselves have had opinions and prejudices of their own that deserve investigation, frames of reference that might influence what (and how) they remembered events. I have no idea if Reilly does just that in his books, but his alternation between martyrdom and bomb-throwing radical makes me wonder.

As an academic historian, my confusion and frustration about l’affaire Reilly is perhaps best summarized in the following three sentences from the interview:

“There is no need for footnotes, because the documents are there for all to see.”

To play the pedant, I’ll assume Reilly’s unfamiliarity with academic history means he doesn’t realize that even with transcribed documents, you still need some method of indicating their location for other researchers that might want to return to the original, or ask an archivist to make a copy.

“I didn’t want to hide behind a reference/footnote that I have interpreted on behalf of Joe and Josephine Public. I included them so people can interpret them themselves.”

I too have long sought to provide contemporary quotations whenever possible, although here too I hope Reilly recognizes that his statement is rather methodologically naive if taken at face value. It’s impractical for any historian, amateur or academic, to expect the primary sources to ‘speak for themselves’ in a clear voice, particularly when those primary sources are of varying degrees of reliability, when they contradict each other, and since they were often created for different purposes than those which historians use them for. Interpretation unavoidably requires specialized knowledge (open to “amateurs” who take the time to study the issue), and it requires serious effort, as well as an appreciation of all the decisions the historian must make before he/she “understands” the past:

  • The selection of which extant documents are worth consulting (and why) requires contextual interpretation.
  • Deciding which types of archives and documents are relevant to your research (and the exact framing of your research question), is itself interpretation.
  • Numerous aspects of every document – from the genesis of the document to the author’s reliability to paleography to vocabulary to allusions to context to genre conventions – will necessarily require interpretation by those with specialized knowledge.
  • Any evidence you extract from those documents will be of no import unless you frame them within a particular argument or historiography, which is again a matter of interpretation.

What’s my point? Ultimately Reilly may be 100% right in every detail and every claim, though it’s quite possible that no conclusive answer is even possible (barring exhumations, and even then). But from what little I’ve read so far, I’m not the least bit surprised that academics have reacted negatively to his work. At first glance, all these impressionistic bits raise flags for this academic historian.

One of the tactics used by more unsavory revisionist historians has been to focus on some small, discrete historical event within a larger historical phenomenon, question the standard historical interpretation by producing some document (or challenge opponents to produce their “smoking gun”), charge that there is a conspiracy to keep the “proof” from the public (often despite acknowledging in passing that there has in fact been a long debate over the matter), and leave the implication that the larger event of which this was a part couldn’t have been all that bad if this specific incident wasn’t nearly as bad as we’ve thought. I have no idea if Reilly is intentionally doing this or not, and freely admit I’m in uber-speculation mode here. I would, however, be interested to hear his take on English activity in Ireland in the 1640s-1650s more broadly, or even on Essex/Mountjoy in Ireland (under Elizabeth), or William of Orange in the 1680s-1690s.

Any thoughts on the Cromwell debate, or the broader issues raised about scholarly vs. popular history?

Update: Just saw that Reilly posted his actual argument on the Trumpet of Sedition blog, which I’ll probably get around to reading sometime, and maybe even retract this blog post, or not.


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6 responses to “The Amateur Side of the Hill”

  1. Wayne Lee says :

    I’m going to duck the point of your post (popular/academic history) and respond to your poke. I cannot comment on Drogheda, not having looked at it in any kind of detail. I can however, recommnend Jennifer Wells’s forthcoming article in Past & Present “English Law, Irish Trials and Cromwellian State-Building in the 1650s” that explores the extent to which the law continued to function during the Cromwellian regime, even during the trials of the 1641 rebels.

    • jostwald says :

      Thanks Wayne.
      There does seem to have been an explosion in early modern Irish history published in the past decade, which I haven’t been able to keep up with. The digital age may not have helped historians read all the works that get published, but at least it’s made it easier to track and acquire copies of them.

  2. Tom Reilly says :


    Just came across this at midnight and haven’t time to respond in a meaningful way.Knackered. Been a long day. I am that ‘Reilly’ mentioned in despatches above. I’m hoping you (whoever you are) have read that post on the Trumpet of Sedition by now. I can also send you a PDF of my new book, if you like so you can see the documents and how they are presented.

    That’s all I can do for now. I’ve subscribed to receive email notification of comments here, so I’ll be happy to join in when I get the time.

    Tom Reilly .

    • jostwald says :

      Appreciate the reply. Having been called out, I will indeed check out your latest post, and likely add another post on the topic when I have time.

  3. Ralph Hitchens says :

    I wasn’t aware that Cromwell’s reputation needed much “rehabilitation.” Yes, he committed war crimes, but what general hasn’t? (Particularly in the age of religious strife.) Apart from that he was a leader of uncommon ability who rose from nowhere to be a king of sorts. I have no doubt that were he still on the scene, we would all be deferring to him.

    • jostwald says :

      Unless you’re Irish, of course (or live near Massachusetts). Or you’re a Royalist. Or someone who prefers Parliament to the Major-Generals. Or someone who doesn’t believe in religious toleration, or letting the Jews back into England…

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