I hate to admit it, but…
With the semester drawing to a close, I’ve gathered all my little slips of paper scattered about the house and am typing up all the various notes, questions and thoughts I’ve had over the past semester. Many of the fragments are quite specific and will eventually appear in some type of publication, but occasionally I have a meta-thought, usually in a generic methodological vein, that would probably sound weird if I wrote it in a publication (usually either too preachy or too tentative, or maybe too simplistic or too obvious), so I might as well put it here, where every post is tentatively simple in its preachy obviousness.
For example, most of you can probably think of examples where the strongest evidence to support claim X, or at least the most frequently cited evidence, is the fact that an opponent agrees with claim X. The two examples that come to mind most readily for me (or at least which I’ve been reminded of this semester):
- English troops are obviously superior to other Europeans (“races” as they might have said in the early modern period), a Truth evidenced with a quote from a foreigner who praised the quality of the English soldiery.
- A battle not-fought, a missed opportunity for battle, would have been a decisive battle if it had been fought, because one of the enemy admitted that had they been attacked, they would have been defeated entirely.
At first blush, these confessions from an opponent (or at least from one beyond your own tribe) seem a convincing piece of evidence. After all, your competitors generally resist giving you credit for anything, so when they do, they must be overwhelmed by the Truthiness of your claim.
But at some point I realized that an opponent’s “confession” is a bit more slippery than that. There’s an obvious problem with the second, counterfactual, example above – few people really know what might have happened but didn’t (‘fog of war’ making it that much worse in wartime), so the confession’s evidentiary strength depends entirely on the perspicacity and vantage point of the confessor. So you have the basic questions of “What did this person know, when did he know it, how did he know it, and did he generally form accurate judgments about such matters in such situations?” Pretty basic stuff as far as reconciling various accounts go, though actually answering those questions can be quite challenging.
Both examples raise another question, however, about the motivations of the confessor. When I come across such claims I’m left wondering about the context in which the confessor made their admission (there’s probably a name for this logical “fallacy” already). Was it intended as a straightforward factual statement, or was there an ulterior motive behind it? Who was the intended audience, and how did that shape the statement? For example, if some foreigner was bragging about how great English soldiers were, was it because it was a truth universally acknowledged? Or might it have been because the confessor was trying, for example, to butter the English up to provide them with more mercenary troops (who may or may not have been the best troops available – they usually needed all the men they could get)? Was it an attempt to play on English vanity in order to acquire their acquiescence, in other words? Or maybe it was intended as a way to indirectly insult or praise some other group? Dunno without the context.
In the case of a Frenchman admitting that their army would have been defeated if it had been attacked, is it possible that he said that for some reason other than to state the unvarnished Truth? Was it possible such an admission was really a critique of a competing French general (e.g. the commander of the said retreating army)? Was there some kind of factional or command dispute that might help explain such a statement, and thereby weaken its utility as a piece of evidence for the other side? Maybe an attempt to curry favor with someone, even someone on the other side? To assess the strength of the evidence, we need to contextualize the “confession” in order to figure out what it actually meant. But we rarely seem to get that contextual information.
Further, we really need more than just that one single juicy confession. The problem, in my experience at least, is that such frank admissions are incredibly rare in the sources, and readily brandished by partisans on either side, which makes me wonder whether such a ”frank” view would have even been accepted by other contemporaries, people who were likely in as good a position to know. For example, on a couple of occasions I’ve found “well-established” judgments about specific tactical or operational events (repeated ad nauseum in secondary sources) brought into question by other contemporary eyewitnesses. In a few cases a less-quoted source might actually say “Some uninformed people believe X, but I’m on the scene and it’s actually Y.” That should shake your confidence in the original confession, and in confessions generally if we entertain the notion that this obscure source might just as easily be wrong. I had this same problem in Vauban under Siege, where I couldn’t figure out whom to believe in the debate over which front was best to attack a fortress on.
Given how little information historians can recover of specific operational and tactical situations, how contentiously various candidates used such opinions in their jockeying for reputation and remuneration, and how contradictory various contemporary accounts often were,* perhaps we should hesitate to accept such blunt opinions at face value? At the least, let your readers see your argumentation, rather than just say “Trust me.” Assuming your publisher will let you interrupt your ripping yarn to do so…
* Seriously, now that we early modernists have dozens of contemporary accounts of the same event to compare, we really need to stop assuming that there was consensus on much of anything.