Historical conjecture and speculation

Posted: March 7, 2013 in Trivialities, rants & other ephemera

There’s been a lot of discussion lately about historical conjecture and speculation, whether it’s right or wrong; whether specific examples are right or wrong. It’s a complicated and vexed issue because it’s always right and never wrong; or never right and always wrong, or sometimes right… only we might never know for sure which.

How we respond to conjecture and speculation is entirely subjective. Even when we run it through our most objective of objective filters, it’s subjective in the end. That’s because it’s more about belief than knowledge; more about ideas than facts. But that’s the important part of the process that’s often missed: running it through filters of objectivity. Not just accepting it because it fits our preconceived ideas, or because we like the person doing the conjecturing and speculating.

At it’s most logical and sound, where  bits aren’t added and others taken away, when its expounded by the most intelligent person in the universe, we can only plot it on a ‘likeliness gauge’; on a ‘I could buy that’ scale, where 0 is ‘not at all’ and 10 is ‘without reservation’. And the same piece of conjecture and speculation is going to be in different places on this gauge and on that scale for different people. Fascinating? Yes. Frustrating? Hell, yes!

See, the same standards should be in place across the board. Each piece of conjecture and speculation (ok, C&S from now on because my hands keep stumbling over the -ject- and the -tion) should be judged on its own merits. Does it stack up? How much filler is needed to make it work? Does it fit other more established ‘facts’? What sources have been mined? What sources have been ignored? Is there any evidence of cherrypicking? For it to work, is a leap of faith and/or logic required? Does it have internal logic? Instead we get: Do I approve of the person who is conjecturing and speculating? What ridiculous analogies do I have to make in order to refute it? Does it contradict the C&S that I’ve already internalised? (The last question will nearly always be ‘yes’. That’s the nature of the beast. But if we run it through the earlier questions, we might come to the intriguing conclusion that either might be right. And that’s ok.)

The trouble is that so much of history has become a matter of belief, especially (and you knew this was coming) the bits of history that involve Richard III. Person A (who really really likes him) conjectures and speculates the very best of and for him. Person B (who hasn’t got a view either way) conjectures and speculates more neutrally. Person C (who thinks he was evil personified) conjectures and speculates the very worst. I know which of the three I’d be more likely to listen to.

One of the things I hear most often from the Persons A of this world is: “Be more openminded!”. Which I’ve learned actually means: “Start thinking like we do!”. (Maybe I should have included Person D in this (who quite likes Richard but is prepared to deal with findings that lean more towards our friend C than A).  Or Person E (who thinks he was a bit of a villain but is prepared to give him credit where it’s due). There are probably quite a lot of other Persons involved in this, a whole alphabet of them. And that’s because responses to Richard III don’t just come in two flavours. There’s a whole beachside gelato bar out there!) Anyway, back to the ‘openminded’ thing. Of the Persons so far, B, D and E come  closer to the ‘openminded’ goal than either A or C. And B, D and E are getting tired of hearing that they’ve missed it. “Be quiet, closeminded fool!” we get told. “Go away and repeat the mantra “Richard could do no wrong” and don’t come back until you believe it.”

As for the notion of ‘objectiveness’… I’ve come to understand that, in another semantic twist, it to has come to mean “thinking like we do” as well. Saying “I don’t know what happened, I want to read everything I can and think about it for a bit. Here’s some ideas, they might be wrong, but hey! it’s a start!” isn’t, apparently, ‘objective’. Saying “I’ve just read all this stuff written by various Persons A and they’re dead right!” is ‘objective’. Apparently. In fact, the more actual objectivity you have, the more you’re shoved into the Person C basket. And they’re not hugely more objective than the Persons A. See how complicated it is? No wonder I’m exhausted!

So, just to set the record straight, I’m not a ‘traditionalist’ (with or without a capital T), I’m not an ‘opponent’. And I’m not an ‘atheist’. (Well, I am, but not when it comes to Richard III. Because he’s not a deity.) I’m just someone who wants to find out (if that’s at all possible) what went on, without too much interference from Persons A and C.

  1. Esther says:

    Great post (as usual). One thing that irritates me, though, is some people’s inconsistency in dealing with sources. For example, Alison Weir will go on for pages how certain sources of information concerning Mary Queen of Scots are unreliable because written by her enemies … but takes anything that Thomas More (who also didn’t have first hand knowledge, but was relying on Richard’s enemies) says as gospel unless affirmatively disproved. This isn’t necessary. Pollard is another traditionalist, but he relies more on contemporary sources and treats More as literature, at best — his consistency in handling sources makes his arguments much more convincing than Weir’s.

    • anevillfeast says:

      Thanks, Esther. Yes, cherrypicking is something that irritates me as well. And, like you, I’d rather read a well reasoned, well researched and referenced ‘traditionalist’ piece than some of the wilder revisionist writings. ‘Wishful thinking’ – for or against a given idea – I don’t have much time for.

      • anevillfeast says:

        What prompted this piece was yet another example of standards being set for one person that aren’t required for others. If you’re arguing that Richard might have done something the ‘traditionalists’ say he did, then you must follow a rigorous path of scholarship. If you’re arguing that the didn’t do that thing, then all you need is a wild idea and only the circumstantial evidence that supports that idea. I know I’m generalising, but it’s starting to irk me.

  2. Esther says:

    Yes, I get your point …. the traditionalists are no better than the revisionists, in that regard (which is why I noted two traditionalist historians). However, it isn’t only Richard III;according to this, Anne Boleyn, Catherine of Aragon and Jane Seymour for example, attract equally strong partisans:


    I suppose it depends on what is today’s “hot story”. When Showtime aired “The Tudors”, it was one story … now, with the dig, it is Richard III … and give it a little time before something new arises about Mary Queen of Scots.

  3. jayne62 says:

    So true Karen, I lean more towards liking Richard but want all the facts and I love Historical fiction but that now makes me go and find out about the people I am reading, To me if the author (and in some case trusted historian ) tell me in the Historical notes it is conjecture then fine , I will then go and see what else can back it up.
    I used to not like reading NF at all but thank goodness that has now changed and i am open minded to read things I might not like but will respect the point of view of the person writing it, if it is fact or Conjecture they have admitted.

    • joaniebaby says:

      You have explained exactly how I feel. I like to think I am in category D or E. Although I am a Ricardian, and would like to believe without a shadow of a doubt that he was innocent of the murders, I cannot do so as there is no absolute proof and probably never will be. The same with Anne Boleyn and others. It’s all great stuff for debating though!

  4. History is a game-board not unlike chess, the black & white of it is shrouded in mists of envy, deceit and corruption. Not so different then from the world we will live in at present, for today many people claim they cannot decide on which book to purchase without reference to others’ reviews on specifics: meaning it has to adhere to their preferences. Therefore the subjective Vs objective rages on, and free-thinkers do what they always do: investigate, mull and draw own conclusion. Checkmate! 😉

  5. Kathy Hestand says:

    I find the whole problem starts with a lack of critical thinking skills. It’s always best to start out as a Person B and read stuff from all sides. You will eventually form your own opinions, but they will at least be well rounded. Even then it’s best to be open to new ideas or perspectives that you haven’t thought of before, because then you can expand your knowledge base on the subject. On a lighter note, it gives you an excuse to read more books on the subject! If you’re like me, you can never have enough books! 🙂

    • anevillfeast says:

      Kathy, I wholeheartedly agree. Part of the difficulty is that a lot of people first meeting historical figures in fiction and become so invested in that particular portrayal of them (for good or ill) that they can’t move on. And anyone who says anything that threatens that view becomes the enemy. And I like books as well. But, currently worse than broke, I can’t have them.

  6. Celia Parker says:

    One of the great things about history is that received opinions are constantly being revised. A good example is the very different way the English Reformation is now regarded (not necessarily a popular move, imposed from above, the late medieval church while in need of reform provided most people with a satisfying spiritual life) compared to how it was presented when I was at university 40 years ago (Good Thing, popular,dragged England into the modern age, got rid of all those immoral monks preying on people).

    Fans of Richard III still gripe about ‘professional historians’ who lazily follow the ‘Tudor myths’. They don’t seem to realise that there has been a great deal of work done on the period in the last few decades including quite a bit of reassessment of Richard and no decent historian in my lifetime has given unqualified support to the ‘traditional’ picture. But nor have they found the evidence to suggest that he was a secular saint. I was told recently that academics daren’t tell the truth because their careers might suffer.Those pesky Tudor tentacles get everywhere!

  7. anevillfeast says:

    Celia, that’s what I keep hearing as well, those threats to academic careers. Doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. There’s something of a siege mentality about it all that’s terribly frustrating to deal with. I get ‘some people’ and ‘certain people’ comments all the time. You know the sort I mean. “Some people should just admit they’re anti-Richard” or ‘Certain people might be happier if they weren’t part of this forum”. All very sad, really. When I try and make sense of something we have little information on, I’m neither trying to find an idea that shows Richard in the best possible light nor the worst. I’m trying to find an idea that makes sense. Which isn’t a popular pastime in some places.

    • Kathy Hestand says:

      A reliable historian always seeks to arrive at the truth, and since we weren’t there, we have to be open to all reasonable possibilities. Why people become closed to any new possibilities is hard to understand. They can’t really love history as much as their own version of it.

      • anevillfeast says:

        I think there are a lot of people interested in one particular historical person (Anne Boleyn is another who springs to mind) who aren’t actually all that interested in history. And that’s fine, except when that manifests itself as ‘fandom’. That’s when it starts getting very tricky – when fans start seeing themselves as having priority over those of us interested in history. I guess you can be both, but that’d take a lot of concentration. I asked myself that question not that long ago: Does my interest in Warwick constitute fandom or historical interest? And when I figured that I’m capable of discussing the bad stuff he did as well as the rest of it, I figured I wasn’t a fan. Which came as something of a relief.

      • sonetka says:

        Not to mention, that a legitimate historian with “a bold new theory about X!” will usually get a lot more attention (and, often, book sales) than someone writing a book which essentially states “Yep, X was pretty much what people thought, now here are some interesting details about that.”

        I concur that Anne Boleyn is another example of a person who draws an enormous fandom, and sometimes emotional attachment can take precedence over historical inquiry — she has another parallel with Richard III in that they both had detractors who also went over the top sometimes and are therefore often dismissed entirely when they shouldn’t be. I do get annoyed when I see people who “feel” or “are sure” that she wouldn’t have done something unpleasant on no grounds except that her enemies said it. (Despite my blog focus, I would not consider myself an Anne Boleyn fan. I find her very interesting but not any more likeable than most of the people surrounding her).

  8. Interesting – there a 2 recent novels out about Cecily Neville – one has the view that she did have an affair and Edward IV was fathered by ‘unknown archer’. The other has a more traditional picture of her. On a likelihood test the first fails despite the rumors and supposed evidence found.

    • anevillfeast says:

      Thanks. Gillian. The first fails simply because the duke of York (Edward’s father – and I know you know that, it’s just some novelists don’t seem to 😀 ) never once gave any sign that Edward wasn’t his son. Warwick would be delighted, though, to know that 500 odd year after the fact, people were still swallowing his lies.

      • Mark Hinsley says:

        The Edward IV – son of an archer, argument is presented in Michael K Jones book, Bosworth – Psychology of a Battle – a popular history rather a novel. Its a thought provoking read even if you don’t agree with all the conclusions.

  9. Will Glover says:

    So: conjecture and speculation are bad. But, I suggest, reasonable inferences are good. And yet what is the difference between them?
    There is no bright line distinction between speculation and a reasonable inference. The line is drawn by the laws of logic and the careful use of common sense and experience.
    May I use Warwick’s natural daughter Margaret as an example?
    At Holy Trinity Church in Millom, Cumbria, is an alabaster tomb of a Knight and Lady. (http://www.flickr.com/photos/52219527@N00/3275774845/in/photostream). The church guidebook names the effigies as Margaret’s son Richard Huddleston esquire and his wife Elizabeth Dacre. I think that the effigies are Margaret and her husband Sir Richard Huddleston. Am I guilty of unwarranted speculation?
    1. The tomb is in the Huddleston chapel.
    2. The effigy of a Knight would not be on the monument to an esquire..
    3. Both effigies display the Sun in Splendour of the Yorks. Margaret was sister-in-law and cousin of Richard III. Sir Richard Huddleston was a Knight of King Richard’s Body. Young Richard Huddleston was an adolescent in the Tudor years. His tomb would have no reason to honour the Yorks.
    4. The memory of the Knight and Lady were honoured with the tomb. Margaret was survived by her three children who would have mourned her death. Young Richard’s marriage to Elizabeth Dacre led to her death and the disgrace of her mother. Who would have erected a monument to young Richard and Elizabeth?
    With nothing but inferences, may I conclude that the tomb is a monument to Margaret Neville and her husband?

    • anevillfeast says:

      Will, I don’t think conjecture and speculation are bad at all. They can be hugely important. I’d just like all (reasonable) c&s to be held to the same standards across the board. And you have demonstrated how to go about it intelligently and logically. Thank you.

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