Concept of Facts

The genealogist’s stock-in-trade is the idea that the facts of the past can be (partially) recovered through research.

We stumble when those facts turn out to be slipperier than we thought they would be. As our research takes us further back in time, there is more chance of stumbling. Unless we have specialized knowledge about period and place we can make mistakes easily. There is a risk that our basic assumptions are wrong.

One of the most interesting assumptions, I think, is that the truth consists of facts. Genealogists who try to work with medieval genealogies often crash and burn on this one.

The concept of ‘the fact’ first appears in Renaissance Latin, but the word only entered common usage in the 1660s. The Royal Society, founded in November 1660, was dedicated to experimental knowledge and declared that it would concern itself with ‘facts not explanations.’ ‘Facts’ became part of a modern vocabulary for discussing knowledge — also including theories, hypotheses, evidence and experiments — which emerged in the 17th century. All these words existed before, but with different meanings: ‘experiment,’ for example, simply meant ‘experience.’

There’s a whole thing going on here that has disappeared from the modern world. Our ancestors understood the idea of facts. They just didn’t rank them as highly as we do. Ancient authority ranked higher.

For example, the ancients thought lions were afraid of roosters. See, for example, Lucretius, The Nature of Things 4.710 (1st century BCE). Because an ancient authority said it, it was truer than any fact. No experiment could prove it wrong, because the weight of authority was greater than the weight of facts.

In the same way, ancient genealogies often also rely on authority. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (855) says Scef, the ancestor of the English kings, was a son of Noah, born in the Ark. The AS Chronicle is an authority, so it is true whether or not it is factual.

This is an astounding idea to us moderns. We wouldn’t even think to think of it for ourselves. I can remember learning this in Historiography 501, or whatever it was called. I sat there thinking, “Bastards have buried the lead.” They should have taught us this in Western Civ.

Years later, I came across a quote that epitomizes this approach to knowledge. It’s from Umberto Eco’s novel Baudolino. (Some of you remember and loved Name of the Rose.)

The bishop is talking to an imaginative monk. He says:

I have heard you invent many stories that the emperor has believed. So then, if you have no other news of that realm [Prester John], invent some. Mind you, I am not asking you to bear witness to what you believe false, which would be a sin, but to testify falsely to what you believe true–which is a virtuous act because it compensates for the lack of proof of something that certainly exists or happened.

This was the world of our ancestors. Not secret, underground transmission of exotic facts.

More Information

  • Emily Winkler, “Was There History in the Middle Ages?”, St Edmund Hall, YouTube (Apr. 6, 2017).
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