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The Code that Never Was
on 31 January 2011
The conventional view is that Edward II was probably murdered in Berkeley castle in 1327, perhaps by means of a heated rod inserted into his anus; but Ian Mortimer believes that the evidence for this, and even for the fact of the King's death in 1327, is very unreliable; that Edward escaped to Corfe Castle, Ireland and then Italy, where he lived in a monastery as a hermit. He was the same man who was known as William le Galeys, was still alive when Edward III went to see him in Germany in 1338 and probably did not die until 1341[pp 178 & 212].
Mortimer has argued this case in a series of remarkable books, and he now re-states it, in the context of an explanation of his methodology. He makes large claims for his general theory: he claims that his approach constitutes a `revolution' (indeed a `double revolution') in historical technique' [p 38]; and appears to believe that his theories have something in common with those used by scientists. Yet he shares nothing of the scepticism of the scientist and, at times, openly declares a faith. One day he will be proved right, and what he has been saying for years about Edward II will be shown to be the truth [p 146].
Many would regard the writing of history as part of literature - an art, and not a science at all, in the same sense as maths, physics and chemistry. Whilst it is important to be as accurate as possible in finding and selecting the facts, we should not fool ourselves into thinking that we are re-creating the past, or even that we can be certain about it, or accurate in the way that mathematics and `hard' science are capable of being. We cannot construct theorems which use exact algebraic formulae; and we cannot conduct experiments, so as to falsify or confirm our theories. Ian Mortimer is not content with this. He seems to be running scared of epistemologists, postmodernists and critical theorists [pp. 1-2; 343]; and, in an attempt to meet their criticisms, seeks to construct a scientific theory. Indeed he claims to have discovered a new key to understanding the past. The subtitle of his new book is not misleading: he claims to have discovered `the code'. So what is it?
Unfortunately, the code is obscured by complicated names: it is either an `information-based approach' or `the fourth hermeneutic stance.' [p. 28]. This appears to mean that we should first take a critical look at all the sources relating to what we are investigating, asking in particular who the author is, why he wrote it, and whether it was written `in good faith'. If there is a `fog' surrounding the source, we disregard it, at least for the moment. Secondly, we compare the sources we have left - those whose provenance and good faith we can be sure of - deciding which is the most reliable, which depends (in part) on whether it is corroborated. Then, we base our narrative on the best source. I may have oversimplified, but Mortimer provides a diagram to prove his theory - see Fig 1.2 [p. 26]; and he belittles the very large number of historians who have not taken this approach in the past, by displaying their approach in figure Fig 1.1 [p 25] - as if every historian were guilty of using the same defective methodology.
Mortimer thinks that his approach will produce greater certainty; but if Fig 1.2 is meant to be something like algebra or a chemical formula, it is at the least misleading. The terms used do not signify the same thing to everyone - even to speakers of the same language. One almost hesitates to take it seriously - this is surely pseudo-science rather than science - but here goes. At the first stage, historians have surely advocated a critical approach to sources since at least the nineteenth century; but it only takes the investigator so far. He still has to decide the key questions according to individual skill and experience. The question of whether something was or was not written in good faith will not always be easy to decide, nor will the question of when and where there is a `fog'. At the first and second stages, we still have to employ `conventional techniques' to decide which source we are going to rely on, and corroboration does not always make a source into `the truth'. Probability will always remain important, since medieval chroniclers may relate the most fantastic of stories as if they are gospel, and even administrative records can be mistaken. The question of probability is something Mortimer repeatedly ducks, both in general and when it comes to the paradigm case of Edward II.
Mortimer's version of what happened to Edward II represents the triumph of methodology over common sense. He finds that there is only one source which says that the King died at Berkeley Castle in 1327, and the author wrote in bad faith. There is therefore a `fog' and he disregards this source, looking for another, created in good faith, for the idea that Edward survived. He finds it in the Fieschi letter (first discovered in 1877, though widely regarded as a forgery [pp 182-3]). This was not only written in good faith, it was also corroborated, at least in part. He therefore regards this version of the facts as preferable.
This is a highly improbable conclusion, indeed it is almost absurd, which explains why there is no other historian that I know of who accepts it. It simply beggars belief that Edward II survived in Italy throughout the 1330s, even as a hermit. If he really had survived, someone would surely have `blown the gaffe' in England; and the French would surely have sought to exploited the situation, once the Hundred Years War broke out in 1337. The failure to deal with the issue of the credibility of the contents of the Fieschi letter, rather than simply with the creditworthiness of the author, is fatal to Mr Mortimer's specific case; and the failure to deal with the crucial importance of inherent probability is fatal to his general theory.
I almost fear for the consequences of writing this review, since Mr Mortimer seems to be no stranger to vituperation - see the chapter on `Twelve Angry Scholars' - and of course I may have misunderstood him. He could be right about Edward II of course; and I would be willing to admit that I could be wrong. Is he? And is his `code' really of much use in deciding who is right?