Fake News

Last week I broke my sabbatical seclusion to attend a panel that my colleagues in the Department of History had organized on "Understanding the Trump Phenomenon." The panelists covered a range of themes: climate change denialism, white nationalism, the global failure of capitalism, the latent illiberalism of American culture, and world-wide yearnings towards totalitarianism--all the usual -isms. And then they opened the floor to questions. Like a good fencer, I got my hand up first and said something about the need to think of American culture in more regional and long-range terms, particularly the differences in conceptions of liberty that David Hackett Fisher has shown to be in play, but it was already too late. The room was primed to descend into pessimism and despair, although since we're talking academics here--fellow professors and graduate students in History for the most part--it was subtle and came out mainly in the kinds of questions asked.

One question in particular had my colleagues on the panel stumped. "How," one of our graduate students asked, after the conversation had ranged round the many ways in which the progressive liberal experiment in America seemed doomed, "do we know what news sources we can trust anymore?" Her voice rose as she spoke, in that way that I have regularly heard my friends' voices rise over the past few weeks; even men's voices go up as their anxieties kick in and they start pleading with the universe to make the results of the election go away. "How do we know what news sources we can trust anymore?" My colleagues made a stab at it: "Go with sources that you have to pay a subscription for." But mainly they sat and shook their heads, clearly at a loss. They wanted to give the students an answer, but were distressed that they couldn't name news sources that they themselves trusted fully, not even The New York Times. "It is a wild wild world out there," they seemed to be saying. "Even we aren't sure whom we can believe."

Let's play a little game.

Which of the following stories would you believe if you read about them in the newspaper?
1. Some wonderful and astonishing occurrences have happened in our times... I call things of this nature wonderful, not merely on account of their rarity, but because some hidden meaning is attached to them. On splitting a vast rock, with wedges, in a certain quarry, there appeared two dogs, but, without any spiracle [breathing hole] whatever, filling up the cavity of the rock which contained them. They seemed of that species which are called harriers [for hunting hares], but of fierce countenance, disagreeable smell, and without hair. It is said that one of them soon died; but that the other, having a most ravenous appetite, was cherished for many days by Henry, bishop of Winchester. 
2. Not long afterwards a contention arose between the king and the Welsh--a restless and barbarous people--originating either through his making some unusual exactions, in consequence of his power, or on their insolently denying so great a prince his customary tribute, from too great a confidence in the protection afforded by their woody mountains and valleys; or else from their restlessness, and clandestine incursions into the neighboring confines of the English.... These Welsh are the remnants of the Britons, the first inhabitants of this island, now called England, but originally Britain; and it is notorious that they are of the same race and language as are the Britons on the continent: but when the Britons were being exterminated by the invading nations of the Angles, such as were able to escape fled into Wales, where, through the bounty of nature, they were secure against hostile attacks; and there this nation continues to the present day. 
3. About this time Frederick, emperor of Germany and Italy, laid siege to, took, and destroyed the city of Milan; which for a long time had continued in a state of rebellion, from confidence in its strength and resources. The Lombards, a restless and warlike people, thirsting after unbounded liberty, and proud in consequence of the number of their cities, and the greatness of their strength, had many years before revolted in a great measure from the emperor of the Romans. But, while the most opulent cities contended with each other for the superiority, and desired to govern the rest, they only augmented thereby the force of the emperor against themselves. At last, the Milanese surpassing in wealth and power, affected the supremacy of all Lombardy, and had already subdued some cities and destroyed others which resisted, when the people of Pavia, unequal in strength, but disdaining their control, went over to the party of the emperor.
4. There was also in our province of York at a village called Farneham another venerable man named Ketell. He was a rustic indeed; but by virtue of his innocence and purity, he obtained a singular favor from the Lord. Of this man many very remarkable things were reported to me by men of veracity, a few of which I shall relate. When he was quite a youth, as he was one day returning home on horseback from the fields, his horse, as if stumbling, fell to the ground and dismounted him. On getting up he saw, as it were, two little Ethiopians sitting in the road, and laughing together. He understood they were devils, who were not permitted to injure him any further; and he rejoiced that they had hurt him so little. From that day he received this gift from God: ever after he could see demons; and however anxious they might be to remain undiscovered, they could not elude his knowledge.
5. Thus were the Jews besieged in the royal castle.... There was among them a certain elder, a most famous doctor of the law, according to the letter which killeth, who had come from countries beyond the sea to instruct the Jews in England, as it is said. This man was held in honour among them all, and was obeyed by all, as if he had been one of the prophets. So, when at this conjuncture his advice was asked, he replied, "God, to whom we ought not to say, Why dost Thou this? commands us to die now for His law--and behold our death is at the doors, as ye see; unless, perchance, which be far from us, ye should think that the Holy Law ought to be deserted for this short span of this life, and should choose that which to good and manly minds is worse than any kind of death, that is to say, to live with the greatest disgrace, as apostates, through the mercy of our impious enemies. Since, therefore, we ought to prefer a glorious death to an infamous life, it is plain that we ought to choose the most honorable and easy kind of death: for if we should fall into the hands of the enemy, we should die according to their pleasure, and amidst their mockery. Therefore, let us willingly and devoutly, with our own hands, render up to Him that life which the Creator gave to us, since He now claims it, and let us not wait for the aid of a cruel enemy to give back that which He reclaims. For this, indeed, many of our people are known to have done laudably in divers tribulations, setting before us a precedent for that choice which is most fitting for us to make." When he had said this, many embraced the fatal advice; but to others the discourse seemed  hard.
I am sure you have already guessed that these stories are not reports of current events, at least not in our time. But once upon a time they were. Which of them would you believe if you had been living in twelfth-century England but had the critical faculties that you do now? Probably not number 4: a peasant who claimed to be able to see demons?! Most likely not number 1: dogs, even rabbit-hunting dogs, obviously do not live in rocks. But what about numbers 2, 3, and 5? These all seem like fairly straightforward reporting, do they not? Number 2 gives what seems like a robust historical explanation for the Welsh resistance to the king, hearkening back to the days when the Britons were fleeing from the Angles and depended upon the mountains of Wales to protect them. Likewise, number 3 gives a credible socio-political explanation for the animosity that the cities of Lombardy have against the emperor of Germany and Italy. Number 5, perhaps surprisingly, relates as if from within the arguments that one of the rabbis of the Jews of York made against surrendering to the people of the town who were besieging the Jews in the castle, even going so far as to appreciate why the learned rabbi might have made the argument that he did from a theological perspective. Number 5 in particular would seem to give as fair and balanced an accounting of the terrible events of the day (most of the Jews committed suicide rather than surrender to the mob) as we might hope for in our own news sources from an objective reporter.

As news sources, numbers 1 and 4 clearly seem to come from an author inclined to believe in marvels and demons, while numbers 2 and 3 suggest an author concerned with matters of ethnic identity and political theory, and number 5 suggests an author interested in understanding the psychological and cultural motivations of the people involved in the events of the day. You know there's a trick here, don't you? Exactly: these are all passages from the work of a single author, the Historia rerum Anglicarum ("History of English Affairs") by William, a canon of the Augustinian house of Newburgh, just outside York. William wrote this history towards the end of the twelfth century at the behest of one of his neighbors, Ernald, the abbot of the Cistercian monastery of Rievaulx, to cover the events from the Norman conquest of England in 1066 through the reconciliation of Richard I with the archbishop of Rouen in 1197. It was, as William claimed in the preface, a work intended for "mental recreation" only, easy and involving no deep researches into profound matters of mystical exposition, as, for example, another neighboring abbot, Roger of Byland, had required of William in writing a commentary on the Song of Songs.

In his own day William's Historia had but modest success, being copied only a handful of times in manuscript (around five). His work was published several times in the early modern period (Antwerp, 1567; Heidelberg, 1587; Paris, 1610, 1632; Oxford, 1719). It was in the nineteenth century with the birth of modern scholarship that William at long last came into his own. One enthusiastic reader, Edward Augustus Freeman, the Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford and author of a six-volume history of the Norman Conquest, went so far as to hail William as "the father of historical criticism," while Richard Howlett, the editor of William's Historia for the Rolls Series, called him "a man of unusual moral elevation, mental power and eloquence" who recorded "all facts" so far as he knew "with unswerving faithfulness." Yes, they were reading the same stories we just read, and yet, for Freeman and Howlett, William was one of the most trustworthy reporters of his day.

In comparison, there was William's contemporary, Geoffrey of Monmouth, whom William insisted was a liar and a fraud. 

More particularly, in William's words:
No one but a person ignorant of ancient history, when he meets that book which [Geoffrey] calls the History of the Britons, can for a moment doubt how impertinently and impudently he falsifies in every respect. For he only who has not learnt the truth of history indiscreetly believes the absurdity of fable.
Only a few decades earlier, Geoffrey, you see, had written a history destined to become far more famous than William's. (Academic rivalry is as old as written history.) And not just famous: arguably, Geoffrey more or less single-handedly inspired the whole of Arthurian legend from the romances of Chrétien de Troyes through Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur down to T.H. White's Once and Future King and Mary Stewart's Merlin Series, along with every novel, play, poem, movie, and comic book ever written about King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, not to mention all of the paintings, tapestries, and other art. To this day, there is a cottage industry among medievalists dedicated to trying to find the historical Arthur: just this summer, archeologists discovered the ruins of a "probable royal palace" at Tintagel in Cornwall, where Geoffrey said Arthur was conceived. Even the back cover of the 1966 Penguin edition of Lewis Thorpe's translation of Geoffrey's Historia Regum Britanniae leaves open the possibility that at least some of what Geoffrey recorded might be true. And if not true, at the very least gripping:
As an historian Geoffrey is sometimes less than reliable, but as the chronicler of half-legendary figures whose deeds have captured the imagination of millions, he is unrivalled: Lear, Cymbeline and, above all, Arthur were first recorded here and the Historia's influence inspired Malory and Tennyson, Shakespeare and Dryden. Geoffrey's remarkably vivid narrative grips the reader and is as exciting and vital today as it was eight hundred years ago.
Edward Burne-Jones, The Last Sleep of Arthur
William of Newburgh must be spinning in his grave. There he was, on the ground, as it were, actively refuting all of Geoffrey's lies, and here, over eight hundred years later, it is Geoffrey's, not William's account that more people have heard of--and want to believe. Arthur, Merlin, Guinevere, Uther Pendragon, Mordred, Gawain: even today, the names conjure up stories and ignite the desire to learn more about the history of late antique and early medieval Britain. Nobody wants to hear about how Geoffrey made them all up, as William put it, "from the traditional fictions of the Britons, with additions of his own and endeavored to dignify them with the name of authentic history." They want Arthur to be real. Who cares if the Venerable Bede makes no mention of Arthur in his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum ("Ecclesiastical History of the English People")? Who cares if, according to William, Gildas was the more impartial reporter, refusing to spare "even his own countrymen" (Gildas was a Briton) in criticizing them for their defeat by the Angles? Everyone would much rather believe that there is some truth in Geoffrey's version, that he really did have access to "a very ancient book written in the British language" which a certain Walter, archdeacon of Oxford, "a man skilled in the art of public speaking and well-informed about the history of foreign countries," gave to him. (Geoffrey claimed that his own work was simply a translation into Latin, written in a plain style so as not to bore his readers or distract them from the story.)

"No, no, no," William cries in the preface to his Historia. "Geoffrey made it all up! There never was an old book! His history is all a 'fiction, invented either by himself or by others, and promulgated either through an unchecked propensity to falsehood, or a desire to please the Britons, of whom vast numbers are said to be so stupid as to assert that Arthur is yet to come, and who cannot bear to hear of his death.'" Or as we might put it today: "Bede and Gildas established the facts, what Geoffrey has written is fake news!" William goes on to present several critical reasons why Geoffrey's account must be fake:
  • Gildas and Bede establish that Vortigern was the last of the British kings and that he invited the Saxons and Angles to come to the defense of the kingdom after the Roman retreat. They have no record of any other valiant and powerful British kings, only Saxons who defeated the Britons, "now called the Welsh."
  • Following Geoffrey's own chronology, the reign of Arthur ought to coincidence with the mission of Augustine of Canterbury and the conversion of Kent, but while Bede makes no mention of Arthur, Geoffrey depicts him as triumphing over not only the Angles, Picts, and Scots, but also Ireland, the Orkneys, Gothland, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, and Gaul.
  • Geoffrey claims that Arthur then declared war on the Romans, who allied themselves with all of the kings of the world, the kings of Greece, Africa, Spain, Parthia, Media, Iturea, Libya, Egypt, Babylon, Bithynia, Phrygia, Syria, Boetia, and Crete, only to be defeated by Arthur in a single battle, but it took even Alexander the Great twelve long years to defeat "only a few of the potentates of these mighty kingdoms."
  • No ancient historians make any mention of these feats of valor: "Does he dream of another world possessing countless kingdoms, in which the circumstances he has related took place? Certainly, in our own orb no such events have happened. For how would the elder historians, who were ever anxious to omit nothing remarkable, and even recorded trivial circumstances, pass by unnoticed so incomparable a man, and such surpassing deeds?"
  • Bede is much more reliable. 
"But, but, but," Arthur's ardent followers would insist, "surely there was something behind Geoffrey's stories, he can't have made it all up!" Think for a moment about the criteria that William invokes to contest Geoffrey's narrative: comparison with other written accounts (Gildas and Bede); the likely bias of an author in favor of his own countrymen (Gildas); comparative chronologies of events (Augustine's mission to the English); comparisons with other historical accomplishments (Alexander's conquests); the likelihood that other historians would omit to talk about events of such magnitude (no mention of Arthur in other ancient histories); the reputation of other historians (Bede). Such proofs, surely, would seem to lay the question of Arthur's existence and glory to rest: even if he existed (which William insists he didn't), Arthur could not have been the king that Geoffrey claimed him to be. And yet, archeologists digging this past summer in Cornwall seem to have discovered his mother's castle.

So which news source do we trust: William, "the father of historical criticism," or Geoffrey, the liar and fabulist?

As William explained in his preface after demolishing Geoffrey's authority (or so he hoped), it was his purpose, insignificant as he was, to take up the task enjoined upon him by "some venerable characters" to whom he owed obedience, so as to transmit "to lasting memory by written documents" the "great and memorable events" which had occurred since the death of King Henry I, William the Conqueror's fourth son and second to succeed him on the throne of England. In other words, like a good graduate student, William of Newburgh proposed to fill in the gaps in the written history of the English kings from the Conquest down to his own day. Unlike Geoffrey, he did not mean to praise, but only to record, setting down the truth of events so that later generations would remember them. Nothing, he implies, in his account is made up; it is all based on reliable sources and authentic accounts.

I know what you're thinking: "Including his stories about demons and rock-dogs?!" Well. Let's go back to our five examples. Knowing what you know now about William, his criticisms of Geoffrey, and his understanding of the purpose of history, which of these stories would you say we can trust as accurate accounts of something that actually happened in William's own day? In particular, notice what he tells us in each instance about his sources, how he came to be able to relate what he does about the events he describes. It seems reasonable to believe, does it not, that the emperor of Germany and Italy actually waged war against the city of Milan, but how does William know? How does he know that the Milanese "thirsted after unbounded liberty"? How does he know that it was they, as he implies, not Frederick who was at fault in forcing their city to revolt? Notice how many assumptions William brings to this apparently impartial account of the city's revolt: that the Lombards were "restless and warlike," that the Milanese put themselves above all the other cities thus exciting the Pavians to take sides with the emperor, that the cities' desire to govern each other was a form of rebellion. Nowhere in this passage does he cite his sources of information; he simply recounts the events as if they were a given.

What about passage number 2, where he talks about the reasons for the Welsh contention with the king? Again, here William makes a number of assumptions about the character of the Welsh as a people, albeit suggesting various options for their rebelliousness. Again, he cites no sources, but here we know what he has been reading because he told us in his preface: Gildas, whose De excidio et conquestu Britanniae ("On the ruin and conquest of Britain") William took as authoritative precisely because it gave an unfavorable picture of the Welsh. And yet, contrast this lack of sympathy with the Welsh with William's willingness in passage number 5 not only to imagine himself into the debates that the Jews had while besieged in the castle at York, but to put words into the mouth of the learned leader of the people, calling for his people to render up the life that the Creator gave them so that they might die with honor rather than shame. Do we believe William here because he was willing to take the side of those whom many of his contemporaries considered enemies? Does his sympathy not make him more credible as a witness? And yet, all the Jews who were trapped in the castle died: how could William have learned what was said?

Passage number 1 would seem to be even less credible, wouldn't it? After all, here William explicitly says that he is going to be describing marvels ("wonderful and prodigious things"), of which the dogs found in the rock are only one. Among the marvels of the day, there were also two children whom certain villagers in East Anglia discovered in a field who were "completely green in their persons, and clad in garments of a strange colour" who said they came from the land of St. Martin but had no idea how they ended up in England. There was a "beautiful double stone" which, when split, revealed a toad with a small gold chain around its neck. There was a peasant from a village in Yorkshire who heard singing from a hillside one night; investigating, he found a door in the hill through which he beheld "a house, spacious and lighted up, filled with men and women, who were seated, as it were, at a solemn banquet." One of the attendants offered him a cup, from which he wisely did not drink; he kept the cup, however, and made off with it at great speed. He offered the cup--"a vessel of an unknown material, unusual color, and strange form"--to the king of England, who gave it to the queen's brother, the king of Scotland, who kept it for many years "among the treasures of his kingdom; and, a few years since, as we have learnt from authentic relation, it was given up by William, king of the Scots, to Henry the second, on his desiring to see it."

"These and similar matters," William opined, "would appear beyond belief, were they not proved to have taken place by credible witnesses"--as, for example, Bishop Henry of Winchester, who enjoyed playing with one of the quarry dogs. "But," you will say, "of course William believed all these marvels; this was the Middle Ages, he was a monk, he is supposed to be credulous." Why, then, we might ask, was he so angry at Geoffrey for telling lies? How could William, as an historian, believe stories about dogs found in rocks and cups stolen from fairy hills and not accept that Arthur might truly be sleeping in Avalon or have been the greatest king who ever lived? Couldn't he tell that such stories were equally made up? Or were they? William himself offers something of an apology for relating his catalogue of marvels: he attributes them to evil angels, allowed by God to deceive men, "partly by illusion and magic (as in the case of the nocturnal revel on the hill), partly in reality (as of the dogs, or the toad with the golden chain, or the cup), by which men may be held in blind amazement: and evil angels, when permitted, readily do those things, whereby men may be more dangerously deceived. Indeed, the nature of the those green children, who sprang from the earth, is too abstruse for the weakness of our abilities to fathom." At which he returns, matter-of-factly, to his historical narrative and the doings of the kings and queens.

Occasionally, however, William makes a somewhat stronger claim for the veracity of his account, most particularly in passage number 4, in the story of the peasant who could see demons. It is almost as if he realizes that he needs a stronger warrant for claiming that any mortal could have this ability, which makes it all the more interesting what he does not do, namely, claim that this marvel happened a long time ago in a land far far away. Quite the reverse: "There was also, in our province of York, at a village called Farneham, another venerable man, named Ketell." That is: this happened nearby, in a named village, to a man known by name. "Of this man many remarkable things were reported to me by men of veracity, a few of which I shall relate." That is: I myself heard these things from men I trust. But do we trust William? Why not? We trust him, at least we did at first, when he told us about things that happened hundreds or even thousands miles away, without reference to how he heard about them. We want to trust him when he tells us about things that happened in the city close to where he lived but which he himself could not have witnessed nor anyone still alive. We might even trust him when he tells us about green children springing from the earth--perhaps they were ship-wrecked and had been living on a diet of greens, since their natural skin color returned after they were fed a normal diet. Why do we not trust him when he says that he learned from men that he trusted that Ketell, who spent his life in the service of Adam, a clerk at Farneham, was able to see demons?

We don't trust him because, of course, we do not believe in demons.* And yet, it is only Ketell's ability to see demons for which William provides what he implies were eyewitness accounts.

There is an easy answer to the question that the student asked my colleagues.

Q. "How do we know what news sources we can trust anymore?"
A. "None of them."

Not because the news has become somehow less trustworthy in the past fifteen months or even the past fifteen years. But because there has never been such a thing as a source you could trust without question, not even, as medieval monks were quick to point out, the evidence of your own eyes. "Fake news" is not the invention of the internet; it is an invention of language, the ability that human beings have to tell stories about things that have happened in other places, other times. "Fake news" is simply the flip-side of history. As Scott Adams put it many years ago, long before Trump descended his golden escalator to take over the news cycle with his Tweets: "Those who do not study history are doomed to repeat the things that appear in history books that never actually happened." I was once in a bookstore browsing the History shelves, when a woman picked up a copy of the Penguin edition of Geoffrey's Historia. She flipped it over and read the back: "Geoffrey of Monmouth's famous Historia Regum Britanniae has held an important place in English literature since it was completed in 1136." She turned to her husband: "This looks like a really good book, it tells the whole history of the kings of Britain 'from the founding of Britain by Brutus to the coming of the Saxons.' Should we get it?"

Eavesdropping as I was, I didn't have the heart to tell her no.

*[Correction: As long time readers of this blog know, I actually believe in demons. I have a theory about them. I once even attracted my very own demon. Fighting the demons has been one of the great themes of this blog, so why did I chicken out yesterday and pretend that I didn't think demons are real? I was trying to make a point about what counts as historical criticism, but it was getting too tangled already to go theological. I think the next post is going to have to be on how to read our sources, but it may take more than one post to tackle the question of the relationship between historical and theological truth. H/t Luken Pride for pushing me on this! --December 10, 2016]


Geoffrey of Monmouth, The History of the Kings of Britain, trans. Lewis Thorpe (London, 1966)
William of Newburgh, The History of William of Newburgh, trans. Joseph Stevenson (London, 1856):
  1. Book I, chap. xxviii
  2. Book II, chap. v
  3. Book II, chap. viii
  4. Book II, chap. xxi
  5. Book V, chap. x

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