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We need not here classify all the different kinds of contemporary evidence, but we may notice a few of the more important.
First, then, we would put the contemporary historian, who writes with an honest wish to tell the story of his own time. We can forgive him a hearty partiality for his own side, if he can resist its temptations to wilful perversion of the truth. Of such writers, prejudiced it may be, but honest in the main, there are many degrees, varying with the shades of moral and intellectual strength; but in this class, though in different ranks of it, we would place such writers as Thucydides, Froissart, Comines, and Burnet. In a far lower class would we rank those who often intentionally deceive, such as Julius Cæsar and Clarendon, because, however high their merits as authors, they have violated the cardinal rule of history, truth; and no powers of thought or beauties of style can atone for this crime.
Next to these comes the dull plodding chronicler, such as the monkish writers of the middle ages; and below these the mere partizan, who upholds his side through thick and thin, the indiscriminate laudator or abuser, such as Abu'l Fazl in his history of Akbar, in which "an uniform strain of panegyric and triumph
is kept up, which disgusts the reader with the author, and almost with the hero. Amidst these unmeaning flourishes, the 'real merits of Akbar disappear, and it is from other authors
we learn the motives of his actions, the difficulties he had to 'contend with, and the resources by which they were surmount'ed."*
From these we pass to works not historical in their form, but abounding with the raw materials of history; and foremost among these are the letters of the leading men of the age,-where we talk with the minds which ruled the course of events, and see them undisguised and without reserve. Such evidence, as we have before observed, is of the highest value,† and it is the great advantage of the modern writer that stores of such letters have been published, and stores, relating to every modern period, yet. await an editor. With these may be classed the documents of the time, such collections as Rymer's Foedera, the Statute Book, and those various papers in the Rolls house, which have recently proved such a rich mine, when worked by Mr. Froude. His history of Henry VIII. will be variously judged by different readers, and we may all dissent from some of his conclusions; but one thing seems certain, that it must remain the history of the times, unless
* Elphinstone's India.
t "Surely this testimony," says Hallam, speaking of the Paston collection of letters, "outweighs a thousand ordinary chronicles."
"The library at Besançon contains sixty volumes of the letters of Granvella, Charles the Fifth's great minister."- Dr. Arnold's Lectures on History.
THE PRINCIPLES OF HISTORIC EVIDENCE.
some one digs deeper in the same mine. "I have taken my story," he says, "almost exclusively from contemporary letters, 'state-papers and acts of Parliament. In examining each sepa'rate transaction, my plan has been to arrange the materials relating to it in chronological order; and when this has been done closely and carefully, it has seemed to me, as if the history has written itself, and can be read in its main outlines without 'difficulty."
Next to these are the various fugitive works, the pamphlets and controversial treatises, out of which such an artist as Macaulay can pick all those vivid traits which light up his pages. Ample collections of these are found in all our great public libraries in England; and little to be relied on as such productions are for their own authority, they sometimes contain imbedded facts and allusions of great value.
With these we may mention the satires and libels to which we have already alluded-those ephemeral bubbles, which are lashed into existence by party conflict, and whose interest expires with the hour that gave them birth. To the general reader, few things are more stale and unprofitable; but they are often full of interest to the historical and antiquarian student, whose researches enable him to revive the forgotten jest. It is indeed singular that works of wit in general, which are the readiest understood in their own time, and appeal to the immediate perceptions of their original readers, become of all books to after times the most obscure and uninteresting. Charles Lamb, in one of his essays, remarks that a joke cannot be transmitted by letter to Australia, "It is a merchandise that above all re
quires a quick return,-a pun and its recognitory laugh must be 'co-instantaneous !" Open any of the political satires of former times, and how flat and spiritless they seem; even Hudibras, Absalom and Ahithophel, and the Dunciad, have an obsolete and forgotten air. Such books must pass away as works of humour; their only chance of perpetuity is the Antiquarian interest, which attaches to these vivid pictures of the past, and always leads a few minds to such studies.
To this catalogue, the future historian will have to add one. most important item, which has only lately risen into significance the daily newspaper. He will have no longer to complain of any dearth of materials,-he will rather be overwhelmed by their accumulation; and the impossibility of reading onetenth of the mass will bring in new sources of error and confusion. The files of the Times, with their daily rumours and contradictions, will give him a most vivid picture of our age; but his will be a steady head which does not turn giddy amidst the hubbub and whirl. Still the newspaper will be a most valuable aid,
especially for confirmation and proof; and above all, our reports of all public meetings and Parliamentary debates. Great indeed will be the change to pass from the fictitious harangues of ancient authors, or the hardly more trustworthy debates of the senate of Liliput, to the verbatim reports in any number of the Times. The lost speeches of Bolingbroke, for which Pitt would have exchanged so many an extant classic, would now be preserved for ever; and though our present Parliamentary debates may lack the sententious eloquence of former oratory, we can hardly doubt that, for business-like grappling with the subject, and lucid exposition of its details, (the real points of interest to the future historian) the orators of the present day are far superior to their predecessors, and their speeches therefore far more worthy to be preserved.
The "organon" of historical criticism, which we have thus imperfectly described, has already changed every field of history to which it has been honestly applied, especially that classical field which every one had previously pronounced to be clipped bare, and barren. Mr. Grote's twelve volumes are professedly written under its laws; and however we may dissent from some of his opinions, none can rise from their perusal without new views of that subject in some of its most essential features. Greek and Latin had been read for centuries, and their histories studied and commented on by successive generations of scholars; but the soil was a virgin one to the husbandman after all. Mitford and Thirlwall had already shewn its fertility, but it has been reserved to Mr. Grote's life-study to reap the full harvest. Similarly the three great provinces of modern history (to use Dr. Arnold's division,) European, Colonial and Oriental, must be all examined* and re-written with this strict attention to evidence; and wherever it is tried, new discoveries will be the result.
In many things the effect will be startling and disagreeable. Much that has been received on tradition for ages will be found untenable, just as our school-boys are now taught to reject the Roman history which their grand-fathers implicitly believed; and much that we now reject may be weighed and proved true. The process will be distasteful; but after all, truth is best. If history be not true, it is worse than the idlest fiction, because it deceives. Our history may become less picturesque; we may find some of our heroes dethroned; but the result will be something to be relied on; and if historical philosophy is to be ever better than a dream, it is only by an induction from real facts that its laws and principles are to be gained.
*Thus Dr. Sprenger was the first writer who submitted the sources of the biography of Mohammed to a critical enquiry,
That history will become less picturesque we may readily own, if we restrict that term to the vivid anecdote or the brilliant rencontre; but there are other elements of deeper meaning which are not so easily invalidated. A village custom, a clause from an ancient statute, or a time-worn inscription, may possess as vivid an interest, if we have but the key to decipher them. As our researches extend, and our knowledge becomes deeper, we are continually turning up new relics of the past. Thus of how recent a date is Comparative Philology, which has unveiled to us the mysteries of language, and shewn that our words are not only the ready money of daily life, but historical medals as well.
The anecdotes and incidents will go, we fear, - for how many have already gone! Thus the long cherished story of the recital by Herodotus of his unfinished history at the Olympian games, with the boy Thucydides among his audience, has vanished before closer scrutiny; dates are insuperably stubborn, and Herodotus and Thucydides were born too near each other to allow of such a rencontre. The story in fact rests on the authority of Lucian, who lived six hundred years after the event, if it happened,in itself suspicious enough; and Lucian's character for accuracy is too low to warrant any extraordinary trust.
Again, Belisarius begging for bread with "give an obol to Belisarius," was long received as a fact, but when traced to its source, it seems quite untrustworthy, as it first appears in a random compilation by that poor "Greek witling" (as Milton calls him) Tzetzes, a monk of the twelfth century. The legend of Fair Rosamund's fate is undoubtedly false, and can be traced up to no contemporary authority; in fact the further back. we carry our search, the less of the story is known; and in this instance, we can distinctly trace the growth of the fable through successive chroniclers.
We need hardly remind our readers of the parallel instance in oriental history, in the story of Mahmúd and the jewel-filled idol at Somnath, which has been proved to be in itself impossible, as the idol was a solid stone block, in fact a common Linga column. It is encouraging to find that the story is equally overthrown by a scrutiny of authorities, and Professor Wilson (in the Asiatic Journal, May, 1843) has traced it back to its earliest extant mention, in Abulfeda, at the commencement of the thirteenth century. Every later author adds something of his own, until the idol, which in this writer was only five cubits high, two of which are set in the ground, and which is destroyed by a fire lighted round it to split the hardness of the stone, becomes in the gradual growth of fiction an idol in human figure, which Mahmúd bursts open with his axe, and thus discovers an immense
store of jewels in its belly. This is the account in Ferishta (A. D. 1600), whence it has been copied into our general histories.
The whole history of the early Mohammedan conquests, as we have it in Gibbon, and the popular writers who follow him, abounds with apocryphal stories. The only authority accessible to the general reader, and which Gibbon mainly consulted, is Ockley's history of the Saracens, a work displaying great learning and diligence, but unfortunately chiefly based on an author who little merited such confidence. The history by Wákidi, which he has incorporated into his work, is now considered a mere romance, by some writer, who lived between the close of the eleventh and the middle of the fourteenth century.*
In conclusion, we would take as a further illustration of the method of historical evidence an instance treated at length by Isaac Taylor in his excellent though scarce work on the process of historical proof.† We have taken this especially, because we are for once enabled to prove the correctness of the verdict, by later discoveries unknown at the time to the writer.
The question is the authenticity of the account that Xerxes cut a trench through the narrow isthmus of the promontory of Mount Athos, that his second fleet might coast from gulf to gulf without doubling the dangerous headland, where his former fleet was wrecked. Several modern writers have rejected the story altogether, relying on its inherent improbability, and on the language of the Roman satirist, Juvenal, who expressly adduces it to support his epithet, "Græcia mendax," and whose words imply that it was generally disbelieved in his time.
Let us examine the evidence in favour of the account. The primary witness is Herodotus, who gives a detailed account of the whole undertaking, entering minutely into particulars; and Thucydides, who possessed estates in the neighbourhood, and had commanded the Athenian fleet there, alludes to the canal as still in existence, and well-known to his readers. Similarly, the orators Lysias and Isocrates confidently affirm the fact; and in later times, the historians Diodorus Siculus and Justin relate it without hesitation, though of course their evidence will weigh but little in the scale. Lysias and Isocrates, as orators, lose their advantage of proximity to the time by the suspicion of
Ergo libri isti nec seculo undecimo exeunte antiquiores, nec medio seculo decimo quarto juniores.-Hamaker, Pref. ad Incerti Auct. Lib.
+ We are glad to see that the Calcutta University has introduced the subject of historical evidence into its course of study for the B. A. degree; and that Isaac Taylor's two works (the one mentioned above, and that on the transmission of ancient books,) are recommended as text-books. Sir John Stoddart's reprint at the head of our article, contains some valuable remarks on early history; and there is an admirable summary of the subject in chap. vii. of Sir G. C. Lewis' "Methods of observation and reasoning in Politics."