John Lingard and the Pursuit of Historical Truth

By Vidmar, John | The Catholic Historical Review, January 2003 | Go to article overview

John Lingard and the Pursuit of Historical Truth


Vidmar, John, The Catholic Historical Review


John Lingard and the Pursuit of Historical Truth. By Edwin Jones. (Brighton: Sussex Academic Press. Distributed in the U.S. by ISBS, Portland, Ore. 2001. Pp. xxv, 308. $69.95.)

Lord Macaulay did not like the History of England written by John Lingard in the 1820's. He complained that Lingard's "great fundamental rule of judging seems to be that the popular opinion cannot possibly be correct." It would be fairer to say that Lingard's fundamental rule of judging was that evidence matters more than public opinion. And the evidence of history, as he so often found and documented, ran against public opinion in England.

John Lingard was a Roman Catholic priest who taught philosophy at the seminary of Ushaw near Durham, then moved to the remote parish of Hornby near Lancaster-and here he wrote a revolutionary new version of England's history. With these eight volumes he may not have changed public opinion of historical facts, but he certainly changed the way history was written in England. Especially after the appearance of his volumes on the English Reformation (Vol. 4 in 1820 on Henry VIII, Edward VI, and Mary Tudor; and Vol. 5 in 1823 on Elizabeth), historians scrambled to defend the good name of their Protestant forebears and the Anglican Church. Robert Southey, Henry Hallam,Thomas Carlyle, James Anthony Froude, and Lord Macaulay all wrote histories of England in the following years in defense of opinions cherished since the reign of Good Queen Bess, whom Lingard thought not so good after all. But they had to do so on Lingard's terms. No longer was it sufficient to write history as David Hume did, starting from his philosophic prejudices and making the facts fit; from Lingard on, historians needed to amass more and better documents.

Edwin Jones, the author of this interesting study of Lingard's historical method, attempts to do two things in this book. First, he examines Lingard's methodology, by taking us into what he (Jones) calls the "historian's workshop." Since Lingard never revealed his method, much of it has to be gleaned from private letters and Lingard's lengthy footnotes. Jones finds that, in almost every area of research, Lingard was far ahead of his time. Modern revisionists are only now catching up and arriving at conclusions Lingard espoused almost two hundred years ago. Jones shows how Lingard used public records and private sources, tested the "source of the sources," prioritized the authority of sources, and applied forensic rules of source criticism-all long before anyone else except perhaps the Bollandists and Maurists, from whom Lingard clearly learned. G. P. Gooch, in his monumental History and Historians in the Nineteenth Century (1913), maintained that Froude was the first Englishman to use the Simancas Archives in Spain, and Macaulay claimed to be the first to see the Barillon papers in France and was praised by the Times for his thoroughness. In fact, Lingard saw the latter long before Macaulay and had access to Simancas through an agent before Froude.

Secondly, Jones contends that Lingard's methodology resulted in historical judgments which have stood the test of time. All of the above-named authors, as well as the esteemed twentieth-century historian George Trevelyan, who tried to perpetuate the "great Myth" of the English nation, have been proven substantially wrong in their judgments. Only Lingard stands out as an accurate assessor of England's past. Edwin Jones points out, "I know of no serious matter in which a later court of appeal, in terms of modern scholarship, has overturned a historical judgement or major historical interpretation made by Lingard nearly two centuries ago; and I know of no other English historian of whom this can be said" (p. …

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