The historical imagination and the search for ‘truth’: is history about ‘fact’ or ‘fiction’?

Written by Isobel Hadlum. Edited by Emma Ward.

Is the practice of history about neatly separating ‘fact’ from ‘fiction’, or is there equally something illuminating to be gained from studying not what actually happened, but instead what people thought happened? This is a key concern of cultural history, which aims to disentangle meanings that are culturally ascribed to symbols, language and events; it is not so much interested in locating an objective, stable or coherent reality (if indeed this is entirely possible). As Geertz famously stated, ‘Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun.’ This may seem too post-modern for the more traditionalist historian, but perhaps the case of the ballad, a widely popular form of literature in eighteenth century British society, demonstrates the legitimate pursuit of the cultural historian in unpicking the fictional ‘webs’ of history. The ‘fictional’ aspects of ballads are able to give us an insight in to the projected concerns of not just eighteenth century society, but more importantly the influential context of the historian themselves. This would otherwise be lost if too much of an emphasis was placed on what is considered to be the serious, ‘factual’ records to locate ‘truth.’

Ballads emerged as a popular medium in an age that is often signposted as a move towards enlightened ‘rational’ thought; indeed, its popularity reflects the rise of a more literate society. For the masses, they were usually cheaply produced single-sided paper prints, and could consist of a poem, or short prose piece; sometimes this was accompanied by musical notation. The ballad form, however, often distorted and even deliberately subverted the facts of an event (especially in the case of the satirical pieces). Importantly, we should not be anachronistic when thinking about what we currently consider to be quite distinct boundaries between objective ‘news’ and ‘fictional’ entertainment. In the eighteenth century, journalism had not yet established itself as the professional ‘purveyor of truth’ and news and sought no claim to this. A ballad was not restricted to any one type of genre, and could often be a diverse mix of current affairs, satire, and light entertainment. The ballad acted as a site of interaction between a newly literate public, and the more traditional culture of oral story telling; fantasy re-enactments were often memorised by the act of singing and performance. Enlightenment didn’t suddenly bring about a shift in society from a predominantly fictionalised ‘oral’ one to a more rational ‘textual’ one; the two interacted between each other in dynamic ways.

One of the more unusual stories circulated in the ballads was the case of Mary Toft of Godalming in 1726, who supposedly ‘gave birth’ to 17 rabbits (it was later, unsurprisingly, found to be a hoax). Although seemingly fantastical, its various interpretations through ballads, and then re-interpretations, reveal a fluidity between ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’. Subsequent interpretations have periodised it as a case of male ‘enlightenment’ triumphing over ‘tradition’. This was illustrated in the form of doctor Manningham, who uncovered the hoax and therefore ‘personified’ modern medicine as oppose to St Andre – the doctor who supported Mary’s case – who personified the unenlightened, and being characterised as a superstitious ‘quack’. This periodisation says a lot about enlightenment as a normative and retrospective concept of transition; such a concept being associated with the medical profession would have been alien to most at the time. What the satirical ballads reveal is scepticism towards scientific empiricism, with satirists mocking the enlightenment ‘confidence’ of doctors. It was thought that evidence by sight alone ‘blinded’ men from the truth; one ballad makes crude double-entendres, associating the scientist’s telescope with a penis, which both makes allusions to the doctors’ sexuality (as oppose to rationality) in relation to Mary’s body, and suggests ‘vision’ does not necessarily provide insight in to truth (‘It could not aid his Sight’). The preconception of the ‘truth’ to the public was not the visual evidence which both Manningham’s and St Andre’s scientific ‘observations’ valued, but rather textual evidence. It was ultimately Mary’s confessional testimonies, and not Manningham’s role, which for the public confirmed the ‘truth’ behind the incident. Georgian society did not then suddenly ‘embrace’ a scientific world view, which itself had its own flaws, as much as the antiquarian wished for this to be the case.

William Hogarth’s ‘Cunicularii or The Wise Men of Godliman in Consultation,’ 1726


Historians even now have had to make assumptions about Mary’s motivations for the hoax; Cody assumes that Toft may have been financially motivated, as Toft was herself relatively poor. Yet, there are no records to back this up in the multiple confessions Toft made. Instead, Cody’s speculations are based on gendered assumptions of eighteenth century society, which may be necessary when the historian lacks specific textual evidence. Just as the ballad writers and readers would have used their imagination to make sense of complicated events around them, so the historian sometimes has to as well. The historical imagination is clearly then not invalid, because a whole construction of the truth is not always possible – but it must be acknowledged and constantly re-evaluated.

Ultimately this demonstrates that a normative ‘truth’ can be constructed through discourse, both by contemporaries and in retrospect to the event, and that textual evidence is not necessarily more conducive to ‘fact’. The perception of what ‘truth’ is remains contingent upon the historians’ contemporary values and also the wider context of the society in which they inhabit. Fiction can tell us about reality where ‘real’ evidence may lack, which is particularly useful to gender history, because as a cultural phenomenon it does not have a stable reality. Fiction and reality are not then necessarily diametrically opposed, but operate within each other. Historians act within cultural ‘webs’ of meaning, just as the contemporary interpretation itself does, as exemplified by the Toft case.