Monday, 28 July 2014

Persistence of Error

Most of the papers I have heard in the past four days of this conference on Anglo-Norman studies have been very good or excellent, but the pool of talent and perception is not as deep as many might think.  I have also encountered a good deal of ignorance and romanticism.  In global capital markets the difference between good judgment and bad judgment, better information and worse information, is very quickly expressed in millions of dollars of profit and loss.  Peers are highly motivated to correct misperception by relieving the incompetent of risk capital and  imposing on the credulous with loss-making 'investments'.  Those who underperform are weeded out as their losses mount.  The mechanisms and motivations for correction of error are much weaker in academic circles.  Erroneous understandings, assumptions or theories can therefore persist and become entrenched quite easily because it is easier to agree politely or say nothing at all rather than to correct and risk offence.

I have been told today that the William the Conqueror who went to war with a papal mandate was consecrated by the uncanonical and excommunicate Stigand; that King Edward the Confessor half-Norman by birth and raised for 28 years in Normandy was thoroughly English and beloved as English in his own lifetime; that popes weren't really relevant to medieval royal succession and consecration; and that Saint-Denis - the most mercantile Benedictine order in early medieval Europe - really wasn't that interested in trade or markets.  And I have been told these marvellous things by people who claim, and are even acknowledged by their peers, to be experts in their fields of study or education.  They would not have had long careers in financial markets but they can have long, placid and damaging careers in education.

I suppose that it is because England separated itself from France that some English academics can think Gallic and Frankish dominion impossible or of minor consequence in early England.  I suppose it is because England separated its church from the Roman Catholic Church that some English academics can think popes irrelevant to medieval ecclesiastical authority, royal succession and royal marriage.  I suppose it is because England evolved the Anglo-Saxon model of mercantilism that some English academics cannot imagine that the  literate and numerate clerics of medieval times may have been educated for the purpose of regulating and taxing trade and commerce.  And these less rigorous academics would much rather persist in error, and reinforce each other in error, than suffer correction of their romantic misapprehensions.  What these misguided academics have taught me is that it is rude to introduce facts or even original sources contrary to their received opinion.

If I'm wrong, I want to know it, and I want to know it now.  I don't want to persist in error and disseminate error to others for decades.

The other night I was told that religious orders really didn't bother much about the pope once they were established and vice versa.  That doesn't make sense, I suggested, as the pope expected financial contribution from religious orders, and the clerical accountants tracked whether contributions were paid.  I was told there was no evidence for my belief that popes cared about money or expected financial contributions from religious orders.  Of course there is plenty of evidence but it is ignored.  It took me only minutes once I was online again to find the commendatory letter from Pope Gregory to the Bishop of Arles recounted by Bede which reminds the bishop that his predecessor had not made payment as expected to Rome and he should remit the past due gold with the preceptor bearing the letter.  Bringing forth the evidence would do no good; my interlocutor is an authority and cannot possibly be wrong.  I must therefore misunderstand Gregory or perhaps Pope Gregory's demand for past due gold is not representative of the mercenary nature of the medieval church.

And so the learned elites will continue to give misguided papers to each other and congratulate each other on perceptions that are fundamentally flawed.  And I will continue to write rational, fact-based, well-evidenced history outside the academic mainstream.

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