Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli

Political Forgeries and Fictions.

A writer, whose learning gives value to his eloquence, in his Bampton Lectures has censured, with that liberal spirit so friendly to the cause of truth, the calumnies and rumours of parties, which are still industriously retailed, though they have been often confuted. Forged documents are still referred to, or tales unsupported by evidence are confidently quoted. Mr. Heber’s subject confined his inquiries to theological history; he has told us that “Augustin is not ashamed, in his dispute with Faustus, to take advantage of the popular slanders against the followers of Manes, though his own experience (for he had himself been of that sect) was sufficient to detect this falsehood.” The Romanists, in spite of satisfactory answers, have continued to urge against the English protestant the romance of Parker’s consecration;1 while the protestant persists in falsely imputing to the catholic public formularies the systematic omission of the second commandment. “The calumnies of Rimius and Stinstra against the Moravian brethren are cases in point,” continues Mr. Heber. “No one now believes them, yet they once could deceive even Warburton!” We may also add the obsolete calumny of Jews crucifying boys — of which a monument raised to Hugh of Lincoln perpetuates the memory, and which a modern historian records without any scruple of doubt; several authorities, which are cited on this occasion, amount only to the single one of Matthew Paris, who gives it as a popular rumour. Such accusations usually happened when the Jews were too rich and the king was too poor!2

The falsehoods and forgeries raised by parties are overwhelming! It startles a philosopher, in the calm of his study, when he discovers how writers, who, we may presume, are searchers after truth, should, in fact, turn out to be searchers after the grossest fictions. This alters the habits of the literary man: it is an unnatural depravity of his pursuits — and it proves that the personal is too apt to predominate over the literary character.

I have already touched on the main point of the present article in the one on “Political Nicknames.” I have there shown how political calumny appears to have been reduced into an art; one of its branches would be that of converting forgeries and fictions into historical authorities.

When one nation is at war with another, there is no doubt that the two governments connive at, and often encourage, the most atrocious libels on each other, to madden the people to preserve their independence, and contribute cheerfully to the expenses of the war. France and England formerly complained of Holland — the Athenians employed the same policy against the Macedonians and Persians. Such is the origin of a vast number of supposititious papers and volumes, which sometimes, at a remote date, confound the labours of the honest historian, and too often serve the purposes of the dishonest, with whom they become authorities. The crude and suspicious libels which were drawn out of their obscurity in Cromwell’s time against James the First have overloaded the character of that monarch, yet are now eagerly referred to by party writers, though in their own days they were obsolete and doubtful. During the civil wars of Charles the First such spurious documents exist in the forms of speeches which were never spoken; of letters never written by the names subscribed; printed declarations never declared; battles never fought, and victories never obtained! Such is the language of Rushworth, who complains of this evil spirit of party forgeries, while he is himself suspected of having rescinded or suppressed whatever was not agreeable to his patron Cromwell. A curious, and perhaps a necessary list might be drawn up of political forgeries of our own, which have been sometimes referred to as genuine, but which are the inventions of wits and satirists! Bayle ingeniously observes, that at the close of every century such productions should be branded by a skilful discriminator, to save the future inquirer from errors he can hardly avoid. “How many are still kept in error by the satires of the sixteenth century! Those of the present age will be no less active in future ages, for they will still be preserved in public libraries.”

The art and skill with which some have fabricated a forged narrative render its detection almost hopeless. When young Maitland, the brother to the secretary, in order to palliate the crime of the assassination of the Regent Murray, was employed to draw up a pretended conference between him, Knox, and others, to stigmatise them by the odium of advising to dethrone the young monarch, and to substitute the regent for their sovereign, Maitland produced so dramatic a performance, by giving to each person his peculiar mode of expression, that this circumstance long baffled the incredulity of those who could not in consequence deny the truth of a narrative apparently so correct in its particulars! “The fiction of the warming-pan enclosing the young Pretender brought more adherents to the cause of the Whigs than the Bill of Rights,” observes Lord John Russell.

Among such party narratives, the horrid tale of the bloody Colonel Kirk has been worked up by Hume with all his eloquence and pathos; and, from its interest, no suspicion has arisen of its truth. Yet, so far as it concerns Kirk, or the reign of James the Second, or even English history, it is, as Ritson too honestly expresses it, “an impudent and a bare-faced lie!” The simple fact is told by Kennet in a few words: he probably was aware of the nature of this political fiction. Hume was not, indeed, himself the fabricator of the tale; but he had not any historical authority. The origin of this fable was probably a pious fraud of the Whig party, to whom Kirk had rendered himself odious; at that moment stories still more terrifying were greedily swallowed, and which, Ritson insinuates, have become a part of the history of England. The original story, related more circumstantially, though not more affectingly, nor perhaps more truly, may be found in Wanley’s “Wonders of the Little World,”3 which I give, relieving it from the tediousness of old Wanley.

A governor of Zealand, under the bold Duke of Burgundy, had in vain sought to seduce the affections of the beautiful wife of a citizen. The governor imprisons the husband on an accusation of treason; and when the wife appeared as the suppliant, the governor, after no brief eloquence, succeeded as a lover, on the plea that her husband’s life could only be spared by her compliance. The woman, in tears and in aversion, and not without a hope of vengeance only delayed, lost her honour! Pointing to the prison, the governor told her, “If you seek your husband, enter there, and take him along with you!” The wife, in the bitterness of her thoughts, yet not without the consolation that she had snatched her husband from the grave, passed into the prison; there in a cell, to her astonishment and horror, she beheld the corpse of her husband laid out in a coffin, ready for burial! Mourning over it, she at length returned to the governor, fiercely exclaiming, “You have kept your word! you have restored to me my husband! and be assured the favour shall be repaid!” The inhuman villain, terrified in the presence of his intrepid victim, attempted to appease her vengeance, and more, to win her to his wishes. Returning home, she assembled her friends, revealed her whole story, and under their protection she appealed to Charles the Bold, a strict lover of justice, and who now awarded a singular but an exemplary catastrophe. The duke first commanded that the criminal governor should instantly marry the woman whom he had made a widow, and at the same time sign his will, with a clause importing that should he die before his lady he constituted her his heiress. All this was concealed from both sides, rather to satisfy the duke than the parties themselves. This done, the unhappy woman was dismissed alone! The governor was conducted to the prison to suffer the same death he had inflicted on the husband of his wife; and when this lady was desired once more to enter the prison, she beheld her second husband headless in his coffin as she had her first! Such extraordinary incidents in so short a period overpowered the feeble frame of the sufferer; she died — leaving a son, who inherited the rich accession of fortune so fatally obtained by his injured and suffering mother.

Such is the tale of which the party story of Kirk appeared to Ritson to have been a rifacimento; but it is rather the foundation than the superstructure. This critic was right in the general, but not in the particular. It was not necessary to point out the present source, when so many others of a parallel nature exist. This tale, universally told, Mr. Douce considers as the origin of Measure for Measure, and was probably some traditional event; for it appears sometimes with a change of names and places, without any of incident. It always turns on a soldier, a brother or a husband, executed; and a wife, a sister, a deceived victim, to save them from death. It was, therefore, easily transferred to Kirk, and Pomfret’s poem of “Cruelty and Lust” long made the story popular. It could only have been in this form that it reached the historian, who, it must be observed, introduces it as a “story commonly told of him;” but popular tragic romances should not enter into the dusty documents of a history of England, and much less be particularly specified in the index! Belleforest, in his old version of the tale, has even the circumstance of the “captain, who having seduced the wife under the promise to save her husband’s life, exhibited him soon afterwards through the window of her apartment suspended on a gibbet.” This forms the horrid incident in the history of “the bloody Colonel,” and served the purpose of a party, who wished to bury him in odium. Kirk was a soldier of fortune, and a loose liver, and a great blusterer, who would sometimes threaten to decimate his own regiment, but is said to have forgotten the menace the next day. Hateful as such military men will always be, in the present instance Colonel Kirk has been shamefully calumniated by poets and historians, who suffer themselves to be duped by the forgeries of political parties!4

While we are detecting a source of error into which the party feelings of modern historians may lead them, let us confess that they are far more valuable than the ancient; for to us at least the ancients have written history without producing authorities! Modern historians must furnish their readers with the truest means to become their critics, by providing them with their authorities; and it is only by judiciously appreciating these that we may confidently accept their discoveries. Unquestionably the ancients have often introduced into their histories many tales similar to the story of Kirk — popular or party forgeries! The mellifluous copiousness of Livy conceals many a tale of wonder; the graver of Tacitus etches many a fatal stroke; and the secret history of Suetonius too often raises a suspicion of those whispers, Quid rex in aurem reginæ dixerit, quid Juno fabulata sit cum Jove. It is certain that Plutarch has often told, and varied too in the telling, the same story, which he has applied to different persons. A critic in the Ritsonian style has said of the grave Plutarch, Mendax ille Plutarchus qui vitas oratorum, dolis et erroribus consutas, olim conscribillavit.5 “That lying Plutarch, who formerly scribbled the lives of the orators, made up of falsities and blunders!” There is in Italian a scarce book, of a better design than execution, of the Abbate Lancellotti, Farfalloni degli Antichi Historici. —“Flim-flams of the Ancients.” Modern historians have to dispute their passage to immortality step by step; and however fervid be their eloquence, their real test as to value must be brought to the humble references in their margin. Yet these must not terminate our inquiries; for in tracing a story to its original source we shall find that fictions have been sometimes grafted on truths or hearsays, and to separate them as they appeared in their first stage is the pride and glory of learned criticism.

1 Absurdly reported to have taken place at a meeting in the Nag’s-head Tavern, Cheapside.

2 M. Michel published in Paris, in 1834, a collection of poems and ballads concerning Hugh of Lincoln, which were all very popular at home and abroad in the Middle Ages. One of these, preserved in an Anglo-Norman MS. in the Bibliothèque Royale at Paris, was evidently constructed to be sung by the people soon after the event, which is stated to have happened in the reign of our Henry III.; but there are many ballads comparatively modern which show how carefully the story was kept before the populace; and may be seen in the collections of Bishop Percy, Jameson, Motherwell, &c.

3 Book iii. ch. 29, sec. 18.

4 A story still more absurd was connected with the name of Colonel Lunsford, a soldier who consistently defended Charles I., and was killed in 1643. It is related by Echard as reported of him, that he would kill and eat the children of the opposite party. This horridly grotesque imputation has been preserved in the political ballads and poetry of the day. Cleveland ridicules it in one of his poems, where he makes a Roundhead declare —

“He swore he saw, when Lunsford fell,

A child’s arm in his pocket.”

5 Taylor, Annot. ad Lysiam.

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