Saturday, February 18, 2012

On This Day in History, Something Didn't Happen Quite the Way We Say It Did, And If You Don't Like That, You Don't Have to Listen to Us (And Maybe You Should Be Nicer, Too)

The other day Aelred noticed a . . . mistake, shall we say . . . in the Today in History timeline on his Google homepage. According to the timeline, on that day in 1568 the Catholic Church had sentenced the entire population of the Netherlands to death on a blanket charge of heresy.

This is interesting and disturbing information, and also false. What is true is that Philip II of Spain, who as son of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V held extensive territories throughout Europe, levied charges of both heresy and treason against his Dutch holdings following the Revolt of the Netherlands, a Protestant uprising, in 1568. Now, while Philip viewed himself as supreme defender of Catholic Europe, and while he certainly sought to stamp out religious dissent according to the gentle methods of his time, this is not the same thing as an instance of Vatican-ordered genocide, which is what the Today in History timeline would have you believe.


Aelred wrote them nicely to correct their error, suggesting in the most diplomatic way imaginable that history and slander are not quite the same thing. They wrote back, suggesting that if he didn't like what they put in their timeline, then he could remove the application from his homepage. He wrote back, saying that this was beside the point;  were they not remotely interested in historical accuracy? Here is their response:

Yes, every year this particular entry elicits comments, many of which are much less courteous than yours.

You should know that we are variously accused of being both pro-Semitic and anti-Semitic, anti-Mormon, anti-Catholic, of having a conservative agenda, a liberal agenda, etc, etc.  We are annually upbraided by Islamic scholars on September 11th.  We get complaints about most Holocaust-related events.  Tomorrow's entries will include the death by burning at the stake of Giordano Bruno for heresy so it is certain that there will be more comments to follow.

I don't presume to have the knowledge or wits to debate you as to the historical accuracy of this particular event.  The claim that this report was based on a forged document in the revisionist effort Inquisition (1989) by Peter Edwards may be true or not, I have no way of knowing.  I do know however that this event has been held to be a historical fact for hundreds of years.

Further, the dignity of any particular group is never one of our considerations. I propose that a group concerned about such things should simply conduct itself in such a way that no one would ever believe any ill reports about it.

Well, of course we should all conduct ourselves in such a way that nobody would ever believe any ill reports about us. Our mothers would say as much, I'm sure. But if there's a way to conduct ourselves so that nobody believes -- or spreads -- outright falsehoods about us, I'm sure we'd all like to know.  And if there's  a way to persuade the Today in History people that Today in history Philip II of Spain sentenced the people of the Netherlands to death for treason and heresy in response to a Protestant revolt and Today in history the Catholic Church sentenced the people of the Netherlands to death for heresy are not interchangeable assertions, and that one is perniciously misleading in such a way as to be an embarrassment to the creators of this timeline, then that would be nice to know, too.

History is grim enough. We all, as members of the human family, have sufficient blood of the past on our hands that we don't need to go making things up.



12 comments:

MacBeth Derham said...

Well, you know, when in doubt, toss a logical fallacy into the mix and stop the discussion. It's so much easier than knowing. Good effort though, which, if nothing else, scratched the surface of Google scholarship, revealing a mere sputter coat.

Melanie B said...

Oh good grief. Sloppy thinking drives me nuts.

Jan said...

I do know however that this event has been held to be a historical fact for hundreds of years.

Yes, and the earth is flat and the sun revolves around the earth.

And Al Gore invented the internet.

And a bunch of other very clever fallacies that I'm sure a wittier soul could think up...

Allison said...

Thank you for your efforts and your son's vigilance. I fear we will have to dig deeper and deeper to find truth.

Sally Thomas said...

Actually this time it was my husband, not my son -- they're both pretty watch-doggy when it comes to matters historical. The response from the website folks floored all of us -- "Well, it's the kind of thing the Catholic Church *would* do, so who cares if they did do it or not?"

History has its uglinesses for sure, and I don't know that there's anyone who doesn't, in some connection, have some part in the horrors of the past. I'm not about to dispute that between two and three hundred Protestants were put to death during the reign of Mary Tudor, for example, or to say that that was defensible (any more than the Catholic martyrdoms under Elizabeth and subsequent monarchs were defensible). I won't say, for another example, that my own ancestors didn't own slaves, and I really can't defend that, either, though I'm not sure that I can buy that their participation in that evil system made *them* unambiguously evil. Still, if it did -- well, it did. Can't pretend that the facts of their lives are otherwise.

But it's more than a little facile to suggest to a person in the present that if they don't want bad things said about their spiritual or biological ancestors that said ancestors should just have been nicer people (like we can do anything about all that now). And then if the bad thing that's been said isn't actually true, but you're happy to let millions of people accept it as fact . . . "facile" isn't really the word here.

Anne-Marie said...

You should know that we are variously accused of being both pro-Semitic and anti-Semitic, anti-Mormon, anti-Catholic, of having a conservative agenda, a liberal agenda, etc, etc.... but of these, only the accusation of anti-Catholicism is really accurate.

Sally Thomas said...

In this instance, anyway. I have no idea what they've posted regarding Mormon history. "Mormon Church orders Mountain Meadow Massacre . . . " Though that's not a parallel example, since apparently the involvement of Brigham Young and other Mormon higher-ups is still an open question. LDS leadership might have instigated that atrocity, though then again it might have been local militia leaders in Southern Utah.

Anyway, I don't know what gets posted maligning other groups. I don't really think that posting things which actually happened is "maligning; " it's just telling the truth. On the other hand, things which didn't actually happen . . .

It's troubling enough to me that the person corresponding with my husband can't tell the difference between a "today in history somebody was executed" item (hard to argue with the fact of somebody's execution) and a "today in history some large institution did some totally irrational and heinous thing" item which isn't true, but is the kind of thing we all think that institution *would* do, so there. Eat your peas.

Sally Thomas said...

In the instance of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, it would still be an egregious error to post that the Mormon Church had ordered it -- precisely because it's an open question. You can't assign guilt where history hasn't (so far) assigned it. So maybe that's a better parallel than I thought.

Paul said...

Do you remember which day? I'm trying to work out what actual event or declaration might give rise to this particular misunderstanding. (Nobody *ever* condemned the whole population of the Low Countries to anything; there were pretty blanket prohibitions of joining or facilitating rebellion — but only the wildest fancy could make that "the entire population", even at a strained reading.)

One of the things that might have won Philip II the war, and certainly would have wiped out most of the rebel strongholds, was systematically to destroy the water defenses of the Netherlands and flood the country. There were commanders who urged this course of action upon him, but he always refused, precisely because his theological advisers said it would be an unjust attack on civilians. If he *had* wanted to condemn the whole population of Holland to death, he certainly had the means to execute the sentence.

Sally Thomas said...

It was one day last week. I'd have to hack into my husband's email and find the correspondence -- or then again, maybe I'll just shoot him an email and ask him.

And yes, now that you mention it, I can't see theological advisors advocating measures contradicting the principles of just war. The existence of that concept renders the whole "Today in History" non-factoid pretty ludicrous.

Paul said...

For what it's worth, your husband might want to inform his correspondent that the statement that the Inquisition condemned the whole population of the Netherlands to death on 16 February 1568 derives from an early seventeenth-century anti-peace pamphlet that prints a forgery to that effect (probably perpetuated by some Victorian historical pot-boiler and the Chick Tract people). He can read all about it in K.W. Swart, "The Black Legend in the Eighty Years War", in Some Political Mythologies: papers delivered to the fifth Anglo-Dutch historical conference, edited by J.S. Bromley and E.H. Kossmann. The Hague, Martinus Nijhoff, 1975, pp. 36-57. (see here for a snippet)

Paul said...

It was only shown to be a forgery by a non-partisan historical researcher in 1907, so your husband's correspondent is quite right that it was (in some quarters) believed to be true for "hundreds of years", even though no serious historian has taken it seriously for the past hundred years.