A Lewis Carroll satire on McGrath’s methods of historical enquiry

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by Neil Godfrey

“Herald, read the accusation!” said the King.On this the White Rabbit blew three blasts on the trumpet, and then unrolled the parchment-scroll, and read as follows:

“The Queen of Hearts, she made some tarts,
All on a summer day:
The Knave of Hearts, he stole those tarts
And took them quite away!”

“Consider your verdict,” the King said to the jury.

We begin with a text written in a parchment scroll. Within the text are certain claims about the doings of certain persons that are publicly proclaimed for all to hear.


The scholarly jury make their own copies of this text as they retire to consider their verdict. They are all well trained in linguistics and criteriology. They also have read a lot of previous thoughts about the Queen of Hearts, the making of tarts, the significance of summer days, the character of the Knave as well as knaves in general, etc.


The way they go about considering their verdict is to begin with this nursery rhyme as the evidence itself. Their job, as they see it, is to apply their learning — particularly their skills in applied criteriology — to see how much of the narrative might be plausible, how much probable, etc.

To help them decide the actual facts behind the text they will employ their skills as criteriologists. This will lead to differing and even directly opposed findings, but that will be no problem if a clear majority opts to embrace any particular set of such conclusions. Thus they will establish the facts.

Background to the text

Of course, one must understand that there is much that is not explicitly addressed in this narrative. A significant factor for the scholarly jury is the cultural impact that this text’s narrative has had for many generations. This narrative has had a most powerful impact on the course of childhood folklore throughout the ages. It has molded countless children’s attitudes towards knaves and the desirability of tarts in summer weather.

Nor has its power to instill democratic values, with its portrayal of the queen herself engaged in the kitchen, gone unnoticed.

Branch studies

One group of scholarly jurists will break off and consider the age and significance of the parchment scroll on which the narrative is found in its surviving form.

Another scholar is convinced that the historical setting of the narrative means that it must originally have been composed in Scottish Gaelic. He has accordingly dedicated his hours to constructing what it would have looked like in the original language. It is to be hoped that this reconstruction will lead to fresh insights into the Sitze im Leben and assist fellow jurors in arriving at a more nuanced final verdict.

The clincher for historicity

But the bottom line reason so many have been convinced of the core historicity of the narrative is that it defies normal human experience and common sense. Everyone knows that the suit of Hearts is the most cherished, loving and compassionate of all suits. No one would make up a fictional account of a disgraceful deed committed amidst its ranks. If anyone were fabricating their story and wanted it to be taken seriously they would obviously use the Clubs or Spades for criminal behaviour and offence against royalty.

This is so logical that no reasonable person can be in any doubt as to the narrative having some factual basis.

You may be wondering if card suit characters can ever be real or do real things anyway, but this sort of questioning is merely indicative of the anti-cardSuitIsm that has been too much with us ever since the Age of BeNightenment. A truly intellectually objective response would be to simply say “something happened” but we can’t rationally or experientially say what that something was, exactly. All we can do is confess our limitations and hold out some questions as beyond the legitimate realm of historical enquiry.

Provenance and date

Indeed, this most logical fact is the very reason the scholarly jury can overlook the fact that the narrative is anonymous, and even that it cannot be determined where or when it was written, or for whom or why. They can use internal evidence to know that whoever wrote it must themselves have lived in the days of Queens and Knaves, and even in such an ancient time when Queens could still be found making their own tarts in the kitchen.

So there are some indisputable facts the scholarly jury can comfortably rely on. The narrative itself originated from the time of the story setting itself, and it was most certainly based on some genuine historical event.

A more rational method

But readers might think I am being a bit silly with all the above. They might think I am overlooking the most important thing of all. Evidence. They would be right to charge that the above scenario fallaciously confuses “narrative claims” with “evidence”.

I must concede that in the above I have been unfair to Lewis Carroll. I have, I have to admit it, quoted him out of context. Here is what Carroll said with the important contextual details added:

The King and Queen of Hearts were seated on their throne when they arrived, with a great crowd assembled about them—all sorts of little birds and beasts, as well as the whole pack of cards: the Knave was standing before them, in chains, with a soldier on each side to guard him; and near the King was the White Rabbit, with a trumpet in one hand, and a scroll of parchment in the other.

In the very middle of the court was a table with a large dish of tarts upon it . . . .

“Herald, read the accusation!” said the King.

On this the White Rabbit blew three blasts on the trumpet, and then unrolled the parchment-scroll, and read as follows:

“The Queen of Hearts, she made some tarts,
All on a summer day:
The Knave of Hearts, he stole those tarts
And took them quite away!”

“Consider your verdict,” the King said to the jury.

“Not yet, not yet!” the Rabbit hastily interrupted. “There’s a great deal to come before that!”

“Call the first witness,” said the King; and the White Rabbit blew three blasts on the trumpet, and called out “First witness!”

Ah, Evidence! NOW we can begin to see some basis for the narrative’s historical genuineness after all. There is a Queen and a Knave all visibly present. And the tarts, too, are there for all to see. But that is not enough for any genuine enquiry. There is indeed a great deal to come before the verdict can be delivered. The Queen and Knave are hardly disinterested parties. We need independent witnesses.

Now if you’re thinking, “Hang on, what if no independent witnesses showed up at the trial?” Well, if that were the case, and the jury retired to apply their discipline of criteriology to decide the matter by manufacturing whatever evidence they needed, then Lewis Carroll might at that point have had Alice begin to awaken from her silly dream and get back to reality.

And back in the real world Alice can study to become a scholarly jurist herself, but one who knows how to work with evidence and how to properly evaluate the nature of unprovenanced claims that lack independent controls. There are plenty of opportunities waiting for her among classicists, medieval and modern history scholars. But if she is still fascinated with her childhood folklore, she may still be able to return to study that, too. But she will be equipped to approach it with real-world adult tools, not the fancies of her make-believe world.

Variations on the Knave of Hearts. They were m...
Image via Wikipedia


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Neil Godfrey

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