Many readers by now have surely heard of the embarrassment that has fallen upon Naomi Wolf just prior to the release of her new book, Outrages: Sex, Censorship, and the Criminalization of Love, in which she claimed historians of Victorian Britain have misread or overlooked the evidence of numerous instances of capital punishment being administered for the crime of sodomy.
Wolf based her view that dozens were executed for sodomy on her reading of court records that used the term “death recorded”. She had assumed that the words meant that the death penalty had been carried out. She learned, however, in a radio interview that the term was in fact legalese that indicated that the death penalty was most likely commuted or suspended. According to an article in The Guardian,
The historian Richard Ward agreed, adding that the term was a legal device first introduced in 1823. “It empowered the trial judge to abstain from formally pronouncing a sentence of death upon a capital convict in cases where the judge intended to recommend the offender for a pardon from the death sentence. In the vast majority (almost certainly all) of the cases marked ‘death recorded’, the offender would not have been executed.”
As we read in The American Conservative‘s discussion of this fiasco, it is natural for anyone to assume that “death recorded” means, well, someone’s actual death was recorded. But it is another thing to assume that all other historians who have presumably looked at the evidence have been wrong or negligent in some way. As an outsider it would be far wiser to take up the question, the apparent dissonance between what seems like conclusive evidence in the archival record on the one hand, and historians’ claims about Victorian justice and legal practice on the other, … to take up the question of that dissonance with the historians themselves. Don’t just assume they are all miscreants or incompetent.
Recall another lone historian taking on the professional establishment, https://vridar.org/2019/05/09/understanding-denialism/ , David Irving, who claimed that Holocaust historians got far more wrong than they should have:
Expressing Irving’s opinion, Evans writes
Historians were inveterately lazy. “A lot of us, when we see something in handwriting, well, we hurriedly flip to another folder where its all neatly typed out. … But I’ve trained myself to take the line of most resistance and I go for the handwriting.” Most historians, he averred, only quoted each other when it came to Hitler’s alleged part in the extermination of the Jews. “For thirty years our knowledge of Hitler’s part in the atrocity had rested on inter-historian incest.” Thus Irving contemptuously almost never cited, discussed, or used the work of other historians in his own books. Irving was evidently very proud of his personal collection of thousands of documents and index cards on the history of the Third Reich.
The point to notice that I added was this:
In other words, Irving was not engaging with the scholarship of his peers (as in the sense of fellow-historians). That’s worth placing on a sticky note and keeping it in a prominent place for future reference.
A perusal of the articles about Naomi Wolf suggests to me that she is not at all like David Irving who remained stubborn to the end, but rather that she has been willing to accept the correction pointed out to her.
Posts that I have perused and that you may find of interest:
- Actually . . .
- Naomi Wolf admits blunder over Victorians and sodomy executions
- Naomi Wolf realizes her book contains significant errors during a live radio interview
- How To Roast Naomi Wolf
The point is clear: pause and ask questions when you find something in the sources that appears to undermine the views of mainstream scholarship. They may be wrong, yes, but at least remove the possibility that it is you who is wrong before you point the finger and claim to have discovered “The Truth” that others have supposedly denied.
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3 thoughts on “Warning to Lone Researchers Challenging Mainstream Scholarship”
But there is clearly a way to prove the meaning of ‘death recorded’ … and that is the case of repeat offences. If it means as the historians say then there is bound to be several repeat cases of the same persons reoffending and going to court two or more times for the same ‘crime’. Also the tone of the sentence should give away the idea that it is a concession.
I certainly agree with your major point: clearly all of us who work in isolation should check in with, check our work against, the mainsteam now and then.
Still? Mythicists know better than anyone that so- called “historians”, and even somewhat mainstream historians like Grant, make mistakes.
In particular I’d note that Naomi Wolf was attacked in part by the conservative press. And that even quoted historians qualified their criticisms of her. Saying that “almost” certainly most all pronunciations of death for sodomy would not involve actual execution.
Possibly many, even historians, have been eager to cover up the extreme homophobia of earlier laws.
Well said, Neil. Thanks.