Reflecting Upon “Beyond Truth: Fiction and (Dis)information in the Early Modern World”

by Emma Claussen, Tom Goodwin, Luca Zenobi (University of Oxford)

On 18-19 September 2018, scholars from across Europe and North America met at New College, Oxford for the interdisciplinary conference, Beyond Truth: Fiction and (Dis)information in the Early Modern World. Our aim was to bring together scholars working in literary, historical, and art historical disciplines to discuss questions related to concepts of ‘truth’, ‘falsehood’ and ‘fiction’ in the early modern world, and thereby to stimulate interdisciplinary reflection on those themes. While the conference and its many papers were focused on the early modern period, the considerable contemporary resonances of issues relating to ‘fake news’ were also a major point of discussion.

Poster advertising the OxDisinfo conference

OxDisinfo Poster, the organisers 2018

In addition to considering literary, historical, and art historical perspectives on fiction and (dis)information, it was thought critical to include a broad as possible geographical range of papers. This was in response both to a developing general interest in ‘the global’ in early modern studies, and because changing early modern conceptions of ‘the world’ were a cause of epistemic crises in this period, fundamentally reshaping notions of ‘truth’, ‘falsehood’, and ‘fiction’. Accordingly, our first keynote speaker was a specialist on European literature (Emily Butterworth, Reader in French at King’s College London), while our second keynote speaker was a historian of colonial America (Alejandra Dubcovsky, Associate Professor in History at the University of California, Riverside). Across our seven panels, speakers presented papers on France, England, North America, Italy, the Ottoman Empire, China, West Africa, the Netherlands, Germany and Spain. It was notable that the majority of papers were focused on particular geographical areas rather than on the global in general, and that the majority of papers considered European sources even when the object of discussion was the world beyond Europe. Many speakers did, however, consider connections and forms of communication between different regions. One speaker from outside Europe was not granted a visa to attend and so presented via Skype.

Our first keynote speaker, Emily Butterworth (KCL), opened the conference with a paper on ‘Rumour and Nouvelles in Sixteenth-Century France’. She used Marguerite de Navarre’s Heptaméron (a series of connected short stories called ‘nouvelles’) as a case study to consider the nouvelle both as an emerging literary genre and as a form of news, defined both as information and as novelty, and connected to the ‘good news’ of the gospel. Butterworth discussed eschatological representations of the ethically-dubious thirst for news that characterises fallen mankind; the relation between narrative and desire in the Heptaméron; and the role of community in the construction of truths.

Following this, the first session on ‘Truth and Falsehood’ showed early modern writers in France, England, and America engaging with how to represent truth, and what might be ‘beyond truth’. Barret Reiter (University of Cambridge) discussed transmutations of fantasy, dream, and imagination in seventeenth-century English thought, exposing the continuities between the Protestant conception of imagination and that offered by secular political theorists such as Thomas Hobbes. Luke O’Sullivan (KCL) discussed the use of paradox in the work of French writers Saint-Julien and Montaigne, using them to expose a fundamental early modern anxiety concerning the relationships between contradiction, doubt, and truth. Finally, Karen Petroski (Saint Louis University) used two eighteenth-century US periodicals, Columbia Magazine and American Museum, to consider how printed media thematised and discouraged bistable hermeneutic attitudes toward the meaningfulness and legitimacy of group activity (in particular, of insurrections) by Caribbean, African, and American slaves.

Session Two on ‘Disinformation, Diplomacy, and Material Texts’ included papers by Monique O’Connell (Wake Forest University), Chiara de Caprio and Andrea Salvo Rossi (Naples Federico II), and Mustafa Altug Yayla (University of Hamburg) and focused mainly on Italy and the Ottoman Empire. O’Connell discussed an influential false oration, supposedly given by the Venetian Ambassador Antonio Giustinian to the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian – an oration which, in fact, had never taken place, but had instead been made up by Neapolitan circles hostile to Venice. O’Connell used this false oration as a springboard to explore the connections between diplomacy, print culture and trustworthiness at the turn of the sixteenth century. De Caprio and Rossi gave a close reading of the complex linguistic framing of information in diplomatic texts from Florence and Naples, demonstrating the sophisticated function of reported speech as a rhetorical and narrative device that enhanced the realistic tone of both narration and argumentation. Finally, Yayla’s paper discussed the ways in which material and paratextual elements shaped the transmission of Sufi Islam among the Ottoman elite, focusing in particular on successive editions of Lamii Çelebi’s translation of the Nefahatül’l-Üns, a biographical dictionary of important Sufi figures, from Persian to Ottoman Turkish.

Presenter Clare Egan at OxDisinfo

Presenter at OxDisinfo, Tom Goodwin 2018

Session Three was on ‘Race and Religion’. Both speakers showed how singular discriminatory paradigms served as models for the treatment against multiple ethnic groups. First, Nora Galland (Montpellier 3) discussed discourses of race in early modern England, arguing that the break with Rome in 1534 stimulated the development of a nationalistic construction of race, with the emergent English nation-state asserting its political legitimacy through ethnocentrism. Conversely, Alejandro Enriquez (Illinois State) explored Franciscan interrogations of Maya elites in colonial Yucatan, arguing that the language and types of accusations echoed those commonly made in the anti-Semitic blood libels that were then frequent in Spain and Europe more generally. Enriquez argued that the confessions of blasphemous crucifixion and human sacrifice that resulted are best understood as ritual murder propaganda and blood libel against the Maya elites, rather than reliable accounts of events that truly occurred.

Session Four was on ‘Fiction and Deceit in Travel Accounts’. First, Emily Teo (Free University of Berlin / University of Kent) presented on early modern European missionaries’ accounts of traveling to China. Despite their claims to be eyewitness accounts, such texts were often produced by authors who had in actual fact seen very little of the country. In positing carefully crafted, exaggerated, and fanciful accounts of a distant utopia – an “ideal China” – Teo argued that these missionary-travellers to China were seeking to further their careers by emphasising the probable future success of missionary efforts, given the receptiveness of its populace to Christianity. Next, Jessica Reuther (Ball State) spoke about Dutch, French, and English perspectives on parenting norms along the coast of West Africa. She focused on the question of why Europeans involved in the trans-Atlantic slave trade in the seventeenth century sought to disprove the then widely-believed belief, in Europe, that African parents regularly sold their children into slavery, and the reasons why this myth eventually become a reality following the conquest of the kingdoms of Allada and Ouidah from the late 1720s onwards by the kingdom of Dahomey.

Day Two opened with our second keynote address, by Alejandra Dubcovsky (UC Riverside) on ‘Communication and Miscommunication in Colonial North America’. Dubcovsky emphasised the constant struggle to stay informed in such a contested space, with constantly shifting boundaries, in which gaining reliable information was extremely difficult. She juxtaposed a broad overview of the development of news networks from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century with the judicious use of case studies – citing the example of the cacica Pamini, chief of the Yspo, who successfully established herself as a news broker between the English settlements of South Carolina and the Spanish settlements of Florida and, according, secured trade with and relative non-aggression from both communities for two years, in the context of heavy slaving raids taking place elsewhere in the region. In this way, Dubcovsky placed human agency – and, in particular, the agency of Native American actors – at the centre of her analysis of information and disinformation networks.

Session Five was on ‘Media, Authority, and Public Opinion’. First, Fara Dabhoiwala (Princeton) spoke about the invention of free speech in eighteenth-century England, drawing on a series of newspaper essays by John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon. Published anonymously as ‘Cato’s Letters’, these were instrumental in blending fiction, history and speculation together to extend ideas relating to freedom of expression in parliament and the publication of unorthodox religious texts to secular political discourse in general. Dabhoiwala argued that what Trenchard and Gordon assumed to be true about free speech, and what they chose not to address, has profoundly shaped contemporary attitudes about public discourse and freedom of expression. Giulia Delogu (Ca’Foscari, University of Venice) was unique among the conference speakers in focusing on the ‘global’, rather than on a particular world region. In discussing the eighteenth-century scientific, moral, religious and political debate on smallpox, Delogu interrogated our use of the term ‘global,’ in-of-itself, and emphasised the importance of port cities in the transmission of information in this period. Finally, Deborah Steinberger (Delaware) presented the seventeenth-century French journal Le Mercure Galant as an example of ‘fake news’ with mixed functionality: fictional experimentation, in the novella included with every issue; the construction of taste, with regard to fashion; anti-Protestant propaganda; and the tireless promotion of the cause of Louis XIV, including his supposed heroism in dealing with the pain caused by an anal fistula. Steinberger also drew attention to parallels between seventeenth-century French ‘fake news’ and examples from the United States in the present day, particularly concerning gender in the military.

Marcus Meer presents at OxDisinfo

Presenter at OxDisinfo, Tom Goodwin 2018

Session Six, on ‘Rumour and Gossip’, began with Clare Egan (Lancaster), who discussed the performance of provincial libels in early modern England. Egan looked at defamation cases within families and the genre of the mock libel, ultimately underlining the agency of individuals in the circulation of disinformation, as well as its performativity, and sought to contextualise libels in relation to other early modern forms of ephemeral literature. Charlène Cruxent (Montpellier 3) presented on the double-edged nature of rumour in Elizabeth I’s correspondence as an instrument used both by her and her enemies, and included a discussion of images and the orality of rumour, as a spectrum between noise and whisper, as well as textual evidence. Frances Gage (SUNY, Buffalo State) concluded the session with a paper on the ways in which gossip and rumore informed the language and genre of art criticism, and the reception of particular artists, focusing on the ways in which the life and work of Caravaggio were refracted through accounts written by his rivals such as Giovanni Baglione.

The final session was on ‘Historiography and the Manipulation of the Past’. Robert Fucci (Columbia) discussed the representation of ruins – especially imagined ruins – in the Netherlands during the Twelve Years’ Truce (1609-21). His paper drew links between these representations of antique structures, humanists’ increasing interest in local antiquity, and the Dutch Republic’s proto-national identity formation. Marcus Meer (Durham) looked at medieval heraldry as a way of creating origin myths in London and Augsburg. He contrasted the municipal arms of London and its changing representations of the conclusion of the Peasants’ revolt with Augsburg’s incorporation of a female pagan, pre-Christian face into its heraldry, later reinterpreted by the Protestant scholar Hieronymus Fröschl as a representation of when the city was first evangelised. Finally, Kira Von Osterfeld-Suske (Columbia) presented on official history writing in sixteenth-century Spain, in which writers attempted to re-establish the integrity, or reputaçion, of history writing in the context of criticism of Spain’s colonising actions in the New World, drawing attention to the relationship between developments in historical methodology and the political interests of the monarchy and empire in Spain between 1560 and 1590.

OxDisinfo sign outside New College Oxford

OxDisinfo sign outside New College Oxford. Tom Goodwin 2018

Many common threads and issues emerged over the course of the two days – most obviously, the power dynamics inherent to uses of fiction and (dis)information on both local and global scales. Imperial projections and acts of colonisation were central to our discussions, as were representations and contestations of gender. Some key issues for reflection included the temporality of fiction and fake news, and the aesthetic and affective dimensions of (dis)information. Attention was also drawn to the importance of the materiality of source texts and of their reception. A point raised by many speakers was about the agency of the disseminators of (fake) news. Questions were also asked about the role of readers and their ability to detect the true, the false, and the fictive. We were delighted, in particular, by the dialogue that emerged between speakers working in and across differing disciplines. We are now working on a publication based on a number of papers from the conference, with the aim of publishing in 2020.

The organisers would like to thank Rowan Tomlinson (Bristol), Filippo de Vivo, (Birkbeck) Giuseppe Marcocci (Oxford) John-Paul Ghobrial (Oxford), Kathryn Murphy (Oxford) and Liesbeth Corens (QMUL), for acting as chairs, and for their many insightful interventions in the ensuing discussions. We would also like to thank our sponsors, the Past and Present Society, the Ludwig Humanities Fund at New College, Oxford, The Oxford Centre for Early Modern Studies, and the Royal Historical Society for funding the conference, and especially for providing us with the means to fund the bursaries that enabled several PhD students and ECRs to present their research.

Online discussion of this event has been compiled into a Wakelet

Past & Present was pleased to support this event and supports other events like it. Applications for event funding are welcomed from scholars working in the field of historical studies at all stages in their careers.

Past & Present journal masthead

Past & Present logo, 2017 all rights reserved

Leave a Reply