What not to read: studying history I

Last week I wrote a review of Alan Bray’s excellent Homosexuality in Renaissance England. Today I’ll discuss another book set in the same subject area, Alan Haynes Sex in Elizabethan England (The History Press, 2011). This is ostensibly a work of socio-historical scholarship. It’s classified under HQ in my library, which is the Library of Congress category for Social Studies: Marriage, Family, Woman, and Sexuality. (Heaven forbid women should have a role outside that arena!)

But it isn’t history and it isn’t sociology. Haynes’s sources are mainly trendy articles in literary criticism journals from the 1980’s, the heyday of postmodernistic nonsense. Queer studies and gender studies from that period consisted largely of re-interpretations of the classics, loaded with speculation and imaginative re-creation. Highly styled flights of prose were a typical part of that particular academic genre. I’m not saying it was a bad thing — it probably it needed to be done — but it stands in sharp contrast to the detailed study of contemporary records, like court documents, that form the foundation of a good historian’s research.

Speculation and an emphasis on style are both anathema to a data-centric scholar like me, so I waxed a little wroth when I discovered how useless this book was for my purposes. It would be like basing my settings on other people’s novels.

Moral: Examine the sources on which your resource is based.

Haynes doesn’t even document his sources in any disciplined fashion. Take a look at the list of illustrations. This one, from page 115, is identified only by his title, ‘Transvestite fashion’. No source whatsoever. Did someone leave it stapled to his cubicle? I found a source in my library catalog: Three pamphlets on the Jacobean antifeminist controversy : facsimile reproductions / with an introd. by Barbara J. Baines. Delmar, N.Y. : Scholars’ Facsimiles & Reprints, 1978. It’s the title page to a book published in 1620.

I’m being a little unfair to Haynes. His book was never intended as history; it’s a salacious riff through the literature and gossip of Jacobethan England, misclassified in the social studies section. It belongs in the literary criticism section. Who misclassified it? Not the library; probably the publisher. I get to do my own classifying in publishing Murder by Misrule.

But hey, it’s a blog; I can be unfair. This book severely annoyed me, both in terms of prose style and scholarship. If you want to hone your sense of quality in sources, you should read Bray’s book side by side with Haynes. Night and day.

I can’t resist a couple of examples. Pick a page, any page. Oh! How about one having to do with Francis Bacon, since we’ve already looked at those slender sources.

Chapter 10, The Pursuit of Ganymede (pp 100-110), is about male homosexuality, Alan Bray’s territory. On page 103, after a rambling discussion of Jupiter and Ganymede and Henri III’s notorious mignons, Haynes wanders on to Michel de Montaigne’s friendship with Anthony Bacon. “…although the connection between Montaigne and the English traveler and spy is not detailed in their correspondence, and only a few references to them as friends survive, we do know now that Bacon kept a boisterous household of ‘wanton boys’ and young men.”

What we know is that Anthony was charged with sodomy by an enemy. The charges were dropped, no penalties were exacted, and he continued to live in the same town for some time afterward. But don’t you like the way Haynes notes the near-total lack of information and then proceeds merrily on to wild speculation? This isn’t history, boys and girls. It’s creative essay-writing.

 And poor writing at that. Here’s a sentence that runs itself right off a cliff (p. 103-4): “The charges were serious and the outcome required in 1594 that Richard Barnfield made the dedication of his miscellany of subversive poems The Affectionate Shepherd which takes up the theme of Come live with me, as well as Virgil’s second Eclogue and so cunningly combines the classical and the sexual in a text strewn with double meanings.”

Word salad; am I right?

Thus endeth the snark.

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