Regula magistri? Et tu, Brute: scientific method III

One of the things I find oddest, and least enjoyable, about working on Spain is the peculiar persistence in parts of its historiography of regula magistri argumentation. Do you know what I mean by that? It’s proceeding with your argument, not from the sources, but by amassing a list of reputable authors who have also held the view you wish to put forward. As a result it’s kind of the flip side of the ad hominem argument, in which rather than impugning the character of your opponent and thereby his trustworthiness on matters of fact and/or opinion, you inflate the reputation of your supporters to show that you are rightly-guided.

Sometimes this is necessary because you have no other legs to stand on. Thus, I remember from years back a heated argument on soc.history.medieval about whether ‘the medievals’ (does anyone else twitch uncomfortably at this usage?) kept animals in their houses with them or whether the livestock was segregated. Nobody involved in the thread knew any evidence worth speaking of, so it degenerated into a series of claims and counter-claims about whether a passing and unreferenced note of the practice in a book by Barbara Hanawalt could be taken on trust based on her reputation as a historian. It wasn’t pretty to watch, but then, very little on s.h.m was.

Recently a post by the indefatigable Neville Resiste at his Combate reminded me of this in spades. Neville himself makes no claims to be a researcher and habitually relies on other authorities, which is fine, that’s what we/they’re there for. So, in order to support the quite sensible view that Asturias was comparatively little Romanised and that in fact the Romans saw it more as a warzone than a conquered territory, he quotes in extenso an article in the Gijon newspaper El Comercio by one Guillermo M. López, whose name I should probably know.1 And it’s not Neville’s argument but López’s that I find so startling. In a popular article, he begins like this:

En la página 151 del tomo III de la Historia de España (Ed. Gredos), del que son autores J.M. Blázquez, A. Montenegro y J.M. Solana, leemos: “Los montañeses indómitos fueron derrotados y exterminados…”

and goes on in the next paragraph:

S. Montero, G. Bravo y J. Martínez-Pina, escriben en la página 41 de su obra “El Imperio Romano” : “La guerra fue larga y difícil….”

The third paragraph is also entirely citation. The fourth paragraph summarises them all and the fifth starts talking about the authors saying, “Todos son especialistas en Historia Antigua hispana y romana, y entre ellos están precisamente los más prestigiosos.” So there you are: not just specialists but the most prestigious specialists in the field!

No, I’m sorry. López does in fact go on to get quite deep into the evidence and why, quite frankly, it doesn’t support this school of thought. (The reason is that the evidence is largely Roman and the deaths of large numbers of Asturians in a province considered part of the Empire was not only not particularly enlightening for them but also not particularly interesting: Asturias was one of the ends of the Earth for them and can affect little.) But that first section is classic regula magistri.

Now I have the phrase from I don’t know where, though I remember that the magister in question was Manuel Díaz y Díaz, whose authority, indeed, few would fail to respect. What I can point you at, however, is that old blog chestnut, Abilio Barbero’s and Marcelo Vigil’s La Formación del feudalismo en la Península Ibérica, whose introduction damns in frothingly bitter prose the prevalence of this practice in historiography of their time, claim that its only purpose is to demonstrate correctly-guided membership of the orthodoxy (which sounds very familiar) and therefore one’s employability and soundness, and claim with some justice that it stultifies and stifles historical thought, because of course one cannot say anything for which there is no authority and be respected, and therefore one cannot say anything new.2 Though, it ought to be noted against this that, for my stuff at least, the magistri themselves did not do this: people like Díaz, Barbero & Vigil themselves as the authorities they became, Ramón Menéndez Pidal and (of course) Claudio Sánchez-Albornoz all proceeded directly from the sources for the most part and where they mentioned other historians at all it was only to say how very very wrong they were, in Don Claudio’s case often with a wounding efficacy and sarcasm that completely belied his ability to really slog through a text and produce careful conclusions when he wanted. Díaz especially was a brilliant palæographer—I’m saddened to find in writing this that he died last year, aged 84—whose learning was embracing the Internet even as he retired and who was one of the more internationally engaged scholars of a relatively insular generation.3

So this is an old practice; indeed, proceeding from authority at all points and disguising novelty in it is positively medieval. But it’s miles and miles away from what I was taught, and what I’ve taught, which is to always go back to the primary sources, to the exclusion of much else. It’s not enough to tell me that Wallace-Hadrill said this, I tell the unlucky student, I need to know that you know the basis on which he said it and, not less importantly, whether you agree. Now, in another recent post, someone entirely different, Martin Rundkvist at Aardvarchaeology, draws a very similar distinction and reckons the method I’m talking about scientific. He says, among other things, this:

… in most cases the old authors, like Galen on medicine, did not actually have anything truly useful to say about how the world works. Before the scientific revolution of the 17th century, though, people had no good way to test that. They believed in the best authorities.

The radical proposition at the heart of empirical science is that there are no good authorities. It doesn’t matter what anyone said about the world a hundred or a thousand or five thousand years ago, except in the rare case when someone observed a nova in the 11th century. Observation rules.

Of course it’s not quite the same in history, because a text, even a primary one, is still an authority and not a genuine witness. Material evidence counterbalances that to an extent, which is great when one can bring them together, and of course this is the business of which Martin identifies as part. But, not being raised in the venerable Spanish tradition, I find myself positively encouraged to cut free of my teachers and say things by myself, and the regula magistri argument looks, well, yes, pre-Popperian. (I don’t think ‘pre-scientific’ really works as a term, at least not to anyone who knows the etymology, but I’ve done that rant elsewhere.)

Worse than that though is the echoes it causes in my head. Sánchez-Albornoz said this, they go, and he was a ‘most prestigious specialist’ (the sort of language, ironically, that Don Claudio himself reserved for his most loathed opponents—one refutation of Évariste Lévi-Provençal was entitled, in translation, ‘the jealous brutality of an Arabist’, and then cast his opponent as a man at the acknowledged top of his field who was nonetheless so paranoid that he wouldn’t permit anyone to contradict him; the young Sánchez-Albornoz always pitched himself as David to the Goliath of the scholars who hadn’t fled Franco as did he, despite his readiness to be exactly as bad in later years when he achieved similar renown).4 I read this sort of statement, “this opinion is shared by all specialists of the field, including those most renowned” or whatever, and I hear:

Yet Brutus says he was ambitious,
And Brutus is an honorable man.

As far as I know, even Don Claudio never did what Shakespeare did there, piling praise of an opponent up while undermining it with facts, though some of his snipes at Justo Pérez de Urbel come close; one could never get away with it in academic print and stay comradely, and it’s probably best to be happy that it doesn’t happen.5 But meanwhile, I still get faintly dismayed when I come across a ‘prestigious specialist’ writing as if it were still the sixteenth century. In this respect, some of the disciples could pay a bit more attention to their masters.


1. Guillermo M. López, “La escasa romanización de Asturias” in El Comercio, 11 June 1992.

2. A. Barbero, M. Vigil, La Formación del feudalismo en la península ibérica, 2nd edn. (Barcelona 1979), pp. 16-18.

3. The most recent thing I’ve seen of his, to my shame perhaps, is M. C. Díaz y Díaz, “Manuscritos y crítica textual: Problemas codicológicos” in Maurilio Pérez González (ed.), Actas del II Congreso Hispánico de Latín Medieval (León,11-14 de noviembre de 1997) (León 1998), pp. 51-60, which aside from being in Spanish is as neat an introduction to why codicology is important as one could wish.

4. “La saña celosa d’un arabista” in Cuadernos de Historia de España Vol. 27 (Buenos Aires 1958), pp. 3-42, which of course he edited at the time; pp. 15-23 & 35-42 were more innocuously revised as “En defensa de viejas teorías” in idem, Investigaciones sobre Historiografía Hispana Medieval (siglos VIII al XII) (Buenos Aires 1979), pp. 402-417.6

5. My personal favourite is C. Sánchez-Albornoz, “De nuevo sobre la Crónica de Alfonso III y sobre la llamada Historia Silense” in Cuadernos de Historia de España Vol. 37-38 (Buenos Aires 1963), pp. 292-317, repr. in idem, Investigaciones sobre Historiografía, pp. 235-263, where he congratulates Pérez for adopting so many of his views on the Historia Silense and says that it’s just a pity Pérez didn’t bother to footnote the Sánchez-Albornoz articles that had presumably been his source; also, sadly, there had been a couple of bits of his argument that Pérez apparently hadn’t understood… and then the fur starts to fly.

6. And if you think that, as the saying goes, “It Can’t Happen Here“, have a look at the contents of, for example, Peritia Vol. 2 (Dublin 1983), from about p. 229 onwards…

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18 responses to “Regula magistri? Et tu, Brute: scientific method III

  1. “The medievals” is surely a quotation from Lord Byron, who knew all about them.

    Love this, too: “So this is an old practice; indeed, proceeding from authority at all points and disguising novelty in it is positively medieval.”

    • Byron, really? I’m quite surprised by that. I am usually happy enough with the verbing of nouns or adjectives but for some reason the nouning of adjectives sticks in my craw. Or at least, `medievals’ and `moderns’. I suppose I’m all right with `liberals’ and `conservatives’. Hmm. As so often I find my consistency wanting.

  2. Did ‘medievals’ have animals in their houses…. nah… many people just lived in the barn.

    I get the feeling that some are working up to a regula magistri argument in Scotland. Not there yet, but perhaps soon.

  3. You are entirely right! Now when I need to prove this point, all I have to do is refer to this blog entry. (-;

  4. And here I thought you were going to talk about predecessor documents to Benedict’s Rule…

  5. Bravo! I didn’t know until now that the practice of repeating other people’s opinions until they become accepted as ‘fact’ had a name. It floats around in dodgy science journalism as well (see Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science column in the Guardian). I try to go back to the original reference if at all possible.

  6. Un cordial saludo, Don Jhonatan Jarrett y resto de intervinientes.
    Como dijo el célebre poeta asturiano Campoamor “nada es verdad y nada es mentira; todo es según el color del cristal con que se mira”.
    Se puede estar escribiendo hasta el dia del juicio final acerca de determinados debates; de hecho respecto a la cuestión de la romanización y el indigenismo-goticismo se han escrito rios de tinta y aún a dia de hoy las posturas son mas encontradas que nunca.
    Quizás haya leido Vd esto; en mi opinión de lo mejor y ciertamente novedoso.
    http://dspace.ubu.es:8080/tesis/bitstream/10259/71/1/Fernandez_Mata.pdf

    Pero déjeme decirle que ahora mismo en Asturias se está cometiendo un auténtico fraude histórico-arqueológico de lo cual voy a darle pruebas si sigue visitando mi modesto blog.

    • Eso es una ominosa advertencia! Hacer verificar periódicamente su blog, por supuesto, por lo que espero para averiguar más. Gracias por el enlace Fernández; voy a encontrar tiempo para leer que espero. Parece muy interesante! Mi comprensión de estos asuntos sigue siendo en 1978, de alguna manera…

  7. He tenido que dividir el artículo en dos piezas por motivos técnicos. Un cordial saludo.

  8. Pingback: Lost in citation II: slaughtering sacred cows « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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