I have been trying to explain to a client why her ancestor may have lied to a parish priest when she said she was married when her daughter was born. She was at first horrified that I would suggest that this person LIED, and LIED to a parish priest, and then was saying she couldn’t believe that such an thing could be done- don’t you have to prove this when you present a child for baptism. No amount of explaining about the protection of her child’s future prospects, or the lack of documentation needed for things in the past could get through. It is like pounding my head against a brick wall. So I am going to take it out on my blog, and hope that people already understand this, or that my explanations are actually quite clear, and my exertions would work for other people.
Mankind is the most amazing of beings, creative, descriptive, amazing really. We have set out over the course of millennia have devised a myriad of systems of categorizing, indexing and recording our lives in documents, which amazingly we conserve for a long period of time. It would be nice to believe that everything that was written, saved etc., was actually true. But let us be honest, people lie.
There are big lies, white lies, small lies, serving lies, protecting lies, so forth and so on. Just because it is written on paper, is old, and has been saved, doesn’t mean it is true.
Take for instance my mother’s birth certificate. My grandmother decided when filling it out that she would state my grandfather’s profession was ‘accountant.’ The voice of Hyacinth Bucket comes now into my head and her description of her brother in law, the ‘Turf Accountant.’ Grandad was a bookmaker, and Nanny wanted something more respectable on Mom’s birth certificate. Similar types of professions –s kills wise, one considered more respectable than the other.
I can still hear the horror of my client when she couldn’t understand why a person would lie to an official. And I want people to get, that yes, it is actually against the law to lie on official documents. There are punishments for it, if you are caught. Lying to a priest for the baptism is on the same level legally in Quebec, because the church baptism is the official document. There is also the added bonus that there are religious repercussions for lying to a priest. But people did it all the time. The same can be said about census- when people lie to the census taker- fudge their date of birth, say they own the land when they don’t. They still do it.
Why do people lie? Well we have Nanny who was in a sense protecting the propriety and seeming respectability of her family. There are those protecting a future, like the client’s grandparent who did not want her child to live the life of an illegitimate child, a stigma that until very recently was an impediment to social and economic success. There are those who lie to protect themselves from consequences such as the bigamist who says he was single or a widower on his marriage certificate, or who said he was John Smith not James Jones. There are those who say they are younger or older to prevent them from serving in the military. Some change their age to have the difference in ages between spouses not be perceived to be so great. There are those who want their age to reflect how they feel. Some change their names to escape persecution or prosecution. The list goes on. Some are what we like to think are excusable, some not so much.
Written sources are marvellous things, and are the lifeblood of the historian, but are produced by people, and they are not perfect beings. Each has to be seen with a pinch of healthy scepticism. Knowledge of your subject and your sources is the best way to evaluate all of this.
Hopefully I will now stop banging my head against the wall.