Dr. Nelson – Will the Real Historian Please Stand Up?

Posted By on April 22, 2013

The Late Peter Moore,  Historian By Another Name.

In  a recent blog entry I cited some evidence for what appears to be a renewed campaign to make Professor Alan Nelson the face of scholarship when it comes to all matters pertaining to the 17th Earl of Oxford.

This came in the form of some rather adamant proclamations by the pseudonymous “Saxon Red” in authorship discussions on The Guardian. Given the narrow maneuvering range of Stratfordian orthodoxy (I mean, really, what would you do if you were Stanley Wells, Gail Kern Paster, or Stephen Greenblatt?), this seems a probable strategy.

Moreover, as I indicated in my summary of these exchanges, Saxon Red really didn’t seem to know what he was doing, and that makes me suspect that he’s probably closely affiliated with, or at least represents the best thinking of, some organization such as the Stratford Birthplace Trust — which needs to make a general distribution of Valium and start brainstorming plan B.

The larger context, of course, is the imminent release by Cambridge University Press of Shakespeare Beyond Doubt, a collection of anti-Oxfordian essays (lets call a spade a spade, shall we?) edited by none other than birthplace trust Grand Admin. Rev. Dr. Paul Edmondson, whom I quoted at some length already in my day-before-yesterday blog.  That project, not yet published, seems to be floundering ahead of schedule due to the sudden realization of the publisher that its editor is already in print accusing the Oxfordians of “sucking Shakespeare’s blood” — probably not the kind of pre-release publicity that the Cambridge editors asked for or expected and something that one imagines even some of the enthusiastic contributors to the new Cambridge volume, had they known of it, might have found offensive.

According to the inimitable Saxon Red,

Nelson gave Oxfordians a lesson in what history actually is by doing the only decent academic research into their founding father, Thomas J Looney (pron. Loo-Knee not, as Oxfordians contend, Low-knee). …

This is because Prof Nelson IS a historian.

But is Professor Nelson, actually, a historian?

Not judging by the compelling review of Peter Moore, published in the Winter 2004 Shakespeare Oxford Society Newsletter,Demonography 101: Alan Nelson’s Monstrous Adversary.” Moore’s review is one of four of Nelson’s book that have been online at the Shakespeare Fellowship website since 2004, where Saxon Red, or any other aficionado of the Birthplace Trust, could have read them, had he bothered to do a little research before recommending Nelson’s book as if it was the holy grail of Stratfordography.

Peter Moore answers Saxon Red in one sentence:  “Unfortunately, Nelson can’t do history.”

Monstrous Adversary, he concedes, is a book which “analyzes Oxford’s poetry, literary patronage, and sponsorship of acting companies….when analyzing metrical conventions, the niceties of dedications, or the history of theatrical troupes, [Nelson] shows the sure touch of an expert in his field,” and “Nelson’s persistence and skill as a document sleuth flesh out both major and minor events of Oxford’s story.”

But, Nelson still can’t do history.

How so?  Let us, following Mr. Moore’s able leadership, count a few of the ways.

First, and most generally,  there is the methodological failure of Nelson’s book to provide the necessary contextualization for interpreting its intrinsically controversial content. As Moore says, “documentary evidence rarely makes sense without the appropriate context, which includes not only historical background information on the religious, legal, social, or cultural practices of a long ago era, but also personal information, such as establishing who struck the first blow in a fight, or whether a witness was truthful about other matters.”

Nelson, he shows over and over again in minute and telling particulars, fails this test of historical sobriety. Instead, suggests Moore, Nelson goes out of his way to demonize the subject of his narrative, producing a book better described as a “demonography” than as a biography: “Nelson the analyst relates to Nelson the researcher as Nelson as Hyde relates to Jekyll,” and Nelson’s “obsessive denigration of Oxford carries him from error into fantasy.”

It is neither necessary nor possible to list here all of the remarkable errors of interpretation that Moore details in his extended review of Nelson’s work. One major example will suffice as diagnostic of the twisted methods employed by Saxon Red’s hero.

The title of Nelson’s book is drawn from remarks made by Henry Howard and Charles Arundel after their arrest on accusation of plotting against the Elizabethan state in 1580-81.  As Oxford was the primary witness against them, on whose testimony they, along with the Jesuit Priest Southwell, were arrested, Howard and Arundel were naturally obliged for the sake of their survival to make every conceivable attempt to discredit their accuser by impugning his credibility and character.

Under the circumstances it is not surprising that one strategy employed by the conspirators was to list all of the “notable lies” that — so they said —  Oxford had told them, so as to impugn his general credibility and create the impression that his testimony against them, also, could not be trusted. The list is an impressive one.  According to Arundel and Howard, Oxford claimed to have performed the triple hat trick of necromancy. He had

  • copulated with a female spirit
  • seen the ghosts of his mother and stepfather
  • conjured up Satan for conversations

As Moore points out, Nelson takes these accusations as the starting point for the aptly numerated chapter 13, titled “Necromancy.”  Nelson goes on from this to detail, as if writing a phone book, “where, when, and, above all, how Oxford carried out these ungodly deeds.”

Unfortunately, as Moore points out, Nelson neglects to mention the immediate context of these remarkable revelations: Howard and Arundel were not listing these events as facts, but as examples of the outrageous lies told by Oxford. “In other words,” concludes Moore, “although neither Howard nor Arundel expected their contemporaries to believe that Oxford actually committed such acts, they failed to anticipate the stunning gullibility of Nelson.”

As Moore observes, some context for these accusations — why Oxford might actually have said such outrageous things — can be found on Nelson’s own website in portions of the Arundel libel transcripts that he deftly chose to omit from his published narrative. After repeating another of Oxford’s tall tales — this one relating how he personally ended civil war in Genoa —  Arundel went on to explain:

This lie is very rife with him and in it he glories greatly; diversly hath he told it, and when he enters into it, he can hardly out, which hath made such sport as often have I been driven to rise from his table laughing, so hath my Lord Charles Howard and the rest.”

Moore’s comment on this is apt: “Not only does this remarkable testimony reveal a side of Oxford’s character that Nelson studiously ignores, it also indicates the unbalanced nature of Oxford’s foes, who thought they could damn him as a liar by describing his brilliance as a raconteur.”

         But what does the episode say about Professor Nelson’s capabilities as a biographer, let alone a historian?  It shows that Nelson:

1) Records testimony out of context when that context would be damaging to his own pet interpretations;

2) Fails to distinguish between fact and hearsay, especially when hearsay suits his predilections;

3) Reports rumors as facts and then, instead of examining the context of their production,

 4) Misses the joke.

Moore’s review includes many telling instances in which Nelson’s single-minded pursuit of damning the Earl of Oxford leads him into misconstruction of facts or suppression of evidence that contradicts his a priori judgments. Unsurprisingly for a book designed to prop up the ailing status quo of the Shakespeare industry, Nelson grounds his approach in claims of special privilege stemming from the idea that he can “let the documentary evidence speak for itself.”

Alas, would that it could be so: “Nelson is unwilling to let the evidence speak freely to the reader, presumably because he will not get the outcome he desires.”

As Moore shows, Nelson’s claim to objectivity is a fabrication that depends upon the systematic distortion and suppression of contradictory evidence:

“The question of credibility never arises in Nelson’s text. The critical testimony of Francis Southwell does not appear, even in a footnote. The disagreement between Orazio Coquo’s statement to the Inquisition and what Howard and Arundel said about him goes unnoticed. Arundel’s connection to the Throckmorton plot is ignored, while his later profession as a manufacturer of defamation against Leicester is hidden in an uninformative footnote. Henry Howard’s life of machinations, especially his role as a paid agent of Spain in the early 1580s, and as accomplice to his great niece, the murderous Countess of Somerset, go unmentioned. Although Howard died the year before the Countess’s sensational trial, the obscenity of his letter, which were read in court, stunned contemporary observers, a point of particular relevance to our evaluation of the obscenities Howard charged against Oxford. And Queen Elizabeth, in Nelson’s telling, comes across as a spineless ninny, quite at variance with the portrait painted by her many biographers.”

“No responsible historian would ignore the political and religious context of Oxford’s quarrel with Howard and Arundel. No real historian would fail to compare Howard and Arundel’s accusations against Oxford to their subsequent conduct: Howard’s record as a paid agent of Spain, and Arundel’s series of lies in Leicester’s Commonwealth. And no historian would both suppress and misrepresent the critical evidence of Francis Southwell. Nelson falls short on all counts.”

As Peter Moore said, so say I:  Nelson just can’t do history.

But Maybe Saxon Red is smarter than Nelson?  Actually, he’s tangled up in logic blues.  According to him  the name Thomas J Looney is pronounced  “Loo-Knee not, as Oxfordians contend, Low-knee.”

What does Nelson say about this?  According to Nelson — whom Saxon Red calls the “only one doing decent academic research” about Oxford or the Oxfordians, says that the correct pronunciation is “Loanee” (3). That is to say, on page three (3) of his book, Nelson proposes  pronouncing it exactly the way Saxon Red says you can’t.

I feel a John Stewart moment coming on.  Apparently in his literature survey Saxon Red didn’t get past page two (2) in Nelson’s tome.  But, he’s a “Shakespeare”
expert. Or at least he sounds like one.

Pity ’tis, ’tis so.

Next in our Series:  Is Professor Nelson a competent linguist?  Nelson places great emphasis on Oxford’s “tin ear” and capricious “misspelling” — which, Nelson assures us, prove that he could not have been “Shakespeare.”

But what does the evidence really show?  I’ll draw from the masterful analysis of dialect coach and de facto linguistic historian K.C. Ligon, as published in the Winter 2004 issue of Shakespeare Matters, to ask whether Nelson’s competencies as a linguist and analyst of linguistic evidence are any more impressive than those of his competencies as a historian.

About the author

Roger Stritmatter is a native liberal humorist who lives in Baltimore, Maryland. Contrary to rumor, he does not live on North Avenue. He does, however, work on North Avenue. A pacifist by inclination, one of his heroes is John Brown. But he thinks that Fredrick Douglass, another of his heroes, made the right decision. Stritmatter's primary areas of interest include the nature of paradigm shifts, the history of ideas, forensic literary studies, MS studies, renaissance literature, and the history of the Shakespearean question, the latter a field in which he has published extensively.


4 Responses to “Dr. Nelson – Will the Real Historian Please Stand Up?”

  1. kenkap says:

    Well I’ve met Nelson several times and although on surface he is amiable, it is quite clear he’s not the brightest bulb in the room. Nelson is a kind of dogged historical “accumulator” like an accountant. He is good at compiling things, God awful ay meaningful analysis.

    It is very telling that the Strats would rely on such a myopic, bumbling Oxfordian “misanthrope”. It demonstrates the very flat lined, neanderthal linear thinking that pervades their culture. It is sad really.

    Nelson could open them up to very bad ridicule. For as you have pointed out, he is so bad.

    Their terrible reactivity and off the wall emotionalism says volumes as to how afraid they are.

    Their wad has been spent. What do they do now? They can’t construct a meaningful story. Their flanks are wide open. Thus the hysteria.

  2. Roger Stritmatter says:

    Sadly, all that you say is true. Thanks for the post!

  3. Lurking Ox says:

    Roger, thanks for this. Excellent.

  4. Roger Stritmatter says:

    You’re welcome, Lurking Ox!

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