Over Christmas I’ve been thinking about coherence in terms of its philosophical meaning. Coherence theory attempts to look at how a single testimony can in itself be dubious unless tested against other testimonies, independently produced and reliant upon issues of credibility and trustworthiness. I might tell you that I was reading about this on Christmas day, which can be considered a dubious statement. However, if my father then tells you that I spent half the day with my head in a book you might start to believe it a bit more. If another member of my family then tells you that they brought me a book about coherence for Christmas, you would be even more inclined to believe the statement.
Erik J. Olsson is a philosopher who argues that coherence does not necessarily equal truth. The variables involved in verifying coherent statements might provide for a greater plausibility of statement but this is not the same as confirming those statements as correct. In the case of my example above I and my family would be lying. I didn’t read about this on Christmas day and I didn’t get a book about it as a present. What I did do was read about coherence before and after Christmas from library books.
How does this relate to sixteenth century scholars? Let’s take an example from John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments, for Foxe came to understand how a story told by one person needed to be collaborated by another. In the first edition of his Acts and Monuments published in 1563 Foxe included the claim that king John had been murdered.
‘kyng Iohn was come to Swinested Abbey, not farre from Lincolne, he rested there two dayes, where as most writers testifie [tha]t he was most trayterously poisoned, by a Monke of that Abbey, of the sect of Sisteanes, or sainct Bernardes brethren called Simon of Swinsted.’ (A&M, 1563, p. 123)
In 1565 the Roman Catholic polemicist Thomas Stapleton declared of low credit and as a ‘manifest lie’ the claim that most chroniclers agreed on John’s murder. Publishing within his A Counterblast to M. Hornes vayne blast a list of sources that attributed John’s death to natural causes, Stapleton explained that Polydore Vergil claimed John died of ‘sorrowe and hevines of harte’, Randulph Niger that he died of ‘surfeting in the night’, Roger Hoveden that he died of ‘a bluddie flixe’, and Matthew Paris a ‘hevines of minde’. Stapleton also quoted from the Polychronicon and Fabyan’s chronicle in his support.
In the second edition of the Acts and Monuments (1570) Foxe made his claim more robustly by adding evidence from Walter of Guisborough’s chronicle that also claimed that John had been poisoned but he had little choice but to also admit that there were a variety of opinions on the matter.
‘many opinions are among the chronicles of the death of king John. Some of them doe write that he dyed of sorrow and heauines of heart, as Polidorus: some of surfeiting in the night, as Radulphus Niger: some of a bloudy flixe, as Rog. Hoveden: some of a burning ague, some of a cold sweat, some of eatyng appels, some of eatyng peares, some plummes’ (A&M, 1570, p. 344)
This was a clever move by Foxe as it automatically castrated Stapleton’s argument. Foxe quoted directly from Stapleton the variety of opinions. He even spoke at length about the alternative opinion of Matthew Paris (one of his favoured sources) in which John dies from a ‘heaviness of mind’ brought on by the loss of his treasure. Yet he still holds to the claim of murder by showing that within this variety of contestable testimonies there was some consensus that he was murdered and, further, that John died from symptoms that could very easily be attributed to poison. In essence Foxe admitted that there was not consensus over the matter, but that within the variety of testimonies coherence could be found that strongly hinted to an unnatural death.
All of this does not make the statement true, but in Foxe’s eyes it did make it more plausible, causing in essence an element of doubt concerning Stapleton’s attack that most sources did not claim murder. Through claiming coherence amongst sources, Foxe made an unlikely truth seem more realistic.