I think a lot about this post by Mary Beard, about how important it is to go back to primary sources, and a good thing as my first piece of proper graduate work turned up a solid first-hand example!
I was writing a paper looking at 15th-century versions of Judith, the biblical-apocryphal heroine who saved Israel by duping the enemy general Holofernes and cutting off his head. In France, Judith became connected with Joan of Arc, in the theme of sword-wielding female national liberators, and I wanted to look at whether that carried over to versions of Judith’s story in England.
A 2010 book on “Judith studies”, The Sword of Judith, pointed me to The Story of Judith in German and English Literature, a 1927 book-length bibliography of Judith adaptations. (In the olden days you had to do that sort of thing by hand…) That bibliography lists a lost play called Holophernes that was supposedly performed in 1556 for Princess Elizabeth (the future Elizabeth I) when she was under house arrest during her sister Mary I’s reign. The source quoted is a c. 1560s manuscript that describes Elizabeth’s guardian, the minor Catholic nobleman Sir Thomas Pope, paying for the play to be performed for her.
But the reference actually only appears in a 1780 biography of Pope, The Life of Sir Thomas Pope by Thomas Warton. Warton cites and allegedly transcribes a “curious manuscript chronicle”, the 1560s diary of a London merchant found in the Cotton manuscript collection. In an appendix, Warton explains that the manuscript was partially burned in the 1731 fire in the Cotton Library, but it had luckily been transcribed by another historian in 1709. Unfortunately the 1709 transcription was also subsequently damaged, in a flood, so the transcription in The Life of Sir Thomas Pope was the only fully extant version.
This all seemed pretty roundabout and annoying, but my advisor assured me it wasn’t totally out of the ordinary for manuscripts, especially considering how many were damaged in the Cotton fire; and I found a corroboration in an 1823 book about Elizabethan drama, although the author in a footnote said he had looked for the incident in the original manuscript but wasn’t able to find it.
Because I am an extreme try-hard, I decided to also go to the original manuscript, which like the rest of the Cotton collection is now held at the British Library, and check for the missing section.
The pages were indeed burned, but not as extensively as Warton implied. The section that was allegedly lost was very long, and it seemed clear to me that the fire damage to the manuscript wasn’t bad enough to account for so much continuous text being destroyed. Although theoretically the whole page could have been lost (the leaves were originally loose, and the manuscript was re-bound after the fire), the pages for the section – 1555-6 (I checked both years, just in case Warton had been confused about dating) – ran on, meaning it wasn’t possible for a whole leaf to have gone missing.
I prepared to write a very firm footnote, and went back to the library catalogue to retrieve the 1823 book to cite it properly. My search for that book turned up a journal article from 1896 in the English Historical Review, which argued with rigorous and substantial evidence that Warton had actually made it all up, possibly to add a bit of colour to his otherwise boring biography (Warton had complained in other places that the sources he was using weren’t interesting enough). So he wrote a few twee paragraphs about what a lovely host Sir Thomas Pope was for entertaining poor imprisoned Princess Elizabeth, and created a plausibly unverifiable source trail of damaged manuscripts for his supposed ‘transcription’.
This was bad but also sort of great. I was very smug about having ‘uncovered’ a fabrication, even though someone else had already done the work more than a hundred years ago. It was a bit upsetting to see the lie repeated in 1823 and 1927, and probably other places; learning more about how to do archival research makes me appreciate how much we rely on fragments like this, and it was pretty shocking to realise that someone who you’d hope would know better was actively falsifying history. It was frustrating for my paper writing, as I’d wanted to use the incident to make a point; now, because of course I wanted to show off all the legwork I’d put in, it became a tricky writing exercise to qualify it in a way that showed (a) I wasn’t taking it seriously because the sourcing was dodgy, but (b) I had done the work to track it down in the first place.
We haven’t got marks yet back so I have no idea how successful that exercise was, but it was a helpful (and appalling! historians, don’t make things up!! this feels really like a basic tenet of historianing!!!!) real-life example of why it is actually worth going as far back as you can, when you can.