In the motley ranks of seventeenth-century print, one often
comes upon the title True Relation. Purportedly true
relations describe monsters, miracles, disasters, crimes, trials,
and apparitions. They also convey discoveries achieved through
exploration or experiment. Contemporaries relied on such accounts
for access to information even as they distrusted them; scholars
today share both their dependency and their doubt. What we take as
evidence, Frances E. Dolan argues, often raises more questions than
it answers. Although historians have tracked dramatic changes in
evidentiary standards and practices in the period, these changes
did not solve the problem of how to interpret true relations or
ease the reliance on them. The burden remains on readers.
Dolan connects early modern debates about textual evidence to
recent discussions of the value of seventeenth-century texts as
historical evidence. Then as now, she contends, literary techniques
of analysis have proven central to staking and assessing truth
claims. She addresses the kinds of texts that circulated about
three traumatic events-the Gunpowder Plot, witchcraft prosecutions,
and the London Fire-and looks at legal depositions, advice
literature, and plays as genres of evidence that hover in a space
between fact and fiction. Even as doubts linger about their
documentary and literary value, scholars rely heavily on them.
Confronting and exploring these doubts, Dolan makes a case for
owning up to our agency in crafting true relations among the
textual fragments that survive.
Subjects: Language & Literature
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