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Truth and Lies in The Unfortunate Traveller

By: Andrew Hadfield

Elizabethan England depended on the authority of eye-witnesses who would provide truthful testimony, mediated knowledge that could be trusted. Thomas Lupton, who singled out the bearing of false witness as a particular problem in Elizabethan England, was especially concerned to dismiss the Jesuits as "lying witnesses", enemies of truth who undermined the values that should be upheld by proper Christians. Lupton’s fictional character Siuqila admits that he is a sinner made of flesh and blood "or else I were a lyar" only to have his bluff called by his interlocutor, Omen, who points out that what he says cannot be trusted "nor put . . . in proofe". A culture which assumed that witnesses should be honourable was always vulnerable if they turned out to be duplicitous. Medicus in William Bullein’s Dialogue Against the Fever Pestilence succinctly expresses the dilemma through a tautology: "That which we do see we do testifie, and that which we do testifie is true. Therefore no man ought in matters whiche appertaineth to the state of life to write fables or lyes, but that whiche is of great aucthoritie and of good experience". Bullein’s immediate point is about medicine but the dialogue ranges far wider and he is also arguing that fictions have their place but only when they are produced by experienced and trustworthy writers who know exactly what they are doing. Bullein’s concerns are repeated in a variety of other works, illustrating the ubiquity of the fear that authority depended on testimony which could well be false.

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