Archive for the ‘sources’ Category

History and the movies

Monday, October 19th, 2009

A recent post on has reminded me about a topic I have been meaning to address for quite a while: history and the movies.

What role do movies play in the formation of our understanding of the past? Can movies be useful learning tools?

My personal belief is that the only way to approach historical film is as entertainment. When they are well done, they can certainly help give an impressionistic overview of a time and place, but to rely too heavily on them for ‘fact’ is an extremely bad idea.

My favourite example of this is Braveheart. It is a good movie, great entertainment, but absolutely horrible ‘history’.

It begins with a title reading: “1280 A.D.” and the narrator’s voice: “The king of Scotland has died without a son and the king of England, a cruel pagan known as Edward longshanks claimed the throne of Scotland for himself.”

  • The scenery resembles the western highlands of Scotland – an area that had really nothing to do with Wallace nor with the uprisings against English rule
    • This is like starting a film about a Manitoba wheat field with a panoramic shot of the Newfoundland coast
  • In 1280 not only was the Scottish king (Alexander III) very much alive, so were his sons and daughter
  • King Edward I of England never claimed the throne for himself and while he was many things, he most certainly was NOT a pagan
  • In the 13th century no Scots wore the kilts that everyone seems to favour in the film
  • The Scottish nobility was culturally very much like their English counterparts
    • they had common backgrounds
    • they were drawn largely from the same families
    • they spoke the same languages, read the same kinds of literature, and often held lands on both sides of the border
  • At no time did Edward invite the nobles to talks “no weapons, one page only” where he summarily executed the lot of them
  • And even if he had, he certainly would not have invited them to a place that looks suspiciously like Glen Nevis in the north-west highlands
    • Again, Manitoba/Newfoundland
  • Wallace’s father was no mere peasant farmer – he was a knight who held lands
    • Incidentally, his  father was killed in 1291 by which time William Wallace would have been around 20 years old
    • yet again, the setting for the Wallace farm itself is also completely wrong – gently rolling lowland country vs. Glen Nevis
  • The children of knights did not dress in rags
  • Even poor people knew how to look after their clothes – they had to after all as they couldn’t afford to let them disintegrate into rags through neglect
  • there is no evidence to sugget that 13th century men favoured mullets
    • but they did use combs!

These are some of the errors that appear in the first three minutes of the film! Sadly, it goes steadily downhill from there.

Here is a small sample of some of the historical lowlights of this film:

  • Marriage of Edward II and Isabella – much too early
    • in 1303 England and France secured a non-aggression pact. Part of this agreement was that Prince Edward and Princess Isabella would wed. The wedding took place in 1308.  Edward was born in 1284, Isabella ca. 1295. You can do the math re their portrayal in the film
  • Edward I: “Scotland – my land” – never really saw it as such
    • he wanted to control scotland, not become its king
  • “Prima Nocta”: thankfully this is a complete myth
  • Isabella and her lady in waiting spoke in French, apparently to keep secrets from the English
    • This is ridiculous as Anglo-Norman French was the first language of the English nobility.
  • The mad Irish guy didn’t exist
  • The battle of Sitling Bridge is all wrong
    • the topography is wrong wrong
    • the battle itself didn’t happen like that: where is the bridge??
  • Woad, the blue stuff on their faces, had probably not been used since 6th century
  • “Beg forgiveness for 100 years of theft, rape and murder”
    • I hate to break it to the nationalists on both sides of the border, but prior to the “Great Cause”, Anglo-Scottish relations were really very good.
    • they were close political and economic partners, and their rulers were often the closest of friends
  • English archers going into battle with 3-4 arrows each
    • archers were capable of having more than this number of arrows in the air at one time
    • sending archers into battle with such a small number of arrows would have been a complete waste as entire units of archers would have  been rendered useless in seconds
  • York: Wallace did not sack York. Ever. He probably would have liked to, but he didn’t.
  • Edward I didn’t throw Gaveston or Despenser from window – who is this “Phillip” guy anyway?
  • Isabella as diplomat and all that followed – this simply did not happen
    • see comment re. age above, not to mention the fact that sending her to meet his greatest enemy would have been a colossally stupid thing for Edward I to do. He was not a stupid man!
  • Wallace did not go on rampage assassinating members of scotting nobility. Again, at times he may well have wanted to, but he didn’t.
  • Bannockburn – as with Stirling Bridge, the setting is all wrong

In short, the physical setting is wrong, the political situation in the film is laughable, the personal relationships in the film are equally ridiculous. Characters are invented (mad Irish guy, ‘Phillip”), while others (where is Andrew Moray?) are omitted. Battles are wrong, clothing is wrong, knowledge of Anglo-Scottish culture is almost completely absent.

So should students of history watch Braveheart? Of course. What they should never, ever, do is assume that what appears on screen bears any resemblance to historical reality.

This is a pretty extreme example, and I use it partly for that reason and partly because it falls into an historical time and place with which I am well acquainted. Not all historical films are this wildly inaccurate. But the same advice applies: caveat spector. Watcher beware.

Some thoughts on ‘creative’ vs ‘academic’ writing

Wednesday, August 19th, 2009

I have taken something of a hiatus from updating this blog as I have been focused on what most people would call ‘creative’ as opposed to ‘academic’ writing. I am writing an historical novel, and have been thinking lately about the differences between the kind of writing that has mostly occupied me in the past (i.e. academic essays, papers, articles, thesis, etc.) and what is for me a new form.

For me, the study of history is something akin to a semi-futile search for objective truth. It is based upon careful research, and fanatical attention to detail when it comes to documenting sources and backing up one’s statements. Why semi-futile? Simply because evidence is often incomplete, contradictory, or absent; because historians are subject to prejudice and bias; and because it is impossible for anyone to truly know everything about past things, people, and events. See, for example, Historians’ Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought: 300+ pages that have left many historians wondering why we ‘do’ history at all!

Whatever its shortcomings, the academic study of history is one of the most important fields of human enquiry. It is not a collection of names and dates. Rather, it is a deep study of human society that seeks a greater understanding not only of the past but of the present as well.

The detailed study of past human societies has deep roots in many cultures and civilizations, but the professionalization of history really only dates from the 19th century. As with the professionalization of any discipline, there gradually evolved a number of standards, requirements, and expectations that now accompany any ‘professional’ or ‘academic’ work of history. (My thanks go out to wonderful historians like Richard Gyug, Gerhard Bassler, Stuart Pierson, and Chris Given-Wilson who helped me understand how to ‘do’ history.)

Among these standards and requirements are things such as:

  • whatever you put on a page, although it is the result of analysis and independent thought, must be based on evidence
  • this evidence must not only be collected, it must also be studied,  placed into context, and evaluated.
  • when something you write is based on a  piece of evidence, you must clearly indicate this, usually in the form of footnotes or endnotes

Therefore in my thesis I could not simply state out of the blue that the first earl of Northumberland owned waffle irons. He did, but I could not simply state this as fact without backing up the statement with evidence. (The beautiful thing about historical evidence is that I can with certainty say that in July 1405, he owned a set of waffle irons worth 4s., and that they were sold at auction by one Hugh Worschip. See Calendar of Inquisitions Miscellaneous, 1399-1422, no. 431 if you would like to look it up…)

Nor could I say in my thesis that he was mildly addicted to waffles, that in 1376 he owned a smaller set worth 2s., that a Flemish cook named Aliet used them at Alnwick castle, and that while he was being wined and dined by the Abbot of Alnwick abbey, his men were busy crushing a nascent rebellion with the assistance of his cross-border rival the earl of Douglas. Yet all of these things feature in my novel.

This is the wonderful thing about writing historical fiction as opposed to academic history. The freedom that it offers is almost overwhelming to someone used to the discipline of academic history. If I wanted to write that the earl had a fondness for roast chicken but really couldn’t stand beef, I would be free to do so. If I wanted to write that his brother Thomas had been castrated during the battle of Najera, I would be free to do so. Heck, if I wanted to write that he had Northumberland’s largest collection of  amber jewellery, I would be free to do so. There is no historical evidence whatsoever for any of these things (although there is reason to suspect that for some reason Thomas was unable or at least unlikely to have children) but that is no impediment to their appearance in an historical novel.

All of which helps to underscore the point that an historian (and if you are writing an undegrad history essay, you are an historian) should never, ever rely on works of historical fiction as historical sources! For example, my novel has as its foundation over six years of research into the life of the first earl of Northumberland. It is probably fair to say that I know more about him than anyone has for over five hundred years. I also know more about those who surrounded him, and how they interacted. But in my novel this careful research simply provides the skeleton on which is hung a tremendous amount of invention. While I am trying to make my novel as historically accurate as possible, the fact remains that it is a work of fiction and should be regarded as such. If you want to enjoy a well-informed but ultimately fictional account of late 14th-century Northumbrian society, read my novel. If you want a factual account of the life of the earl of Northumberland, read my thesis.

Don’t get me wrong – I love historical fiction. But it is important to recognize the distinction between fiction and ‘proper’ historical sources.

Quotations in historical writing

Tuesday, April 14th, 2009

Note: “Quote” is a verb. “Quotation” is a noun. Therefore, while you may quote someone in an essay, the actual passage of text that you insert is a quotation. It is therefore incorrect to speak of “quotes” in essays.

For some reason many students assume that writing a history essay involves nothing more than stringing together a bunch of quotations. This is nonsense and it makes for very bad essays. Remember that what your prof wants to know is what you think about your subject, not what other historians have already written about it.

“But”, you may ask, “don’t I base my conclusions on the works of others?” Yes, you do. But this involves much, much more than cutting and pasting a series of quotations. What you have to do when researching and writing history is read, understand, and analyze what others have written, then come to your own evidence-based conclusions which are presented in your essay. When you reduce your essay to nothing more than a series of quotations, you fail to demonstrate the second, third, fourth, and fifth of these parts of this process. In short, you are telling the person reading (and probably marking) your essay that you have done nothing more than find a source that you have copied from without taking the time and effort to fully understand and analyze it, let along coming to your own conclusions. This will lower your mark!

What did I mean when I said that what you think is what matters, not what others think? Let’s say for example that you are writing an essay about the WWII battle of Kursk, and you have found a book about the article. The temptation is to simply take a number of quotations from the book, and then arrange them into an essay with a handful of words of your own thrown in. If you do this, even if you give full credit to the book that your quotations are taken from, then you are not submitting an essay that is the result of your own historical research. You are simply demonstrating your ability to copy and type.

What you should do is find several different primary and secondary sources, read them, understand them, think about their arguments, consider which ones you agree with, which ones you do not agree with, and why you agree or disagree, then present your analysis backed up with references to your sources.

Let’s take this example a step further. Let’s say for the sake of argument, that your one sources argues strongly that the only reason the Soviets won the battle of Kursk was the tactical superiority of their officer corps. Your essay will therefore do nothing more than parrot this one interpretation. When you read more widely you will find that there are many other possible explanations. Different historians have argued that factors as diverse as terrain, timing, strategy, quality of armour, quantity of armour, weather, and luck all combined to influence the outcome. By reading these other historians, as well as contemporary first-hand accounts, you will be able to come up with your own analysis, and this analysis will be much better informed, much more complete and much more suble and nuanced than simply saying that it was down to officers.

Now, having done all of this reading and analysis, you may still come to the conclusion that the Soviet officer corps was the decisive factor, but having considered these other explanations, you will be able to say why it was the defining factor.

This is how historical research moves forward. As people reinterpret the historical evidence, reconsider what has been written before, and then come up with their own original analysis, we gain new and deeper understanding of the past.

You should therefore try to limit your use of direct quotations, particularly quotations of secondary sources. Your essay will flow much more smoothly if you paraphrase what your sources have written and put it in your own words. Quotations of secondary sources should be limited to instances when you want to emphasise an author’s particular use of words.

You may want to make more extensive use of quotations from primary sources, but be sparing in this case as well. As a rule of thumb: only quote when you plan to analyze or interpret the quoted passage. Otherwise, you should paraphrase.

There are exceptions to this rule, but they are rare. For example, if you find a passage that has a wonderful turn of phrase, a passage that comments on or sums up something so beautifully that it deserves to be repeated verbatim, then feel free to include it as a quotation. How rare is this? My Ph.D. thesis was 118,000 words long, and I included two such quotations. This is one of them:

“No Crecy or Poitiers shed their lustre on the later period; no captive kings paraded through London, and the Tower was very nearly empty of French aristocrats for the entire twenty years.” [J.J.N. Palmer, England, France and Christendom, 1377-99. London, 1972, p. 2.]

The reason I decided to include this quotation was that Professor Palmer managed to beautifully, eloquently, and concisely sum up the worsening military situation and the resulting frustration and darkening mood that prevailed in Westminster during the late 1370s. I could have paraphrased this passage, but I doubted my ability to equal the eloquence of Professor Palmer’s language, and so I quoted the passage.

Another exception occurs when you want to include evidence to support your argument. For example, if you were writing an essay about the US Civil Rights movement, and you said that Paul Robeson was an eloquent, influential, and passionate supporter of the civil rights movement, you may then want to include a quotation or two illustrating your point. Remember though that the quotation is there to support your essay, not the other way around. Do not structure your essay in a particular way simply to allow for the inclusion of quotations.

What then should you do when it is necessary to include a quotation?

Shorter quotations must be put into quotation marks and be given their own direct reference. This will be in the form of a footnote. It is essential that EVERY quotation have its own footnote reference.

Longer quotations, of five or more lines, should be set apart from the main body of your essay, indented on both sides and single-spaced. In this format, quotation marks are not needed, but a footnote is.

If you need to omit words from a quotation, either to shorten it or to make it fit into the grammar of your own sentence, indicate the omission by using three periods (aka an ellipsis). For gaps at the end of a sentence, use four periods.

If you insert a word into a quotation, either to add clarity or again to fit it into your own grammar, put the inserted words into square brackets.

“Doing this will clearly indicate… which parts [of the quotation] have been added and where any words have been removed.”

In this example, one or more words have been omitted between ‘indicate’ and ‘which’, while the words ‘of the quotation’ have been added to the sentence.

Be careful when adding or subtracting words from quotations. It is easy to alter the meaning of a passage beyond recognition if you make too many changes. Film ads have occasionally been expert at using these techniques to turn a poor review into a glowing one. For example “This was not the best film I have ever seen” can easily become “This [is]… the best film I have ever seen”. There is, I would argue, an ethical and moral as well as historiographical duty on the part of an historian to never change the meaning of quotations in this way. Moreover, if your prof catches you doing this, your marks will suffer severely – as they should! Altering the meaning of a quotation in this way is simply wrong. Don’t do it!

Also, double and triple check the accuracy of your quotations. Missing out a word or words can render a quotation meaningless. It can also completely change its meaning which, as noted above, you must never do.

Finally, if you are struggling to meet a mandatory word count, don’t give in to the temptation to pad your essay by throwing in a bunch of quotations. Odds are your prof will see right through this, and your mark will suffer.

To sum up:

  • Do not rely on quotations to form the bulk of an essay or to pad out an essay to meet a word count.
  • Use quotations sparingly
  • When you do use them, do not change their meaning
  • Be extra certain that your quotations are accurate.

Keeping things honest pt.2: note-taking how-to

Friday, April 10th, 2009

Last time I wrote about note taking: what to do, what to avoid, some pitfalls to avoid, and suggested some tools that can help. Today I want to get a little more into the nuts and bolts of note-taking. It is easy for me to advise you to take good, accurate and reliable notes, but how should you actually do that?

Something I mentioned several times was paraphrasing. Simply put, paraphrasing is putting another person’s words into your own words. This is not quite the same thing as summarizing. Paraphrase tends to use a similar number of words to convey the same message as the original text, just with different words. Summarizing, as well as re-wording the statement, also condenses it.

This example should illustrate the difference:

Original text:
“The use of pointed arches in Gothic architecture allowed the builders of cathedrals to conceive of taller structures with thinner walls and a greater number of windows. This allowed more light to stream into the cathedral, the desire for which was a reflection of the neoplatonic emphasis on the divinity of light.”

“By using the pointed arch, which allowed for taller and thinner walls with more windows, builders of Gothic cathedrals created structures that catered to the neoplatonic desire for more ‘divine’ light to be allowed into the cathedral.”

“Pointed arches led to brighter interior spaces.”
Depending on what you want to take from the original passage, you could also summarize it thus:
“Neoplatonic belief held that light was divine.”

Note that my paraphrase not only rewords the passage, it also changes it from two sentences to one. This is fine.

You may find that summary is used more often in your writing than paraphrase. This is not unusual. After all, keeping your language simple and concise is a key element of successful writing. But there are times when paraphrase is extremely useful. For example if you are using a source written in an old, archaic style, paraphrase can be extremely useful as it allows you to bring it up to date, so to speak.

Let’s say for example that you are using the diary of Samuel Pepys to write about life in 17th century London. I this case you will want to paraphrase in your notes. Why? Partly to make sure that you actually understand what he wrote (to paraphrase one must first understand the thing being paraphrased!) but also partly so that when you go back to use your notes, you won’t have to paraphrase then.

An example from 343 years ago:
“Up betimes, and with my Joyner begun the making of the window in my boy’s chamber bigger, purposing it shall be a roome to eat and for having musique in. To the office, where a meeting upon extraordinary business, at noon to the ‘Change about more, and then home with Creed and dined, and then with him to the Committee of Tangier, where I got two or three things done I had a mind to of convenience to me. Thence by coach to Mrs. Pierce’s, and with her and Knipp and Mrs. Pierce’s boy and girle abroad, thinking to have been merry at Chelsey; but being come almost to the house by coach near the waterside, a house alone, I think the Swan, a gentleman walking by called to us to tell us that the house was shut up of the sicknesse. So we with great affright turned back, being holden to the gentleman; and went away (I for my part in great disorder) for Kensington, and there I spent about 30s. upon the jades with great pleasure, and we sang finely and staid till about eight at night, the night coming on apace and so set them down at Pierce’s, and so away home, where awhile with Sir W. Warren about business, and then to bed.” [9 April 1666. This excerpt and many, many others can be found here. His amazing diaries stretch over many years, but if you are interested in exploring the world of Pepys, you can start off with books like this one.]

It is highly unlikely that any of the above sentences would appear verbatim were I to be taking notes on this source. Even if I wanted to take extensive notes, they would be heavily paraphrased, updating the language and style to be more contemporary and, to me, more immediately meaningful. Naturally, when taking these notes and paraphrasing and summarizing as appropriate, I would also be carefully citing the original source so that I could quickly return to it as needed.

Remember though that you are taking notes for yourself here. You don’t need to use full or formal sentences to paraphrase or summarize in your notes. Shorthand and abbreviations are perfectly fine as long as you know what your notes say. For example, my thesis was on Henry Percy, first Earl of Northumberland. There was no way I was going to write that out in full every time he appeared in my notes. He therefore simply became “HPnum”, whch in time was shortened to just “HP”. His son, another Henry Percy was initially referred to in my notes by his nickname “Hotspur” which eventually was shortened to “HS”. HP’s brother Thomas was simply “Thos”. Westminster became “W.Min” Northumberland became “Numb”, and so on.

Sources were abbreviated as well. For example, the chroniclers Thomas Walsingham and Henry Knighton became “TW” and “HK” respectively, while the Calendar of Patent Rolls became “CPR” and TW’s chronicle Historia Anglicana became “HA”, his Chronicon Angliae, “CA”.  The point is that these were my notes for my use, so as long as the abbreviations made sense to me, they worked. Naturally when it came time to actually write my thesis, these abbreviations stayed in my notes and were replaced by the full text, but for note-taking they served me very well.

In addition to abbreviations, developing your own system of shorthand (or learning an established one) can also be a great help. As with abbreviations, you can use whatever system of shorthand works for you, as long as it really does work for you. For example, going back to the first example above, I could summarize it like this:
“p.arch –> tall, thin walls, + windows; linked to N.Plat div light”

This wouldn’t make much sense to most people, but that doesn’t matter because it makes sense to me. Again, remember that these are YOUR notes for YOUR use, so come up with a system that makes sense to YOU.

So to summarize note taking so far:

  • collect, records and track your sources very carefully
  • include a citation with all notes so you won’t forget what your notes were taken from
  • Don’t confuse your words and the sources words
  • Don’t cut and paste blindly
  • Keep notes and essays separate
  • be open to trying new and different tools and techniques for note taking, but use what works for you
  • summarize and paraphrase carefully
  • feel free to use abbreviations and shorthand as long as it makes sense to you

Keeping things honest pt.1: note-taking basics

Monday, April 6th, 2009

As I mentioned in my last post, a good historian will approach his or her work with integrity and honesty. Saying that is all well and good, but how does one actually put that ideal into practice?

The first thing to do is do develop good habits when you are actually ‘doing’ your research. Many of the students that I have ‘busted’ for plagiarism in the past have found themselves in hot water simply because they did not take care when doing their research. Here are some tips for avoiding this kind of trouble:

  • Collect, record, and track your sources with great care!
    Just wanting to be a good historian is not enough. You have to be a good historian, and this starts with the careful recording of your sources. When you are doing your research, pay attention to your note-taking habits. Sloppy note-taking can prove fatal to an essay. It can cause you to misrepresent the past. It can cause you to incorrectly identify your sources (or worse, fail to give credit to your sources at all). In short it can make your essay inaccurate, poorly written or simply unacceptable.
    Things to remember when taking notes:

    • Do not confuse your words with your source’s words
      • if you include a direct quotation in your notes, clearly indicate in your notes that it is a quotation. Enclose the quotation in quotation marks, and make sure you have a precise citation (author, book/article, page) so that if you use the passage in your essay you do not have to search it out
      • if you paraphrase in your notes (ie if you take what your source has said and put it into your own words) make sure that your paraphrased version is different and distinct from the original. If it is not, then use a quotation as above
        • if you don’t pay attention to this, it is easy to fall into one of the most common traps that catch students: inadvertent plagiarism. If you use someone else’s words without proper acknowledgement – even if it is unintentional – then you are plagiarizing.
      • early on, settle on a system. For example, when I take notes it is assumed that I am paraphrasing unless my notes clearly indicate a quotation. Your approach may differ, just come up with a system that works for you, stick to it, and be consistent. You don’t want to go back to notes at a later time and be unsure as to whether you paraphrased or not!
    • Include a citation in every note
      • citations are especially important when recording quotations in notes, but to save yourself a lot of work later, include citations in all of your notes. This does not mean full bibliographic details every time you jot something down. What you need to do is to give yourself enough information so that you can quickly and easily locate your source.
      • For example, if I am taking notes from a particular book, I will include full bibliographic information (author, title, publisher, date) at the beginning of a section devoted to that book and that book alone. Then, as I work though, I only have to add page references in the margin.
        This takes very, very little time to set up, but it can literally save you hours in the long run.
    • Don’t cut and paste blindly
      • For those of you who use computers for note-taking as well as writing, pay attention!
        It is so very easy to cut and paste a passage from your notes to an essay or from one essay draft to another, that it is also very very easy to make simple but costly mistakes.
        When cutting and pasting, think about the things I have mentioned above. Are these my words or someone else’s? Is it a quotation or a paraphrase? Where did it come from? Do I need to acknowledge my source?
        In other words, don’t cut and paste without thinking about what you are cutting and pasting!
        Again, the importance of accurate note-taking comes into play here. If you follow the suggestions above you will know what is yours, what is not, and where it came from.
    • Keep notes and essays separate
      • it can be tempting to take a ‘one big file’ approach to essay writing. Using this approach, you would keep everything related to an essay in one big file. This could include your notes, links to online sources, text copied from those sources, and of course your essay itself. This is generally a bad idea! Not only will you spend more time jumping back and forth within a file than you will actually working on the file, you may find it difficult to keep track of what came from where, what represents your own thoughts and what represents your sources’ thoughts, etc. Do yourself a favour and try to keep your essay itself separate from other related materials.

One thing I noticed over the last several years is the huge increase in the number of students using their laptops to take notes in class. I want to talk briefly about what kinds of software tools they are using to do this.

While it is possible to jot down notes in a simple text file or a Word document, there remains the problem of organization. how do you keep all of your files related to a subject or to an essay organized in such a way that they are easy to find?

There are many software packages out there that help to streamline this process. Remember, it remains your responsibility to keep accurate and reliable notes, but these can at least help to keep things organized:

  • Microsoft OneNote (Windows)
    • if you already have MS Office installed, you may already have OneNote
  • Evernote (Windows, Mac, Linux*)
    • has the advantage of online syncing, can access files/notes from any computer, some phones
    • was the runner-up behind pen and paper in a recent Lifehacker Hive Five poll, which is generally a very good sign!
    • Evernote can also be installed on many (Blackberry, iPhone, Palm Pre, and Windows Mobile) mobile phones
    • *By default it is intended for Windows and Mac only. Google “evernote linux” to find instructions for linux installation. I have it installed under Ubuntu 8.10 and it works great. I have installed and used it under Ubuntu 8.10 and 9.04 and it works great.
  • Basket Note Pads (Linux – KDE)
    • Runs on KDE, so Gnome users (ie Ubuntu) may find the odd problem with it
  • Tomboy Notes (Linux – Gnome)
    • If you are on Ubuntu and run into issues with Basket Note Pads, try Tomboy
  • Pen and Paper (they still work!!)
    • cheap, portable, really fast boot-up times, extremely flexible, may encounter occasional (or in my case frequent) legibility problems

Whether you use a pen and paper, one of the software packages mentioned above, or another system altogether, remember to be a mindful note-taker. A little care at the outset of your research can save a great deal of time and many headaches down the road.

Historiaster how-to

Tuesday, February 10th, 2009

Although I have adopted the word historiaster, I want to help you to avoid becoming an historiaster yourself. In this spirit, here are some things that historiasters do:

  • Plagiarize! There is no better way to be thought of as ‘a contemptible historian’ than to steal others’ words and ideas. Plagiarism is theft and there is simply no excuse for doing it. Take a look at your school’s course calendar. It probably has a section in the policies chapter that outlines your school’s policies and procedures regarding academic dishonesty, cheating, and plagiarism etc. Read this section. Then read it again. It is important, so make sure that you understand it fully. If you do not, talk to your prof about it.
    Schools, colleges and universities take these things very seriously, and they are right to do so. Penalties for plagiarism can range from a reduced mark on your assignment to a failing mark in your class, to suspension or expulsion from your school. I cannot stress this enough: do not plagiarize. If you do, you deserve whatever penalty is imposed by your school.
  • Be lazy! There are many ways to be lazy when writing an essay, and they will all hurt you in the long run. For example, you can simply use the first sources that come to mind without evaluating them or spending the time required to find good sources. The most obvious example of this is Wikipedia. These days, the first place that many people go for information is Wikipedia. Students are particularly prone to this kind of laziness! Wikipedia is in many ways a wonderful idea, and it is slowly getting to be more reliable. But the fact remains that anyone can edit Wikipedia entries. This means that you never really know what the source of the article’s information is, what the biases of the editors are, or whether the entry is entirely bunk. You may even find out the hard way that your prof has edited entries on your topic just to see if you use Wikipedia blindly. Trust me – I know that this has happened!
    But Wikipedia is not the only online culprit. One of my students made use of this page as a source for a medieval history essay. While it may well be an excellent source of information on “metaphysics” and “science” (and messages from other realms!), it is certainly not a reliable source for an essay on medieval Europe! This particular student Googled something to do with his topic, grabbed the first website that he found, made extensive use of the “information” contained on the site, and failed his essay. Incidentally, his essay also made reference to this game. While it is an outstanding game, it is completely unsuitable as a source for an essay! Here is a hint: unless you are writing an essay about video games, you should not make use of video games as historical sources!
    You can also be lazy by not taking the time to carefully edit or proofread your essay. If you want a professional to proofread and error check your essay, can help you. But at the very least, proofread your essay, pay attention to the language that you have used, and check your footnotes carefully. This all takes time, and it all takes effort. But like anything that requires hard work, the end result will be worth it.
  • Be sloppy! This is not unrelated to the point above re laziness. If your language is sloppy, your essay will be poor. If your arguments and analysis are sloppy, your essay will be poor. If you do not follow your prof’s instructions regarding formatting, font size, spacing, etc., your essay will be poor.
    Don’t simply trust the spell-checker in your word processor. For example, if you type “its” instead of “it’s” or “their” instead of “there”, it will not recognize the mistake.
    To cut down on spelling mistakes, and improper use of words (ie. “their” instead of “there”, “council” instead of “counsel” etc.) there is really no substitute for a couple of good reference books sitting within easy reach of your desk. Two to consider are:
    The Concise Oxford English Dictionary

    A Guide to English Usage
    You don’t need these specific volumes, but a good dictionary and a dictionary of usage are essential tools for anyone who values accuracy of language. Yes, there are online dictionaries available, but they do not offer the depth of information available ina  good printed edition and, even more importantly, they do not offer the possibility of browsing for the perfect word!
  • Be inconsistent! I have already touched on the importance of being consistent in your use of the past tense when writing history. There are other facets of language where consistency can be a problem. For example, what kind of English are you using? Canadian? British? American? Unless your prof says otherwise (and this is something worth checking with him or her), it usually does not matter which version of English spelling and usage you adopt. But it will look terrible if your spelling flips randomly between “color” and “colour”. The point here is that you should be consistent. Consistent in your use of tense. Consistent in your spelling. Consistent in your formatting, and so on.

So there you are. If you are intent on becoming an historiaster, then by all means plagiarize, be lazy, be sloppy and be inconsistent. If you aspire to being something other than contemptible, then do all that you can to avoid these things!

Primary vs. Secondary Sources for History

Wednesday, February 4th, 2009

Sources for history: primary vs. secondary sources

As will become clear over time as I add more posts about historical sources, there are many different types of sources. Historical sources are the foundation upon which all historical enquiry is built, and so it is well worth the effort to give some thought to their selection and evaluation. I will begin by talking about the two main categories of historical sources.

For the sake of convenience, historians tend to break down sources into two main categories: primary and secondary.

Primary Sources:

Primary sources tend to originate in or near the period that you as an historian are studying. This category includes a bewilderingly wide array of documents. Personal letters, journals, diaries, memoirs, contemporary histories, and government documents are but a few examples of primary documents. Archaeological evidence, legal records, works of art and oral traditions can also be primary sources for the study of history.

Note that I said that they “tend” to originate in or near the period that you are studying. This is a necessarily fuzzy definition that occasionally needs to be stretched depending on the period or topic that you are studying. For example, if you want to study the rise of the Nazi party in 1930s Germany, you will encounter a wealth of primary sources that were produced during or near the events themselves, often by people who were personally involved in the events. But if you are studying the Anglo-Saxon migration to Britain, you will find that contemporary British accounts simply do not exist. In cases such as this, your primary sources may not be exactly contemporary to the events they describe.

Secondary Sources:

Secondary sources are books or articles written by authors who have interpreted primary as well as other secondary sources in order to study the past. Your history textbooks are secondary works, as are scholarly journal articles and monographs (books that deal in detail with one particular subject).

Potential Confusion:

Secondary sources can also sometimes function as primary sources!

In 2004 an article I wrote about events that took place during the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 was published in this book. If you were to use my article as a source for an essay about the Peasants’ Revolt, you would be using it as a secondary source. Why? Because I gathered all available primary and secondary sources, evaluated and analyzed them, came to my conclusions, then presented in the article my interpretation of events that took place during the revolt. It is this interpretation of past events that makes it a secondary source.

However, if you were writing about early 21st century research into the Peasants’ Revolt, you could then use my article as a primary source. Why? Because the topic of study is no longer events that took place in 1381, but rather attitudes and ideas that were developed in the early 21st century. My interpretation of past events has itself now become the subject of your study, and so my article would serve as a primary source.

Another example:

If you were writing about the Roman Empire, you might make use of Edward Gibbon’s classic History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire as a secondary source. Although you should not do so blindly as it is a very dated source that has been superseded by more recent research! It would be a secondary source as it presents Gibbons interpretations of the past based uon other historical sources.

But if you were writing about how people wrote history in the late 18th century, you would use Gibbon as a primary source. Again, this shift has occurred because the topic has changed from Roman history to 18th century historiography. The source (Gibbon’s book)  is no longer just a source, it has itself become the subject.

Why does this matter? In part it may matter to you simply because your prof has told you that you need X number of primary sources and Y number of secondary sources in your bibliography. But it is also important because the way that you make use of different sources will shape the way that you approach your study of the past.

Primary sources represent the most direct link to the past and to the people whose lives and societies we are studying. By all means, you can and should make use of secondary sources to inform your interpretation of primary sources. But do not simply rely on others’ interpretations and analysis.

Use primary sources whenever possible, even if your prof has not explicitly told you do to so. This will make it possible for you to be more effective in forming your own ideas, analysis, and interpretation, which is of course the whole point of writing an essay in the first place!

Key Points:

  • make sure you understand the difference between primary and secondary sources. If you are unsure, talk to your prof. If you are then still unclear, send me an email and I’ll be glad to help you out
  • whenever possible, make use of primary sources in your research – don’t just rely on textbooks, monographs and journal articles

Happy New Year… but when?

Sunday, December 28th, 2008

Once again the time has come for people living in the West to celebrate the passing of another year. It is at this time that people tend to take a moment to think about the year that is soon to end, and to ponder the significance of the people, events and things that marked the year. In doing this, we are engaging in a collective exercise in memory. People share memories, debate what were the most important people/things/events of the year, and so on. In addition to the personal exchange of ideas and opinions that stir memories of the past year, we are also able to draw on an incredible number of resources to remind ourselves of what was significant about the year that is drawing to an end. TV, radio, newspapers, journals and of course the internet are all readily available to us. For what is possibly the first time in human history, people commonly complain that they have access to too much information.

Here is something for you to think about when writing about the past: how did people in past societies think about time? How did they remember their past? This is a particularly interesting question to ask of pre-industrial and non-literate societies. If you lived in a society in which 95% of the population was illiterate, a society in which personal time keeping devices such as watches, clocks and calendars were completely absent, how would you keep track of events? If someone asked you to be a witness to an event that occurred days, months, even years earlier, would you be able to do it? How would you place the event in its proper context in the absence of any written aide?

For most, if not all, of us today, this is an exceptionally difficult thing to do. Our minds have been trained to rely on a wide variety of documents, sounds, and images to form our recollection of the past. But for people in pre-industrial and pre-literate societies, it was a common feature of life. Epic poems that stretched over thousands of lines were memorized. People were able to testify about events that occurred months, years, even decades earlier. And they were often able to do so with remarkable accuracy (although this was not always the case!). What is my point here? Don’t fall into the trap of simply dismissing historical figures as ignorant or stupid. Many historical figures were able to perform mental gymnastics that would leave most of us today in baffled confusion.

But that is not what I wanted to write about today. As it soon will be a new year, I want to touch on a very confusing subject that at first glance seems perfectly simple: when does the year begin and end? I am going to write specifically about the West as western dating systems are the ones most familiar to most of you who will be reading this post.

It is commonly accepted today – at least in those parts of the world that have adopted the Gregorian calendar – that the year begins on 1 January and ends on 31 December. But this was not always the case. There is not enough time or space here to explain fully the development of western dating systems, but you should at least be aware of some of the alternative systems that have been used.

  • the Christian Year: this is the system that we are familiar with today. Why is this year called 2008? Because in the year 525ce a monk called Dionysius Exiguus, who was working on a way to calculate the proper date for Easter (which is a whole other topic!) decided that rather than dating his years according to the reign of the long-dead emperor Diocletian, he would date his calendar from the supposed date of the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Incidentally, by 525 Diocletion had been dead for some 240 years, so it was about time for a change! Later, the hugely influential Anglo-Saxon monk and scholar Bede adopted the system and so aided in its wider adoption across medieval Europe.
  • The Spanish Year: similar to the Christian year, this system took as its start the year 38bce, and so 38 years must be subtracted from dates under the Spanish Year system to arrive at the equivalent in the Christian Year.
  • Civil Systems: The Romans were nothing if not organized, and they developed several systems of dating to track their civil administration. One of these was the system of Indictions. These made use of arbitrary 15-year cycles called Indictions that could begin on 1 September, 24 or 25 December, or 1 January depending on what part of the empire you were in. Unfortunately there was no agreement about what year indictions began in, let alone the dates upon which they began and ended. There is clearly potential for considerable confusion!
  • Regnal years: This was a very common dating system under which documents would be dated with reference to the year of a ruler’s reign, dated from the exact date of his or her coronation. For example as I write this it is the 56th year of the reign of Elizabeth II. 6 February 2009 will mark the beginning of the 57th year of the reign of Elizabeth II.

So it is already clear that there has been disagreement over ways to reckon the year. If that was not bad enough, there has also been tremendous disagreement over when a year should actually begin and end. For example:

‘If we suppose a traveller to set out from Venice on 1 March 1245, the first day of the Venetian year, he would find himself in 1244 when he reached Florence: and if after a short stay he went on to Pisa, the year 1246 would already have begun there. Continuing his journey westward, he would find himself again in 1245 when he entered Provence, and on arriving in France before Easter (16 April) he would be once more in 1244.’ (R.L. Poole)

The reason for this odd situation is that there was no universally accepted system of dating in 13th century Europe. As mentioned above, not only was there no agreement over what year it was, there was also disagreement over when the year should begin and end. The following were all put forward as suitable starting points.

  • 1 January
  • 25 December (Christmas Day)
  • 25 March (The Feast of the Annunciation)
  • Easter (which really complicates matters as Easter is a moveable feast!)
  • 29 September (Michaelmas)
  • various other dates in September, often related to Indictions

There were other systems, but this short list should illustrate the point. There is a great deal of potential confusion when one delves into historical dating systems. If you are reading sources that appear to give conflicting dates, consider whether it is possible that they used different dating systems. Failing to consider this has led many historians to make mistakes in their analysis, to discredit “inaccurate” sources that were not inaccurate at all, and to ultimately fail in their purpose: understanding past human society.

So when you celebrate the passing of 2008 and the promise of 2009, take a moment to think about why we celebrate New Years when we do, how we came to think of this as being the year 2008, and how people in the past have thought about chronology and the passage of time.

Have a happy and safe New Years celebration, and a wonderful 2009!

The long memory

Thursday, December 11th, 2008

Sources are essential to the writing of history. Because of this, they will be a primary focus of this blog. After all, no matter what tools or techniques you choose, the history that you write will only be as good as the sources upon which you base your research. In time I will address such issues as different types of sources, where historians find their sources, and how to evaluate sources. For this first post, I am going to focus on a kind of historical source that is often ignored and dismissed.

Ask any historian or student of history what kinds of evidence is used for historical research, and they will probably point immediately to the documentary record. By this I mean that the vast majority of sources that historians base their research upon are written records. These records take many, many forms – something that this page will address in the future.

But historical records are not exclusively taken from the written record. A great deal of important history comes from what the late great U. Utah Philips called ‘the long memory’.

The long memory describes traditions of knowledge and memory transmitted orally from person to person and from generation to generation. As stories are told, songs sung, and poems recited, we collectively gain much more than entertainment. We can gain a sense of community, an awareness of our collective past, and perhaps most importantly, we can gain insights into the past that are simply not available in the written record.

To return to the example of Utah Philips, our knowledge of 20th century labour struggles in America would be much the poorer had he not preserved and passed on his songs and stories. The full story of the struggles of people like Joe Hill, Ammon Hennesy, Mother Jones, and the shingle weavers of Everett, Washington would be lost to us. That is not to say that there exist no official records of the lives of these people. Such records do exist. What often does not exist in the ‘official’ record are the stories, experiences, thoughts and inner lives of these people. If our role as historians is to understand past human society, then to ignore these oral traditions is to ignore a potentially rich source of information and understanding.

Some historians simply discredit and dismiss oral sources and traditions. They are mistaken to do so out of hand. Some of these same historians will dissuade students from even considering oral sources while at the same time encouraging students to rely exclusively on written sources without considering where the written sources got their information. What they forget is that a portion of our written record is itself based on oral traditions.

For an example of this, we are going to go all the way back to 6th century Britain. A fellow by the name of Gildas was probably the first person ever to write history in what we now know as England. Apart from this bit of trivia, he is also significant as many regard him as having given the most reliable account of the Anglo-Saxon migration to England. This is due largely to the fact that he was the only British historian even remotely contemporary to those events. Because of this, when one looks for a written record of the Anglo-Saxons and their arrival in England, one naturally turns to Gildas. But where did Gildas get his information?

Gildas did not personally live through the tumultuous years that witnessed this influx of foreigners that so changed the social and political landscape of Britain. But when he was writing, it is most likely that people were alive whose grandparents had lived through that time. While Gildas did make use of some written records, he also relied on the long memory of these people to create his history.

Think if you can of a significant, life-changing event that your own grandparents lived through. Would you value their version of events? Were my own grandparents still alive, I would love to have the chance to talk to them about the great depression and the war years, and how these events shaped their lives in Canada. While they would not be able to give me statistics from the stock markets or unemployment figures, they would have been able to tell me what it was life to live through the depression and WWII. How did people survive day-to-day? How did people deal with economic devastation? How did they and their communities react to the loss of so many friends and family members during the war? Memories and insights such as this can flesh out the bare bones of ‘official’ history and allow us to gain a much more complete understanding of the past.

Does that mean that we can accept orally transmitted knowledge of the past at face value? Of course not. We cannot accept the written record at face value, so it should come as no surprise that non-written sources must also be approached with caution. But they should at least be approached, and the long memory should not be dismissed out of hand.