Posts Tagged ‘sources’

History and the movies

Monday, October 19th, 2009

A recent post on wondersandmarvels.com 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.

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.”

Paraphrase:
“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.”

Summary:
“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

Cicero and the laws of History

Friday, April 3rd, 2009

Nam quis nescit, primum esse historiae legem, ne quid falsi dicere audeat? Deinde ne quid veri non audeat? Ne qua suspicio gratiae sit in scribendo? Ne qua simultatis?

These words were written by the Roman statesman, orator and writer Marcus Tullius Cicero, better know to us simply as “Cicero”. This passage was taken from his work de Oratore which he wrapped up in the middle of the first century BCE. Although he invoked historians and their craft, Cicero was really writing about orators and how they should adopt some habits of good historians in order to improve their own oratory. However, his advice is as sound today as it was over 2000 years ago, and historians should give it the attention it deserves:

For who does not know history’s first law to be that an author must not dare to tell anything but the truth? An its second that he must make bold to tell the whole truth? That there be no suggestion of partiality anywhere in his writings? Nor of malice?*

Cicero touched on several aspects of historical writing in this short passage, so let’s look at each of them in turn.

1. “…an author must not dare to tell anything but the truth”

This really should go without saying, but it does bear repeating. Be honest in your research, your analysis and your writing. Seek the truth. One of the wonderful things about historical research is that it can dramatically change and inform the way you see the world. But this is only possible if you approach historical research and writing with an open mind.

Don’t set out to ‘prove a point’. Let your research guide you. Let your analysis inform you. Let your writing enlighten both you and others.

If you find evidence that your previously-held opinions are incorrect or ill-informed, don’t reject the evidence simply because it does not fit with your preconceptions. Consider the evidence. Consider your own opinions. Can they co-exist? Do you need to reconsider your opinions? What does the other evidence suggest?

It is only through an open mind that the historian can arrive at anything approaching truth.

For example, before starting my Ph.D., I blindly accepted the notion that the far north of medieval England was a wild, lawless place that was run by a nobility that craved nothing more than chaos, unrest, and war. But through my research I came to understand that this was far from the truth. The North had a long-established system of border law that strove to quell disagreements before they precipitated cross-border reprisals or even war, and the most powerful man in the region during the late 14th century sought consistently and loyally to preserve the peace, not to profit from unrest. (his 1 1/2 rebellions notwithstanding…)

This research fundamentally altered my understanding of the region. It changed my perceptions, allowed me to achieve a greater understanding of that society, and has provided the basis of an historical novel that I am now writing.

The point here is that I obeyed Cicero’s command to seek the truth, and I emerged a better historian for it.

2. “[the historian] must make bold to tell the whole truth”

When writing history, you will encounter contradictory evidence. This is unavoidable, and it is best to realize and accept this fact early on. There are too many reasons for this to get into here, so just know for now that you will come across evidence that disagrees with your analysis and conclusions.

But what should you do when this happens? Should you ignore the problematic evidence, pretend that it doesn’t exist, and work only with evidence that agrees with your conclusions? No. To do that is disingenuous. It is dishonest. It is also lazy: it is much easier to pretend that something does not exist than to explain why you disagree with it. Being disingenuous, dishonest, and lazy is no way to approach any kind of research, and history is no different.

Remember the reason why we study history in the first place. We are trying to understand past human society. Because human society is made up of a lot of individual human beings, it is inherently contradictory. People disagree. They have different perceptions. They have different biases. They have different physical, intellectual, and mental abilities. If five people witness the same crime, do you think they will remember it in exactly the same way? Probably not. This is one of the reasons why eyewitness testimony can be so unreliable in criminal investigations.

So don’t pass over evidence that you disagree with. Try to understand it. Where was the author coming from? Why do you think he or she is out of step with your other evidence? What can it teach you about the person, place, thing, event that you are studying?

Sometimes these oddball sources can lead us to really unexpected and enlightening places. But they can only do this if they are taken seriously.

But this advice goes beyond simple disagreements between your sources. What happens if, for example, you are writing a biography of a truly great person who did wonderful things for her society, when you find evidence that she had secretly been an arsonist on weekends who was also mean to puppies and a supporter of Tottenham Hotspur. Do you suppress this new information? Do you use it to launch an iconoclastic attack on this undeserving “hero”?

Neither of these options is ideal. Suppressing the information would undermine your goal of telling the whole truth and would present a skewed picture of the subject of your research. At the same time, radically altering your approach to ignore all other evidence and launch a withering attack on this otherwise good person based only on this new evidence would be equally unbalanced.

The best thing would be to take this new evidence into account without allowing it to overwhelm your analysis. If you are writing a longer piece, add a section or a chapter to deal with it. If you are writing a short essay, you can always use a footnote to include this new evidence and a brief comment.

The truth can be an elusive thing, but do what you can to seek it with an open mind. And remember to seek the whole truth.

3. “[Ensure] that there be no suggestion of partiality anywhere in his writings? Nor of malice?”

Partiality is the enemy of good scholarship. Malice is the enemy of truth. Do what you can to keep them both as far away from your research and writing as possible.

If you embark upon a research project with your mind made up about your subject, your research and your writing will both suffer. Again, it bears repeating that your job here is to seek truth. You simply cannot seek truth if you believe that you already have the answers.

Take for example those who deny the truth of the holocaust. Such people often approach their scholarship with a terrible combination of both partiality and malice. In fact their partiality is based in malice, as their belief in hate-filled neo-Nazi nonsense has both skewed their perception and fueled their malice. Anyone coming from a mental standpoint such as this will be utterly unable to produce anything even approaching balanced, considered, unbiased, thoughtful, and credible scholarship.

This is an extreme example, but its lesson is an important one. Try to be aware of your own biases: we all have them! We all come from different ethnic, religious, national, regional, linguistic, educational and social backgrounds, and so we all bring with us a particular set of beliefs and biases. But this need not be fatal to your quest for truth! Be aware of your own biases and you will be able to prevent them from rendering your research unreliable. For example, did you spot the manifestation of one of my biases above? I do not really equate being a Spurs supporter with arson and puppy abuse: it is after all an affliction that deserves sympathy, not just condemnation.

Hopefully we are not all filled with malice in the same way that we are all subject to bias, but it is worth keeping your own feelings in check when writing history. As Historians, we often encounter difficult, disturbing, even enraging people, ideas, and events. If you encounter something that elicits a strong emotional response, be aware of it. But don’t let it drive your research ahead of the evidence.

Even if you are researching something as terrible as the killing fields of Cambodia, the massacre of innocents in Jerusalem during the first Crusade, the excesses of the European witch hunting craze, or the Holocaust itself, remember to seek truth, not historical retribution.

Good ideas, but…

…how do I put them into practice?

Stay tuned. My next blog post will give some concrete examples of how you can become a more honest, unbiased and effective research and writer!

*Both the Latin text and translation above are from Cicero, De Oratore. Trans E.W. Sutton. Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1942. pp. 242-245. You can find an electronic version of this book here.

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, historyhelp.ca 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

    and
    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

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.