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Solving Historic Puzzles: Source Materials

By John Arnold
The element of choice

Image of 17th-century witchcraft trial
A 17th-century witchcraft trial  
All good history should make fair use of its sources, treating them with care and attention, and not (for example) bending them out of shape to fit a preconceived idea.

The best histories, however, are those that are also aware of the choices they have made. Every history - every picture revealed - involves a degree of choice on the part of the historian. If we are aware of each choice made, we tend to make better decisions, rather than simply following our preconceived ideas and prejudices.

'Even for the medieval period, the total number of sources that survive is vast ...'

This element of choice is inescapable, in part simply because there is so much historical material available to us. This may sound surprising, but - with certain qualifications - it is true. Even for the medieval period, the total number of sources that survive is vast, far more than could be read by any one person in their lifetime.

As one approaches more recent times, this vastness becomes one of the major hurdles for historians. Of course, if one decides to restrict one's area of interest to a more specific time and place, the relevant sources available may be smaller in number. Still, we have to choose where and what we wish to explore, and the kinds of sources we want to use. All of these choices will affect the kind of picture we end up producing.

'... earlier historians did not think the trials of witches much worth considering ...'

So we need to decide on somewhere to begin. There are a number of ways in which historians might find their starting point. They may decide that they want to explore a particular theme such as, for example, parliamentary politics in the 18th century. In this case, past experience and knowledge would suggest to them that they would look at the centralised records of parliament, the local records of elections, and the campaigning pamphlets of politicians.

Alternatively, one might notice a passing reference to some sources in another historian's work, something that the original writer had not found interesting but which looked intriguing to the reader. For example, earlier historians did not think the trials of witches in 17th-century Britain much worth considering, whereas more recent writers (including me) have found the sources relating to such trials completely fascinating.

Yet again, we might be researching one topic and then happen across an unexpected piece of evidence that leads us in a very different direction. The craft of the historian is to focus closely on a chosen topic, whilst remaining alive and alert for those surprising new discoveries that might lie around each corner. It is not always easy - but it is certainly exciting.

About the author

Image of author Dr John H Arnold
Dr John H Arnold is a lecturer in medieval history at the University of East Anglia. He is author of History: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2000).

About the author

Dr John H. Arnold iteaches medieval history at Birkbeck College. He is author of History: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2000) and Belief and Unbelief in Medieval Europe (Hodder Arnold, 2005).

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Published: 28-01-2005



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