Solving Historic Puzzles: Source Materials

By John Arnold
Through stitching together small snatches of past knowledge we can build up a picture of a historical event. But historians must remember to question their sources.
Illustration from the 13th-century 'Great Chronicle of Britain' by Matthew Paris  

The historical jigsaw puzzle

History begins with sources, the material and textual traces of the past. Anything can be an historical source - letters, legal records, financial accounts, literary narratives, paintings, photographs, buildings, discarded rubbish, postcards, tombstones, stained-glass windows, graffiti, royal writs, rebellious pamphlets… anything, in fact, which offers the possibility of catching a small glimpse of the past.

The task for someone who wants to do history is firstly to understand how best to catch that glimpse, and secondly, to explore how the first fragment might be connected to a second, and then a third, and so on.

'... using snatches of past knowledge we can build up a composite picture of an historical event ...'

Through stitching together these small snatches of past knowledge we can build up a composite picture of an historical event or theme or person. The task is therefore something like compiling a jigsaw puzzle. However, it is a strange, rather fluid jigsaw. The pieces uncovered can be made to fit in a number of different ways, and the pictures thus revealed can differ, according to the routes taken.

The picture built of the past is therefore affected by two factors. The first is the demands, possibilities, and limitations of each piece of historical evidence - what it says, what it suggests, what we think of it in terms of truth, bias and opinion. The second factor is more subjective, and involves what each one of us brings to our pursuit of the past - what kind of picture we want to uncover, what interpretation we place on our evidence, what direction we have chosen to follow.

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).

Published on BBC History: 28-01-2005
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