Using Historical Sources

Historical sources are the essential foundation of academic research, enabling historians to reconstruct accurate models of past times by virtue of analytical inquiry. With the inspection of these documents comes a considerable burden in spite of their potential usefulness: clearly and rigorously distilling them through criticism so as to ensure they are not only accurate but also can be considered within a greater historical context. Too often amateurs will simply regurgitate sources without first properly scrutinizing them and as a result come to conclusions which might prove false upon closer and more demanding inspection. As historians we must avoid these mistakes by remaining faithful to specific research methodologies as well as forever probing into the origins of any piece of evidence so as to satisfy our need to see it bare and free of the muddle of our own assumptions. Only through a rigorous investigation and indifferent criticism can a historical source become truly useful, capable of helping to corroborate our understanding of the past. Two such research methodologies which can be used in varying degrees to distill evidence into research will be overviewed.

The first method of research includes a general appreciation of a source in order to understand a specific area of interest. In this way the content of the source determines the research and the historian more-or-less comments critically on the material within. This method of historical inquiry is very useful for summarizing general discoveries and commenting analytically upon them but is less useful when it comes to answering specific questions about the nature of a past era. An example of such research might include the consideration of Schutzstaffel records in order to illustrate the logistical backbone of the Holocaust or of Dutch East India Company logs and bank statements to determine the wealthiest ports of call in the Dutch East Indies. Essentially this process reports on what a particular source reveals, posed against exploratory commentary and distilled in such a fashion as to keep relevance at the forefront.

The second common method begins with approaching a source with a more focused and specific question intended to address an individual thesis. Rather than approaching the source to report on findings in order to discuss a general topic of study the researcher extracts evidence from the source in order to justify a claim being made. A thesis which claims that the Crisis of the Third Century resulted in increasing manorialism, ultimately leading to the political disunity responsible for the collapse of the Roman Empire, would be a very narrow topic of research indeed, and the sources would have to be scrutinized in such a manner as to justify the argument with carefully handpicked evidence. A fundamental problem with this method is that in narrowing our scope of inquiry on particular sources we can overlook vital information elsewhere which we might have gleamed from a broader inspection; while we demand a greater deal of precision and specificity in supporting a thesis, by overlooking more contextual sources, we might very well undermine the argument by omitting crucial data.

Neither of these methods of approaching sources may be of any use if we do not stop to consider the state of the document, for not all sources are actually what they appear to be. External criticism is a necessary initial step in research in which time is devoted to testing the authenticity and history of a document: Is it a forgery? Does a Greek text purported to be from the 3rd century BCE remain faithful to the language of 3rd century Greeks, or are anachronisms present? Can the document be traced back to its original source for verification? Does the content of the text fit into an historical framework and corroborate other primary evidence? Will the document hold up against the judgment of science in carbon dating or chemical analysis? These sorts of probing questions must be levied against a source lest we mislead ourselves into taking for granted a document which could very well be a fake. Take for example the record of King Hezekiah’s 8th century BCE revolt against the Assyrians as chronicled in the Tanakh, climaxing at the Battle of Lachish. The Bible would have us believe (2 Kgs 18:13-19:37; 2 Chr 32:1-23; see also Isa. 36-37:37) that the Assyrians did manage to raze Lachish but that as they prepared to siege Jerusalem that they were smitten by God in the midst of the night and so were utterly destroyed, recoiling before the might of Yaweh. The Assyrian records contest this claim by providing an explanation for why they did not press the attack on Jerusalem: Hezekiah gifted to the attackers a hefty tribute in precious vessels and gold in order to spare his capitol city[i]. Here we observe that by simply accepting a source at face value we can be deceived by in-text fabrications and must remind ourselves to always delve past the superficial surfaces of a document.

Perhaps even more important than authenticating a source is to properly interpret it within its historical context. A document written in a past time should not relate to our modern senses but instead must be interpreted from the frame of reference that the writer must have had or we risk making inaccurate assumptions of the period and thus fail to produce rigorous and well argued history. Of particular necessity is at least a modest attempt at deconstructing the language of a document, especially if it has been translated into English from an original source or if it comes from an epoch now ancient. Take for example the word “soul” found in the Tanakh. Contemporaries interpret this word to mean the immaterial essence of an individual which transcends death to rest in the afterlife. The writers of the Tanakh however had no notion of an immaterial soul: the word Nephesh refers to living creatures[ii], the original translation as “living soul” (here used as in “there were fifteen souls on that ship” or “he is a good soul”) would come through mistranslation to fundamentally change the theology of Christianity and our modern perceptions of the nature of life. Appropriately we must be aware of the linguistic origins of any source so that we might understand the meaning of words in their original context rather than through the veil of contemporary misplaced perception.

In addition to these important cautions we must also assess the environment in which the source was created: was there royal patronage demanding particular content? What events may have inspired or influenced the creation of the source? Was the author actually present at the events he is describing or is he instead relying on faulty human memory? Is the source part of a series which is only partially available to us? Where was the source written and for what purpose? Take for example the records of the ancient Egyptian pharaohs. During the reign of Pharaoh Ramesses III a conspiracy was hatched by members of the royal harem,[iii] concerning assassinating the king and a seizure of power. While the official chronicles omit this fact, as the Egyptians rarely recorded reverses or defeats in their histories, Ramesses was all too eager to erect monuments in celebration of the supposed defeat of the Sea Peoples, as at Medinet Habu.[iv] But as we delve deeper we discover that even this latter document is a farce of imperial propaganda, as Ramesses’ claim that he, out of grace and charity, offered the invaders a place to settle in Canaan is supported by no evidence and in all likelihood was rather an offer of tribute in order to appease them, or an outright fabrication concealing an embarrassing seizure[v]. Appropriately it must be said that complete and serious attention must be directed toward recognizing the environment to which an historical source derives from or we may risk writing of complex times in simple platitudes, doing injustice to the true case of things as they once were.


[i] Hezekiah’s Reforms and
the Revolt against Assyria. The Foundation for Biblical Archaeology. http://www.tfba.org/articlespreview.php?articleid=10

[ii]What The Bible Says About Death, Afterlife and the Future. The Jewish Roman World of Jesus. http://www.religiousstudies.uncc.edu/jdtabor/future.html

[iii] J. H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Four, §§423-456

[iv] Jacobus Van Dijk, ‘The Amarna Period and the later New Kingdom’ in The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, ed. Ian Shaw, Oxford University Press paperback, (2002) p.305

[v] Nicolas Grimal, A History of Ancient Egypt, Blackwell Books, 1992. p.271