History and the Use of Evidence by Historians

Ancient Historians and Eye Witness Evidence 

When looking at the works of ancient historians it is clear that history served a different purpose than it does in society today. In Ancient Greece and the Roman age, history was approached from a perspective known as historia est magistra vitae; this translates as ‘history is life’s teacher’. This idea that history was something to be learned from and to be used as a guide in life, is reflected in the works of historians such as Herodotus and Thucydides, whose works were often delivered as narratives or speeches.

Herodotus was a Greek historian who is believed to have lived between 484 BC and 430-24 BC and is considered by many to be the “Father of History’ (Dewald and Marincola, 2006). This is the result of his work the Histories, which is a detailed account of the Persian Wars from 499 to 479 BC. Histories was particularly significant as it was the first historical account that formed one consecutive, systematic narrative of related events, rather than the disjointed accounts of unrelated places, times and events that was common of Ancient Greek historians. Furthermore, Herodotus attempted to determine and analyse the cause of events, whereas most Greeks ‘came to accept war as a natural fact lie birth and death’ (John Hart, 1982).  Herodotus’ work also differs from contemporary styles in the way that it adopted a first-hand narrative of direct speech, almost giving an impression of storytelling, an example of how historical accounts could be used for the purpose of teachings.

Another area of historical research which differs significantly from modern day, was its emphasis on the importance of eye witness accounts, as opposed to the use of written sources. This was despite the fact that some historians, such as Herodotus, were writing more than a generation after events, leading to some more recent historians questioning the reliability of his work. Yet, there were those who, even in Ancient Greek times, could see that this method was limited in terms of reliable research.

Thucydides, writer of a history of the Peloponnesian-Athenian war, both borrowed from Herodotus the technique of direct speech and developed it. Unlike Herodotus, Thucydides recognised that there was no real alternative to oral history, nevertheless ‘he saw its limitations clearly, that he decided to confine himself to events of his own time for the main body of his work’ (Hart, 1982). It is for this reason that it Thucydides could be considered a more reliable historian, by modern standards, as he only focused on events from his own lifetime and based his work on his own experiences. In contrast to Herodotus, Thucydides had actual experience of war, suggesting that his accounts would be more representative of the truth. He also makes far fewer references to the Gods and provides ‘nicely balanced sections of analytical speech and significant narrative’ (W.P. Wallace, 1964), adding to the credibility of his conclusions. Nonetheless, he does ultimately rely on eye witness accounts for what his own experience cannot supplement, since there would have been very few resources open to him.

History for the historians of antiquity had a specific purpose - to guide people through life based on the stories of those before them – and this influenced their writings. Even later historians such as Herodian and Aurelius Victor, who wrote in the 4th Century, preoccupied with the history Rome and the biographies of emperors, used the stories of others to piece together historical accounts; the style of which would have been influenced by Herodotus. Of all these ancient historians many contemporary critics would say that, the heavy reliance on eyewitness accounts should lead us to question how accurate the content of their work is. Some have even gone as far to refer to Herodotus as ‘the first liar’ rather than ‘the first historian’. Conversely, others would argue that ‘what matters is that what Herodotus [and those after him] records can be recognised as authentic traditions’. Consequently, although the accounts themselves potentially may not be completely accurate, what they give us is an insight into the very of beginnings of the modern historian and a view as to how historians and their work have change over time.

Further Reading

John Hart, Herodotus and Greek History, (London, 1982)

Michael Grant, The Ancient Historians, (Hertfordshire, 1970)

C. Dewald and J. Maricola, The Cambridge Companion to Herodotus, (Cambridge, 2006)

M.I. Finley, The Greek Historians, (London 1959)

K.H. Walters, Herodotus the Historian, (Kent, 1985)

W.P Wallace “Thucydides” Phoenix, 18, 4, (1964)

GEM, De Ste Croix, “Herodotus” Greece and Rome, 24, 2, (1997). pp 130- 14


The use of Archives following the Early Modern Perio

‘Archives are integral to the history of our nation’

Though it can be argued that archives in some form have existed for millennia, with stone tablets from antiquity being viewed somewhat as archives,’the early modern period saw a surge in the keeping of records’ which coincided with the emergence of modern nation states and formalised governments. Due to the growing number of donations to archives, the period saw the creation of the Society of Antiquaries (1660) which was later given a Royal Charter in 1751 under King George II. It should also be noted that the archives of the Royal Family grew greatly during the early modern period, with some of the earliest documents in the archives dating from 1660 onwards.

Queen Victoria is known to have been a great letter writer, with many of her surviving letters now belonging to the Royal Archives  

The Royal Archives Onlin

An example of how archives grew in the period is Henry Manship and the Great Yarmouth ‘Hutch’. Henry Manship was the town clerk of Great Yarmouth between the years 1579-1585 and was one of four attorneys for the borough court during this period. In 1612 he began the re-organisation of Great Yarmouth’s records when he was granted permission to create a ‘committee to retrieve and re-organise the documents of Great Yarmouth. This committee met 22 times over the course of two months until the task was completed and the documents were kept in a chest called the ‘hutch’. This ‘signal achievement of record keeping’ shows the development of local archives during the early modern period.

This is an example of a public records collection, which consists of government, or state, owned material. There are many modern day examples of this, including the National Archives, and the Institute of Historical Research (1921). Both public and private archives are increasingly being opened up to the public, with the growth of smaller archives making archives more accessible to many people.

Church archives naturally are of central importance to historians of medieval Europe, but even after the primacy of religion in society began to be challenged in the early modern period, their sources remain vital to opening up the study of whole swathes of history. Indeed, parish records really come into their own after 1535, when it became compulsory for each parish to keep full birth, marriage and death records. Poor law developments at the end of the sixteenth century used the parish as the basic unit of administration. Therefore parochial records right into the nineteenth century can present an amazingly rich picture of the social hierarchy of parishes – they give records of those who attended church, as well as those who didn’t; we can get a strong sense of the marginal people of the parish through the alms receipts, out-pension and bridewell records; while their land and taxation records give us a picture of the wealthy of the parish. Such hand-written, highly localised sources complement national-level archives such as Lambeth Palace Library which contains records dating from the ninth century as the official record office of the Archbishops of Canterbury. It is the principal repository for documents of the Church of England, and has been open for research since 1610, under the rule of James I. The Lambeth Palace Library contains the Church of England Record Centre, where the archives of the church commissioners, Archbishops council, National Society and the Church of England Pensions Board are held. This, as shown, was initially established long before it was open to the public, however it became available for research and experienced large growth during the early modern period with James I calling it ‘a monument of fame’. Following the reformation there is a much greater expanse of archival material, and is therefore immensely useful to historians.

Archibishop Rowan Williams with a copy of the King James Bible in the Lambeth Palace Library

The Telegraph Onlin

A further example of private archives that developed are those of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Founded in 1791 by the Reverend Jeremy Belknap, the archives hold various historical papers including family papers, books, artefacts and papers from American presidents John Adams, John Quincy Adams and Thomas Jefferson. The archives initially published their first piece of material in 1792, and have been a valuable resource to the public since, with their archives now containing ‘millions of rare and unique documents, artifacts, and irreplaceable national treasures’[1]. A key contributor to these archives was John Winthrop, with important collections regarding the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The influence of individuals and families should not be forgotten when studying the growth of archives, as it is due to donations from family collections that so many varied collections exist today.


http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/  - this official government website gives a good overview of the National Archives, and allows digital access to some of their own archives

www.cam.ac.uk/research/discussion/qa-how-archives-make-history  - specifically talks about the development of archives during the early modern period

http://www2.archivists.org/usingarchives/typesofarchives#.VxY7CY-cHIU – introduction to using archives

http://www.masshist.org/about - website of the Massachusetts Historical Society

http://www.lambethpalacelibrary.org/ - website of the Lambeth Palace Library


[1] http://www.masshist.org/abou

New Evidence for new histories: social, oral, and feminist histories

Social history is the study of the lives of ordinary people, whether or not they are thrust into extraordinary situations. Social history can elucidate complex and abstract historical constructs such as nationalism and nationality, whose meanings vary from person to person and historian to historian.

The so-called Golden Age of social history was in the 1960 and 1970s, epitomised by Keith Wrightson and David Levine’s book ‘Poverty and Piety in an English Village’, which was a study of the village of Terling in Essex. This was unique at the time as it focused on the socio-cultural developments in the area rather than the top-down element of leadership, which became a main factor in the Bielefeld school of history. Since then, social history has remained incredibly popular, especially with the recent fascination with genealogy and TV programmes like Back in Time for Dinner and Who Do You Think You Are? which present history in a familial context that makes it much more accessible to the public than other branches of history.

Feminist History

Feminism is divided into three stages, usually called waves. Feminist history is moulded by the current stage of feminism, though it is not about the history of feminism. It seeks to give a voice to those who were rendered unable to speak (both literally and metaphorically) in their own lifetimes, but unlike feminism it is not concerned solely with inequality or suffrage. It is about recovering, republishing, and reinterpreting evidence in order to understand how gender shaped the past rather than the constraints of gender in the past. Study is mostly devoted to female authors and scientists and their work whether or not it was for women. For example, the influence of Mary Seacole in the Crimean war has, until recently, largely been overshadowed by that of Florence Nightingale though her contribution to the war effort was arguably much more significant. Feminist historians aim to right these wrongs and change the way historians stereotype evidence from the past.

Joan Wallach Scott is often credited as the founder of feminist history as she intended to ‘render historical what has been hidden from history.’ Not only has this shaped the study of history by giving female researchers louder and more respected voices in the community, there has been much more attention paid to works which were once dismissed as uninformative or useless.

Oral History

By interviewing many people who were present during an event, it is possible to establish or debunk information that might have previously gone unrecorded. The tradition dates back to the ancient Greeks, such as Thucydides, where interviewers would travel the sites of battles in order to establish the truth behind the reports of the events that had taken place there. Despite this, oral history was not properly studied and developed until well into the twentieth century due to the movement away from Thomas Carlyle’s ‘Great Man’ theory which was previously so prevalent.

The University of East Anglia ran its own oral history project to record the first 50 years of its existence, allowing listeners to find out just how different (yet surprisingly similar) attending university in the 1960s and 1970s really was. By posting these clips online, UEA is creating a digital archive which will theoretically last for eternity. Some oral historians use this data to build up a bigger picture using multiple accounts of the same event in order to develop a better understanding, while other historians, such as Alessandro Portelli, use this information to study memory and its inaccuracies, and how this shapes the way other historians write history.

The most important consequence of the popularity of all kinds of social history is that it has collectivised history. Comparing and reinterpreting sources is easier than ever before. No longer do local history books gather dust on the shelves in tourist information offices, instead their information is freely available online and can be edited as new information arises. Great archives are being created, containing huge amounts of both raw and processed data that anyone can use as they see fit. For the first time, historical study can be the preserve of the majority rather than an educated minority. From tracing your own family history using census records to republishing out-of-print books, social history had perforated modern lives in a way that other historical fields cannot.

Recommended Reading

Damousi, Joy. “Does Feminist History have a Future?” Australian Feminist Studies 29, 60 (2014): 189-203.

Firouzkouh, Mohammadreza and Ali Zargham-Boroujeni. “Data analysis in oral history: A new approach to historical research.” Iranian Journal of Nursing & Midwifery Research 20, 2 (2015): 161-164.

Fletcher, Roger. “Recent Developments in West German Historiography: The Bielefeld School and Its Critics.” German Studies Review 7, 3 (1984): 451-480.

Rendall, Susan. Sexuality and Subordination: Representations of Women in the Nineteenth Century. London: Routledge, 1989.

Scott, Joan Wallach. “The Evidence of Experience.” Critical Inquiry 17, 4 (1991): 773-797.

Wrightson, Keith and David Levine. Poverty and Piety in an English Village: Terling 1525-1700. Clarendon Press, 1995.



History , Evidence and Interpretation

Not everything which appears in history books…is true. Some of these untruths are ‘innocent’, products of the fog of war, or rumour taken as fact. Some are, of course, lies. It is the intermediate terrain which is the most interesting: the area where neither reader nor writer are quite in control of their fears, desires and prejudices, but reach for a story because it seems right.”

History is famously written backwards, and – once we have seen how things turned out – assimilated to a familiar, comfy pattern. To be apprehensible and comprehensible, it must undergo the processes of selection, summarization, and shaping. A ‘narrative’ must be created.
— Dowden K and Livingstone N. A companion to Greek Mythology. (Oxford, 2011, 204).

The study of history relies greatly upon evidence. This evidence comes in the form of both primary and secondary sources, and can be used to substantiate and corroborate an argument. However, evidence varies wildly in nature, with numerous different elements which must be gauged in order to ascertain a source’s reliability and validity.

What does a historian use to guide them when they are considering a source?:

  • The nature of the source - What type of source is it? I.e.- an image, political cartoon, book review?
  • The writer’s own background - Do they have an affiliation with any particular political or ideological movement/persons? What is their historical significance in the context of the topic? Are they well educated?
  • The agenda, or purpose, of the writer - What is their reason for writing the source? What argument are they trying to present?
  • Any external influences which may have shaped the writer’s opinion - In which socio-economic/political climate was the source created? 

The key to a reliable and valid source is impartiality. A source that does not present a biased perspective allows for an accurate interpretation of the facts, and does not require the source to be analysed in great detail so that the actual truth can be gleaned from it. However, less credible sources that may have been misunderstood or deliberately altered are also useful, as they allow us to gain an insight into the agenda of the forgers, or of the historical understanding at the time, or of the motivations, intentions and world view of the writer.

Truth is a matter of perspective and relies heavily upon the opinion of whoever is presenting it.

McCullagh suggests that, because every group/individual have their own way of viewing the world and their own interests, it would be unwise to advocate any account as the “truth”. This view is mirrored by Appleby who claims that, the “truth” is relative to each person and that each group/individual’s experiences will determine what is the “truth” to them.

Another factor one must consider is how the historian wishes to define the “truth”. Is the “truth” purely facts? Is it solely information regarding the human experience? Is it an unquantifiable mixture of the two? Or is it something else? Again, there is no universal definition on what the “truth” is.

However, we can see a common thread: there is no one universal absolute “truth”.

Can we then suggest that there are multiple “truths”, partial “truths” or maybe even no “truths” at all?

Given this ambiguity, it is the historian's duty to be cautious when studying sources, not allowing themselves to be duped into accepting the perspective of one source as the sole “truth”. Therefore, as historians we must be careful when studying sources, and must not accept the perspective of one source as the sole truth. We must corroborate any information to ensure its validity.

Relevant Historiography:

“Every culture views the world differently, through the lens of its own concepts and interests, so how can any account of the world be thought true?”
— McCullagh,C. Behan. The Truth of History. (London, 2002) 1.
“If truth is dependent on the observer’s standpoint, how can there be any transcendent, universal or absolute truth, or at least truths that hold for all groups for many generations?”

Everyone that views the world offers a unique perspective, influenced by their own understanding and personal agendas. Therefore, any ‘truth’ that is to be gained will only be relative to that individual, and cannot be accepted as universally applicable. As such, it is impossible for a ‘universal truth’ to exist. 

“The belief that truth is relative to the position of the person making a statement… undermines the belief that people can get outside of themselves in order to get at the truth.”
“Truth about the past is possible, even if it isn’t absolute.”
Despite the fact that a universal truth is impossible to obtain, it is possible to view the world, and by extension, sources, in an impartial manner. It is entirely possible to approach sources from a perspective which exists beyond external influences and personal agenda. It is therefore possible to gain an understanding of a truth which is simply an impartial synthesis of the facts.

— Appleby, J. Hunt, L. and Jacob, M. Telling the Truth about History. (New York 2011) 6

On Biased Sources

All sources are in some way biased, even if this was not the initial intention of the writer.

It is near impossible to completely detach oneself from a source. Inevitably, a group/individual’s experiences will determine the focus of the source, often guided by their own emotions and experiences.

For example, the account of a holocaust victim on their time at a concentration camp will be completely different from that of a Nazi officer’s experience. Both are living through the same event, however their experiences of this event are inherently different, and so both accounts will focus on contrastive aspects and have diverging agendas. This does not mean that the source in itself should be cast aside and disregarded, nor does it necessarily imply that one source is essentially more “truthful” than the other. To decipher this, the historian must look elsewhere for information to contrast and compare the accounts to, in order to decide how to give weight to their different perspectives

We need to be aware that biased sources can often only offer us a narrow, limited perspective of a certain event/time period, and may contain inaccurate information. Hence, they can make it difficult to decipher the true nature of an event, creating discrepancies and contradictions in ‘facts’. One such example of this would be the number of deaths that a particular nation sustained in war. This could have been exaggerated or understated in order to consolidate a victory.

And yet, used sensitively and with insight, even deliberately misleading or partial sources can be useful to historians, particularly, for example in allowing them insight into the understanding and personal agenda of those living at the time, particularly in regards to ideology. If they are used in conjunction with other sources, biased sources can help us build an extensive picture of an event, as no one account can truly encapsulate every detail of an event. Indeed, just because the view of the writer may be biased, this does not necessarily mean the source itself is useless. For example, sources may contain certain data that is in fact accurate, even if it has been used in a way that is biased, or even where information may not be entirely accurate, they might give an insight into how people believed an event to have occurred, or how the writer gave weight and meaning to an event. For pieces of evidence can be set alongside each other and can be used to understand other sources – sources may have had an influence on how people thought and reacted to certain events e.g. propaganda used to make events/ideologies seem justified. History, after all, is not just a long list of dates and facts. Without the impact of events on groups/individuals taken into consideration, can we truly suggest that we are learning history?

As the historian understands that every source will, to some degree, contain a certain degree of bias, they learn not to take everything at face value, and will seek to corroborate the information contained within the source. It is at this point that a biase