There is an often repeated quote that is thrown around when speaking of “the past” and knowledge thereof in the kind of hushed, reverential tones usually reserved for gods and kings – that those who do not learn from it are doomed to repeat it and, principally, repeat its mistakes. As such, there are many out there who claim to have learned the lessons of the past and are able to make suggestions about future courses of action based on them, or to prophesy the end times thanks to lessons learned from the Black Death or a basic understanding of world war two. However, as almost any historian will attest, very few two historical moments are directly applicable to one another – humans are just too variable a factor to control for. More problematic though is that the very material the historical record is based on is often far from infallible. The inherent biases of the sermon preachers, victor historians, and letter writers is well known and the requirement to read between the lines of sources is a well hashed subject. What is often less well understood is that number “facts” often lie in a similar fashion, or at the very least skew the truth through over simplification. Read more
Posts tagged ‘methodology’
Working on American history from a British university as I do, it was inevitable that at some point during my PhD research I was going to have to spend some time abroad. Courtesy of two Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded fellowships, first at the Huntington Library in California, and secondly at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, ‘some time’ rapidly became more-or-less an entire year. While I was somewhat daunted by the prospect of abandoning family, friends, and familiar settings to enter the political inferno that is the contemporary United States, this was too good an opportunity to pass up. Read more
by Tom Smith
What does it mean to write a history of a culture other than our own, and how do we do this sensitively? This is an issue upon which historians rarely reflect explicitly. My dual passions for American history and Pacific Ocean history have been fuelled not by any particular personal investment or cultural immersion, but by pure fascination. While I’ve visited the United States a handful of times, dipping my toes in the waters of San Francisco Bay is the closest I’ve ever come (geographically speaking) to the Pacific cultures whose histories I claim to represent. Read more
In May 1906 the great Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen lay in his sick bed. That evening an old friend arrived from town to see the aged tragedian. Entering the room he greeted the nurse with “How is Mr Ibsen today?” “Oh”, she cheerily replied, “he’s doing much better.” At this Ibsen sat up incredulous in bed declaring “Tvert imod!” (tr. On the contrary!) upon which he fell back into his pillow unconscious, dying shortly thereafter. For a writer whose characters rarely even cracked a smile, he managed to exit the world with one of the finest deathbed jokes in history. Read more
Bias is a fundamental problem encountered by historians studying all time periods, using all methods, and at all stages of their career. The conveners of a one-day workshop on Facing the Challenge of Bias in History, to be held on Sunday 15th May 2016 at the Faculty of History at the University of Cambridge, therefore invite papers from historians in all sub-disciplines. Whether your work has confronted selection bias, bias inherent in a source, researcher bias, or any other form of bias, we would like to hear from you. By bringing together researchers from disparate areas of history, who might never usually come across each other’s work, we hope to explore a common problem and to collectively discuss ways of confronting this problem. Read more
by James Lloyd – @jtlloyd3
James is a PhD student at the University of Reading/Exeter in Classics. His thesis is entitled: ”Music and Ritual in Ancient Sparta: the lead votive figurines of the Sanctuary of Artemis Orthia”
In recent years, there has been a flurry of new technologies emerging at a price which makes them (just about) affordable, notably 3D scanners and printers, and such technologies have attracted attention in the news of late for their employment in the digital recreation of artefacts and archaeological sites destroyed by IS. Indeed, 3D printing is a wonderful tool for bringing the past to life: Museum3D, for example, uses its 3D prints to engage museum visitors with low-vision and Alzheimer’s. However, as this post will show, 3D scans are just as important to public history. Read more
By Jess Hope
When I was an undergraduate, I wrote a history essay where my main primary source was an ‘eyewitness account’ of the events I was describing. It was detailed and colourful, full of vivid descriptions, quotes and recollections. It was great fun both to read and to write about.
It was only later that I discovered that this particular ‘eyewitness’ may not have actually, exactly….well, been there. Read more
Matthew is an MPhil student in Early Modern History at the University of Cambridge. He is currently researching religious counsel during the mid-Tudor period.
I have been studying history for the better part of four years, yet it was only recently that I managed to fulfil the archetypal ambition of making an original ‘discovery’. Like so much of modern historical research, it began by persistently trawling through online resources, flicking through digital facsimile images of countless early printed works, and noticing a small peculiarity. Laurence Saunders, a clergyman who died on 8th February 1555, had purportedly written a book that described in great detail the trial of two Protestant martyrs, Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley, who had later been burned at the stake by Mary I. The trial is known to have taken place in October, eight months after Laurence Saunders’ death, inherently undermining his contention that, ‘I was there presente at the doing of thys…and heard al for the most part with mine eares’. Read more
By Kayt Button, @kayt_button
Today we collect a vast array of readily available information in the form of statistics, stories, reports, and videos available publicly on the internet or through more official channels. These are created by journalists, public servants, and the public at large who are able to self-publish. Before the advent of what has been named “Big Data”, events were written down, or photographed, by a few individuals and published. Before that, pictures and oral histories recorded important events. All these sources have their own difficulties – in the case of Big Data, as the name suggests, the volumes of available information can be overwhelming. Hard copy written sources were authored by someone and understanding the writer can be as important as what they reported, which is also true of oral history, drawings, and photographic evidence. Read more
Palms sweating, mouth dry, heart pounding in my chest, my thoughts racing. I realise that I’m going to do it. Tentatively I gather my courage, swallow down the fear and start to raise my hand. Hand up, there’s no going back; I’m spotted and heads turn my way. Eyes on me, I open my mouth. Barely formulated sentences tumble out. I wait. Then clearly I have made enough sense that the watching eyes turn forward again. I have just asked my first question at a history conference.* Read more
Thomas is an MPhil student in Early Modern History. He is currently researching sixteenth-century Italian heretics and their use of the printing press.
I spent the morning putting in a comma; I spent the afternoon taking it out – Oscar Wilde
Writing history remains something of a dark art. From the beginning of your degree in history, there is a great deal of focus on how to do research: that is, how one should approach sources and analyse historical arguments, covering a wide range of different methods and theoretical approaches. Read more
By Nathaniel Zelinsky
Nathaniel Zelinsky is an MPhil student in Historical Studies at the University of Cambridge.
Digitized newspaper databases are an increasingly popular resource for young students of history. It is easy to understand their appeal to the “Google” generation: from the comfort of your own bedroom, you can access countless primary sources without going to a library. I personally use a lot of digitized newspapers in my MPhil thesis on Second World War propaganda. Unfortunately, I think too many professors, especially older ones, often point their students to newspaper databases without much practical advice.
This post contains my top five “do’s” and “don’ts” for first time users of digitized newspapers. This advice might be especially helpful for undergraduates or even high school students. Read more