How do we write history?

We can’t write history without sources.  For medieval historians like myself, these can be particularly challenging – the handwriting is hard to decipher (this is the skill known as palaeography), and the language is often Latin, or a medieval ancestor of a modern language.  In a period when many people were unable to read or write, we have to be particularly imaginative in thinking about how we can find out about those who were not sufficiently privileged to enjoy a good education.  And all historians have to remember that the sources we have filter reality in complicated ways – they never just provide a snapshot of what happened.  For example, if we use criminal court records, we have to remember that each side will have wanted to present their case in the way they thought most likely to persuade the court of the rightness of their cause.  If we use letters, we need to think about the relationship between the writer and the recipient, and the kinds of things that the writer might have needed to hide or exaggerate.

Things are getting more and more exciting as historians realise that the past offers up far more than written texts.  We can turn also to images, statues, buildings, landscapes, coins.  There is such an enormous wealth of material evidence to discover, much of it mysterious and enigmatic.  There are many secrets yet to be discovered, and many mysteries yet to be solved.  And as we start to think outside the box about the kinds of sources we can use, historians also have to be more open to the insights of their colleagues in other subjects.  We have to talk to art historians, archaeologists, scholars of literature and stories, musicologists, and scientists.

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