Skip to main content
main-content
Top

About this book

This best-selling guide will help you get to grips with the larger themes and issues behind historical study, while also showing you how to formulate your own ideas in a clear, analytical style. Fully updated throughout, further advice on using web-based sources and avoiding plagiarism will equip you with the tools you need to succeed on your course.

Table of Contents

Part One

Frontmatter

1. The Scope of History

The sense of the past as different is at the root of history, but this difference is far from fixed and the perception of it varies across time, by cultures and by individuals. The study of history is a key part of this perception. This sense of the past as different is in part ironic, as history is also a matter not only of roots but also of the continuing impact of roots in the present. Indeed, from that perspective, history provides both societies and individuals with a dimension of longitudinal meaning over time which far outlives the human lifespan. As such, it connects us with our past. As a result, memory has become an important feature of historical study as well as a form of history. Memory is important in connecting communities to different interpretations and differing aspects of the past. This feature of the phenomenon of history is readily apparent across the world. Aside from considering the past in terms of remembrance or recollection, history provides accounts of the future. It does so by providing precedents for contemporary action, forewarning against the repetition of past mistakes and providing the apparent authority of the past for remedies offered for the future. For example, the ‘Munich Agreement’ (1938), which was part of the appeasement of Hitler, is used as a warning against inaction as frequently as ‘Suez’ or ‘Vietnam’ are used to discourage intervention. This is an aspect of the manner in which history provides apparent form and purpose to past, present and future, and thereby gives social value and enjoys reputation. However, many of these certainties have been challenged, and notably so over the last half-century.
Jeremy Black, Donald M. MacRaild

2. Varieties of History (i): ‘Traditional History’

Any summary of the development of history through either its methodology or subject matter invites qualification because of the variations across time and space. There is the danger of focusing on the present as if it is the necessary product of earlier historiographical trends and, even more, the basis by which earlier periods should be judged. Linked to this is the danger of simplifying these earlier periods, and, linked to this, of presenting only the recent past and current situation of the subject as complex. This is misleading, and it is important in any historical account of studying history to note how much of that occurred before the last quarter-millennium, which is the period that attracts most attention in the literature and in teaching. Where once history was a distinctive compartment in human knowledge, it now has blurred edges which run into other disciplines and across national boundaries. From the eighteenth-century Enlightenment (when philosophy emphasised reason and rationalism, rather than tradition or providence), with its development of the idea of progress, through the nineteenth century and the primacy of the fact, to our own century of innovation and radical change, the emergence and re-emergence of history have been phenomenal.
Jeremy Black, Donald M. MacRaild

3. Varieties of History (ii): ‘The New History’

It is mistaken to see historiography as falling into sealed chronological units in which can be found just one ‘style’, ‘school’ or history. While certain eras were dominated by certain assumptions about the past, other modes of operation still went on in tandem, although perhaps below the surface and away from the public eye. Thus we saw in the previous chapter that, although empiricism represented the modus operandi of nineteenth-century scholarship, there were other strains of opinion - alternative ideas and agendas - floating around the university-based orthodoxy of Ranke, Mommsen and Acton. The Victorian age might have been characterised by ‘Great Men’ and administrative political subject matter, but it was also the time when many other practitioners began to ply their alternative trades. In France, we have seen, there was the invitation for historians to write synthesised histories issued by Henri Berr, as well as the geopolitical method encouraged by Vidal de la Blache. In Germany and Britain, concerns with the social world were beginning to emerge long before Acton edited his Cambridge Modern History. In America, Frederick Jackson Turner’s ‘Manifest destiny’ was capturing imaginations and exciting responses. The maturing South American polities were coming of age with their own nationalist (as opposed to Europeans’ national-type) histories. At the same time, local historians were co-operating to chart their own communities’ development, sometimes in puff-chested displays of civic pride. We might look to Ranke or Acton for the emblems of this grand and self-referential age, but theirs were not the only stars in the constellation.
Jeremy Black, Donald M. MacRaild

Part Two

Frontmatter

4. Approaches to History: Sources, Methods and Historians

The reasons why we study the past are innumerable; the range of sources available to historians is also immense. Today, all aspects of past human society are regarded as legitimate areas for historical inquiry. Despite multifarious changes in attitude and approaches over the past hundred years, however, historians are still source-based creatures; even those most ‘modern’ in outlook seek to reread and reinterpret sources; none would claim to do without them, although the nature of sources has changed greatly over the last century. The practice of history begins with evidence and with sources. The availability of sources is often the key determinant of what becomes most popular, because some areas, for example nineteenth-century France, benefit from a greater volume of documents than others, such as ancient Germany. Whereas historians of early modern and medieval popular culture face a constant battle to find material, or else to reassess extant records creatively, those concerned with modern political history face a veritable forest of official documents - more than any one person could marshal in a lifetime. It is vital, therefore, that students of history be aware of the scope of historical sources, and the methods which historians use to order them.
Jeremy Black, Donald M. MacRaild

5. Theories and Concepts

The practice of history has come a long way from Acton’s exhortation for historians not to submit past human life to ‘the crucible of induction’. This does not mean that empiricist sentiments are dead: far from it. The typical historian still searches out facts and records in an effort to paint a likeness of the past. History has not become pure theory, nor, on the whole, has it returned to the vast speculative philosophies typifying eighteenth-century social theory. The collapse of the grand intellectual enterprise of Marxism has hit theoretical accounts, especially in formerly Communist states, although the tradition lives on in China. Even before the Berlin Wall came down, and the positivism of Marxism was brought fully into question, E. P. Thompson, perhaps the foremost Marxist historian in British history, described himself as a Marxist empiricist. Thompson also worked extensively on archival material. History has become in recent times a conceptually stronger, although still source-based, discipline. At root, the student of history must know some of the substance of this transformation, for the coming together of history and sociology has had enormous repercussions. This chapter frames some of the most important of these developments. It examines the relationship with sociology and explains how history can learn from the social sciences. The chapter then goes on to consider the relationship between theory and history, focusing particularly on the works of Karl Marx, for his ideas have been more influential than any other.
Jeremy Black, Donald M. MacRaild

Part Three

Frontmatter

6. Studying History

History is a demanding subject. It is also important and valuable and requires a series of specific skills as well as more general ones. Studying the past is an evolving and vibrant area of human knowledge and many examples of this dynamism have been discussed in previous chapters. A knowledge of what history is, how it evolved, and its major currents and themes is, of course, vital to provide a context for your learning. At this juncture, however, our emphasis changes, for we must turn to the question of you – the students – as historians in your own right. Read as a whole, this book is noticeably about two constituencies: historians and students of history. The two are not entirely separate. The best students are usually those who recognise the needs, aspirations and intentions of historians, and vice versa. From here, therefore, we are concerned to try to give you guidance for your own personal development as historians. Not all students pursue historical studies to become professional historians. At the same time, it is obviously important that all students studying A-level or reading for a degree should get the most from it. In Part Three we have made various changes. It is our view that the core skills of being an historian – thinking, reading, researching, answering questions, writing – remain essentially the same. However, the conditions under which we all do these things have changed remarkably. In particular, the learning environment has changed beyond imagination. That change has outstripped anything we could have dreamt of in 1997 when we were writing the first edition. Only one of us used email then; neither of us read newspapers on-line; and both of us visited archives for pretty much any sources we used for writing any book or article.
Jeremy Black, Donald M. MacRaild

7. The Environment for Study

Having spent some time thinking about the techniques you need to employ for the best results in your work (Chapter 6), it seems appropriate at this point to consider the various contexts in which you do your work. Although universities can vary a lot, and are certainly very different from school, there is nevertheless a core of common ground to what we have called ‘the environment for study’ in all institutions of higher education. The ‘learning environment’ is, if you like, the classroom where the academic exchanges between lecturers and students take place; the forums in which students interact with each other; and the contexts in which they work. Therefore, in this chapter we wish to say more about the different contexts in which the student of history at university or college studies and learns about the subject. When considering the environment for study, two particularly important words immediately spring to mind: ‘teaching’ and ‘learning’. Teaching is what lecturers and tutors do – although many lecturers will speak quite seriously and correctly about learning from their classes and from their students. So, while learning is something which lecturers claim to do when they teach, it is primarily what students do in classroom and other situations – whether during a lecture, in a seminar discussion, in the stacks of a library or, increasingly, via the Internet, when researching for an essay.
Jeremy Black, Donald M. MacRaild

8. Writing History (i): The Essay

Having considered, in the last chapter, how to make the most of the learning environment and to improve your own study skills, we now move on to the next stage: writing history. In general terms, most historians, even the seasoned old pros, find writing a tortuous and draining affair. While research and reading can be relaxing and fulfilling, as well as enlightening, putting the latest review, article or book into the right words can be frustrating and time-consuming. Most historians say that research is the ‘fun’ bit and that writing is a struggle. It stands to reason, therefore, that we all – professional historians and students alike – must take care with what we write and how we write it. As a rule, however, teachers find that students spend too little time thinking about, planning, drafting and redrafting essays; most students’ assignments would benefit from a second draft. This is a common failing and does not just apply to weaker students or those who do not try. Academics will tell you that it is not uncommon for their writings to undergo five or ten drafts before the final copy is ready for publication. While you do not have time for ten drafts of your essay, there is a salutary lesson here: writing takes time. History essays are an art form, but they also benefit from an underpinning of scientific method: that is, they benefit from your development of a logical and reasoned approach to writing, construction and organisation. These issues will be discussed in this chapter.
Jeremy Black, Donald M. MacRaild

9. Writing History (ii): The Dissertation

The dissertation is the longest piece of work you have to write for a degree in history. Dissertations vary in length from 8000 to 12,000 words. For the dissertation, unlike other written assignments (such as essays and reviews), you will be asked to choose the topic and define the question(s) answered. The idea is that this piece of work will mark your development into the independent researcher that the degree programme has gradually built you up to. The topic should be yours, the question should be framed by you, and you will compile the bibliography and find the primary sources. Indeed, most universities require students writing dissertations to use primary material. In short, the dissertation is where the student comes as close as possible to being a professional historian, writing a piece of independent research which is about the same length as a journal article.
Jeremy Black, Donald M. MacRaild

10. History Exams

Preparation for history exams is much like that for any other subject. You are given a task to complete in an allotted time, and you must write the number of answers required to stand any chance of reaching your potential. Exams are less popular with academics than they once were, but historians still seem to think that they are a good way of testing a budding historian’s mettle. In certain key respects this is true. The exam makes you think on your feet; you have a body of knowledge in your head, and the exam tests whether you understand it or not. That means you have to be able to sift, sort and deconstruct material on a given topic, and then reconstruct it to suit a certain question – all in about three minutes flat! – before you begin the answer proper. Once you begin to write, the pressure of the time-constrained environment illustrates not only how quickly you think but also whether or not you can organise a coherent thread of argument in the circumstances. In this chapter, we will try to give you some tips on preparing for and executing a history exam. As a general rule, there are two kinds of exam in history: the essay paper and the document paper. We will look at both of these in this chapter.
Jeremy Black, Donald M. MacRaild
Additional information