Primary source exercises

Virtual classroom
Georgian handwritten document

Credit: Pixabay

Introducing the exercises

How to use Historical Sources

The best advice one can give is simply to look carefully at the source before you, and to ask the most basic question of all: What is this? In other words, what kind of source do we have here? If it is a written document, is it a personal recollection or an official report, a travel narrative or an historical account, a fictional reconstruction or a newspaper article striving for factual accuracy? Or, if it is an image, is it a satirical cartoon or a grand portrait, a cheap engraving or an opulent oil painting? But, to establish this, we must also ask a number of other significant questions. It often helps to picture how the source was originally produced, and the person who produced it: Who were they? Where were they? In what conditions? For whom did they produce this text or object, and why? By asking these questions, we can begin to understand the source, and to think about how it might be useful historical evidence. 

In this section we have prepared a number of short collections of source material on a variety of very different areas of history, representing the sort of breadth you will find in the Cambridge History course. Many, perhaps all, of these periods will be unfamiliar to you. Don't let that put you off. You don't need to know anything at all about the periods to be able to read the sources and to glean something from them.

In each unit you will find a brief introduction to the period followed by documentary and visual source material. The sources are followed by some questions to help you make sense of what you are looking at, and you will then be invited to take all the sources of that unit together and to think about what they definitely show, what they might show, and what they definitely do not show.

The exercises

We introduce a variety of exercises based on popular courses our first year students have taken at Cambridge in the past.  These exercises are intended for those interested in history but don't require any special knowledge.  You will get a good feel for how historians approach looking at source materials.

Not as many students study Ancient History and Classical Civilisation at A Level (or equivalent courses) as do Modern History. However, our paper on Ancient Greece and Rome is a very popular part of the Cambridge History Tripos – lots of students opt to take it. The departments of Classics and of History also share some courses in Cambridge, so we wanted to give you an introduction to a thriving part of what we can offer at Cambridge.

The First Crusade was proclaimed by Pope Urban II on November 27th 1095 in a field outside the French town of Clermont. His appeal for knights from across Europe to liberate Jerusalem struck a chord in contemporary society, but he could not have known that he was starting a movement which would last many centuries, and involve peoples from all over Europe and the Middle East.

One of the most important challenges facing the historian is to get into the mindset of people in the past who saw and understood the world in very different ways from us. All too often it is easy for us to look rather patronisingly at the beliefs and practices of earlier ages and to judge them by our own standards, instead of trying to understand them according to the standards and beliefs of the time. The medieval period has suffered particularly badly from this heavily present-centred view of the past.

In 1399 Henry Bolingbroke, Duke of Lancaster, launched a coup that overthrew King Richard II. Richard himself did not survive the coup and he left no heir. Perhaps inevitably, the takeover sparked off a power struggle between Bolingbroke and other claimants to the throne, many of whose claims were stronger. Nevertheless, Bolingbroke, who had taken the title King Henry IV, was able to defeat his rivals and secure his dynasty on the throne

Section notice

Material to help teachers and students develop interests and skills as a historian.