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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.

Primary Sources Exercises >>