What Is History?: Being A Historian

Updated Thursday, 1st September 2005
How does a person set about being a historian?

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Renaissance banking doucuments

Suspicious Minds

Unravelling a historical problem involves two things. We need to get as much information as possible out of the evidence, whether it be written texts, pictures, buildings or archaeological excavations.

To do this historians have to be suspicious types who, when faced with any kind of evidence, want to know why it was produced, who generated it and what message they were wanting to put across.

The silences in texts can speak as loudly as what is there - whose voices never get heard, never get recorded? A historian will often want to use a text for a very different purpose to that for which it was made: 16th century tax records were not designed to reveal information about family structure; the information has to be teased out of them.

In The Italian Patient historians were asking about the effectiveness of medical treatment in Renaissance Florence. Two of the most significant sources were the statutes of the hospital and the hospital accounts.

But, we might ask ourselves, how much insight into the welfare of patients do we get from the regulations and accounts of a modern Hospital Trust?

A great deal undoubtedly, but such information certainly has its limitations when assessing delivery on the wards. The accountant is most interested in being answerable to his managers for the funds.

And in the case of the statutes drawn up for Santa Maria Nuova, the governors of the hospital were primarily concerned with being answerable to God for their souls and for the souls of all those who served, or were treated, in the hospital. The historian is not dismayed by such challenges - she or he rises to them, finds ways round, looks for supporting evidence, as the historians in The Italian Patient showed.

Collecting Evidence

And this brings us to the second aspect of historical research. No single piece of evidence can stand on its own; different types of evidence have to be put together to create a proper understanding of the past.

The historian is very occasionally in a position to survey all the available evidence; so for example few hospital accounts survive from Renaissance Florence at all, and although the accounts of Santa Maria Nuova are extremely substantial, they are not overwhelmingly large.

But there is a positive welter of other documentation from Renaissance Florence that has to be considered when setting these accounts in context, and the historian has to decide what to select. She or he tries to be as objective as possible in making this choice, but in the last resort each of us has to decide what we think is most relevant and important in our attempts to explain the past.

The historians in The Italian Patient felt the religious context to be a vital part of our understanding of the provision of health care and so devoted a substantial part of their programme to explaining it.


In studying history, the two processes of collecting and interpreting go hand in hand. The more we know about the context in which something has been created or written, the better we can interpret it.

Conversely, as we look into individual texts we may come to think that we have to reassess the context. We may be led in new and unexpected directions as new questions occur to us. How we read texts, what we glean from them, depends on the kind of questions we ask.

These questions inevitably change over time, as each generation develops different pre-occupations. Historians are not just playing academic games -or keeping themselves in a job - when they revise their opinions and represent the past!

They are responding to these changed pre-occupations. What we want to know about the past reveals what kind of people we are.

Different viewpoints

This web-site now introduces you to three historians who have very different outlooks. All are concerned to make sense of the past, but they differ profoundly in their understanding of how to do this, of how to account for change.

None are 'right' or 'wrong' - nothing is that simple! All offer compelling ways of challenging our own often over-easy assumptions about what happened in the past and what its significance is.

We can apply their different theories to the same sequence of events to spark off new ideas and give depth to our own thinking. I have said that the questions we ask reveal what kind of people we are.

The questions that these historians ask show that, for all their differences, they share a passion for an informed understanding of the past, a careful clarity of approach, that is the antithesis of the uncritical use of the past as propaganda.

Further Reading:

New Worlds, Lost Worlds: the Rule of the Tudors 1485-1603
S. Brigden, (Allen Lane, 2000)
The European Renaissance: Centres and Peripheries
P. Burke (Blackwell, 1998)
The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe
E. Eisenstein (Cambridge University Press, 1983)
Wordly Goods
L. Jardine (Macmillan, 1996)
Doctors and Medicine in Early Renaissance Florence
K. Park (Princeton, 1985)




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