Trent University :: How to Write a Historiography

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What is a Historiography?

A historiography is a summary of the historical writings on a particular topic - the history of the slave trade, or the history of the French Revolution, for example.  It sets out in broad terms the range of debate and approaches to the topic. It identifies the major thinkers and arguments, and establishes connections between them. If there have been major changes in the way a particular topic has been approached over time, the historiography identifies them.

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Why Write a Historiography?

In writing on a topic, historians essentially enter into a dialogue with those who have written on the topic before. A historiography sets out the main points of that discussion, and serves to situate the author's work within this larger context. This adds authority and legitimacy to a history essay as it confirms the author's familiarity with his or her topic, and forces the author to acknowledge and explain disagreements with others. It also serves to bring the reader up-to-date on the most important works and debates on the topic.

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How to Write a Historiography?

The most important step in writing a historiography is to become familiar with the history of your topic in broad terms. A good historiography is written from a position of authority on a topic.

A historiography is best situated early on in an essay, preferably in the introduction in order to familiarize the reader with the topic and to set out the scope of previous work in broad terms.

Your historiography should establish:

    • the major thinkers on the topic, and
    • their main arguments (or theses).

Your historiography may also explain:

    • the perspective from which the authors are writing (e.g. Marxist, feminist, etc.)
    • the type of history they have written (e.g. political, social, cultural, economic, etc.)

A good historiography will present this information in a way that shows the connections between these major works. For example, does one work respond to an argument set out in another? Does it expand on that argument or disagree with it? A good historiography will also situate the author's work within the dialogue, explaining whether his or her thesis builds on or rejects the work that has come before.

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Example 1

The following example is from "Women on the Third Crusade," by Helen Nicholson:

With the modern interest in "putting women back into medieval history", the role of women in crusading has received some attention.[This sentence identifies the scope of her inquiry and the perspective - she is situating her essay within a dialogue about the role of women in medieval history.]Yet historians disagree profoundly over the extent and nature of women's involvement. For example, Ronald Finucane, noting the various accounts of women taking part in crusades, observed that "there are clear indications that women sometimes took a more active part in the fighting."[Here she identifies a major argument in the role of women in crusades, clearly identifying the author's thesis.]However, Maureen Purcell, while admitting that women took part in crusades, denied emphatically that they were true crusaders,crucesignata , except for a brief period in the second half of the thirteenth century. When they accompanied a crusade, they did so as pilgrims rather than as crusaders, and they certainly did not fight.[Here Nicholson identifies an important counter-argument, explaining where the two authors agree and disagree.]James Brundage commented on the various roles women played in the armies of the First Crusade, supporting the fighting men with food and water, encouragement and prayer. He noted that some women were killed in action, but not that they actually took an active role in the fighting.[This author does not address the debate directly, but adds additional information to the discussion.]James Powell studied the role of women in the Fifth Crusade, and argues that women certainly did take the cross and went in person "to fulfill their vows by carrying on important functions," such as serving as guards in the camp, killing fugitives, and perhaps tending the sick and wounded. However, he was not sure whether they took part in the general fighting.[This author's work suggests the question that Nicholson attempts to answer in her essay.]

So did women take part in the Third Crusade, and did they fight? ... Overall, it seems likely that women sometimes fought on crusade...[The author presents her thesis.]

Nicholson, Helen. "Women on the Third Crusade." InJournal of Medieval History23, no. 4 (1997): 335-349.

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Example 2

The following example contains excerpts from the introduction to a chapter on slave life in Peter Kolchin's work entitledAmerican Slavery, 1619 - 1877 .

Until fairly recently, most historians of slavery paid

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far more attention to the behavior of the masters than to that of the slave; slaves, the vast majority of whom were illiterate and therefore left no written records, appeared in their works primarily as objects of white action. Scholars differed in many of their evaluations of slavery – some portrayed it as benign, whereas others depicted it as harshly exploitative – but with the partial exception of a tiny number of black and Marxist scholars, they focused far more on what slavery did to the slaves than what the slaves did themselves.[Kolchin sets out in broad terms the perspective from which most historians have written about slavery until recently.]

During the first half of the twentieth century, a major component of this approach was often simple racism, manifest in the belief that blacks were, at best, imitative of whites. Thus Ulrich B. Phillips, the era’s most celebrated and influential expert on slavery, combined a sophisticated portrait of the white planters’ life and behavior with crude passing generalizations about the life and behavior of their black slaves. Noting that “the planters had a saying… that a negro was what a white man made him,” Phillips portrayed the plantation as a “school constantly training and controlling pupils who were in a backward state of civilization”; through this educational process the slaves “became largely standardized into the predominant plantation type.” …[Kolchin identifies a major writer on the topic and sets out his perspective and main arguments.]

Kenneth M. Stampp’s “neo-abolitionist” bookThe Peculiar Institution(1956) differed sharply from Ulrich B. Phillips’sAmerican Negro Slavery(1918) in its overall evaluation of slavery, its main subject remained the treatment – now themis treatment – of slaves. Stampp took the slaves far more seriously than did Phillips, but the sources that Stampp relied upon – plantation records, letters and diaries of slave owners, travel accounts written by Northern and European visitors who almost invariably stayed with white hosts – revealed more about the behavior and thought of the masters than of the slave, whom he portrayed as “culturally rootless people.”[Kolchin introduces another historian’s approach to the material and compares it to the previous historian’s work.]

The depiction of antebellum slaves as victims reached its peak in Stanley M. Elkins’s 1959 volume,Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life , one of those rare historical works that not only arouse intense controversy but also promote sharp reversals of historical interpretation. …Elkins argued that the unusually harsh conditions faced by Southern slaves produced a “closed” environment that stripped them of their native African culture, prevented the emergence among them of any meaningful social relations, and turned them into childlike “Sambos” who almost completely internalized the values of their masters. …

Despite its ingenuity, the Elkins thesis soon came under withering attack from critics who blasted it as contrived, illogical, and unsupported by empirical evidence. … Research by scholars seeking to test the Elkins thesis provided increasing evidence that antebellum slaves lived not in a totally  losed environment but rather in one that permitted the emergence of enormous variety and allowed slsaves to pursue important relationships with persons other than their masters, including those to be found in their families, churches, and communities.   [Kolchin identifies this work as pivotal. He sets out Elkin’s thesis and the response to Elkins’ work.]

Ironically, however, that thesis – and the controversy it provoked – played a major role in redirecting historical scholarship on slavery. As historians sought to rebut Elkins’s assertion of slave docility, they found it necessary to focus far more than they previously had on the slaves as subjects in their own right rather than as objects of white treatment. … As the focus of historical attention shifted increasingly to the slaves, historians found themselves forced to exploit “new” kinds of historical sources, which had previously been little used, to shed light on the slaves’ world. Scholars probed archaeological remains, analyzed black folklore, and toiled over statistical data culled from census reports and plantation records, but in their efforts to explore slave thought and behavior they found two kinds of sources especially useful: autobiographies of former slaves… and interviews with former slaves…[Kolchin explains how Elkins’ thesis impacted the study of slavery, namely in a shift of focus and the use of previously unexamined sources.]

… Although these scholars do not agree with one another in all particulars, the great majority of them have abandoned the victimization model in favor of an emphasis on the slaves’ resiliency and autonomy. As I suggest below, I believe that some of these arguments for slave autonomy have been overstated and eventually will be modified on the basis of future evidence.[Kolchin identifies the prevailing contemporary approach to the study of slavery and his position on the issue.]

Kolchin, Peter. "Antebellum Slavery: Slave Life." InAmerican Slavery, 1619 - 1877 , 133-138. New York: Hill and Wang, 1993.

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Category: Dissertation

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