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Reading a Historical Description

 

 

I. Historical Descriptions

            Not all historical writing is in the form of arguments.  Many historical works are in the form of descriptions.   Historical descriptions are like historical arguments in that are based on evidence and reflect the author's understanding or interpretation of the event.  But rather than express that interpretation in an argument, that interpretation is presented in the form of a description.  Just as the writer of a story might describe the setting of a story or describe the personality of a particular character, so a historian might tell us what a London looked like at the time of Henry VIII or might give us a sketch of Nelson on the deck of the Victory.

II. Interpreting a Historical Description

            Like a historical argument, a historical description presents the author's understanding or interpretation of the events under discussion.  Unlike an argumentative essay, a narrative does not have a thesis statement.  The author does not always explicitly state the interpretation.  Often it is very difficult to give a one sentence summary of an interpretation of an event presented in the form of a narrative.  The trick, then, is to uncover the author's interpretation even though the author does not necessarily explicitly state it.

            One way of getting at the interpretation is to think about how the historian developed that description.  There are thousands of things that could be said about London at the time of Henry VIII.  The historian has to decide which aspects of London he or she believes are important to tell us and which can or must be left out.  One important consideration is the subject of the book.  This may sound obvious, but it is incredibly important.  One would not expect to find a significant description of merchant housing in a work entitled "The Homes of Henry VIII."  However, if the author describes Henry's homes as "grand" or "magnificent," he or she is trying to convey a different impression than if terms such as "gaudy" or "drafty" are used.

III. Evaluating a Historical Description as a Work of History.

On one level, a historical description should be judged as one would judge other types of historical writing:

1.      Does the author support the story with reference to specific historical sources?

2.      Are the sources credible?

IV. Evaluating a Historical Description as an Interpretation

On another level, a historical narrative should be judged as one would judge other forms of interpretation:

1.      What kind of language or images does the author use in description?  What attitudes does this choice of words reveal?

2.   What does the author want you to understand about the person, place or object as a result of this description?

3.   To what other times, places, people or events does the author compare this object to? 

4.      What does the author not talk about?  That is, what aspects of the event, person or place does the author fail to mention?  What does this reveal about what the author considers important or unimportant?

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