Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Historical Research - Part Two

Here is the follow-up to my post on historical-research from two weeks ago. To view the first installment, click HERE

I'd like to talk a little bit about historical documents today. I think the other resources for research have been pretty much covered (internet, books, historians, documentaries).

One can glean much from going back to the documents penned in the time you are researching. It is very, very helpful to get insights from people living in the actual time.

Before I proceed, however, I've come across modern historians who try to change what was actually said by people living in the era themselves. Many modern historians don't trust the historians of the actual era. In some cases, the modern historian is probably correct. In others, they are not.

One instance of where the historians are probably correct is in dealing with the recorders on the victorious or conquering side of the story. Sometimes, the story is exaggerated and put down as fact. (You know what I'm talking about - you've all heard fishing and hunting stories!) 

For example, many modern historians feel that Roman 
historian Tacitus exaggerated the British causalities as
opposed to the Roman causalities in the Battle of Watling Street. Tacitus claimed that thousands upon thousands of Britons were killed while only around a hundred or so legionaries were killed. Yes, I believe the odds were really great - it is a fact that only a few Romans were killed and thousands of Britons were killed. But some of his numbers were slightly unbelievable.

So, when going back to original documents, bear in mind that exaggeration sometimes went into the writing.

Still, I highly recommend going back to them!

For examples of historical documents I have used, I used the medieval Babees book for information on the well-mannered page. I have used the works of Josephus, Tacitus, Seneca, Pliny, and Gibbon for Roman research and their views on their era. When I researched the African Slave Trade, I read portions of Olaudah Equiano's book about his life and portions of William Wilberforce's books. Now, I am preparing to peruse Travis's letters for research on the Battle of the Alamo. I have read Davy Crockett's personal account of his life. 

Why? Because there is nothing like obtaining the viewpoint of someone who was actually there! 

Just endeavor to have discernment (some 21st historians will deny everything the past historians said) and do the best with you can with sorting out the truth and the exaggerations. And, remember, the professional historians have to do the same thing! You are just like they are.

Alicia A. Willis is a home-school graduate, published author, and avid historian. She is a firm believer in the principle that one can accomplish anything by substantial amounts of prayer and coffee. Visit her at her blog to view her historical-fiction novels and all the goings-on between writing!

Any questions or comments?


  1. So true! I am working on a book set in Boston 1774 and 1775. I have read many letters and documents by the people of the time. It is the best way to get a feel for what they felt about the events.

  2. This is interesting--I often wonder if internet articles on history are accurate or not. Authentic material from times past is a resource I'm really enjoying at the moment, but I liked your tip on being discerning about it too.

    1. My personal opinion is that one has to be careful no matter where the research is done - be it online, in books, or even speaking to a historian. :) Even books and professionals make mistakes or have the history twisted.

  3. Thanks for this post! I get really, really excited when I find a primary source. It's interesting about the sources you've used! I've never heard of the Babees book, but I can see how helpful that was for you. I found your last thought very encouraging: "Remember the professional historians have to do the same thing! You are just like they are." It doesn't have to be daunting or feel "above me." : ) In fact, it's really quite fun.
    Do you try to own copies of most of your sources? Do you find it hard to locate some?

    1. Thanks for commenting! No, I can't afford to own all of them. Nor do I have the space! :) I do own a few, however. It depends on the document. Most well-known documents are easy to find online in their original text. Using resources from colleges is helpful too.


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