I am currently teaching an FdA module called ‘What is History’. It is, in many ways, a classic history module that students of History, up and down the country and all throughout time, have engaged with. It is filled with the different theoretical approaches of various schools of history over the centuries (such as classical historians like Herodotus and the 20th century Annales school), as well as an assignment that allows students to put their skills to the test. In a nut-shell, the assignment asks students to find two local primary sources (from the area relating to Torbay, Devon), and then they have to analyse and evaluate their value.

As this is the first time that I have taught this particular module, I have been really interested in building my understanding and resources based on what historians have had to say about the use of primary sources. In class we have covered different types of sources (such as oral testimony) and in the weeks ahead I look forward to covering the use of statistics and the dangers of pseudo-history “sources”. This week we looked at something more straightforward – official documents. These are the sources that provide the backbone to any historical study.

Marwick calls this type of source ‘documents of record’. In his 2001 book The New Nature of History (p.165) he writes:

‘A “document of record” is one which by its very existence records that some event took place – it is not someone else’s account, but, as it were, it embodies the event itself.’

Examples of this include the likes of important government documents (parliamentary acts, peace treaties, and the likes of Magna Carta), as well as other documents compiled for statistical purposes (such as the ten-yearly census returns). Furthermore, it also includes other records utilised by organisations on a daily basis: minutes of a meeting, for example. We are now awash with these records, with their number growing since the innovation of the printing press in the mid-1400s, and the development of a modernised, literate society in the Victorian era. Census returns were initiated in 1801, becoming widespread in 1841, whilst the parliamentary record of Hansard become commonplace during the 19th century. Now in the 21st century the proliferation of records has been propelled to a stratospheric extent due to the digital revolution.

The initial way of historians “doing” history was to speak to others about the events in question. This was an approach followed by the very first historian – Herodotus – back in classical Greece around 2,500 years ago. However, the rise of records led to a change in this approach, particularly in the 19th century; the historian Von Ranke placed records on a pedestal, stating that they offered the historian greater chance of finding out what truly happened (when compared to the issues surrounding oral testimony).

However, by the 20th century some historians questioned the use of such records. In his influential short book of 1964 (What is History?), E.H. Carr claimed (p.16):

‘The nineteenth-century fetishism of facts was completed and justified by a fetishism of documents. The documents were the Ark of the Covenant in the temple of facts. The reverent historian approached them with bowed head and spoke of them in awed tones. If you find it in the documents, it is so.’

He also added (p.19):

‘Of course, facts and documents are essential to the historian. But do not make a fetish of them.’

Yet despite Carr’s protestations, there is no denying that ‘documents of record’ are of high importance to historians. Marwick notes their uses, stating that they (p.166):

‘…offer an enormous variety of insights and perceptions, but they do also record something that actually happened; they record a “fact” or “event”, the very edict or treaty itself, and in that specific and limited sense they cannot be “ideology” (they are “fact”, not “opinion”) – though of course, as historians know better than anyone, minutes, reports of meetings, and so on, recording what a body as a whole agreed its decisions to be, can be incomplete and slanted. They may, as with, say, parish registers or rent-rolls, record hard, factual information – the “facts” will be subject to human error in the original entries, though scarcely to ideology, and will require specialist skills to extract.’

Yes, these records will contain errors. Anyone who has dabbled in family history research and had to deal with census returns will understand this: the differences in dates, the hard-to-read names, the mis-spellings of family members and their place of birth. Such errors are down to us – humans – in how the words were written, as well as again to the lies ancestors told in the past (cheekily subtracting a few years from an age, for example).

At a local level (as well as that of family history), I am really interested in how ‘documents of record’ can help us understand more about past societies. Marwick highlights how a personal will can help us ask further questions (p.165):

‘Wills record a definite transaction. They may well be the best way of establishing how rich a person was. They can also be used to infer how much, or how little, affection existed between married couples and between parents and children.’

Similarly, we can ask such questions and make similar inferences of other records, such as census returns. An ancestor of mine was stated to be an agricultural labourer in 1861; ten years later he is recorded as owning 10 acres. This suggests that the 1860s were particularly good, in a financial sense, to my ancestor. The 1881 census records him as having lost these acres, which again allows us to infer that the 1870s were not as kind. These basic facts have allowed me to develop a line of research further: into the socio-economic issues impacting south-eastern Cornwall during this period. Black and MacRaild (2000, p.91) note how records allows historians to attempt to understand ‘contemporary attitudes, hopes, fears and anxieties’.

Clearly, ‘documents of record’ are of great importance to the historian; they serve the foundations of any historical enquiry. Without them we would be very hard pressed to conduct research and to come up with any clear conclusions. As such, Carr was clearly over-egging his prose by suggesting that historians are in danger of ‘making a fetish of them’! I think of Herodotus and his own study 2,500 years ago: lacking in the records that modern-day historians are fortunate to have at their finger-tips; such an attempt clearly had massive limitations. As such, I must agree with Marwick and others who rank ‘documents of record’ so high on the so-called “taxonomy” of primary sources.