One of the most difficult things to teach budding historians is that every single primary source has to be considered from many different angles and perspectives before we can begin to make sense of that source.
Of course, we need to know such things as who created it and why, when it was created, and how has it been used since it was created. We need to know what was happening when the thing was created and how different people alive at the time might have viewed it differently–and that different people since that time might also view it differently. And we need to know how to find all these things out.
No wonder history is hard.
But we also have to ask ourselves whether the thing we are looking at really is what it appears to be. This last task can be the most difficult, because it requires some serious detective work on our part. Sometimes that detective work is worth it and sometimes it isn’t. For example, when I was working on my recent book I found a letter from one Czech politician to another that was, unfortunately, undated. If the letter was sent before a certain meeting, it would mean one thing and if it was sent after that meeting it would mean something else. I spent a fruitless week trying to track down another source that would help me. In the end, I had to rely on my own judgment and the context of the letter to decide.
But sometimes the search for the truth of the matter can be worth it after all.
An excellent example of the painstaking nature of this search for the truth behind a particular historical event can be found in the blog of the documentary filmmaker Errol Morris. In a three-part series (part three is still pending), Morris describes his quest to figure out which of two famous photographs was taken first.
The images are the work of Roger Fenton during the Crimean War and are titled The Valley of the Shadow of Death. One look at the two images (below) reveals that in one there are lots of cannon balls on the road, and in the other, there aren’t any.
Which came first, Morris asks? The lane with the cannon balls, or the lane without? Following from the answer to the first is an even more important question: did Fenton add the cannon balls, or did he take them away? In other words, was this canonical image of war (sorry for the pun) a fake?
I intend to assign this series of blog posts to my students from now on, as they demonstrate just how painstaking the process of good historical research can be and how experts can disagree with the results, regardless of how convincing one account or the other might seem.