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.
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.
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.
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. In Journal of Medieval History 23, no. 4 (1997): 335-349.
The following example contains excerpts from the introduction to a chapter on slave life in Peter Kolchin’s work entitled American Slavery, 1619 – 1877 .
Until fairly recently, most historians of slavery paid 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” book The Peculiar Institution (1956) differed sharply from Ulrich B. Phillips’s American Negro Slavery (1918) in its overall evaluation of slavery, its main subject remained the treatment now the mis 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. In American Slavery, 1619 – 1877. 133-138. New York: Hill and Wang, 1993.
Evaluate the essay question. The first thing to do if you have a history essay to write, is to really spend some time evaluating the question you are being asked. No matter how well-written, well-argued, or well-evidenced your essay is, if you don’t answer the answer the question you have been asked, you cannot expect to receive a top mark. Think about the specific key words and phrasing used in the question, and if you are uncertain of any of the terms, look them up and define them. 
- The key words will often need to be defined at the start of your essay, and will serve as its boundaries. 
- For example, if the question was “To what extent was the First World War a Total War?”, the key terms are “First World War”, and “Total War”.
- Do this before you begin conducting your research to ensure that your reading is closely focussed to the question and you don’t waste time.
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Consider what the question is asking you. With a history essay there are a number of different types of question you might be asked, which will require different responses from you. You need to get this clear in the early stages so you can prepare your essay in the best way. Look at your set essay question and ask yourself whether you are being asked to explain, interpret, evaluate, or argue. You might be asked to do any number or all of these different things in the essay, so think about how you can do the following:
- Explain: provide an explanation of why something happened or didn’t happen.
- Interpret: analyse information within a larger framework to contextualise it.
- Evaluate: present and support a value-judgement.
- Argue: take a clear position on a debate and justify it. 
Try to summarise your key argument. Once you have done some research you will be beginning to formulate your argument, or thesis statement, in your head. It’s essential to have a strong argument which you will then build your essay around. So before you start to plan and draft your essay, try to summarise your key argument in one or two sentences.
- Your argument may change or become more nuanced as your write your essay, but having a clear thesis statement which you can refer back to is very helpful.
- The main point of your essay should be clear enough that you can structure the essay plan around it. 
- For example, your summary could be something like “The First World War was a ‘total war’ because civilian populations were mobilized both in the battlefield and on the home front”.
Make an essay plan . Once you have evaluated the question, you need to draw up an essay plan. This is a great opportunity to organise your notes and start developing the structure which you will use for your essay. When drawing up the plan you can assess the quality and depth of the evidence you have gathered and consider whether your thesis statement is adequately supported.
- Pick out some key quotes that make your argument precisely and persuasively. 
- When writing your plan, you should already be thinking about how your essay will flow, and how each point will connect together.
Part Two of Five:
Doing Your Research Edit
Distinguish between primary and secondary sources. A history essay will require a strong argument that is backed up by solid evidence. The two main types of evidence you can draw on are known as primary and secondary sources. Depending on the essay you are writing, you might be expected to include both of these. If you are uncertain about what is expected be sure to ask your teacher well in advance of the essay due date.
- Primary source material refers to any texts, films, pictures, or any other kind of evidence that was produced in the historical period, or by someone who participated in the events of the period, that you are writing about.
- Secondary material is the work by historians or other writers analysing events in the past. The body of historical work on a period or event is known as the historiography. 
- It is not unusual to write a literature review or historiographical essay which does not directly draw on primary material.
- Typically a research essay would need significant primary material.
Find your sources. It can be difficult to get going with your research. There may be an enormous number of texts which makes it hard to know where to start, or maybe you are really struggling to find relevant material. In either case, there are some tried and tested ways to find reliable source material for your essay.
- Start with the core texts in your reading list or course bibliography. Your teacher will have carefully selected these so you should start there.
- Look in footnotes and bibliographies. When you are reading be sure to pay attention to the footnotes and bibliographies which can guide you to further sources a give you a clear picture of the important texts.
- Use the library. If you have access to a library at your school or college, be sure to make the most of it. Search online catalogues and speak to librarians.
- Access online journal databases. If you are in college it is likely that you will have access to academic journals online. These are an excellent and easy to navigate resources. 
- Don’t go straight to an internet search engine. If you are tempted to just type your topic into the search bar, you will find lots of results, but the scholarly value will be questionable and you will have to spend a lot of time wading through sites before you find the good sources.
Evaluate your secondary sources. It’s very important that you critically evaluate your sources. For a strong academic essay you should be using and engaging with scholarly material that is of a demonstrable quality. It’s very easy to find information on the internet, or in popular histories, but you should be using academic texts by historians. If you are early on in your studies you might not be sure how to identify scholarly sources, so when you find a text ask yourself the following questions:
- Who is the author? Is it written by an academic with a position at a University? Search for the author online.
- Who is the publisher? Is the book published by an established academic press? Look in the cover to check the publisher, if it is published by a University Press that is a good sign.
- If it’s an article, where is published? If you are using an article check that it has been published in an academic journal. 
Read critically. Once you found some good sources, you need to take good notes and read the texts critically. Try not to let your mind drift along as you read a book or article, instead keep asking questions about what you are reading. Think about what exactly the author is saying, and how well the argument is supported by the evidence.
- Ask yourself why the author is making this argument. Evaluate the text by placing it into a broader intellectual context. Is it part of a certain tradition in historiography? Is it a response to a particular idea?
- Consider where there are weaknesses and limitations to the argument. Always keep a critical mindset and try to identify areas where you think the argument is overly stretched or the evidence doesn’t match the author’s claims. 
Take thorough notes. When you are taking notes you should be wary of writing incomplete notes or misquoting a text. It’s better to write down more in your notes than you think you will need than not have enough and find yourself frantically looking back through a book.
- Label all your notes with the page numbers and precise bibliographic information on the source.
- If you have a quote but can’t remember where you found it, imagine trying to skip back through everything you have read to find that one line.
- If you use something and don’t reference it fully you risk plagiarism. 
Have a clear structure. When you come to write the body of the essay it is important that you have a clear structure to your argument and to your prose. If your essay drifts, loses focus, or becomes a narrative of events then you will find your grade dropping. Your introduction can help guide you if you have given a clear indication of the structure of your essay. 
Develop your argument. The body of the essay is where your argument is really made and where you will be using evidence directly. Think carefully about how you construct your paragraphs, and think of each paragraph as one micro-sized version of the essay structure. In other words, aim to have a topic sentence introducing each paragraph, followed by the main portion of the paragraph where you explain yourself and draw on the relevant evidence. 
- Try to include a sentence that concludes each paragraph and links it to the next paragraph.
- When you are organising your essay think of each paragraph as addressing one element of the essay question.
- Keeping a close focus like this will also help you avoid drifting away from the topic of the essay and will encourage you to write in precise and concise prose.
- Don’t forget to write in the past tense when referring to something that has already happened.
Use source material appropriately. How you use your evidence will play a large part in how convincing your argument is and how well your essay reads. You can introduce evidence by directly quoting it, or by summarising it. Using evidence strategically and intelligently will seriously improve your essay. Try to avoid long quotations, and use only the quotes that best illustrate your point. 
- Don’t drop a quote from a primary source into your prose without introducing it and discussing it.
- If you are referring to a secondary source, you can usually summarise in your own words rather than quoting directly.
- Be sure to fully reference anything you refer to, including if you do not quote it directly.
Make your essay flow. The fluency of your text is an important element in the writing a good history essay that can often be overlooked. Think carefully about how you transition from one paragraph to the next and try to link your points together, building your argument as you go. It is easy to end up with an essay that reads as a more or less disconnected series of points, rather than a fully developed and connected argument.
- Think about the first and last sentence in every paragraph and how they connect to the previous and next paragraph.
- Try to avoid beginning paragraphs with simple phrases that make your essay appear more like a list. For example, limit your use of words like: “Additionally”, “Moreover”, “Furthermore”.
- Give an indication of where your essay is going and how you are building on what you have already said. 
Conclude succinctly. A good conclusion should precisely and succinctly summarise your argument and key points. You need to make sure your conclusion reflects the content of your essay, and refers back to the outline you provided in the introduction. If you read your conclusion and it doesn’t directly answer the essay question you need to think again.
- Briefly outline the implications of your argument and it’s significance in relation to the historiography, but avoid grand sweeping statements. 
- A conclusion also provides the opportunity to point to areas beyond the scope of your essay where the research could be developed in the future.