We think that knowing the past is an important thing – to understand what is happening and to prevent the “same” mistakes from the past. However, there is a slight problem in our knowledge of past. And that’s why we asked this question: ….. Real-life situation
You might be thinking…why did they choose this topic? Isn’t it obvious that what we know really happened? Are they trying to show us some stupid conspiracy theories or what? So here comes the real life situation. It is no made-up situation because, unfortunately, it happened to me recently. I was reading sources for my EE. The second source I read basically overthrew/contradicted my whole research question. I am writing about a ruler in medieval Japan who brought peace which lasted 250 years and how he accomplished this peace. As I read the second source, it stated that the one that actually established the peace was not this ruler, but the one before him. With this newfound information my whole EE practically fell apart. So, I had two contradictory sources and a load of questions: How it could be possible for such a contradicting sources to exist? And how do we know which one is true and which one isn’t? Sources
Okay, now let’s get back to our knowledge of past. Where do we get it from? Well, there are different sources that together help us gather our historical knowledge. We can categorize them into two groups: primary and secondary. Well, I hope you all know what primary and secondary sources are, but if you don’t let me say it really briefly. Primary sources are those that were created by people who witnessed the events that are under study and secondary are sources, which are build upon (analyze and interpret) primary ones. Now, let’s try to make a list of the sources so that we can demonstrate how some of them can become unreliable. PrimarySecondary
Diaries Journal/magazine article
Pottery (physical stuff)History textbook for schools
LettersBook about history
Now that we have a list of sources, we need to think about what could possibly affect them. Those can be all four of our tools of knowledge – perception, emotion, reason and language. Using these, we´ll show you how the sources can reflect the past not very accurately. Let’s start with primary sources. What can affect them?
Let’s start with written accounts and diaries. First, the writer must perceive the event. What can go wrong in perception? Well, each person perceives things selectively, according to what they expect to see, according to their emotions, culture, traditions and so on. Let’s imagine a soldier named Joe. After surviving a battle he writes a letter to his wife. I believe I do not have to mention that this letter will later become a primary source for us. It consists of many emotional sentences about the death of John, Joe’s friend, who died during the battle and there is only little information about the battle itself and its outcomes. This shows us already, that Joe perceived very little from the battle, but instead concentrated on what was happening to his friend (which is natural, but for historians that are studying the battle rather unfortunate. However, Joe describes something from the battle. He says that their enemy‘s ranks consisted of thousands of soldiers compared to their barely thousand. However, other sources from the same battle state, that the armies were equal in numbers. So, obviously, Joe exaggerated as people tend to under stress situations. But his wife will never know this bit of information Furthermore Joe writes that it was the enemy who actually provoked the battle, while source written by someone from the other side states that is was the exact opposite. So obviously nobody wants to admit to be the aggressor. This was just an example of how perception and reason can influence the given account of an event from the past. Now...