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A Crash Course in Dealing With Historical Sources

I was going to write a convoluted and frankly naval-gazing piece pontificating upon the role of sources in history but it strikes me that what everyone needs right now is a nice straight forward "how to" guide to source work. I'm going to focus on A Level style questions and content but the principles are the same for GCSE too. This will not be funny or even brief I'm afraid but with a bit of luck it'll give you an idea of what you're trying to achieve when answering a source question. Do feel free to ask questions in the comments.


Generally speaking you will be given more than one source and you will be asked how useful they could be when investigating a particular question. Let's take this as an example:

How far could an historian make use of these sources together to investigate the problems faced by the Tsarist system in the First World War?

This is a question taken from a Pearson Edexcel paper but the other main exam boards all have something similar.


Before you even think about reading the sources, take a moment to remind yourself what you already know about this period. What problems did they face? My mind goes straight to Rasputin, the failures of the war effort, the increasing problems of lack of food and so on. I'm also mindful of the fact that the question is specifically about problems faced by the Tsarist system rather than Russia in general so I will need to think about things that were threats to the government itself - rising dissatisfaction amongst workers and soldiers; increasingly vocal Duma members; the link between the Tsar and the failures at the Front.


Now we've got our context in the forefront of our minds, we can turn to the sources provenance. If you're not familiar with this term, it is simply who made the source and when. In this question we have a speech made by Paul Milyukov in November 1916 and a Police Report on the situation in Petrograd in October 1916. Once again, we need to think about the context: Milyukov was a thorn in the side of the Tsarist government but he was not a revolutionary. In November 1916 the Tsar was out at the front and had left his wife and his advisor Rasputin in charge. There was already a growing sense of anger among the Russian people in Petrograd and beyond as the war effort faltered and food prices rose.


Let us think about the implications of the provenance of these. To start with the police report: it seems reasonable to say that a police report is unlikely to be sympathetic to the working classes - they are the Tsar's police after all. But the tone of the source is actually deeply sympathetic. It talks about the despair felt and describes the economic position of the masses as "distressing". So what does this tell us? It tells us that the Tsarist system is in serious trouble: even the police recognise it and they quote from an organisation that has representatives from across the economic spectrum - this organisation is equally appalled at the state of Russia at this time.

Milyukov is speaking to the Duma AFTER the police report is sent in. It would not be unreasonable to assume that he was aware of it and its content. We already know that he is a committed critic of the government but in the light of the police report it seems he has good reason. He is also being careful not to criticise the Tsar himself but the government the Tsar has left behind. But he is not simply criticising: he is demanding the resignation of the government as a whole. His tone is scathing and uncompromising and he is clearly very angry indeed. Does this mean that everyone in Russia felt the same? Possibly not - we can't make that assumption purely on the basis of this. But when we remember the rather more measured police report which seems equally, if less fiercely, concerned with the current situation, we can see that in this instance, Milyukov may not be so far removed from the general mood after all.


When you come to write your answer then, the trick is to avoid stating what the sources say individually but instead identify the things that they both have opinions or information on.

How far could an historian make use of these sources together to investigate the problems faced by the Tsarist system in the First World War?

We can learn about: the problems of hunger; the problems of rebellion both amongst the people and in the Duma; the hatred of the continuation of the war.

Each of these points can form the basis of a paragraph/section which considers both sources. By starting with the points rather than the sources as a whole, we enable ourselves to approach the material analytically rather than simply listing its features. So a section might read something like this:

The sources both provide an historian with evidence of increasing frustration with the Tsarist government. In the second source the police themselves warn that riots are likely and that there is open hostility to the government. The police put forward this report with the Central War Industries Committee as supporting evidence - no doubt they would not be keen to express this sentiment without another authority willing to back up their claims. It does not hold back: the tone suggests that the police are fully in agreement with the people as it discusses their "despair" and how "distressing" the situation is. The underlying message is that Something Must Be Done.

Milyukov's speech follows this report. Without the report the speech might appear to be little more than Milyukov making his usual complaints and grandstanding but in the context of this and the subsequent murder of Rasputin, it becomes clear that Milyukov is in fact speaking for the masses when he declares the government to be both incompetent and treasonous. The strength of feeling is clear when he demands that the government goes and a new one be formed. We have no idea from this source what the government's response is but we do know that Rasputin's murder is at least partially a result of this building hostility towards the government.

Notice how the sources are synthesised (i.e. used together) and how additional knowledge is woven into the analysis. There is not an evaluation as yet (although it is implicit in places) but we can see some examples of the use of the sources.

To Sum Up:

  1. Identify what you know about question generally and if possible, split your knowledge into categories or groups which could form sections of your answer.

  2. Look at the provenance of the sources and think about the motivation and purpose of the writer/speaker.

  3. Read the sources in the context of this provenance - identify how the provenance impacts on the content.

  4. Write about each element of your answer by referring to both sources and considering how they support or contradict each other.

Does that help? Please do get in touch if you're struggling with source work or any other aspects of your English or History work.

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