Advice on Handling Sources

Advice on Handling Sources

Most history students at secondary school level spend significant amounts of time studying historical sources. This short guide, though necessarily general in nature, aims to offer advice on important source analysis techniques.

Using historical ‘labels’

Try to avoid the temptation to ‘label’ sources – especially if you then proceed to avoid explaining the ‘label’. So, for example, it is unhelpful to label a particular source ‘Marxist’ or ‘structuralist’ and so on, unless you explain what such terms mean and why you judge the source in question to be coloured by the traits associated with such terminology. In short, avoid using labels as surrogates for real explanations.

Avoid the ‘slab’ approach

Examiners often report that many candidates adopt a ‘slab’ approach to answering source questions. They begin discussing source a), then b), then c) and so on, often merely having a concluding paragraph that draws the ideas together. Yet it is far more convincing and sophisticated to approach a group of sources thematically, or by discussing their similarities and differences. This requires you to plan: what do all the sources say about religion, for instance, or warfare, or foreign policy? Such a plan will enable you to ‘cherry pick’ common ground – or disagreement between the sources. Such themes, organised into different paragraphs, provide a much more ‘rounded’ and convincing response, especially when followed by a convincing conclusion.


Conclusions to source-based questions, or any other questions for that matter, should advance your ideas a little, offering something new. Far too many students use their conclusions simply to summarise their existing arguments. Showing how arguments come together to suggest a more advanced idea is a way to conclude in more impressive fashion.

Say what the source does not say, not simply what it does

Look at the source below:

From a Proclamation issued by Henry VIII in July 1511

The King has commanded all the lords and most of the nobles to prepare as many able men for war as they can muster from their estates. He is now informed to his great displeasure that some are preparing men who are not tenants or members of their household. They are bringing in hired men who are given badges, uniform and payment, contrary to the King’s wishes and the laws against retaining. The King commands this to cease forthwith, and orders those who have made such arrangements to remedy the situation or bear the King’s anger and indignation, to their great danger and peril.

It says that Henry VIII told his nobles what to do. It says that the King held views against his nobles doing something called ‘retaining’ in the summer of 1511 and it shows us the reaction of many of the nobility to the king’s requests – i.e. that had been ignoring them.

What it does not tell us is how typical such indignation on the part of the King was. Or whether such anger continued throughout his reign. Or, indeed, whether this situation changed – and, if so, how quickly.

Say what the source implies rather than what it directly states

Not everything a source says is explicit (obvious). Often sources subtly imply more than meets the eye. Look at the source below:

George Coppard was sixteen when he joined the Royal West Surrey Regiment on 27th August, 1914

Although I seldom saw a newspaper, I knew about the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand at Sarajevo. News placards screamed out at every street corner, and military bands blared out their martial music in the main streets of Croydon. This was too much for me to resist, and as if drawn by a magnet, I knew I had to enlist straight away. I presented myself to the recruiting sergeant at Mitcham Road Barracks. There was a steady stream of men, mostly working types, queuing to enlist.

Here the source tells us much about the reasons why young men joined the British Army on the eve of World War One. It tells us that those in charge of army recruitment used the printed media (‘news placards’), and that music (‘military bands’) was used to inspire patriotism. What it does not tell us, but rather implies, is that there was real pressure placed on young, impressionable minds by a variety of types of recruitment propaganda. Assuming, as we might, that Coppard’s attitude was typical of young men and boys at the time, we might also infer that there was no real understanding of the realities of modern warfare amongst British civilians.

Contextualise: Integrate your sources into an answer, presenting them in the light of your own knowledge

Finally, the best examination answers often contextualise the sources given, presenting them in the light of one’s own knowledge. For example, take a source like this:

John Lilburne, who was one of the leaders of the Levellers, wrote a pamphlet attacking the execution of King Charles I in 1649

I refused to be one of his [Charles I’s] judges… they were no better than murders in taking away the King’s life even though he was guilty of the crimes he was charged with… it is murder because it was done by a hand that had no authority to do it.

Asked the question ‘Why was Charles I executed in 1649?’, one might aim to respond in the following way:

In this source John Lilburne, despite being associated (then and now) with the radical seventeenth century group known as ‘The Levellers’, emphasises his conservatism over the issue of the execution of the King. Whilst we might expect many of those who had traditionally opposed Charles to favour regicide (killing of the King), it is important to understand the philosophical context of the age – and the religious views of many of the groups who had traditionally opposed what they saw as his tyrannical rule. Such factors played an equally, if not more, important role than any ‘bloodlust’ directed towards the King.

In essence, techniques such as these – where sources are set in context, explained, interrogated and related to the question posed – will give candidates a good chance of gaining a top grade. The key is to plan your response before writing and to ensure that conclusions offer something beyond the main body of the response.

Ben Sandell teaches history at Dauntsey’s School.


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