Sources, Study of

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Sources, Study of


a comprehensive specialized historical discipline, the science of historical sources, and the theory and practice of their identification, study, and use. The study of historical sources encompasses the study of written sources and the auxiliary historical disciplines.

According to the problems treated, theoretical and applied aspects of the study of sources may be distinguished. The theoretical aspect examines the laws governing the creation of historical sources and the laws by which the sources reflect the historical process. It also considers the structure and characteristics of the information contained in sources, determines principles of systematization, classifies sources, and works out a methodology of historical research, both general and for particular categories and types of sources. These theoretical problems are generally studied using the written sources that form the basis of most historical research.

The applied, or concrete, aspect of the study of sources comprises the study of the sources for particular branches, divisions, periods, or problems of history. The applied aspect of source study includes the work of archives, museums, and libraries in gathering, preserving, and describing sources, the publication of sources, and historians’ work with sources in the course of their research. Elements of the applied study of sources are also encountered in everyday practical activity—in office work, crime detection, and the evaluation of any kind of information.

The study of sources arose from rules that were worked out empirically in the everyday life of society for determining the authenticity of documents. Methods of critical analysis of sources were known to the classical historians Lucian and Tacitus. During the Renaissance the humanists L. Valla and U. von Hutten applied scholarly criticism to ancient texts. The 17th century saw the first attempts to create a methodology for the scientific study of documents, associated with the development of diplomatics. At the end of the 18th century and during the first half of the 19th, a method for historical criticism was developed in the works of the German scholars A.L. Schlozer, B.G. Niebuhr, and L. von Ranke. As a discipline with its own subject of research and methodology, the study of sources took shape in the second half of the 19th century in the works of a number of historians, notably J.G. Droysen and E. Bernheim in Germany, C.-V. Langlois and C. Seignobos in France, and E. Freeman in England.

In Russia, a critical attitude toward sources can be found in V.N. Tatishchev’s works. I.N. Boltin was the first to show the possibility and necessity of a special analysis of historical works and sources, and M.T. Kachenovskii considered historical criticism to be one of the most important sciences. A thorough analysis of sources characterizes the work of S.M. Solov’ev, K. N. Bestuzhev-Riumin, and V.I. Semevskii. The study of sources in pre-revolutionary Russia culminated in the work of V.O. Kliuchevskii, A.A. Shakhmatov, and A.S. Lappo-Danilevskii.

Works on the study of sources by West European and Russian scholars were based on an idealist world view. Nevertheless, in developing methods of source-study analysis and in the study of specific sources these works contain much that is valuable, and they have not lost their importance. Soviet source study creatively uses the legacy of bourgeois study of sources. V.I. Lenin elaborated the fundamental principles of the Marxist approach to historical sources and developed models for the practical application of source-study analysis. Works by S.N. Valk, D.S. Likhachev, A.D. Liublinskaia, M.N. Tikhomirov, L.V. Che-repnin, V.K. Iatsunskii, and their students represent a significant contribution to the development of Soviet source study. The Marxist study of sources is also being developed successfully in other socialist countries, and in recent years a number of valuable works have appeared in the German Democratic Republic, Poland, and Bulgaria. The methodology of Soviet study of sources is an integral part of the methodology of history and rests on Marxist-Leninist philosophy. Marxist study of sources views a source as a complex social phenomenon reflecting reality. As a rule, a source is the result of the interaction of diverse aspects of the activity and views of men and therefore requires thorough analysis. The same phenomenon is usually reflected in many sources, which consequently must be studied together. The fundamentally new, dialectical-materialist approach to sources allows the Marxist historian, using the techniques of historical research worked out by bourgeois scholars, to achieve results that are qualitatively different and more significant.

The historian’s research begins with the identification of the sources (heuristics) on a chosen theme. The historian must examine all the sources, without exception, made available to him by the science of his day. Because of the abundance of modern sources, especially those of the mass media, a selective examination is permitted, but only on condition that the selection be sufficiently representative. The basic method for studying written sources is source-study investigation, consisting of analysis, by which specific facts may be derived from sources, and synthesis, which aims to combine all the facts gathered from a set of sources. Source-study investigation is inextricably bound up with historical research itself, which precedes and accompanies the study of sources and is its culmination. In undertaking his work on sources the historian must understand the historical conditions, mentality, and ways in which information was transmitted in the period under study, and he must also possess the knowledge necessary for working with documents of his period (for example, for the age of feudalism, paleography and historical grammar).

Source-study analysis (historical criticism) consists of two parts: the determination of the authenticity of the source (external, or textual criticism) and the establishment of the truthfulness of the information contained in it (internal, or historical criticism proper). Historical criticism takes a different form for each of the various types of sources. Thus legal documents are studied with the aid of formula analysis, developed by diplomatics, and documentary sources are studied differently from narrative ones.

Determination of authenticity calls for establishment of the text, interpretation of the source, and examination of the source’s origin. A text is established, using the methodology of textual criticism, by reading and grasping the meaning of the text, identifying interpolations, and determining the relationship of the given text to the original; if the text is not the original one, the history of the text and the author’s original must be reconstructed. Interpretation of the source consists in explaining what concrete facts, events, and phenomena are being communicated, in elucidating the literal and figurative meaning of the text, and in deciphering specific expressions, metaphors, and allusions. Examination of the origin of the source consists in establishing the author’s name and the time, place, and circumstances under which it arose. Date and place can be approximately determined on the basis of indirect evidence, using the methods of such disciplines as paleography, metrology, and diplomatics. Only when all indirect evidence coincides can the problem be regarded as solved. Establishment of the author’s identity on the basis of indirect evidence, such as content, language, style, and handwriting, is always unreliable and should be considered a working hypothesis until further documentary proof is discovered.

Although at the first stage of research the historian may be able to draw conclusions about the authenticity of the source, some problems may remain unsolved, such as the author’s identity and the place and circumstances of origin. The methods required for further analysis depend on the nature of the information contained in the source. Documentary sources (such as legislation and legal documents) generally do not require proof of authenticity. However, they may contain narrative parts, including preambles and historical introductions, which must be subjected to internal criticism. Having established the authenticity of the documentary source, the scholar reveals its class and political content, examines the circumstances and history of its origin and its place in social life, and extracts from it information that entered the document independent of the will of the author.

Establishment of the trustworthiness of narrative sources, for example, chronicles, memoirs, and social and political writings, requires elucidation of the circumstances under which the information originated, disclosure of the class and political interests of the author, and verification of concrete information. If the source is the account of a participant or eyewitness of events, then his position as an observer and his opportunities for communicating historical reality must be shown. If the author is conveying information about events that he did not witness, then the sources on which he relied and the degree of completeness and precision of the rendering must be established. An examination of all the sources used in a narrative work sheds light on its trustworthiness. An author’s class and political position and his personal sympathies and antipathies influence the objectivity of his testimony. The tendentious character of a source may be open or veiled (bias can be seen from its general tone, characterizations, or silence about well-known facts). The concrete information conveyed by a source may be verified by logical analysis and comparison. It is important to determine whether the material being analyzed contains internal contradictions or information contradicted by other sources; if it does, the reasons for these contradictions must be discovered. Correspondence of facts contained in sources that came into being independently of each other is evidence of trustworthiness, but correspondence in all details presupposes borrowing. At this stage of his analysis the scholar may either acknowledge that the evidence of the source is trustworthy or probable, or he may reject it.

Having investigated all necessary sources, the historian undertakes source-study synthesis (synthetic criticism). In the process of synthesis, data accumulated earlier are organized, sources are compared on the basis of their trustworthiness and completeness, and the genetic relationship between them is established. After establishing all the facts relating to his subject, the historian determines the missing links, which he can reconstruct by scientific hypothesis.

In contemporary Soviet study of sources theoretical problems are being worked out, mathematical methods and the use of computers are being introduced, and the source-study basis of research is being expanded. The study of sources is being brought closer to the methodology of history and to historiography. Much attention is being devoted to the source-study examination of documents on the history of Soviet society. In the USSR centers for research work in the study of sources include the Archaeographic Commission attached to the History Division of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR, the section for the study of sources of the Institute of the History of the USSR of the USSR Academy of Sciences, the subdepartment for the study of sources at Moscow and Kiev universities, and the subdepartment for the study of sources and the auxiliary historical disciplines at the Moscow Historical-Archival Institute. The study of sources is taught in the history departments of universities, and of pedagogical institutes and at the Moscow Historical-Archival Institute.


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.