Writing historical analysis essay

This body of evidence will typically comprise what the primary sources tell us about the events and phenomena under discussion.

A good answer will need to harmonise with all of this evidence, or explain why particular items have been dismissed as having no bearing on the problem.

It follows from all of this that — that is, answers which fall outside the field of possible solutions or which fail to take account of received evidence — even though there is no 'absolutely right' answer.

Essential steps: select a question; identify the subject of the question; what are you being asked to do - that is, what kind of information will you need to answer the question, and how will you have to treat it?

Circling the key words in the question is sometimes a helpful first step in working out exactly what you need to do.

History essays are less about finding the correct answer to the set question than they are about demonstrating that you understand the issues which it raises (and the texts which discuss these issues).

With most historical problems (certainly the most interesting ones) it is seldom possible to arrive at a definitive answer.

The evidence almost always permits a variety of solutions, and different approaches generate divergent conclusions.

There are, however, limits to the field of possible solutions, since they must fit in with 'the evidence'.

Of course, exactly what constitutes 'the evidence' is almost invariably one of the issues under discussion among the historians who are most deeply engaged with the problem, but in general for each historical question there will be a body of evidence which is recognised as being relevant to it.

This essay will examine five spheres which cast light on the extent of Jewish influence in high medieval France: namely, their role in the commercial life of the towns, the role of Jewish banking in the agrarian economy, their influence on Christian intellectual life, .. 'Quote-and-discuss' questions require you to identify the issue at stake and to produce a reasoned response.

You may respond, for example, by agreeing with the quotation in which case you will need to explain why agreement is the best response, why it would be wrong to disagree.

You should consider the merits of a variety of responses.

If possible you should always examine the book or article from which the quotation has been taken in order to discover what its author meant by it, to discover how the author has understood the issues.

'Compare-and-contrast' questions demand the identification of similarities and differences.

It is useful to note that there is usually a natural way of structuring your answer: that is, a way of organising an answer which follows naturally from the format of the question and which will put the fewest obstacles in the way of the reader: 'Explain' and 'why' questions demand a list of reasons or one big reason; each reason will have to be explained - that is, clarified, expounded, and illustrated.

'Assess', 'evaluate' and 'define-the-significance-of' questions require judgements supported by reasons, explanation and evidence.

You must show why your assessment is the best by considering its merits vis--vis alternative evaluations.

It might be useful to define and defend the criteria on which your judgement depends.

That is, to explain why they are the best criteria for judging the historical phenomenon at issue.

'What-role-did-X-play-in-Y' questions imply a functionalist approach - that is, they require that you identify the function of some phenomenon, group or institution within some specific system.

Thus, the subject of the question is the 'Y' rather than the 'X' element.

That is, the question requires a discussion of the system as a whole and the consideration of alternative explanations of how 'X' worked within it.

'To-what-extent' questions involve a judgement of measure.

One way of answering the question would be set up a series of 'tests', as it were, that can be investigated in turn.

The following outline is intended as to provide one example of how to write an essay.

Treat it as food for thought, as providing a set of suggestions some of which you might incorporate into your own method for writing essays.

It is useful to begin by considering why essay-writing has long been the method of choice for assessment in history.

The chief reason is that no other method provides as effective a means of testing a student's comprehension of a topic.

We want you to show us that not only have you acquired a knowledge of the topic but also that you fully understand the topic and the issues raised by it.

Essays test understanding by asking you to select and re-organise relevant material in order to produce your own answer to the set question.

An undergraduate essay need not be particularly innovative in its approach and insights, but it must be the product of the student's own dialogue with the subject.

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