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How Much Historiography Should Be Included in Essays?

John Claydon provides practical guidance on a vexed issue.

One of the biggest problems that all history students face when they write essays is knowing when to refer to different historians and their views. This is especially the case in timed or examination answers when space is short. The problem exists because teachers and examiners, and even the historians who write books and articles, disagree themselves about what is appropriate. This article is intended to make you think carefully about the issue so that you can strike a sensible balance in the essays you write.

What we are dealing with here is historiography, literally the study of historical writing but more precisely the explanations and interpretations of historians. All historical topics have their own historiography, and most history books include a historigraphical survey to help readers understand where the book fits in with previous research and writing on the same topic. For history students, therefore, coping with the historigraphy of the topic is not only a question of what to include in essay answers but what to read about the topic in the first place. Most students should have some knowledge of the views of leading current historians, for example John Guy on the Tudors, Barry Coward on the Stuarts, or Dennis Mack Smith on Fascist Italy, and it obviously helps to have read other authors too. Usually a textbook will be available, but its main purpose is to provide a detailed outline of the chronology of the period not of the historiography, and though there will be references to historians and their views there is not usually space for these to be fully explained. This is where the guidance of your teacher and of those series of books designed specifically to focus both on the content and historiography of a particular topic, such as Access to History or Seminar Studies, will be valuable.

Defining key terms

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