Taking Note

Good references are invaluable, not just to give credit, but to build a map of the paths taken for research.

Chalk Paths, by Eric Ravilious, 1935 © Private Collection/Bridgeman Images.

Six years ago I wrote a column for this magazine on the need for a code of conduct for historians, provoked by a series of inaccuracies repeated by successive writers and sloppy administrative errors that I had come across in my research. I suggested 11 practices to safeguard against human error and lazy history.

I work on the 16th century and, especially when researching the Tudor court, I tend to be operating at the intersection of academic and popular history. On Anne Boleyn or Anne of Cleves there is at least as much research produced outside the academy as inside. Much of this is very good, but sometimes scholarly standards of accountability are overlooked. Some might think footnotes aren’t needed in popular history, or even find them distracting, but, if what we are writing is history and not fiction, then evidence matters.

Proper referencing is important; it creates a breadcrumb trail for your reader so that your footsteps can be followed. It means providing your academic genealogy and giving credit for ideas you’ve adopted. It means that your factual assertions can be verified and it works to keep us all operating in good faith. If you make an honest mistake, it means that your reader can steadily work their way back along the path to find out where you took the wrong fork.

This is why I was dismayed to open another popular Tudor history book without formal references: just endnotes that simply listed, as secondary sources, the authors’ surnames. These could be cross-referenced with a bibliography, but there was no indication as to which work was being referred to or on what page the ideas might be found. In my frustration, I took a cropped picture, carefully anonymised to protect the author, and tweeted words to the effect that such notes seem designed to be performative: they give the appearance of scholarship without the substance.

Soon after, the author contacted me (the photograph may have been anonymous to everyone else, but we know our own work). She explained that the publisher had restricted the number of notes she could have and limited the amount of information she could include in them, stripping down her detailed references so that they did not make sense. She said that this was the ‘reality’ of publishing for ‘some of us who have no power in the industry’. 

I dug around a bit and found that, indeed, nearly every book with this problem comes from the same publishing house. For the life of me I cannot understand the publisher’s rationale. Cutting notes tends to be justified on the basis of cost – too long – or because it makes the work look unappealingly academic. Why include the source name – adding the scholarly apparatus – while blocking authors’ rights to include page numbers verifying their claims, which would add no appreciable length or cost? 

I noted that some books published by the same house were more orthodox. It is probably no coincidence they tended to be from emeritus professors who could, presumably, throw their weight around. And there are some problematic books published elsewhere, including an author who included a book in their bibliography that never existed.

For this week I read some exciting, new research that unravels one particular skein of Tudor history. This superb investigative work was by JoAnn DellaNeva and I’m not about to steal her thunder (though I would urge you to read her book about Anne Boleyn when it comes out next year), but one of her discoveries makes clear that another historian appears to have committed the egregious error of effectively inventing a source. In so doing, she or he has cemented into the English narrative a series of fables surrounding a character who has always been a magnet for myths. To care about professional standards in history is to strive to tell the truth about the past; fabricating evidence or the source of that evidence is extremely problematic, for obvious reasons.

The worst-case scenario is that this was a deliberate fabrication, but I don’t think many historians set out to deceive the public. Perhaps it was the result of idiosyncratic notetaking; perhaps the author misremembered or got in a muddle. Even the state papers of Henry VIII – printed and calendared in the 19th century – include some eccentric selections and inaccurate translations.

Trying to research in a time when access to archives is limited makes clear how easy it is for any of us to fall foul of the code of conduct I suggested: when we perhaps can’t see original sources in foreign archives or we take on trust something repeated by historians for centuries. We are all always building on the work of others and none of us is infallible. The point, perhaps, might be to distinguish those operating in good faith, trying to do their best, from those who are – from cynicism or laziness – distorting the historical record.


Suzannah Lipscomb is Professor of History at the University of Roehampton and author of The Voices of Nîmes: Women, Sex and Marriage in Early Modern Languedoc (Oxford, 2019).