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Forum Locked'The State Papers' Conundrum

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Parnell View Drop Down
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    Posted: 24-Apr-2009 at 12:10
Having done more reading that writing on the various historiography threads which have popped up round these parts I'd like to talk a little more in depth about the nature of our primary sources for political history. Before this year at university I had rarely encountered a true to form primary source, any reading or studying I had done have been secondary commentaries by historians. Having spent some time this year in the National archives looking up microfilm copies of Police reports, newspapers, politicians 'private papers', departmental 'memos' and other various printed sources, it does raise some rather legitimate criticism I think from the traditional skeptics of the historical method.

Ireland is a prime example for the perceived weakness of our sources - In 1922 Rory O'Connor and the anti-Treaty IRA used geneological records in the nearby Public Records office to barricade the windows of the Four Courts against the Free State artillery embankments. In the ensuing fighting, the Public Records office was completely destroyed and, alas, over a thousand years worth of records of all description were destroyed for good. Ireland has been left with a cultural black hole, a huge gap in sources only partly compensated by the different universities which had their own copies of various sources, but no one place with the entire collection intact. I remember reading in Ernie O'Malleys memoir that he had no problem in using the records as a barricade since they were, after all, 'British records' and therefore perfectably usable by patriots. Reading that sickened my stomach, but it does raise a very serious question.

Is all political history really shaped by the 'state papers', those documents preserved for posterity by governments in the various public records offices? Does it not betray a certain weakness that we rely on these documents so much? And does this not give the skeptics at least some grounds for complaint?

Personally I am of the opinion that all history is merely a study of the surviving evidence - as in, all things that have happened are technically history, but only those events which have left traces of the occurance are capable of study. If all those traces are produced by the government, then surely political history is merely a study of those records which the government preserves? Is history really only a study of past politics?

A lot of questions, I know. And I don't really believe all of what I typed, just playing devils advocate a bit. But the concentration on the state papers is an important and potentially devastating weakness of political history which did give the postmodernists of the 1960s strong grounds for complaint.


Edited by Parnell - 24-Apr-2009 at 12:13
"Neither apathy nor antipathy can ever bring out the truth of history" Eoin Mac Neill.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote pikeshot1600 Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 24-Apr-2009 at 14:38
Parnell,
 
In my experience, admittedly, not professional, primary source material was not readily promoted to students before either seminar or graduate course level.  The professors had such extensive reading lists that you didn't have time anyway.  Some professors, of course, had their own books on those lists - maybe the only sales they got for obscure studies.  Smile
 
The primary sources are there.  Far more accessible in many cases than when I was at Univ.  Back then if you went to the library staff asking for "state papers," they would look at you as if you were a spy - "what do you want those for, young man?"  LOL
 
 
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Parnell Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 24-Apr-2009 at 14:45
I know the primary sources are there (But in our case there is a huge dearth of material before 1920) but I'm asking just how reliable those sources are, and questioning the essential vitality of political history. Personally I think the problems are surmountable and generally capable of being overcome with just a little reason and less hysteria, which many seem to associate with government documents Wink

As for professors plugging their own books, tell me about it. Especially at Sophister level over here, where all our subjects are very specialised. For example, my three subjects this year are 'Revolution and Civil War in Ireland 1919-1923' 'The Crusades 1095-1187' and 'History writing in Britain and Ireland, 1820-1920'. For my Irish course we are expected to delve into the primary sources considerably since the university is a 5 minute walk from post archives in Dublin :) For the Crusades we have had a special emphasis on the narrative histories of Fulcher, William of Tyre, the Gesta Francorum etc. Basically at this level we are expected to be masters of the secondary material and curious yet erudite with the primary sources. Needless to say this requires a lot of bluffing on my part!
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote pikeshot1600 Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 24-Apr-2009 at 14:55
As far as the validity of sources, secondary sources are certainly useful.  Edited collections of papers can sometimes be a combination of usable primary material and secondary analysis and comment.
 
IIRC, you are into the 20th century.  Primary sources are well catalogued and available for modern times, but for early modern Europe, a period I find interesting, it is a chore. 
 
Personal papers are all over the place, ill catalogued; missing; destroyed in fires over the years; written in illegible caligraphy and in Baroque styles that confound modern understanding.  Not to mention the translation needs.  Dead
 
Geoffrey Parker wrote that he and some of his colleagues risked going blind trying to read the 16th and 17th century consultas and memmoranda of Spanish officials in the archives at Simancas.
 
I guess I am happy I never got good enough at all that to risk my eyesight.
 
  
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote pikeshot1600 Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 24-Apr-2009 at 14:57
Parnell, I just saw your reply - I was writing another post on this.
 
 
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote gcle2003 Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 24-Apr-2009 at 18:18
I don't think the distinction between primary and secondary sources is important here: the important thing about any source is that ir may reflect the bias of the author (or indeed may simply be mistaken)[1]. I guess though that you are right, the problem really does come to a head in political and religious sources. Economic, social, art, music history are probably freer of the problem: minutes of trades unĂ®on meetings for instance are usually accurate guides to what was decided at them, even though the verbal style of reported speeches is likely to have been 'improved' by a considerate secretary, and you cannot really lie about, say, the brushwork of Vermeer's Milkmaid.
 
In politics the main way out must be to compare with other records of the same events, especially where there are other records by people with opposing interests or no interest in the subject at hand. As I recall, Barbara Tuchman's The Zimmerman Telegram is a good example of balancing sources from more than one government (US, UK Germany).  
 
Newspaper records shouldn't be sneezed at either. But at bottom, it is always necessary to fall back on one's knowledge of human nature and come doan to a judgement essentially based on 'Is this a reasonable thing people would have done?'
 
[1] On reflection I don't think the distinction between history and and other discipline is all that relevant either. A fair degree of salt is often necessary in listening to the results of experiments in physics for that matter.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote pikeshot1600 Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 25-Apr-2009 at 16:01
As an additional comment on "state papers," before more modern political pressure was able to demand access to official papers and correspondence, the archives of virtually all states were mostly secret.  Diplomatic documents, including treaties, and correspondence were held more as state secrets than as public state papers.
 
As such, now that many of those papers have been declassified or made available in other ways, they might be considered among the most reliable and accurate sources of what was really thought, what was attempted and what was achieved.  There was far less need to obfuscate or gloss over official (or personal) opinion, and the same for ends and means.
 
It is not totally dependable though.  Documents were still leaked and doctored for all sorts of self interest, and memoirs based on official documents tend toward self justification as well as blame throwing.
 
Historians are pretty good at reading between those lines.
 
   
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote gcle2003 Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 25-Apr-2009 at 18:49

Sometimes I think the patron saint of modern historians at least should be St Paul. Not the one with the keys but St Paul Julius Reuter.

Taken almost at random:
 
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