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Guide to Writing a Commentary on Primary Source(s)

This shorter assignment (1,500-words, worth 10%) takes the form of a commentary on a primary source or two conceptually linked sources or a comparison of two primary sources. You could take any of the documents set out for the classes on the module website (whether or not we have yet discussed them) or find the longer versions of them if they are extracts, or choose another document (please ask me about the latter).

Each week we discuss pieces of primary text, so essentially this exercise replicates on paper the type of analysis you routinely conduct in class. The assignment will also help prepare you for both a second or third year dissertation, or a third year module, where close engagement with primary material is a basic requirement.

Focus on text, context and significance.

You don't need a question heading unless you would find it useful to give you an angle on the source(s).

Some questions you might want to ask (not all will be applicable to all sources, but many will be):

  • Text. What are the essential or notable features of what is being said [this might have to do with the language/wording used as much as the content]? What keywords, phrases or concepts are involved? Why are they important?
  • Context. Who wrote this and what do we know about them – is it important? What do we know about the aims of the author(s)? When was it written and is this significant? In what ways is it significant to know the historical context in which it was written?
  • What is the significance of what is being said? Is this text part of a larger series of texts and if so, does this larger corpus have significance? How does the piece relate to other texts and to the period as a whole? Was it representative? innovative? aberrant? Influential? What is its broader historical significance? How did readers react? Does the piece raise historiographical questions or relate to a historiographical debate? What are the key debates to which this relates? How have historians interpreted it or documents like it?

The marking criteria are the same as for any other piece of work. Reference secondary material in the normal way. You can refer to the online versions of the sample documents (cite as 'Coursework document X, p.y) or go back to the originals.