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Primary source essay

This 3000-word source-based essay focuses on one primary source to shed light on material evaluation in the Enlightenment. To achieve this, the essay will also draw on other primary and secondary sources.

The essay will be marked using the usual history-specific marking criteria for written work. That said, a primary-source essay is a particular type of essay that calls for specific tasks that are not relevant to all other essays.

Like any other essay, this one needs to be an argument--it needs to state a thesis and make a case for that thesis. Unlike other essays, the argument of this essay will centre on a primary source. More details on the task are below.

The thesis. This needs to be related to the theme of the module, namely material evaluation in the Enlightenment. Beyond that, you are free to choose a topic as a function of your own knowledge and interests. It may help to consider some of the theses we have encountered in the secondary readings, such as Emma Spary's thesis that botanical expertise replaced scholarly expertise as the main way of evaluating coffee in France around 1700; or William Ashworth's thesis that the hydrometer was part of the political struggle between producers and the state in eighteenth-century Britain. Your thesis will probably be less ambitious than these, given the constraints of the assignment. But you may find these theses (by Spary, Ashworth, and the other historians we have read) a useful model to follow. The note under 'Contextualise' below may also be useful.

The primary source. This may be any primary source related to material evaluation in the Enlightenment. The one limitation is that it cannot be one of the primary sources we have discussed in detail in seminars, such as Robert Boyle's 1675 article on gold assaying in the Phil. Trans., or Henry Drax's instructions on the management of a Barbadian sugar plantation. More precisely, you cannot choose the passages from these sources that we discussed in detail in class. For example, you may choose the sections on beer in Leadbetter's Royal Gauger, but not the sections on the distillery. The source may be a written document, but it may also be an object, diagram, painting, or any other historical artefact that sheds light on the past.

Finding a primary source. One way to find the source is through a relevant secondary source. If you are interested in connoisseurship in the fine arts, for example, you might look through the Warwick library catalogue for books on this topic related to the eighteenth century. You might then find, for example, Carol Gibson-Wood's book Jonathan Richardson: Art Theorist of the English Enlightenment, which in turn discusses many relevant primary sources. Another approach is to start with the primary sources themselves by searching through collections of relevant sources. Examples are:

The online archive of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London

Early English Books Online, a database of early modern English texts

The online archive of the English East India Company

Eighteenth-century encyclopaedias, such as Chambers' Cyclopaedia, the fourth edition of which has been digitised

The catalogues of public museums, such as the Oxford Museum for the History of Science and the British Museum

Virtual exhibitions, such as the Intoxicating Spaces exhibition or the Sugar and the Visual Imagination exhibition

Analysing the primary source. Analysing primary sources is more an art than a science, and there are no hard-and-fast rules about how to do it. However, for the purpose of this essay you should do at least the following:

Interpret. Decipher the source so that it can be understood by a non-specialist audience. This may mean explaining technical terms, rephrasing complicated sentences, identifying rhetorical devices or figures of speech, or (for long texts) summarising the argument or narrative.

Explain. Get behind the source to understand its conditions of production. Who was the author? Who was the intended audience? Why, when, how, and where was the source made? Which genre does it belong to (encyclopaedia article, scientific article, merchant correspondence...) and how does it fit into the history of that genre?

Contextualise. Relate the source to wider historical developments of the kind that we have covered in the module, such as the the growth of the fiscal-military state, the growth of a consumer culture, and the outbreak of the French Revolution.

The essay could be structured around these three tasks, with one section on each - but it does not need to be. The important thing is to do these three things as part of your research, and to integrate them into your argument.

Other sources. Although the essay should be centred on one primary source, it does not need to be limited to that source. Indeed, you will need to draw on other primary and secondary sources to make sense of the primary source that you focus on. The expectation is that you will draw on five (or more) secondary sources and one (or more) additional primary sources. The secondary sources can be made of books, book chapters, journal articles, or chapters in edited collections.

Meeting with tutor. All students are strongly encouraged to meet the tutor (during office hours) to discuss their choice of primary source. This meeting can take place any time in term 2 before the essay deadline, but should be around the time you decide upon that source.