Historical story

historical sources

Last updated:2022-07-25

The fonts historical they are items with traces of the past that are bequeathed to posterity and serve as a basis for historians to carry out their research work on the human past. Until the 19th century, only written sources were considered as historical sources, but from the 20th century onwards a range of new sources began to be explored by historians.

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Understanding Historical Sources

The historian is the professional responsible for studying the traces left by the past and try to reconstruct and interpret it in the best possible way. His work is carried out using methods that help him to interpret all traces of the past that have reached us in the present time.

This historian's work helps us understand some of the our reality and is only possible from these traces, which are called sources historical , also known as documents histories .

Historical sources are then the material and immaterial items or even traces of these items (since much of the past has only partially survived time) that refer to a certain human past. It is through them that historians reconstitute and interpret the events of the past. This is because, according to historian Marc Bloch, everything that man has produced, material or immaterial, can provide information about him|1| .

Using historical sources, however, requires use of method by the historian . He needs to know how to consult the historical source and hence the importance of a method. Marc Bloch states that even the clearest documents do not speak for themselves, requiring the historian to ask the right questions|1| .

Currently, the historian has a very wide range of possibilities for historical sources . Of course, this will depend on the object chosen by the historian in his investigation. Until the 19th century, however, the only historical source considered by historians was the written document, especially the official one, that is, produced by other historians or by authorities.

In this period, historians understood history as an area of ​​knowledge responsible only for the history of great events, great governments and great men. This limited view of history was radically modified from the 20th century onwards, when the historian expanded his historical sources and his objects of investigation increased.

For this reason, historian José D'Assunção Barros says that currently historians have practically no limits “in terms of the possibility of transforming anything into a historical source”|2| . Thus, we can say that, in addition to written documents, the historian can use paintings, sculptures, photos, videos, songs, ruins, clothes, etc.

In addition to this expansion in material sources, the immaterial has also become a historical source , and the use of written documents has expanded. Now not only official documents are used in historical investigation, but also personal letters, travel reports, poems, literary books, diaries, etc.

The historian can also explore other areas of knowledge and use them in your historical investigation. Thus, geography, archeology, sociology, anthropology, psychology and other areas of knowledge can and should be used by the historian. Marc Bloch emphasizes the importance of this by stating that the historian needs to have competence with other techniques because his craft will require this knowledge | 3 | .

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Voluntary and involuntary sources

Historical sources can be divided into different categories that help us to typify and understand them. One of them, according to Marc Bloch, defines the fonts as voluntary and involuntary|4|.

The volunteer is one that was produced with the deliberate intention of registering something for posterity, that is, a certain historical event. An example of a voluntary source is Thucydides' record of the Peloponnesian War, precisely because he recorded this event with posterity in mind.

The historical source involuntary is the one that is important in the work of the researcher, but it is a trace that not produced thinking- if on posterity . Thus, the mummies and funerary rituals of the Egyptians are a historical source because they help us to understand the culture of Ancient Egypt, however mummification was not performed as a form of recording for posterity, but because it had an important value. within the religiosity of the Egyptians. Therefore, as it was not intended for posterity, it is considered an involuntary source.

In any case, involuntary historical sources have great value for the historian, precisely because they bring very important and significant details to the work of historical investigation.

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What are the types of historical sources?

We have seen that the historian Marc Bloch classifies historical sources into voluntary and involuntary, and this is a definition used by him to think about the importance of sources for the historian. There are, however, other ways to categorize and type fonts.

José D'Assunção Barros organizes the historical sources into four types, which are:

  • textual documents;

  • archaeological remains and sources of material culture;

  • pictorial representations; and

  • oral records.

We'll see below what can be included in each of these types of historical sources.

  1. Documents textual :government documents, travel reports, diaries, personal and government letters, chronicles, poems, literary books, newspapers, court documents, pamphlets, booklets, magazines, etc.

  2. Archaeological remains and sources of material culture :Items rescued by archeology, such as ruins of buildings, streets, tombs, clothing, weapons, pottery, etc. In addition, objects from more recent times, such as clothes, cups, furniture, personal items, etc., are also considered sources of material culture.

  3. Representations pictorial :cave paintings, frescoes, paintings, photos, illustrations, animations, etc.

  4. Records oral :testimonies of people who lived through certain events, origin myths, legends, etc.

Another category used by historians to think about historical sources is the one that divides them into direct historical sources and indirect . In this case, the direct historical sources are those that were produced by the agents who lived the historical events in question. Indirect historical sources are those produced by some historian or scholar based on the study of a direct source.

Therefore, when we analyze Thucydides' account of the plague of Athens, a disease that struck that Greek city in the 4th century BC, for example, we are using a direct historical source, because Thucydides lived in Athens during the period of this epidemic, having even contracted the disease. Now when we are studying the subject through the study promoted by a modern historian, then we will be in possession of an indirect historical source.


|1| BLOCH, Marc. Apology for History or the historian's craft. Rio de Janeiro:Zahar, 2001, p. 79.

|2| BARROS, José D'Assunção. Historical Sources:revisiting some essential aspects for Historical Research. To access, click here.

|3| BLOCH, Marc. Apology for History or the historian's craft. Rio de Janeiro:Zahar, 2001, p. 81.

|4| Ditto, p. 76.

Image credits

[1] Lerner Vadim and Shutterstock

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