The Historian and his Evidence. An Essay

Essay, 2016

6 Pages



The reconstruction of the past has always been dependent on evidence from events of the past. This means that history cannot be written without evidence. Evidence used in history can be defined as “materials” that gives signs or proofs of the existence of historical events. However, the accumulation of evidence alone doesn’t make history as they must be supported with interpretation by the historian. The relationship between the historian and the evidence used in historical deconstruction is one of the major themes in history today. Historical reconstructing can be explained as “studying history at its most basic level”[1] and “value” as used in the question means the significance of the evidence in historical explanation of past events. This essay seeks to explain why the evidence used in historical deconstruction owes its value to the interpreter of sources with three main points namely; it is the historian who pick the evidence, the historian interprets the evidence and it is the historian who organizes and present the evidence to his readers.

First of all it is the historian who in studying about the past picks what is evidence and what is not. As Alun Munslow puts it “History is always the end product of the historian’s selection of evidence and choice of appropriate sources.”[2] This means that evidence in itself can be said to be “lying in darkness” and the historian brings it to the light of the historical world by using it in historical deconstruction. E.H Carr also enlightens on this issue by saying “History consists of a corpus of ascertained facts. The facts are available to the historian in documents, inscriptions and so on, like fish on the fishmongers slab. The historian collects them, takes them home and cooks and serves them in whatever style appeals to him…”[3] This statement also confirms the fact the value of the evidence is given by the historian through his choice of the evidence. For instance if one is writing about the role of the media in the struggle for independence in Ghana, that person might come across a number of newspapers reporting an incident such as the 1948 riots, the historian can decide to pick any newspaper of his choice to be used as evidence in his research. By picking one newspaper over the others which are reporting the same incident, the historian is giving value to that newspaper which is now an evidence. The other evidence will be unknown until another historian encounters them and decides to use them in his research. This illustrate clearly that the historian gives value to evidence by just including them in their work.

Again, the historian gives value to the evidence through his interpretation that he give about fact inferred from the evidence. The mere accumulation of facts doesn’t make history but the interpretation attached the evidence helps make history. The historian through his interpretation of the evidence impose his ideologies and bias on the meaning given. As E.H Carr famously remarked

“The facts of history never come to us “pure” since they do not and cannot exist in a pure form: they are always refracted through the mind of the recorder. It follows that when we take up a work of history, our first concern should not be with the facts which it contains but with the historian who wrote it”[4].

This means that the historian always allows his biases and background to affect his interpretation either intentionally or unintentionally. John Tosh share a similar view by saying

For the primary sources are not an open book, offering instant answers. They may not be what they seem to be; they may signify very much more than is immediately apparent… ‘Records’, it has been said, ‘like the little children of long ago, only speak when they are spoken to, and they will not talk to strangers[5]

This means that the evidence in isolation doesn’t provide answers as to what happened in the past and why it happened. The answers are on inferred by the historian after a rigorous study of the evidence available. The historian then is like a crime scene investigator who approaches the crime scene not only to find the killer but to find motive for the murder. The motive for the murder can be found after studying and interpreting the evidence available at the scene which then leads him to suspects and later interview with suspects provides the motive for the murder. Through the interpretation of the evidence, the historian not only provide what happened and how it happened but is also able to provide why it happened (intentions behind people’s actions). The answers that the evidence provide is based on the questions that the historian raise about the issue being studied. By so doing, the historian is then giving value to that evidence in a sense that the evidence is now contributing to historical knowledge through the historian’s interpretation.

Lastly, the historian gives value to the evidence used in historical reconstruction through the way in which he presents his interpretation and in this case narration. The events of the past doesn’t happen in a narrative form but it is the historian who in trying to explain the reasons for certain actions in the past puts his interpretation of the facts of the past in a chronological form to make meaning. The past cannot be retrieved as it actually happened as John Lewis Gaddis puts it “The past… is something we can never have….we cannot relive, retrieve, or rerun it as we might some laboratory experiment… we can only represent it”. The historian then by studying the evidence tries to represent the past through a form of narrative. By putting events in a chronological order, the historian is giving value to the evidence being interpreted by connecting those evidences to the happenings of that time. Alun Munslow makes this clear by saying “Historical understanding is the exercise of the capacity to follow a story, where the story is based on evidence and is put forward as a sincere effort to get at the story”[6]. For instance, the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu made comments in October this year about the holocaust that the decision to kill the Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe was not Hitler’s idea but the then Palestinian grand mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini who suggested to Hitler that if he only expel the Jews, they will all come to Jerusalem so Hitler should kill them. This distortion of facts can only be possible if the events leading to the killing of the Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe is not arranged chronologically. It is true that the grand mufti met Hitler in late November 1941, but the decision to kill European Jews in gas chambers was taken and implemented in September 1941 at the wannsee conference[7]. This means that it is therefore historically and factually inaccurate to associate the final solution to the then grand mufti of Jerusalem. The above example shows that the way a historian arranges his facts inferred from evidence affects the value of the evidence and the right (chronological) arrangement of inferences makes the evidence valuable to the theme under research by the historian. This helps to give a clear picture of the society and environment in which those events takes place and this pictorial view cannot be given by the evidence in isolation. So the historian through his narrative mode of presentation helps readers to understand the event well after studying the evidence available.


[1] See Alun Munslow, Deconstructing History (London and New York: Routledge, 1997) p1

[2] See Alun Munslow, The New History (Great Britain: Pearson Education Ltd, 2003) p 64

[3] See E.H Carr, What is History (Cambridge University Press, 1961) p 8

[4] See Alun Munslow, Deconstructing History (London and New York: Routledge, 1997) p 45

[5] See John Tosh, The Pursuit Of History, 4th Ed (Pearson Education Ltd [1984], 2006), p91

[6] See Alun Munslow, Deconstructing History(London/ New York 1997), Page 10

[7] See Omer Bartov, Rewriting Histories: The Holocaust, Origins, implementation and aftermath ( Routledge, London/ New York 2001) page 108

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The Historian and his Evidence. An Essay
Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology  (Department of History and Political Studies)
Ba. Hisotry
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historian, evidence, essay
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Emmanuel Twum Mensah (Author), 2016, The Historian and his Evidence. An Essay, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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