Historical Methods

Through this choice of papers students are encouraged to reflect on the variety of approaches used by modern historians, or on the ways in which history has been written in the past, to read historical classics written in a range of ancient and modern languages, or to acquire the numerical skills needed for certain types of historical investigation. 

Students can choose any one option of:

Approaches to History

This paper introduces students to ways of looking at the past that will probably be novel to them. The course explores both the strengths and the weaknesses of looking at the past from the perspective of other intellectual disciplines, with their varied methodologies and their different types of evidence (Anthropology; Archaeology; Art History; Economics and Sociology). The paper also offers a chance to examine the particular perspective on History offered by an awareness of the role of gender and gender difference, an approach that has been developed powerfully in recent decades. Classes and tutorials are supported by a comprehensive lecture-course which runs in the Michaelmas Term. Students are encouraged to attend lectures on all the different disciplines, since these include a number of overlapping themes and interests; in contrast tutorials normally concentrate on only two or three of the disciplines. The study of each Approach is organized around a series of broad sub-topics which are described more fully below and are supported by short bibliographies. However none of the reading is prescribed and a course-tutor could perfectly well approach each subject with a different set of examples, chosen from any period.

Prescribed topics

The paper is concerned with the ways in which the writing of history has been influenced by other disciplines, methods and techniques. Candidates will be required to show knowledge of at least two different ‘approaches’ out of the six set out below. The sub-headings give guidance to areas in which questions will be set:


This Approach introduces students to the work of cultural and social anthropologists, and to the way it has influenced the thinking of historians in recent decades. As with the other Approaches, the aim is to offer students new broader perspectives on the ways in which the past can be studied and to think more carefully about the concepts they use. The four broad subthemes and supporting bibliographies allow students to read some of the classic works of anthropology and thereby appreciate the diversity of ways in which anthropologists have approached the study of humans in the present. Students can consider the extent to which functionalism and field studies at a micro level have influenced historical work, or the possibilities for historians of the cultural anthropology exemplified by the work of Clifford Geertz. Students will also be encouraged to take note of the extent to which there is a two-way interaction between anthropology and history and to consider the implications of the intense self-criticism of anthropology as an agent of colonialism.

Family and kinship

This topic offers students the chance to analyse how anthropological work has sharpened historians’ understanding of the central role of family and kinship structures in societies and of the diversity of forms which these structures may take. As a central topic of much anthropological work it exemplifies the way anthropological approaches have been contested and have developed over the last half century – from the stress on scientific categorization in the mid-twentieth century to the more recent emphasis of Pierre Bourdieu on fluidity and improvisation.

Authority and Power

This topic introduces students to another central interest of anthropologists – to the way authority is constructed and maintained in small face-to-face societies and to the role of rituals in legitimizing power or authority. Areas of particular study might include the strengths and limitations of the functionalist approach to feuds and rebellions, or the way in which historians have learnt from anthropologists’ attempts to analyse how rituals work.

Religion, Magic and Popular Culture

This topic examines an area where the debt of many historians to the work of anthropologists has been extensive and has opened up a number of lively debates. The work of Evans-Pritchard or Clifford Geertz and its influence on historians such as Keith Thomas or Robert Darnton offers a classic example. At a general level the topic encourages students to examine why religion and magic make sense to their participants and to consider the limitations of concepts such as popular culture.

The construction of history

This topic explores the way anthropologists have looked at and thought about the past, be it myths, genealogies, oral histories, or the work of professional historians, as an attempt by participants within a society to explain who they are and to legitimize, contest or make sense of the world as it is. Students are encouraged to consider the applicability of such interpretations to historical testimonies and records from the past or indeed to the work of professional historians and anthropologists in the present.



The aim of this Approach is to introduce history students, very familiar with working with the evidence of words and texts, to a different type of evidence for the human past: mute material remains. The course underlines the very considerable strengths of material objects as evidence, but also their limitations, and how they are subject to varying interpretations. It also offers a chance to show how an archaeological approach has altered historians’ perceptions of the past. The course, while arranged thematically, introduces students to aspects of archaeological methodology (such as how to find and interpret traces of buried landscapes). It is not centred around theoretical debates within ‘Archaeology’ itself, though students may engage with these if they wish. The introductory explanations and attached bibliographies give some idea of how each theme might be studied though each can equally be approached with a different set of examples, chosen from any period. It is also possible to centre a topic on a specific site or group of material (e.g. for ‘Burials’ the Spitalfields crypt, or the Sutton Hoo barrows).


This topic will introduce students to many of the different types of surviving evidence for ancient and capes (crop-marks revealed through air photography; pottery-scatters through field-survey; modern topographical features; etc.). It will show how we can read in the landscape changing patterns of economic exploitation, settlement and ideology. Production and exchange This topic explores the evidence for the manufacture and exchange of goods examining both production sites and the distribution patterns of archaeologically identifiable products.

Burial: belief and social status

In this topic students are invited to consider the extent to which the dead, and what is buried with them, can provide evidence of belief and social differentiation.

The built environment: form and function

By looking at both whole townscapes and individual buildings, this topic encourages the student to explore the builders’ intentions and the way that people have used the built environment.



The goal of this Approach is to broaden the historian’s sensitivity to an infinite variety of visual evidence. In most history writing, disproportionate attention is paid to written sources: this course is designed to foster a more balanced approach. However, using visual evidence is far from simple. ‘Art’ in this context is very broadly defined, to include not merely the western canon of ‘high art’, but the entire gamut of material cultural production, and its consumption. The short bibliography can be supplemented with case-studies from different periods and places. Indeed, students should be encouraged to engage in detail with particular images – including any to be found in Oxford’s museums and galleries. While for brevity and convenience it is largely focused on western art traditions, this is not intended as any constraint on the scope of the course. The course is structured around four broad – and overlapping – themes.

Creation and consumption

The first theme relates to the social context of art: how, precisely, are the variety and changes in artistic production (styles of painting, forms of architecture, etc.) related to contemporary social developments? Consideration needs to be given not only to structures of patronage, but also to broader issues of markets and consumption.

Art and politics

The second theme includes, but extends beyond, the use of visual imagery as a form of propaganda. Images have been deployed for subversive, no less than authoritarian, purposes. Analysis often reveals a creative tension in the interpretation of an image, whose ‘true’ meaning is contested.

The power of images: ways of seeing

The third theme explores varieties of visual response. Intense emotional identification with a picture, or a violent desire to destroy a statue, are repeatedly documented phenomena. To study these responses in context is to shed new light on historical societies.

The idea of the history of art: displaying, writing and collecting

The last theme is the particularly western way in which ‘the history of art’ has been conceived. This notion has been profoundly influential (through collecting, the construction of museums, art writing and art history), and rewards study. The post-medieval European idea of ‘fine art’ is a highly particular category: to recognize it as such is to become more fully aware of the richness of a far more inclusive realm of visual culture beyond the ‘fine’ arts, both in European and non-European traditions.



The aim of this Approach is to introduce students to the ways in which economic models and statistical sources can be used to understand history. It encourages students to tackle the central issue of how economic development has changed the character and quality of human life and, to this end, to look at the ways in which economics has tried to define and measure concepts such as character and quality. The course can be approached both by taking a broad perspective on the economic evolution of the globe and by looking at specific thematic issues and case studies in different periods, for example the role of technological change. As with the other Approaches, it is organized around four broad themes. In the course of these students will be introduced to the grand theories of economic development expounded by Adam Smith, Robert Malthus and Karl Marx; the ways in which historians have sought to apply, refine, or refute these grand theories in the light of evidence from different times and places can be closely assessed.

From poverty to mass prosperity

This topic examines questions such as when did mass prosperity originate? When did incomes in developed countries diverge from those in the rest of the world? When did Europe pull ahead of China? Why did some countries prosper while others languished? What evidence can historians use to measure such things and what problems of interpretation does it raise?

The spread of commerce

This topic considers the relationship between markets, incomes and living standards. Has trade always been mutually beneficial as Adam Smith believed or have some countries gained at the expense of others? How can ‘Smithian growth’ be detected and its importance assessed in past societies? What is the role of the state in promoting mass prosperity?

Economics and population change

This topic looks at what determines the rise and fall of population and how population change affects living standards and income distribution. How do Malthusian population dynamics relate to family structure, inheritance, marriage customs, and the roles of men and women? Can long run growth patterns be explained by preventive and positive checks? Does ‘overpopulation’ remain an explanation of poverty and a threat to sustainable development?

Economics and social structure

Can history be divided into stages like feudalism and capitalism as Marx argued? Is capitalism more conducive to economic development than other social structures? Do diminishing returns or class conflict explain the distribution of income? Is culture explained by technology and economic Organisation? How do free market development, government regulation, or state ownership advance or hinder the interests of either the population as a whole or specific groups within the population?



This Approach enables students to look both at the historiography of gender history and at the contribution it has made to other historical agendas. The contributions of women’s history are evaluated alongside the more recent stress on gender as a category of historical analysis, which has demonstrated the degree to which masculinity is a contested social category. The paper allows students to look at the means by which gender hierarchies are maintained and contested. The methodological problems of recovering the histories of women and men are addressed; key concepts like patriarchy are interrogated; some of the most influential models of change (such as ‘the separation of spheres’) are evaluated; and the contribution of other disciplines assessed.

Gender and work

This topic looks at the ways in which men and women’s work has been differentiated, at the relationship between the social and sexual division of labour, and at the determinants of change in male and female roles in the household and workplace.

Gender and political change

This topic examines the contribution of gendered approaches to the stuff of conventional history, such as war, colonialism, and nationalism. In what ways are the languages of colonialism, nationalism, and citizenship gendered? How far does war reinforce or undermine gender stereotypes? By what means have women been excluded from formal political structures, and what varieties of informal power have they exercised?

Gender, religion, and culture

This topic explores the ways in which religious, legal, medical, and scientific discourses have contributed to the construction and subversion of gender roles. The variety of forms of religious expression available to men and women is discussed. The complex relationships between intellectual and religious change and the positions of women and men are assessed.

Family and sexuality

This topic encourages students to look at varying household and family structures, at the determinants of male and female roles within the family, at how and why they vary between cultures, and at how they change. Another rich area of investigation is provided by the history of sexuality, looking at the ways in which the sexual identities (including homosexuality) of men and women are culturally variable. Particular attention is paid to the interdisciplinary insights provided by anthropology, demography, and literary theory.



The aim of this Approach is to introduce students to the discipline of sociology, to explore ways in which sociological method has influenced historians, and to look at ways in which sociology and history over the years have diverged or converged. Students are introduced to the discipline of sociology as the study of man as a social animal, shaped by social institutions but at the same time able to construct or reconstruct them. How much scope different sociologists give to the individual and human agency is discussed. The course is organized around four broad themes.

Sociological techniques

The approach of sociology to sources, concepts, the comparative method and ‘grand theory’ is compared to that of historians, and examples from the hybrid of historical sociology are examined. The traffic is not all one way and the appeal to some sociologists of the narrative and biographical approach is also illustrated.

Social stratification

This topic introduces students to the sociological theories of social stratification, especially those of Marx on class and Weber on social status, and examines how they have set the agenda for much social history. It also explores how such concepts have lost some of their explanatory force and how historians have refined them in new and exciting ways.

Power and authority

This topic examines ways in which sociologists have conceptualized the state and political institutions and at how they have analysed political obedience in terms of power (coercion) and authority (the recognition of legitimacy). It explores different notions of power developed by theorists such as Foucault, and ideas of bureaucracy, social discipline, revolt and revolution. Ways in which historians have used or developed these ideas are discussed.

Sociology and religion

This topic examines ways in which religion has been treated by sociologists. It looks in particular at the concept of the secularization of modern society, both as a debate among sociologists of religion and as a research question for historians who have refined and challenged the theory in the light of empirical evidence.



Historians commonly approach the study of historical writing in two quite distinct ways: either by study of the techniques which we hold to be immediately relevant today, or by looking at the “history of history”, as for example by focussing on classic texts in Western historical writing. This paper takes the second road. Its principal agenda are as follows:

  • The close reading of texts which really will bear close reading — reading being still the most fundamental of all historical “methods”.
  • Consideration of central problems which affect all historical writing: the scope and proper subject matter of history; historical objectivity; the interrelation between the author’s past and present; the relation of literature to history; the question of whether there is a “Whiggish” progression in historical writing, so that modern writing is necessarily better than that of earlier periods; and (not least) why we should bother with history at all.
  • The outlines of how the Western historical tradition has evolved in fact.

Those writers considered are Tacitus, Augustine, Machiavelli, Gibbon, Ranke, Macaulay, Weber

Foreign Texts (Texts in a Foreign Language)

HERODOTUS, V. 26 - VI. 131 to be read in Greek, ed. C. Hude (Oxford Classical Texts, 3rd edn., 1927)

The central part of Herodotus’ Histories studied in this paper analyses the causes and course of the Ionian Revolt and the first Persian invasion of Greece, which ended in defeat at the hands of the Athenians and Plataeans on the plain of Marathon in 490 BC. Included in Herodotus’ account of these events, however, is also his account of the circumstances in which Kleisthenes got the constitutional reforms which created democracy passed at Athens, a long speech on tyranny at Corinth, and much discussion of internal politics at Sparta and of Spartan foreign policy during the reign of King Kleomenes (c.520-c.490).

Herodotus’ text is our major source for all these events, and our understanding of them depends upon an understanding of Herodotus’ sources and his historical methods. By close study of the way in which Herodotus tells his story, making comparison where possible with evidence contemporary with the events described and with other later accounts, it is possible to understand both what Greeks of the middle of the fifth century had come to regard as the foundations of their current political arrangements, and also to assess the reliability of the traditions which Herodotus exploits. Problems concerning the nature of Athenian and Spartan politics in these years, as well as of the state of relations between Persia and Greece, for which there is also some Persian evidence, are the central historical concerns. But understanding Herodotus is important not only for our comprehension of the events of the period but for our understanding of the development of western historiography at whose head Herodotus stands.

Candidates are required to comment on gobbets set in Greek but are not required to translate Greek in the examination paper.

EINHARD, Vita Karoli Magnis Imperatoris

ASSER, De Rebus Gestis Aelfredi

The paper offers students the chance to engage with two of the most famous Latin texts of the early middle ages: Einhard’s biography of Charlemagne and Asser’s of Alfred.

These texts bring the student face to face with the nature of early medieval kingship and, more specifically, with two momentous transformations in European and British history. From whatever angle we look at the Carolingian and Alfredian ages, the Emperor Charlemagne and King Alfred emerge as great instigators in the process by which military greed and opportunism were wrought into new political, religious and literary cultures.

Einhard’s Vita Karoli (written within a decade or two of Charlemagne's death in 814) and Asser’s De Rebus Gestis Aelfredi (written in the 890s during Alfred’s lifetime) are the preeminent texts by which these transformations were captured. Both authors were alive to the achievements of their subjects and to the attitudes and aspirations of their times. Moreover as learned scholars and powerful figures in their own right they also had their own agendas. Despite the brevity of Einhard’s Vita (a mere 40 pages in Penguin) every phrase bristles with undertones and allusions; the extent of Einhard’s debt to classical writers and the significance of what he does and does not say have continued to generate enormous scholarly attention and debate.

By closely focusing on these works and their interpretation students can gain experience and practice of how to approach primary sources at the start of their Oxford careers, thereby acquiring a skill which will prove invaluable for their work on subsequent papers. Passages from the texts are set in Latin for detailed comment but the modest length of the texts means that students with basic Latin should have little difficulty coping with them. Students studying this paper may attend the Latin reading classes offered for graduate students (subject to the agreement of the tutor concerned).

Helpful translations are readily available (the Penguin Classics: Einhard and Notker the Stammerer, Two Lives of Charlemagne, trans., L. Thorpe and Alfred the Great: Asser’s Life of King Alfred and other Contemporary Sources, trans., S. Keynes & M. Lapidge).

ALEXIS DE TOCQUEVILLE, L’Ancien Régime et la Révolution

Tocqueville’s L’Ancien Régime et la Révolution, first published in 1856, is one of the most famous accounts of the origins of the French Revolution ever written. Noted for its wide-ranging and subtle analysis of the government, society and culture of eighteenth-century France, it has always been an essential point of departure for any student working on the Revolution, admired not so much as a piece of historical research but as a brilliant study of political economy. Moreover, the text is more than just a study of the causes of the French Revolution. Written in the aftermath of the coup d’état of Napoleon III in 1851, it was intended as an oeuvre à thèse, which would explain to contemporary mid-nineteenthcentury Frenchmen their failure to establish a permanent liberal democracy.

Traditionally L’Ancien Régime et la Révolution is taught by a wide cross-section of college tutors. Students will be introduced to the complexity of Tocqueville’s argument, in particular his conception of the centralised French absolute state, his views on the genesis and significance of class conflict, and his understanding of the role of the Enlightenment in causing the French Revolution. Beyond this, there are various way in which the text may be placed in a wider context. Students may examine the historiography of the causes of the French Revolution in order to compare and contrast Tocqueville’s analysis with earlier and subsequent explanations. They may seek a deeper understanding of the more recent historiography of eighteenth-century France to see how Tocqueville’s vision has been refined or challenged. Finally they may re-examine the text in the light of Tocqueville’s own intellectual development and political career.

The course is intended to give students the opportunity to develop their reading ability in the French language, and in the first term at least they should expect to spend much of the time getting to know the text in the original. It also enables students to get to grips with an extremely rich and influential work of history that will give them a graphic insight into the problems of historical method and the historian’s craft. 

FRIEDRICH MEINECKE, Die Deutsche Katastrophe: Betrachtungen und Erinnerungen (Wiesbaden, 1949) pp. 5-104.

ECKART KEHR, Der Primat der Innenpolitik: Gesammelte Aufsätze zur preussisch-deutschen Sozialgeschichte im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert (Berlin 1970) pp. 87-129, 149-83.

This paper is intended to introduce German-reading undergraduates to two of the most influential twentieth-century historians of modern Germany: Eckart Kehr and Friedrich Meinecke.

Each made a distinctive contribution to the development of modern German historiography: Meinecke was perhaps the most influential of all the later historicists and Kehr was an inspiration to the so-called critical school of social history, whose emphasis on the primacy of socio-economic factors in politics has informed an immense literature since he was ‘rediscovered’ by Hans-Ulrich Wehler in the 1960s.

The set passages of the two authors not only give students a flavour of their methodology, but also introduce some of the key historical debates which relate to the period 1870-1945. In general, the paper provides an introduction to the continuing debate on the ‘peculiarity’ of modern German history and allows students to become familiar with the so-called Sonderweg (‘special path’) theory. 

MACHIAVELLI, Discorsi sopra la prima deca di Tito Livio, Bk I

Machiavelli’s reputation as an advocate of ruthless and unscrupulous politics does serious injustice to the richness, generosity and subtlety of his political thought. The Discourses on Livy (written c. 1513- 1519) reveal these latter qualities well. They provide an indispensable corrective to the familiar picture found in his better-known treatise The Prince. In the Discourses Machiavelli uses historical examples from ancient and modern times to illustrate the ways in which rulers and people habitually behave in the political life of republics and kingdoms. He asserts his belief that history can be used by citizens and statesmen to build up the kind of ‘case-lore’ already utilized in the practice of medicine and of law.

The text is a powerful and attractive example of Renaissance historical writing and at the same time an introduction to the Florentine genre of critical political analysis. Classical stories are set to work by Machiavelli to teach his fellow-Florentines how to rescue their city from the disasters which beset it in his day and how to capture for themselves by emulation something of the glory of Republican Rome.

A capacity to read straightforward material in present-day Italian will be enough to enable candidates to cope with the language in which this text is written. Any modern Italian edition will suffice: those published by Rizzoli, Feltrinelli and Einaudi have good introductions and notes. Machiavelli’s The Prince should certainly also be read; the best recent edition in English is that by Quentin Skinner and Russell Price in the series Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought (1988). 

Vicens Vives JAIME VICENS VIVES, Aproximación a la historia de España
Vicens Vives’s Aproximación a la historia de España, first published in 1952, is one of the most important reflections on the history of Spain never written. Relatively short, this text is not a synthesis but more of an innovative recapitulation of the main historiographical problems of Spain’s past from ancient times to the outbreak of the Civil War (1936). Written in a time of dictatorship, instead of pursuing the metahistorical debate on the uniqueness of Spain that had held the centre stage until then, Vicens Vives’s book marked a turning point calling for the adoption of more rigorous and modern methods then dominant in the rest of Europe, above all in France.

Aproximación a la historia de España is taught through seven tutorials and four classes (or lectures, depending on the number of takers). Students will be introduced to the figure and the work of Jaime Vicens Vives (1910–1960), as well asto the complexity of his rethinking of Spanish history over the longue durée. Beyond this, there are various ways in which the Aproximación may be placed in a broader context. Students may consider the constraints on historical writing in Francoist Spain, of which Vicens Vives was an opponent despite the fact that he never abandoned the country. They will be invited to explore the main characteristics of the so-called ‘new history’ (nueva historia) that Vicens Vives inaugurated in close dialogue with the Annales school, as well as considering his wider contacts with other historians both in Spain and abroad, including Sir John Elliott. Finally, they will be asked to reflect on the legacy of Vicens Vives in regard to the historiography of Spain in the second half of the twentieth-century, as well as on the new directions that it has taken more recently.

This course is intended to give students the opportunity to develop their reading ability in the Spanish language through an accessible academic text, while acquainting them with a number of key issues in the study of the history of Spain. It will also enable students to engage with an influential work of history that will give them an insight into general problems of historical method.

Students will be asked to read the work in its entirety on the basis of the 2nd edition, or one of its many reprints: J. Vicens Vives, Aproximación a la historia de España (1960). An annotated English translation of the work is also available: J. Vicens Vives, Approaches to the history of Spain, translated and edited by J.C. Ullman, 2nd edition corrected and revised (1970).

TROTSKY 1905 pp. 1-9, 17-245 (available for purchase as a photocopy from the History Faculty Library)

A study of Trotsky’s 1905 aims to examine Trotsky’s ideas as expressed in his history and to place them within the context of Russian Marxism in general.

Issues raised by the study of the period include: the development of the Russian Social Democratic movement, the worker’s movement, the development of Russian liberalism and the part it played in the events of 1905, the nature of the Russian Imperial Government and the effect of the Russo-Japanese war on Russian society and politics, the Russian agrarian question.

There are a number of recent monographs on these subjects and the study of this period provides the opportunity to discuss many of the problems associated with the last years of the Russian autocracy. 


The purpose of this course is to introduce historians to the statistical exploration of historical problems. It imparts statistical skills which enable students to read and understand quantitative historical research, and also to undertake elementary quantitative work on their own. It does this by examining a sequence of historical problems. During Michaelmas term, this also constitutes a course on the quantitative approach to the social history of Britain in the first half of the nineteenth century. In Hilary term, the scope is extended to the twentieth century. The course has three objectives:

  1. To provide an introduction to elementary topics in univariate and bivariate descriptive statistics and statistical inference, covering some of the techniques most widely used in social science history. No prior knowledge of statistics is assumed and A-level mathematics is not required. The course concentrates on the concepts behind the statistics, more than on the mathematics involved.
  2. To ground these techniques in the real world. To this end, it examines computer-based historical datasets throughout the course in exercises and in the research project. Additionally, it explores and evaluates the uses and limitations of quantification through historical case studies.
  3. To introduce students to history and computing, providing training in one of the most widely used statistical packages (SPSS, the statistical package for the social sciences). Students are also introduced to the methodological issues of inference from evidence and its validity, and to some issues in historical causation. These arise directly from the application of statistical method.

Candidates will be required to show understanding of the following:

  • the application and limitation of quantitative methods to historical problems
  • levels of measurement and the appropriate classification and arrangement of historical data (tables, charts, graphs, histograms, etc.)
  • summarizing historical facts: univariate descriptive statistics (frequency distributions, means, medians and modes, measures of dispersion, concepts of normality)
  • exploring historical relationships: bivariate descriptive statistics (correlation, measures of association including correlation coefficients, linear regression)
  • drawing inferences from historical data (sampling, distributions and confidence intervals; hypothesis testing; significance and probability, parametric and non-parametric measures of association and sample statistics; multivariate analysis)
  • use of computer-based statistical packages (data entry and verification, classification and transformations, statistical manipulation, interpretation and presentation)

Please note that the options listed above are illustrative and may be subject to change.

Teaching: Faculty lectures or classes, as well as college classes or tutorials, held over one or two terms.

Assessment: This paper is assessed with a 3-hour written examination.