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Historical Document Analysis Essay

 
SAMPLE HISTORICAL DOCUMENT ANALYSIS
C.T. Evans
 
 
Instructions
Listen to some further instructions about the analysis of historical documents as a mp3 file.  You can also read the information as a txt file.
 

Here is a suggested sample document analysis.  Some general questions to ask as you read and examine any historical document in this course.
  1. Who wrote the document?  Until you know this, you really know very little about the document. Sometimes you can figure out the author from the document itself. Was the author a political or private individual? Was he educated or not?  Was it a joint author?  Was there no single author, but is the document something that evolved over time?
  2. Who was the intended audience?  This will tell you about the author's use of any specific language or concepts and the knowledge that he assumed on the part of the audience.  It is no revelation that a document intended for a five-year-old child will be different than something intended for a mature adult.
  3. What is the story line?  What is going on in the document?  What is the information in the document?
  4. Why was the document written?  Everything is written for a reason. Is the document just a random note, or a scholarly thesis?
  5. What type of document is this, or what is its purpose?  A phone book is different than a diary, and both are different than an inscription on a grave. Thus, one can expect to extract different kinds of information from different kinds of documents.
  6. What are the basic assumptions made by the author?  For example, did the author assume that the reader could understand certain foreign or engineering terms in the language?
  7. Can you believe this document?  Is it reliable? Is the information likely or reliable?
  8. What can you learn about the society that produced this document?  This is what you will be concentrating on in this class. All documents reveal information about the people who produced them. It is embedded in the language and assumptions of the text. Your task in this course will be to learn how to "read," or analyze, a document to extract information about a society. You might wish to analyze each document in terms of various aspects of a society (economic, political, religion, social structure, culture, etc.).  This is not something that comes easily, but with practice you will be able to uncover what is really in a document.
  9. Finally, What does this document mean to you?  You might also consider this as the "so what does it mean to me" question, but it still requires an answer even if the answer is going to be a resounding, "who cares.".
 
 
Thus, the NINE questions of analyzing a historical document are:
  1. Who wrote the document?
  2. Who was the intended audience?
  3. What was the story line?
  4. Why was the document written?
  5. What type of document was it, or what was its purpose?
  6. What were the basic assumptions made by the author?
  7. Can I believe this document?
  8. What can I learn about the society that produced this document?
  9. What does this document mean to me?
 
Please proceed to the sample document analysis of Hammurabi's code of laws (next).
 
 
Suggested steps to analyze the Hammurabi document
  1. Read the background information on Hammurabi.
  2. Scan the entire Hammurabi document.
  3. Review any specific questions to consider on Hammurabi noted by your instructor.
  4. Review the document analysis questions from above and focus on the question: What can I learn about the society that produced this document?
 
 
My sample analysis of the Hammurabi sample document
 
 
First, I'll answer some of the specific questions.
  1. Who was Hammurabi?  This is a factual answer. Hammurabi (d. 1750 bce) was a ruler of Old Babylon from 1792 to 1750 bce. His principal achievement was the unification of Mesopotamia through control of the Euphrates River.
  2. Why did he create a law code?  This is an interpretive answer. The code was a compendium of earlier laws, and he probably created it because he was the ruler, and a uniform code that applied to everyone helped him rule. He probably also created it because of confusion over the use of earlier laws, i.e., which one was the valid law. One could also say that he created a law code because he needed one. (Now it might seem simple to say that, but one does not create a law against falling into the sun unless that is happening with some frequency and unless you consider it to be a problem.) One should therefore assume that these particular laws became laws to deal with crimes/situations that occurred with some frequency in Babylonian society and that were regarded by someone (at the very least, the king) as dangerous to that society.
  3. Is this particular law code "fair?"  This is an evaluative answer. Implied is a comparison of Hammurabi's code with your awareness of current law codes. Yes, it is fair. There are numerous provisions in the code to attest to the honesty of judges and witnesses.
  4. Why is the code so detailed?  This is an interpretive answer. Because justice is not simple. There are always exceptions to a law or extenuating circumstances. If one is going to have a criminal code, then it must cover everything. Look at current criminal codes and how complicated they are.
  5. Does the code provide any insight about the administration of justice?  This is an analytical answer, requiring you to analyze parts of the code to reach a decision. Very little.
 
Second, I'll tackle the more difficult question, "What can you learn about the society that produced this document?" (Looking only at the first six articles of the code, for example.)
 
1. If a man weaves a spell and puts a ban upon another man and has not justified himself, he that wove the spell upon him shall be put to death.
Notice that almost all the laws use "man" not "woman" as the active subject. This indicates something about the nature of gender relations in Mesopotamia. The fact that any man could "weave a spell" also tells something about the nature of religion, that there was a level at which all could participate, but also that there were defined rules to follow. This law indicates that "weaving a spell" could be a very serious offense that could lead to death if the spell was applied improperly. This particular law does not say how you prove this, but that is contained in the next article!  This is very impressive and shows how various eventualities had to be completely pre-thought for this law code, a very complex task).
 
2. If a man has put a spell upon another man and has not justified himself, he upon whom the spell is laid shall go to the holy river. He shall plunge into the holy river, and if the holy river overcomes him, he who wove the spell upon him shall take to himself his house. If the holy river makes that man to be innocent, and has saved him, he who laid the spell upon him shall be put to death. He who plunged into the holy river shall take to himself the house of him who wove the spell upon him.
This reminds one of the trial by ordeal (usually fire or water) procedures used by the church during the Middle Ages.
 
3. If a man, in a case pending judgment, has uttered threats against the witnesses, or has not justified the word that he has spoken, if that case be a capital suit, that man shall be put to death.
Indicates that there was a system in place to protect witness. This is only a very recent innovation in modern law codes.
 
4. If he has offered corn or money to the witnesses, he shall himself bear the sentence of that case.
No bribery allowed.
 
5. If a judge has judged a judgment, decided a decision, granted a sealed sentence, and afterwards has altered his judgment, that judge, for the alteration of the judgment that he judged, shall be put him to account, and he shall pay twelvefold the penalty which was in the said judgment, and in the assembly one shall expel him from his judgment seat, and he shall not return, and with the judges at a judgment he shall not take his seat.
Judges have to follow the rules and can not take arbitrary action. Obviously this happened quite frequently.
 
6. If a man has stolen the goods of a temple or palace, that man shall be killed, and he who has received the stolen thing from his hand shall be put to death.
It was a very serious matter to "mess with" the priests who enjoyed a protected, and lucrative, status in Mesopotamian society. Obviously the priests had wealth, and they wanted to make sure that it was protected by the king. (It was never a good idea for a king not to protect his religious leaders, because they could always call down the wrath of a god or gods upon the king, making the people lose faith in the king).
 
 
 

This page is copyright © 2006, C.T. Evans
For information contact cevans@nvcc.edu

Analyzing historical documents requires students to identify the purpose, message, and audience of a text. Document analysis forms are graphic organizers that guide students through a process of identifying important background information about a document (e.g., author/creator, date created, place, format, etc.) and using this data to determine the text’s bias or perspective.

Procedure

  1. Construct Your Document Analysis Form
    Document analysis forms typically ask students to record basic information, such as:
    • Author/creator
    • Context (place and time of the document’s creation)
    • Intended audience
    • Purpose for the document’s creation
    • Type of document (photograph, pamphlet, government-issued document, newspaper article, diary entry, etc.)
    • Main points expressed in the document
    • General message of the document (What is it trying to say? What perspective does it represent?)
    • Significance (So what? Why is this document important?)
    See the accompanying handout for a document analysis form that you can distribute to your students. You can also customize your form based on the type of documents students are working with.
  2. Help Students Complete a Document Analysis Form
    Students can work on document analysis forms on their own or in small groups. To ensure accountability, it is often best if students have to complete their own forms, even if they are working in small groups. Showing students an example of a completed form or modeling how to complete one helps them better understand what accurate, thorough answers look like.
  3. Students Share Their Ideas
    Completing these forms is just the first step of document analysis. Students learn much more when they have to explain their ideas and hear other interpretations. After students have had the opportunity to work with their classmates, they can revise and update the information on their forms. Sharing their analysis can also stimulate interesting discussions about the message and significance of a document. In this way, completing document analysis forms can function as a pre-discussion activity.

Handout

Related Websites

The National Archives (www.archives.gov), “Teaching with Documents.”

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