Tuesday’s Tip – Interpreting primary sources – the 6 ‘w’s

Well, it’s actually 5 ‘w’s and 1 ‘h’!!!  Whenever you study any primary source, remember these 6 one-word ‘prompts’ to help you understand and decode your source.

– What
– When
– Who
– Where
– Why
– How

For the purpose of this blog post, I am going to assume that your primary source is some form of document (or speech) that you are looking at for local history research, genealogical or historical reasons.  However, a primary source doesn’t have to be a document – it could be anything!  A wonderful history tutor at the Open University started one of his lectures by waving in the air the chair he had been sitting on and told us all ‘this is a primary source too!’.

So onto the 6 ‘w’s for document and speech analysis.  Each primary source you can decode will give you a layer or building block towards historical truth.  So understanding the ‘tricks’ of decoding sources are vital to the craft of being a historian.

What is the document you are looking at? ‘What’ can be broken down into several sub-sections:

Is it an extract?  Is this just part of larger primary source?  For example,  the folios within Great Dunmow’s churchwarden accounts (or even individual entries), if analysed individually, will give you different answers to your questions than if you analysed a whole series of folios.(1)

– Is it public or private or a document of record?  For example, tax returns, census returns and birth/marriage/death certificates are all public documents.  Although all were created for different reasons, their creators may expect them to become ‘publically’ available.  Although ‘publically’ could mean different degrees of ‘public’ – for example the UK census returns are only public after 100 years, other sources are only made ‘public’ if so requested.  An example of public documents are the State Papers of various monarchs: for example, the State Papers Domestic of Henry VIII to Elizabeth, 1509-1603 contain some fascinating public documents from the reigns of England’s Tudor monarchs.

Private documents could include items such as personal letters or journal/diary entries.  In other words, they were only intended to be read by the author and perhaps a small number of other people (such as the participants in an exchange of letters).  However, be careful with some ‘private’ documents: diaries/journals could be considered to be private but if they were created, for example, by a politician or someone in the public eye then I would suggest that they were created with the intention of them one day being published to wider audience – hardly a private, personal document!  For example, Alan Clark’s, (the former British MP) diaries can hardly be considered private documents as he seemed to be writing at least some of them for later publication.  Were these two famous seventeenth century English diarists created for public or private purposes: Samuel Pepys and Ralph Josselin?

A Document of Record would be something like an Act of Parliament.  Examples of recent UK Acts of Parliament can be seen here UK Public General Acts.

– Is it a translation?  If it’s a translation from another language (eg Latin into English, or German into English, or, as I’ve seen in some of my Reformation studies – Latin to German, then the German translation into English), does it capture the essence of the original text?  A literal word-for-word translation may not be good enough and won’t capture the entire spirit of the text.  Unless you are fluent in the original language, then you will be decoding someone else’s translation.   This is excellent if your translator is a linguist and leading light in the topic you are studying but not so good if it’s a poor school-boy translation!

When was your document created?  Can you put it into its historical context?  What happened before, during, and after your source was created?  For example, in Great Dunmow’s churchwardens’ accounts there are several references to purchases of religious objects from several nearby monasteries including 24 paving slabs from Tiltey Abbey.  Put into context ie this was just after Henry VIII had dissolved the monasteries, and then these purchases start to make sense: the spoils of the recently disbanded monasteries were being sold by local men to their parish church.  (Was this the Tudor equivalent of Essex Man with his van?)

Sometimes the ‘when’ can (and has to be) pinned down to the specific day the source was created.  For example, the date (and even the time) of the infamous ‘Willy-Nicky telegrams’ between the German Kaiser and the Russian Tsar are crucial to understanding some of final triggers to the out-break of the First World War.

Was your source written at the period you are studying or was it written afterwards or retrospectively (and therefore with the benefit hindsight)?  An example of a document written with hindsight was German Prince Karl Max Fürst von Lichnowsky’s 1916 pamphlet My Mission to London 1912-1914 (later renamed in 1918 to the ‘Lichnowsky Memorandum’)(2). The prince had been the German Ambassador to London in the pre-First World War years and the Memorandum was a justification against claims in the German press that he was responsible for Britain’s decision to go to war against Germany.   Lichnowsky stated that the British government drew his attention to the fact that ‘England could never permit the destruction or weakening of France’.  He felt that Germany was very definitely to blame for the start of the war:  ‘Did we want war?  Why did we not prevent it?  What did we do or not do to prevent it?’   His document was much used by politicians in the 1919 Versailles Peace Conference and is still used by historians when assessing the First World War.  However, it was a document that was written retrospectively when the First World War was in full flow, and so has to be treated as such.

Who created it?  Who was the intended audience?

For example, a primary source relating to Henry VIII, knowing ‘who wrote it’ can be crucial to understanding the document.  Was it the king himself? One of his loyal ministers?  One of his wives?  Knowing the ‘who’ can totally change your understanding of a document.  For example knowing ‘who’ said this about Henry VIII (and exactly ‘when’!) might help your comprehension of Henry VIII (and the feelings of one of his subjects towards him): ‘God save the King and send him long to reign over you, for a gentler nor a more merciful prince was there never, and to me he was ever a good, a gentle and sovereign lord.’(3)

Who was the intended audience?  A speech intended for a large audience will be very different to a private letter meant for two people. Elizabeth I’s 1588 speech to her troops at Tilbury was a rallying cry to her army to spur them on against the King of Spain’s intended invasion with his Armada.   Even though there are two versions and accounts of this famous speech in existence, the audience is the same in both versions: her loyal troops.(4).

Where was your document written or where was your speech given?  For example, if you knew that your ancestor’s First World War postcard was written when he was at the front in Flanders, then this might give you a different angle to your research then if the same postcard with the same words was written whilst the sender was sitting safely at home.

First World War British Prime Minster, David Lloyd George’s  1911 Mansion Housespeech (during the Moroccan Agadir Crisis) was delivered very publicly to the City of London on 21 July, which, in the pre-First World War years was the heart of the world’s financial economy.  At the time Lloyd George was the Chancellor of the Exchequer so, as the author of the address was a key member of the British government, the place where his speech was delivered is of key importance when examining pre-war Anglo-German relations.

There should be lots of ‘whys’ on your mind when you analyse your source:

Why are you interested in this source?  This seems almost too obvious to be mentioned!  But why are you interested in it?  Does it give you more information about your ancestors, their families, your local village, or your understanding of our historical past?  When researching your family tree, why are you looking at census returns, birth certificates, gravestones?

Why was the source written? Was there a purpose to the source?  Does it have a historical significance?  Was it written as a result of ‘something’ happening?  Did ‘something’ happen as a consequence of the source?  For example: why did Henry VIII write his Defence of the Faith and what was the consequence?(5)

Why are other historians interested in the source?  Is it a typical source or is there something unusual about it?

How has your primary source been viewed by contemporaries?

How is it viewed by a modern-day audience or modern-day historians?  Do you agree with how it’s been interpreted by historians?  In my own studies of Great Dunmow’s churchwardens’ accounts, I found that I almost totally disagreed with how modern-day historians and commentators had interpreted the entries for Corpus Christi plays.  (This will be discussed in a later blog.)

Use these 6 one-prompts to squeeze out as much information as possible from your source. The words should help you work out questions you should be asking of your source:
– what are you?
– who wrote you?
– why did they write you?
– when did they write you?
– where did they write you?
– how are/were you seen by other people?

1) Great Dunmow, Churchwarden accounts (1526-1621), Essex Record Office D/P 11/5/1.
2) Memorandum of Prince Karl Max Lichnowskey (1914).  As reprinted as Document I.18 p57 in Marwick, A and Simpson, W (Editors) (2000) Total War and Social Change: Europe 1914 – 1955: Primary Sources 1: World War 1.
3) Full text of this speech can be read here: Anne Boleyn’s speech before her execution (1536).
4) Elizabeth’s Speech to the Troops at Tilbury, (consulted online February 2012).
5) Henry VIII Fid Def: His Defence of the Faith and of the Seven Sacraments with introduction by Richard Rex, (London, 2008).

General Note
I learnt some of these techniques for analyzing primary sources via many of the wonderful history tutors from the UK’s excellent Open University.   I owe a debt of gratitude to those tutors in helping me understand how to properly decode historical documents.


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You may also be interested in the following
– The craft of being a historian: Research Techniques
– The craft of being a historian: Analysing primary sources
– The craft of being a historian: Using maps for local history
– The craft of being a historian: Online resources
– The craft of being a historian: Palaeography/handwriting

© Essex Voices Past 2012-2013.

8 thoughts on “Tuesday’s Tip – Interpreting primary sources – the 6 ‘w’s

  1. Thanks for your comment, Jim

    Some sources don’t need such a fine level of analysis. But others need every last drop of information squeezed out of them. In those cases, these one-word prompts really help to focus your mind and get as much out of them as possible.

  2. Thank you for permission to use this information with staff training. This is an awesome resource and I look forward to more from you!

  3. You’re welcome Leita! Tomorrow’s Tuesday Tip on primary sources is about ‘unwitting testimony’ – another method to help decode primary sources.

  4. Anna, thank you for your comment! I’ve enjoyed writing the articles so it’s nice to know that people like them.

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