Lezlie Knox

title.none: Howell & Prevenier, From Reliable Sources (Lezlie Knox)

identifier.other: baj9928.0208.002 02.08.02

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Lezlie Knox, Cal State University, Long Beach,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2002

identifier.citation: Howell, Martha and Prevenier, Walter. From Reliable Sources: An Introduction to Historical Methods. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001. Pp. viii, 207. ISBN: 0-8014-8560-6.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 02.08.02

Howell, Martha and Prevenier, Walter. From Reliable Sources: An Introduction to Historical Methods. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001. Pp. viii, 207. ISBN: 0-8014-8560-6.

Reviewed by:

Lezlie Knox
Cal State University, Long Beach

The Medieval Review usually (and appropriately) does not consider general works on historical methods. However, the publication of such a volume by two medievalists certainly demands our attention. In part From Reliable Sources is a translation of Walter Prevenier's work of the same title, Uit goede bron, which originated as an introductory handbook for Masters and PhD students in the Low Countries and now is in its seventh edition. But with Martha Howell as coauthor it also has become an adaptation and expansion of that text addressed specifically to American students (pp. vii and 2). Proceeding from the conviction "that a critical engagement with the records of the past can produce useful knowledge about that past," (3) Prevenier and Howell offer an engaging and useful orientation to source analysis that benefits all medievalists and our students.

From Reliable Sources opens with a brief overview of historical writing from Herodotus through to the new historiographies influenced by critical theory (pp. 3-15). Subsequent chapters address source typologies, the technical analysis of sources, auxiliary disciplines, and interdisciplinary influences on historical research. Their presentation is clear and offers much useful information succinctly. One strength of their book is that they historicize both methodologies and historical writing, be it nineteenth-century nationalism or more recent practices such as the Annales School or the New Cultural History. Beginning researchers also will benefit from their discussion of the seemingly arbitrary formation of archives and can turn to the research bibliography at the end of the book for further guidance to national traditions (cf. pp. 34-41 and 151-195). Moreover even as Howell and Prevenier embrace aspects of traditional source criticism, they criticize its limits. They break their discussion frequently with examples from history and historians, such as Jan Vansina's demonstration of the reliability of oral accounts in West African history (26) and Jacques Toussaert's argument for religious devotion measured by the consumption of hosts as an example of the limits of statistical analysis. (55)

All of these aspects make this a practical text, but what makes the work stand out from other introductory volumes is their reflection on how and perhaps even why we practice history in the early twenty-first century. Howell and Prevenier reject the postmodernist challenge that it is impossible to write about the past because it is ultimately unknowable. But they also criticize those who refuse to respond to these challenges. The closing chapter rearticulates their position that good historical research is founded on a critical engagement with the past, even as they acknowledge that we only have the "reality" constructed in and by our sources (pp. 143-150 esp.). In sum: historical researchers must be rigorous readers of their documents, considering the type of knowledge they reveal as well as their limits. Craft skills, including Paleography and Diplomatics, help exploit the biases inherent in these documents, but the scholar also must be aware of how their own experiences and position color their interpretation of the past. This all may be common sense, or, as they call it, a moderate position, but it is nonetheless bolstering to have it expressed so clearly in this volume.

Given the forum for which this review was written, it is appropriate to consider how a book on historical methodology written by medievalists is different from other similar volumes. First and obviously, there seem to be more pre-modern examples than is typical in such volumes (and also more from the Low Countries). As the instructor of a historical methods class for History majors, this is useful to encourage students to think more about non- US and non-modern history. Qualitatively, there also seems to be more emphasis on tools such as Paleography as well as medievalist-friendly historiographical examples such as the Acta Sanctorum. Thus this book would work well for beginning researchers in Medieval Studies, along with their modernist colleagues. Indeed, this work fills an obvious gap--while there are several fine books designed to assist undergraduates write about historical topics (e.g. Jules Benjamin's A Student's Guide to History or Richard Marius' A Short Guide to Writing about History), as well as larger critiques of the academic historical enterprise, we have lacked such a succinct and effective introduction to historical sources.