International School History - Skills - Sourcework - The usefulness of historical sources

Literary Art
Literary art is not used in exam papers or in history textbooks anywhere as much as it could be. Novels, short stories and poems offer much more than an entertaining distraction from the real business of finding out about the past.
Strengths   Limitations
If the literature is from or about the past, it can help bring that past alive and help us get inside an age. The characters in a Dickens novel inhabit a world that is long gone, in which the past is very much a ‘foreign country’. Reading the painstakingly researched ‘realist’ novels of Emile Zola provides the reader with a powerful, complex insight into social history of France of the Second Empire and the lives of people who would otherwise have left no record e.g. The urban poor or peasants.

The most important historical value of literature is its power of empathy. Great art can provide a powerful insight into the thoughts and emotions, motivations and actions of those who lived in the past.

My description of the medical effects of a gas attack on the body of a victim would be altogether lacking the literary power of Wilfred Owen’s Dulce et Decorum est. (see below)

It is not a coincidence that the most universally acclaimed historians, also happen to be great writers.

  Literature like history can tell stories about the past. But unlike history, literature does not rely upon a scientific methodology limiting itself to facts derived from sources. The imaginative, subjective strength of the novel is also its objective weakness. The purpose of the novel need not be to tell the truth about the past, it may be intended to move or inspire the reader or merely meant to entertain. When Tolstoy attributes actions, thoughts and comments to Napoleon at the Battle of Austerlitz, he is under no obligation to prove that these things actually happened.

‘It was Napoleon accompanied by two aides-de-camp. Bonaparte riding over the battlefield had given final orders to strengthen the batteries firing at the Augesd Dam and was looking at the killed and wounded left on the field.
"Fine men!" remarked Napoleon, looking at a dead Russian grenadier, who, with his face buried in the ground and a blackened nape, lay on his stomach with an already stiffened arm flung wide….’

Leo Tolstoy – War and Peace

This is what we mean by artistic licence.

What was it like to experience a gas attack?

I have no idea about gas attacks because it is beyond the experience of normal life. Statistics about the numbers killed or blinded, do not help me understand what is was like, nor do contemporary debates about the morality of its use. Science can explain objectively what the gas does to the body, but to help me empathize with the victim I turn to the literary powers of a novelist or poet. Its not just a question of knowing what the past was like; it is also about feeling, tasting, touching and smelling the past. Reading Owen's poem, I can taste the bile my mouth and sense the powerless panic of the drowning man.


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