Historical research terminology

In this section there is a glossary of historical terms, a section on the names and basic time spans of historical periods and a link to a conversion chart from Arabic to Roman numerals to help recognise dates of publication of texts – for the uninitiated!

(This page is still under construction – contributions welcomed)


Anachronisms:     Things that are placed in the wrong time period.

Archive: A collection of historical documents and other media e.g., journals, newspapers photographs, etc. They mostly are only available as physical resources but gradually are going online. The term can also apply to the building that houses the material.

Autobiography: An individual’s account of their life. Will the work will be historically accurate? The historian will have to evaluate by comparison with other sources if possible.

Bias:   A one-sided or unbalanced view of events.

Bibliography: A list of works, e.g., books, journals, and essays, on a particular subject. Academic historical works should have a bibliography to indicate the resources used to inform the work. Readers can use it as a foundation for a wider study of the subject.

Biography: An account of an individual’s life, written by another person. Will the work will be historically accurate? The historian will have to evaluate by comparison with other sources if possible

Book Review: A critical examination of a book, summarising the work and placing it in the context of others books relevant to the subject field.

Bottom-Up Approach: A narrative that attempts to explain historical events and eras using the experiences or views of ordinary people, as opposed to elites.

Causation: When historians, they are trying to explain why something happened. Causes can be divided: Long- and short-term causes and trigger event

Chronology: Chronology refers to the arranging of dates or events in the order they occurred. Placing the period of study, the broader historical timeline.

Citation   quoting   a book, paper, or author, in an academic work.

Contemporary History – History within living memory inevitable this moves forward with successive generations.

 Context: The background and specific circumstances of a subject. Context is important when it comes to analysing a document, or setting the scene for a written work or argument.

Cultural history: Cultural history records and interprets past events through the background of social, cultural, and political behaviour of a defined human group. A wide range of human activities can be studied including customs, religion, art, etc.

Evidence:  Evidence is obtained from historical sources and used to establish facts or to support the historian’s interpretation of topics for debate.

Eurocentric:  Adopting an approach that focuses on European history minimising the contribution of cultures; perhaps a tacit acceptance of European culture as pre-eminent.

Forces:  Forces are influences, pressures and stimuli in a historical period that brought about change or reinforced continuity. These forces include the effect of political, economic, social, conflict, international relations, religious, technological innovation, events

Historiography: The methods and principles used in the study of history or its written product. It also includes how historians interpret the past and recognises that their views might be subject to debate.

Hypothesis:   A proposition that can be tested by academic debate and analysing evidence.

 Interdisciplinary: The study of a subject applying the methods and approaches of several disciplines.

 Journal: A periodical which normally deals with a specific issue.

Palaeography:  The study of old writing styles so enabling the deciphering and dating of historical manuscripts.  

Primary Source: A source from the time period under study.  Examples of primary sources include diaries, letters, newspaper and magazine articles (if published during the time period under study).

Provenance:  A source’s ‘background’ – its nature, origin and purpose.

Revisionist History:  Original “orthodox” views being challenged.

 Secondary Sources: Material created by somebody absent from the event under study. i.e., all history textbooks are secondary sources.

Social History: History that describes the experiences of ordinary people, or social groups. Social history is usually history from the bottom-up.

Teleology: A system of thought that claims to know the grand sweep of history, A teleology usually offers a chief idea that gives a direction or sweeping narrative to the passage of time.

Top-Down Approach: A narrative that highlights elites over average people.

Mike Davidson

Other Terminology terms

  • BCE=Before Common Era
    (formerly BC- Before Christ)
  • Classical liberalism
  • Counter factual
  • Ethnocentrism
  • Grey Literature
  • Historiography= The writing of history and the study of historical writing ….an awareness of different ways of doing history (Ludmilla Jordanova-History and Practice)
  • Micro and Macrohistory
  • Philology/philologist
  • Precursorism
  • Predestination
  • Presentism = the tendency to interpret past events in terms of modern values and concepts.
  • Whig interpretation of medical history =an approach that presents the past as an inevitable progression towards ever greater progress

Historical periods in the western world

Depending on the continent, historical eras and periods differ dependant on cultural and major historical events, the classification that follows uses terms from a European perspective. The timings are generalisations and the chronological limits are open to debate. Subdivisions can include the Renaissance and Enlightenment, Colonisation etc. British History for example ids often based on the name of ruling houses e.g., Georgians, Plantagenets.

Pre-History: Period between the appearance of humans and the invention of writing systems         

Ancient History:  2600 BCE – 800BCE Period from the beginning of recorded human history and extending as far as the Early Middle Ages or the Postclassical Era.

Classical Antiquity 800 BCE– 500 CE Broad term for a long period of cultural history centred on the Mediterranean Sea, known as the Greco-Roman world.

Middle Ages – 500 – 1500 CE. Some historians previously identified it from the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in 476 and is variously demarcated by historians as ending with the Fall of Constantinople in 1453. Subdivisions used also include

            Early Middle Ages (also called Dark Ages)

            High Middle Ages

            Late Middle Ages

 Early Modern Period: 1500-1750 CE

Late Modern Period: 1750 – 1945 CE

Contemporary Period:  1945 – current CE

Roman to Arabic Numerals …

If you are studying older materials, you will probably need to efficiently convert dates from Roman to Arabic numerals for your references. For example, MDCCCLXXIV = 1874

Link to a Conversion chart – for deciphering roman numerals in dates of publications