Interpretation of sources

Handwritten sources   

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Some texts, like holy scriptures, were originally passed down by oral tradition and were liable to subtle distortion and misinterpretation over the centuries, as they passed from generation to generation and were copied and re-copied.   As medical wisdom was documented, elementary mistakes with transcription could arise from simple paleographical errors.

The earlier the text, the more likely it is to need cautious interpretation or re-interpretation. Unless one is an expert in reading Early or Middle English or in translating Greek or Latin texts, then it becomes necessary to rely on secondary sources. 

The type of secretary hand found in many early modern documents can put Prince Charles’ ‘black spider memos’ into the pale when it comes to legibility, but some practical assistance is at hand, thanks to Chester Record Office!

Words and meanings 

With age can come confusion (!), the meaning of words can change over time or be replaced by completely new ones (see the anatomical diagram below as an example).


add anatomical terms 


Clearly basic problems caused by changes in language over time may further increase the opportunities for present-day historians to misinterpret sources of evidence.

The evidence also needs to be contextualised and the new researcher needs to explore and analyse the data from a  historiographical perspective.  

Professor Monica Green has written several key texts which discuss the transmission and interpretation of ancient and medieval medical texts from Greece and Rome via the East and the Western world to be moved  ADD 

For  the above reasons, the complete accuracy of modern interpretations of ancient, medieval and early modern texts cannot be guaranteed. So, historians always take this into consideration when interpreting them to ensure that wherever possible and practicable they consult original sources for themselves.  

Printed texts

The advent of the printing press in the thirteenth century made medical knowledge more widely accessible, and literacy levels increased significantly. Medical illustrations, which were then incorporated into medical texts, further enhanced the desirability of texts and their dissemination which in turn gradually increased public understanding of medical knowledge. It is important when interpreting texts to consider their social context  


Ethical issues related to textual analysis

Historical researchers may be writing about events which have happened long ago and about people who are unable to defend or account for themselves, because they are no longer with us. This puts the writer a position of power. 

Historians should always take into consideration the origins or ‘provenance’ of texts where possible, and consult original sources for themselves. Historians have a responsibility to be true to their sources and represent them, as far as possible, in an unbiased and non judgemental manner.