Historical criticism

The discipline of History uses a certain procedure when interpreting written sources. The historian's source material is peculiar in that it does not always speak the truth - conscoiusly or unconsciously. Hence it is important to use a firm source-critical metod aimed at exposing the source's strengths and weaknesses in oorder to avoid over-interpretation.

Historical criticism applies to all groups of sources, not just written ones, which is what this exercise deals with. The same precautions applies, in principle, to archaeological and iconographic sources too. These sources should of course also be used in the interpretation of a written source and vice versa.

If you are to practise historical criticism the Viking Age with its scarcity of written sources may not be the first choice, but one event during the Scandinavian expansion on the British Isles has drawn the attention of various writers during the following centuries, and is thus a good example of the precautions that should be observed when reading historic documents: the so-called St. Brice's day massacre on 13. November 1002.

On this day the English King Æthelred allegedly conspired to massacre the Danish immigrants. But what is right and what is wrong? Use the source texts to the right and try for yourself. You can also use the Internet or a library to find the individual texts in their original context and language. they are presented here in modern English.

The basics of historical criticism

First the source should be described; check its:


  • Date, place of origin, originator? If the source itself states these facts they should be checked.
  • Archive: Has a letter ever been sent? Can it be dated indirectly by looking at the other documents it is kept with?
  • "Hand", language and style can point to identical author.

Authenticity: (in relation to the question you are posing! A source may well be authentic in some contexts and false in others). Is the source a fake, the circumstances of the fake document's origin should also be examined.

Type: Is the source a relic (originating directly from the event it describes - such as decrees, charters and archaeological remains) or an account (speaks of, but plays no part in, the case)?

Relation: If the source seems to be a first-hand account it is called a primary source (technically historians also use this term for second-hand accounts for which the source is lost). If the author has known of other (preserved) sources, the source is called a secondary source (second-hand account).

There are three basic relations: 1) Source A draws on source B. 2) Source A and source B both draw on a third source X. 3) Source A draws on sources B and X. (In principle the entire body of the author's work should be examined to clarify this).

  • Does the source mention its own source? Is it true and is the information passed on correctly?
  • Are there suspicious identical wordings - or even the same mistakes - in a set of sources which could indicate a relation?

Credibility: The source is tested agains well-known 'facts' about persons, places etc. which are mentioned in the source. Be aware of circular arguments!


Then the source should be interpreted:

Understand the text itself (language, handwriting, abbreviations…)

Understand the meaning.

Understand the meaning in light of the context and contemporary ideas. Here too other sources should be used as reference.

(Description and interpretation is of course an iterative process; you cannot, of course, examine authenticity and relations if you do not know what the text means).


Then follows the evaluation of the testimony:

Relation (see above): how close to the event is the author, and how reliable does that make him?

Contemporaneity: Whether the source is primary or secondary it weakens its credibility if a long time has passed between the event and its writing down.

Tendency: Is the source coloured by the author's inner or outer premises and competence?

  • Is the author biased or is he a part in the case?
  • If so, what could he gain by writing the source?



Only then can you begin to pose the questions you want to the source, or more correctly: the set of sources. The questions can stem from political history or historical particularism (who killed...), social history (how did ... live), technological history (how did ... sail) or something entirely different.

Supplementary questions to the set of sources

  • Which of the sources draw on each other?
  • What is the sources' business? Are the for or against the massacre? How do they describe the Danes and why?
  • Does Gunnhild exist?
  • How does posterity generally describe those events described in history as 'massacres'? Find more - and more recent - examples. Are there any at all where the victims are not described favourably? What exactly is a massacre?
  • What should we read into the term 'all Danes'? Was it genocide or were only certain groups targeted?
  • Are there any archaeoological sources that confirm the massacre?
  • Can the massacre be noticed in the number of Nordic place names and personal names?
  • Look at the historic background for the event. What did the Danes/Scandinavians do in England in the years up to the event?
  • Who was St. Brice? Could it be more than a coincidence that this particular saint's day was chosen?
  • Find out more about the Danes in English folklore, litterature and art. Which things in nature, landscape and society are associated with the Danes? Are they victims or villains?