- Examine the historical context of an event
Historical context includes an understanding of the awareness of the time period in which an event occurs. To understand the context, consider what other events were also happening close to that time period. What were the political, social, and cultural norms consistent with that time period? Understanding historical context helps us to not only understand the event, but also to develop empathy and understanding so that we do not judge the past through today’s lens or by using today’s standards. For example, you might feel inclined to be critical of women in the past who did not speak out against their lack of rights, or you might easily condemn those who make poor choices in history.
Watch this video (just until it stops automatically at the 2 1/2 minute mark) to learn about the importance of context.
Sometimes identifying the historical context requires a bit of sleuthing. You may be given a document or one piece of a larger picture and be asked to put that in context. To do that, you’ll want to pay attention to the date or other clues in the document that reveal the time period. From there, consider where the event falls in the timeline of events, especially the events that led up to it. Let’s look at an example. What is the historical context of the document below?
First, read carefully to figure out what the document is about. Look for keywords or hints as to its time period.
We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do.
Let’s take a look at another primary source to see if we can identify the context.
Read the following primary source document and then answer the question below.
MARCH 1, 1692
The examination of Sarah Good before the worshipful Assistants John Hathorne, Jonathan Corwin.
Written by Ezekiell Chevers
Q. Sarah Good, what evil Spirit have you familiarity with?
Q. Have you made no contract with the Devil? Good answered no.
Q. What do you hurt these children?
A. I do not hurt them. I scorn it.
Q. Who do you employ then to do it?
A. I employ nobody.
Q. What creature do you employ then?
A. No creature, but I am falsely accused.
Q. Why do you go away muttering from Mr. Parris, his house?
A. I did not mutter, but I thanked him for what he gave my child.
Q. Have you made no contract with the devil?
Understanding Historical Context
This document, and the entire Salem Witch Trials, are quite shocking when perceived through a modern lens. In Salem, Massachusetts, a Puritan settlement, in 1692-93, two hundred colonists were accused of witchcraft. Thirty were found guilty, and nineteen were executed. The witch trials are widely considered to be an example of mass hysteria, and its specter is still invoked today as a cautionary tale of the dangers of false accusation and abandonment of due process.
The idea of accusing an individual of witchcraft, and then executing them for it, seems ridiculous to the modern reader. But, understanding the context helps us form a better understanding of how this could have happened. Examining that context requires us to consider things like the religious nature of the colony, the marriage between church and state, the lack of understanding about illness and mental illness, the patriarchal society, etc.
One way to think about context is to consider the beliefs, conditions, knowledge, attitudes, and moods in a given area at any given time.
First, learn more about the context of the Salem Witch Trials, which took place in Boston Massachusetts in 1692-1693. Click on each line to read more.
Next, imagine that you are talking to a friend or family member who says, “I just don’t understand how the Salem Witch Trials could have happened. It makes no sense to me that people believed in witchcraft and that people actually died because of it.”
- Ezekiel Cheever, Examination of Sarah Good, 1691–92. https://www.strongnet.org/cms/lib/OH01000884/Centricity/Domain/205/Examination_Sarah_Good_Transcript.pdf ↵
- Salem Witch Trials. (n.d.). Stanford History Education Group. Retrieved April 24, 2021, from https://sheg.stanford.edu/history-lessons/salem-witch-trials ↵