Faculty of Arts


Texts and Contexts


"Texts and Contexts" links aspects of the history of ideas (historical, political, religious, scientific, legal and cultural) to the modes of their transmission (objects, performances, languages, spoken, manuscript and printed texts). It relates a wide variety of texts to the cultural as well as historical circumstances of their generation and reception. It asks how our awareness of these contexts should affect the historical interpretation of such materials, while introducing methodological issues of more general importance to history as a discipline.

Course Objectives

"Texts and Contexts" deals with the modes of communication deployed by past human societies and how these ought to be interpreted by historians today. It draws particularly on cultural, intellectual and social history and has an obvious affinity to languages and literature, but is relevant to all types of history because all historians use and interpret sources. The idea is to make us think about the sources we use and the demands they make upon us as historians.

"Text" comes from the Latin verb texere: to weave. Textus: the style, tissue of a literary work (Quintilian), that which is woven, web, texture. Texts are the means by which past societies have communicated, both internally and across time and space. In addition to writing they may be said to include objects, pictures, sound (speech or song), performance (for instance, dance). Our predominant but not sole focus in this course will be on written texts. These vary in many ways, including by linguistic structure (for instance, alphabetic versus pictorial languages) and modes of production and distribution (manuscript, print, electronic publication).

It is the assumption of a contextual approach to textual interpretation – an assumption that this course must interrogate – that the historical "meaning" of any text is significantly determined by the circumstances in which it was generated, distributed and used. Why was a specific text produced and by whom? What was its social/intellectual/cultural function? What were the technological circumstances of its production and distribution? For whom was it produced and why? How is the identity of the target audience discernable from the content of the text? How does what we know about the historical context within which a text was used affect our later use of it as historical evidence?

Broadly the course is organised chronologically, moving from ancient to early modern. Geographically and culturally it is diverse and comparative. The purpose of the course is not simply to look at a variety of periods, cultures and regions, but to examine what happens interpretatively when texts travel between them: when ancient texts are interpreted by early modern humanists; or the Bible by protestants; or a German anatomical text is translated in Japan; or early modern botany and landscape painting encounter the flora and fauna of the South Pacific. In these ways "Texts and Contexts" connects periods and regions and equips us to make global connections and comparisons.


To complete this course students must enrol in HISTORY 711 A and B.

Assessment: coursework only

Availability 2021

Semester 1 and 2 (full year)


Coordinator(s) Professor Jonathan Scott


Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War (Penguin ed., trans. Rex Warner).


HISTORY 711A: 15.0 points

HISTORY 711B: 15.0 points

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