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What Is Historical Context?


What Is Historical Context?:

Historical context refers to the moods, attitudes, and conditions that existed in a certain time. Context is the "setting" for an event that occurs, and it will have an impact on the relevance of the event. Context is an important factor to consider when describing something in history.

When Will You Need to Know This?:

You will be required to read historical documents, books, and essays in the course of your studies. It will be important for you to know the significance of events that occur, and you must consider context when contemplating significance.


We can use a simple statement, taken from a moment in time, to understand the importance of historical context. Consider this statement:

"Sally hid her hands behind her back and crossed her fingers before she answered."

This statement sounds innocent enough in the context of today's society. It wouldn't raise much of a response to read this in a book published in 2010.

Now imagine that your are reading this statement from a transcript of court documents in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692. Religious fervor was at an extreme, and villagers were nearly obsessed with the devil and witchcraft. For a young woman to tell a lie--that was fodder for hysteria and violent reaction. A reader would assume that poor Sally was a candidate for the gallows!

Another example

Imagine you're reading a letter from a woman containing this sentence:

"My daughter will be heading for California shortly after she marries."

How much information does this statement give us? Not much, until we look at the date. When we discover that the letter was written in 1849, we realize that one sentence can sometimes say a lot!

A young woman heading for California in 1849 might be following her husband on a treacherous treasure seeking expedition for the gold rush. This mother would be quite fearful for her child, and she would know that it would be a very long time before she'd see her daughter again, if ever!

The time period, prior events, and attitudes of any given time will impact any topic you study.

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