Historical Thinking History Uncovering History

In the Archives

I’ve been thinking a lot more about archives over the past year. This may appear odd, given my investment in historical study. In my study and practice as high school history educator engaged with academic history, however, discussions around archives separate how academic historians—producers of historical knowledge—and history teachers and students—consumers of historical knowledge view archives. I have observed steady growth in the use of primary sources in history classrooms, including my own, over the past thirty years, but rarely, if ever, hear colleagues talking about archives.

Bridging this producer-consumer gap would do a lot to improve history education and the broader history discourse. Teachers should do more to treat historical knowledge as constructed and historical events as contingent, but treating history as more than settled facts will be difficult for many. Epistemic shifts are hard, and identities are sticky, though. In my work last school year as an instructional coach for literacy, I came to understand the importance of identity in teacher praxis. In many history classrooms, including my own, the teacher’s identity is rooted in command of factual knowledge. Coaching can help a teacher to see how their sense of themselves affects their praxis and how that might adapt to include additional possibilities in their classroom.

Material Basis for Historical Knowledge

Discussing archival documents as the material basis for literal or figurative archives, even if briefly as constrained by curricular demands in K-12 education, would contribute to moving classroom discourse beyond a fact-opinion binary. Students naturally see historical knowledge as sketchy. For some, learning how interpretation of sources is the means for constructing this knowledge can deepen this suspicion. Everything becomes opinion. Showing students the actual documents and their provenance can chip away at this. Ideally, I want my students to see themselves as interpreting sources rather than opining. Students most often encounter primary sources transcribe and alone or small sets. They have no sense of the hours of labor used to produce them.

I encourage my K-12 colleagues to occasionally dip into academic history to learn how scholarships happens. Listening to historians talk about their publications is a great way to do this. I actually enjoy the New Books Network and other podcasts in which authors talk about their process. Similarly, I encourage Academic historians to share stories from the archives when they are discussing history or historiography with teachers.

I realize that K-12 teachers may not have the time or the training to teach students how to conduct archival research; however, we can point to the material bases of some of the developments that we discuss. I try to show students some of this when introduce history as a discipline. This can lead to conversations about the power relationships instantiated in the archives and the biases that they foster.

We need to alert to serendipitous discoveries, too. Part of explaining the role of archival research with students is exposing them to language of the archives. I sometimes use translations of feudal documents from twelfth-century Catalonia that Paul Freedman posted online years ago. The first one is difficult read that tells a dramatic story.

While searching online for the meaning of the archival information in the source (Archive for the Cathedral of Vic, folder 6), I was fortunate to find historian of medieval Catalonia Dr. Jonathan Jarretts blog posts with images from the archive that houses the actual documents (Dr. Jarrett worked with documents from 150 years earlier from at same archive). Looking at images of primary sources interests some secondary students, albeit briefly. Barely legible handwriting on yellowed parchment differs greatly from the view that most students have of primary sources. Even modern handwritten and typed documents, such as 1960s sources recently highlighted by Seth Cotlar in his research on right-wing political extremism, appear more human in a digital age. More generally I think that students benefit from seeing the material basis for historical knowledge.

Moreover, pealing back the curtain on the construction of historical knowledge contributes models historical thinking and citation practices. Jeremiah McCall, who is both an academic historian and a secondary teacher, got at some of these issues in a thread on (Mastodon) discussing how teachers can help respond to large language model AI as an educator. McCall advocates that history educators at all levels cite their sources as part of best practices. He fleshes out how to do this. The whole thread is worth reading.

Reading in Bilbao

Photograph of a large, two-story stone building with two palm trees in front.
Archive of the Indies, Seville, Spain. Image: Wikipedia

Some of my reading last summer led me to think more directly about archives, even before the tragicomic conflict between the ex-President and the National Archives became public knowledge. I started reading Tatiana Seijas’s Asian Slaves in Colonial Mexico, published in 2014, on my way to the World History Association’s 2022 conference in Bilbao, because Seijas was giving the closing keynote. And, knowing that I would be near to Navarre. and in the Basque country, I also downloaded Village Infernos and Witches’ Advocates by Lu Ann Homza after hearing her discuss the book on the New Books Network. I highly recommended both books and the podcast. Both books stimulated a lot of thinking, including the role of archives in how historical narratives develop.

Asian Slaves in Colonial Mexico

Seijas conducted deep archival research into the legal practices around the origins and eventual ending of the enslavement of Asians in colonial Mexico. This archival research allowed Seijas to share the stories of subaltern people who were almost entirely new to me. Until reading Erika Lee’s The Making of Asian America: A History two years ago, I did not realize that Asian people settled in the Americas before the English. Diego Javier Luis has an excellent public-facing article describing this. High school teachers could use an excerpt from the article with students, and I look forward to hearing more about Luis’s forthcoming book.

Seijas’s archival based narrative expanded my understanding of early modern human trafficking to include trans-Pacific routes and Portuguese raids in south and southeast Asia. Although never close to as large as Atlantic trafficking, Iberian enslaving in the Indian Ocean and across the Pacific was significant. Spanish authorities in Colonial Mexico termed enslaved Asians “chinos,” as in Chinese although they originated in many place. Seijas states that her aim is to honor the people whom she found in the archive.

[T]his book pays homage to the lives of chino slaves and emphasizes their individual efforts to escape from bondage prior to abolition.

p. 2

Some of the lives that Seijas recovered in the archives could be used with students to illustrate the complexities of racialized slavery.

In another lawsuit, a china named Cecilia spoke vividly about life in bondage and her desire for freedom.38 Her words, like those of countless other slaves, leave no doubt that they understood the concept of liberty very well indeed, and that they did so long before it was ever espoused by revolutionaries of the French Enlightenment.39 Cecilia gave her account in 1634, declaring that she was a free woman who had been subjected to bondage illegally since she was six years old, when Portuguese pirates captured her in her native Bengal. They sold her to a horrifying master, who kept her in chains and branded her on both cheeks to mark her as a slave. Cecilia petitioned the Audiencia of Mexico “to allow her to enjoy the liberty with which she was born” – a liberty “protected by royal decrees.”40 In support, her lawyer presented copies of several decrees that ordered the Audiencia of Manila to protect the Indians of the Philippines and to ensure their liberty. The lawyer claimed that officials in the Philippines had wrongly concluded that Cecilia was a just-war captive and had thus failed to liberate her. The Audiencia of Mexico now had the opportunity to reverse this injustice. Mercifully, the presiding judge followed the lawyer’s argument, even though he spoke of Bengal, Portuguese India, and Manila as if they were all the same place. At this time, the same Hapsburg monarch did indeed rule parts of India and the Philippines, but these regions were under different legal jurisdictions, and Bengal, of course, was a separate kingdom altogether. Regardless, for Cecilia it only mattered that the judge in Mexico City agreed with her lawyer that she was truly an “Indian” (una india), and she could thus not be enslaved.

p. 225

Enslaved people did not need French philosophes to explain the importance of liberty. Seijas also uses this case to illustrate how racialized notions of slavery provided legal arguments for “chinos” to claim the same partially protected status of Indigenous Americans, “indios.” This racialization developed over time and to the disadvantage of Africans and their descendants in Spanish America.

In her closing address in Bilbao, Seijas expressed regret over the repeated use of the legal term “slave” in the book’s title and most of its pages. The book, her first, was published in 2014. Specifically, Seijas argued that using the word “slave” to refer to human beings reinstantiates the colonial domination encoded in the colonial archives. As I read the first chapter on the plane, this usage caught my attention. Knowing how Seijas now views the title made the repeated use of the word less jarring as I finished the book, and I was able to appreciate how Seijas marshals an impressive amount of archival evidence to support her conclusions about coerced labor in the Philippines and Mexico in the 16th and 17th centuries. I am very much looking forward to Seijas’s forthcoming book: Global Mexico City in the Seventeenth Century.

Village Infernos

Unlike Seijas’s work to excavate lesser known stories for the archives, Lu Ann Homza’s Village Infernos addresses a topic that has been the subject of multiple archival investigations: a major witch-hunt. Historians used the extensive records of the Spanish Inquisition, house in Madrid, to construct narratives about the witch hunt. Using “understudied as well as new archival discoveries” (154) held in episcopal and secular archives, Homza reinterpreted previously analyzed sources from the Spanish Inquisition and added insights from the new documents. The resulting account of the witch-hunt emphasizes the role of children and families in accusations while also casting important Inquisitors in a different light. This oversimplification does not do this terrific book justice. Well-crafted and insightful, it’s a great read in addition to being great history.

Book covering reading from top to bottom:
Lu Ann Homza
Village Infernos
and Witches' Advocates
Witch-Hunting in Navarre, 1608-1614

Beyond the particulars of this engaging story, students benefit from learning about a process by which historical interpretations change over time. Homza did not develop a new opinion about witch-hunting in the Basque country. She created a new narrative based on careful interpretation of a trove of new evidence. As citizens students need to know that critical thinkers adjust their understandings based on new evidence. This is as true for history is it is for other intellectual endeavors.

Like Seijas, Homza shares some engaging stories from the archives. Even teenagers might be interested in stories of desperate priests and their dogs, from the regional episcopal archive:

For examples, in the first decades of the seventeenth century, Pamplona’s bishops prosecuted dozens of clerics for hunting for profit. Priests borrowed ferrets to hunt rabbits and then declined to return them. Two clerics and a student formed a rabbit-killing trio that allegedly seized more than two thousand hares through prohibited means, namely, ferrets, dogs, and nets. One priest was so dedicated to hunting with a gun that he often stayed overnight in the forest. Another took his hunting dogs to church, where they peed on the altar and barked during Mass.13 The larger point is that Navarrese priests were usually thoroughly integrated into their native environments, just like inquisition employees.

Homza, Lu Ann. Village Infernos and Witches’ Advocates (Iberian Encounter and Exchange, 475–1755) (pp. 53-54). Penn State University Press. Kindle Edition.

Imagine the fun of finding the story about a dog urinating in church! The testimony during witchcraft investigations could be even more shocking. Homza documents how fear led some people to confess as witches, and, perhaps in order to seem credible, they conformed their confessions to existing narratives. There are some adult themes:

…three women told [Inquisitor] Salazar that within two hours of having sex with the Devil, they had given birth to large toads, while a fourth said she had given birth to a toad through her mouth. Rather than confining toads to the roles of guardian angels and suppliers of poisons, these witch suspects made them the literal outcome of diabolical unions and extended the birth process to unheard of channels.

p. 155

This is quite a story! It is important not to mock or make light of the terror that led people to make these claims. Homza certainly does not. The are evidence that history is not boring, if you know where to look.


I missed International Archives Day this year, but look forward to marking it in 2024. In the coming year I plan to find moments to shed light on the origins of primary sources that we use in class and those behind the narratives that we learn. I would love to hear stories and see images from the archives that I can share with students. Academic friends, what are your favorites?


I’ll add stories from the archives here as historians share them

  • On Mastodon ( several #Histodons responded to this post with great links
  • A friend and historian shared a story of concentrating so intently in an archive that she did not notice that her shawl had fallen off. A kind staff member replaced it on her shoulders with a gentle pat. That same day she discovered an interesting and useful document from the 17th Century!

By Eric Beckman

I am a veteran high school history teacher interested in decolonizing history curricula, anti-racist pedagogy, and e-learning.

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