Writing a text commentary

Commenting a historical document aims to bring out an author’s point of view in order to better understand how a particular historical situation, movement, event, etc, was viewed by its contemporaries.

Some background knowledge is therefore necessary to understand what it is the author or authors refer to. But the aim of a commentary is not to say everything you know about events or persons related to the content of the text. Rather your background knowledge should be used to better understand the point the author makes in the text and to show the significance of his or her point in the historical context.

The text should be approached in two ways :

  • synthetically

You should formulate in one or two sentences the message the author tries to convey and his reasons for writing what he or she wrote. These reasons should of course be briefly related to the historical context.

This synthetic approach constitutes the introduction of a text commentary.

  • analytically

You should identify the different arguments used by the author and explain on which logic they rest and by which logic they are linked one to the other. This constitutes the development of your text commentary.

The conclusion of a text commentary should attempt to evaluate the historical interest of the document: how does the author’s point of view fits in in the period in which he or she wrote? Did the text have any impact at the time? How do the arguments compare with what you know about the period? etc.

In L1 and L2 a good conclusion will give you bonus points but students won’t be penalised because of their conclusion. You should focus first and foremost on writing your introduction and development. In L3 writing a good conclusion is as much part of the job as the rest.


Video Tutorials

The tutorials below were made by students at Lille University under the supervision of Dr Aude de Mezerac-Zanetti. I highly recommend them.

You can download the documents that accompany the tutorials as a zip file.