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  • Writer's pictureJohn H Keess

Chewing Through the Text: History Note-Taking For Undergraduates

In the Fall of 2023, I received a few complaints from students in my HIE 271 (Introduction to Military History) course about their textbook: it was too dense, the paragraphs were hard to follow, and the narrative did not make much sense.

The complaints initially mystified me, since we were using a new edition of a textbook which had been in circulation since 2005 - The Cambridge History of Warfare. Of course, the student concerns were real - but if these were good students (and they were!) and the textbook had not changed, something must have happened in the past twenty years!

After talking with a couple of students, I learned that they had not touched a proper narrative history in high school - not once. Their high school history texts were little more than paragraphs with subheadings. As a result, they had never learned how to go through a text and separate what was important from what was less important - in other words, they were literate but no-one had really taught them how to study history as a subject.

This blog post will serve as a guide for those new to narrative histories and history courses on how to approach a text as subject of study, not merely transcription or memorisation. It’s an important difference. Because while it would be easy to tell students exactly what is important and what is not important, it is also important to remember that history is the critical study of the past, not a simple chronicle. Part of studying history is asking good historical questions, going through a mass of evidence to parse through what is and is not relevant to those questions, and using that evidence to construct an argument.

What is important?

This is the mother of all historical questions, and it really depends on what kind of historical study you are doing. For this guide, I will the example of a reading from the aforementioned HIE 271 class - a reading on the emergence of new kinds of European armies in the late Medieval period from 1300-1500.

Throughout the course, the instructor has shaped their lectures around a few key concepts from Prussian military philosopher Carl von Clausewitiz. One of the key concepts is that of a trinity - that is, that war is a product of cooperation between populations, governments and peoples. You cannot fight a revolutionary war like the French of the 1790s without a motivated population, for example. Another key concept is that of a dialectic - just as politics shape wars, wars also shape politics. At the start of the American Civil War, for example, Abraham Lincoln sought to keep the war as limited as possible in scope and aims. Not so by 1865, as Sherman’s armies burned their way through Georgia.

Okay, good. We have a couple of key themes. As we go through the text, then, we need to understand the author’s arguments and use of evidence with a couple of questions in mind:

1 - How did political structures of different combatants affect how different combatants fought wars?

2 - How did political and military changes interact?

Off to the text!

A key thing to keep in mind is that we are going to study this text, not summarise it. There are important differences between the two.

I start the study of a text by taking out two pieces of paper: a horizontal line on a page to act as a crude timeline and a Cornell-style printed page to take notes on. For the purposes of this guide, I will write out some of my thinking in grey text as I show you how I fill in my notes step by step.

While many students prefer taking notes on laptops, it is important to keep in mind that there is a difference between transcribing a text and studying one. When you’re writing notes, less is more.

After I have my note-taking materials ready, I start by reading the introduction and conclusion to the chapter. As I read them, I find the author dropping names, dates, places, and battles like they’re a British bomber crew in 1943. Avoid the temptation to write every single name and place down. Writing down a whole bunch of data that means nothing to you is not a good use of your time.

Instead, let’s work our way from the outside in in two ways. First, we need to find a date range. The author mentions “the late medieval era,” the header of the chapter notes 1300-1500, and a quick search on Wikipedia gives us this:

Wikipedia is unreliable when it comes to niche subjects. But when you deal with big subjects like the medieval era, it has been shown to be about as reliable as Encyclopedia Britannica, and Wikipedians are generous with maps, diagrams, and other visual aids. It’s not an appropriate source for an academic paper, but Wikipedia can be excellent to help you get oriented.

Perfect! We have the two ends of our timeline.

Now let’s bracket the chapter conceptually.

Note: I am highlighting scans I’ve taken of a personal copy of my textbook. Please don’t mark up RMC holdings!

The introduction and conclusion mention a bunch of stuff - crossbows, pikes, the Church, noble lords, and so on. But let’s head back to the questions we’re asking ourselves.

What changed with how war was fought in Western Europe in this period?

In yellow, I highlighted the big change in how war was fought at the tactical level: feudal knights had an increasingly harder time with new kinds of weapons like pikes, longbows, and gunpowder weapons. In pink I highlighted the big political changes: a small feudal elite can’t give you good infantry, and you need a modern state to pay for gunpowder weapons.

I don’t need to know who Charles the Bold is right now. I just need to understand a few big ideas:

1 - Knights had a harder and harder time with infantry on the battlefield because infantry increasingly used new weapons and tactics

2 - As knights lost their military relevance, so did the knightly class and feudal system. War was increasingly fought by organised, modern states.

As I go through the rest of the chapter, I’ll look for examples of those two aspects. I know the author will mention a lot of them, but I can look closely at the text and see which examples are the most important.

And we carry on through the text!

The next thing I do is look at the sub-headings, then treat each sub-heading like a mini-chapter. The I go through the paragraphs, and read the first and last sentences of every paragraph. I then parse out general statements, which I have highlighted in blue, and some examples the author uses, highlighted in green.

If I find myself wondering what on Earth a halberd is….

When I encounter a paragraph with a lot of text - like the paragraph on p.87 that goes on about Italian city-states - I stick to the main point. If you read closely, you can see all the author is trying to say is that the exception proves the rule. And when you think about it, that’s all you need to know - you don’t need to dive into Milanese mercenary politics.

Now my notes look like this:

I repeat the exercise with the remaining sub-sections. As I go through the discussion of the Hundred Years’ War, I look for the key changes the author mentions - so, for example, the move from raids to sieges to open battle. I was also helped by a brief write up on the conflict on Wikipedia and some decent maps I found after a quick search:

Now, along the way I am always getting back to some of the concepts I picked up in class - things like a move towards combined arms warfare, the relationship between society and war-making, and so on.

In most of the classes I teach, I assign students one-page study guides on a particular topics, like, for example, what a Hussite wagon-fort might look like. In the event no one has taken up that topic or your class does not have study guides as assignments, dig into things you’re not certain about. Studying is an active process where you interrogate the text and dig into things you’re not sure about.

And off to class

As you go into class, you’re not going to be an expert on European pike tactics from 1300 through 1500. But you should have a general idea of the change over time in this period so that when we talk about the Battle of Agincourt (1415), you can say “Aha! This is an example of how good infantry started defeating knights in this period.” And when you hear the instructor drone on about how these archers were recruited, you can make a note on the advantages the English had in a more centralised recruiting system for their infantry over the French feudal levies and rambunctious knights.

Just remember

Doing an undergraduate degree is hard - in my view, it is harder than grad school in some important ways. You have a lot of fresh materials in a lot of different subjects to learn about. So if it’s hard, don’t be hard on yourself - ask for a hand.

One big difference from how history tends to be taught in secondary school and how it is taught at the university level is that we want you to really engage with the text - we want you to always be asking questions and looking for answers to them. This is very different than just memorising key dates. While a good baseline knowledge is still important , you are part of the process for determining what is “key” information or not!

Good luck out there.

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