Kirsty’s view of history is that if there is more than one account, one must be wrong. The past is given (in books), and she is sure that if historians read the same books and are honest, they will come up with the same story “because they will do the same things and they are not lying.” Everyday ideas are apparent here, but they do not help Kirsty solve the problem she faces. We can see how different things look for someone who has a more sophisticated understanding of what a historical account is if we read Lara’s response to the same problem.

Lara (eighth grade):

Why are there different dates?

Because there is no definite way of telling when it ended. Some think it is when its city was captured or when it was first invaded or some other time.

How could you decide when the Empire ended?

By setting a fixed thing what happened for example when its capitals were taken, or when it was totally annihilated or something and then finding the date.

Could there be other possible times when the Empire ended?

Yes, because it depends on what you think ended it, whether it was the taking of Rome or Constantinople or when it was first invaded or some other time.

Where Kirsty sees the past as given, Lara understands that it has to be reconstructed in that statements about the end of the Roman Empire are judgments about the past, not just descriptions of events in it. This means that a historical account is not fixed by the past, but something that historians must work at, deciding on a theme and timescale. Thus the problem of the date of the end of the Roman Empire is not a matter of finding an already given right answer but of deciding what, within the parameters of a particular account, counts as the end. Knowing when the Roman Empire ended is not like knowing when Columbus reached America.


All responses in this chapter not otherwise attributed are unpublished examples of responses from Project CHATA. For published CHATA work, see, for example, Lee and Ashby (2000).

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