GRE Reading Comprehension
In the early 1950's, historians who studied preindustrial Europe (which we may define here as Europe in the period from roughly 1300 to 1800) began, for the first time in large numbers, to investigate more of the preindustrial European population than the 2 or 3 percent who comprised the political and social elite: the kings, generals, judges, nobles, bishops, and local magnates who had hitherto usually filled history books. One difficulty, however, was that few of the remaining 97 percent recorded their thoughts or had them chronicled by contemporaries. Faced with this situation, many historians based their investigations on the only records that seemed to exist: birth, marriage, and death records. As a result, much of the early work on the nonelite was aridly statistical in nature; reducing the vast majority of the population to a set of numbers was hardly more enlightening than ignoring them altogether. Historians still did not know what these people thought or felt.
One way out of this dilemma was to turn to the records of legal courts, for here the voices of the nonelite can most often be heard, as witnesses, plaintiffs, and defendants. These documents have acted as "a point of entry into the mental world of the poor." Historians such as Le Roy Ladurie have used the documents to extract case histories, which have illuminated the attitudes of different social groups (these attitudes include, but are not confined to, attitudes toward crime and the law) and have revealed how the authorities administered justice. It has been societies that have had a developed police system and practiced Roman law, with its written depositions, whose court records have yielded the most data to historians. In Anglo-Saxon countries hardly any of these benefits obtain, but it has still been possible to glean information from the study of legal documents.
The extraction of case histories is not, however, the only use to which court records may be put. Historians who study preindustrial Europe have used the records to establish a series of categories of crime and to quantify indictments that were issued over a given number of years. This use of the records does yield some information about the nonelite, but this information gives us little insight into the mental lives of the nonelite. We also know that the number of indictments in preindustrial Europe bears little relation to the number of actual criminal acts, and we strongly suspect that the relationship has varied widely over time. In addition, aggregate population estimates are very shaky, which makes it difficult for historians to compare rates of crime per thousand in one decade of the preindustrial period with rates in another decade. Given these inadequacies, it is clear why the case history use of court records is to be preferred.
The author suggests that, before the early 1950's, most historians who studied preindustrial Europe did which of the following?
- A Used investigatory methods that were almost exclusively statistical in nature.
- B Inaccurately estimated the influence of the
- C preindustrial European political and social elite.
- D Confined their work to a narrow range of the preindustrial European population.
- E Tended to rely heavily on birth, marriage, and death records.
Correct Answer: D