Primary sources provide a great window into the past for researchers and students, however, as you work with them, you must be aware of their limitations. The authors of these sources have prejudices and cultural blind spots, just as modern day authors. It is not enough simply to read their records, you must understand the world which produced them. You must place Cortés in the context of the Renaissance, the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, the Spanish drive for political and economic power, and the European concept of war. You must place Montezuma in the context of a completely different social hierarchy, concepts of a universe driven by blood sacrifice, a social system designed to ensure the continual supply of sacrificial offerings, ritual concepts of war, and fractious tributary peoples who were anxious to ally with the Spanish once their intention to conquer the Aztec leaders became apparent. Your first step for this assignment is to become familiar with the world in the late 16th century. Go to the Link Collection and read some background material.
Now you are ready to read the accounts of some primary players in the drama. This exercise is designed to help you sharpen your analytical skills by comparing two histories of the same series of events. As you read through each history, take careful notes. Who wrote the history? When? What were their purposes in writing as far as you can determine? Who were they writing for? Do they use any specific words or phrases which seem to reflect a certain bias*? Note them as you read. Make a chronology for yourself, noting the events discussed, and the people featured. Follow these steps for BOTH histories. Go to the Link Collection.
Now that you have carefully reviewed both histories and taken notes, you are ready to write. Review your notes. Are there any interesting similarities or differences you wish to comment upon? Can you build a thesis around these factors? Your paper could feature:
*Note that when we say "bias" we are not necessarily speaking negatively. We are not talking about racial bias, though you may decide that plays a role. We are referring to the reflection of the authors' attitudes and experiences, which inevitably affect what he or she produces in a certain way. Your job is to determine the level of bias readily apparent in the works, and draw conclusions about how that affects the way the stories are told. Does the author acknowledge his/her bias and seem to attempt to compensate for it? Or are opinions presented as facts?
For writing and research helps, visit W.W. Norton's Webworks.