Historical significance explained

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© History Skills

Since human history covers a huge span of time and involved countless billions of individuals, there is no possible way that we could study them all.


Therefore, when we study the past, we have to choose only a few people and events to spend our time on.  

When deciding what people, events and ideas to examine in our studies, we have to choose only those which we consider to be the most important.


When we decide that a particular person, event or idea is important enough to discuss, we are deciding that they are significant. 

What is ‘historical significance’?

Historical significance is a decision that modern people make about what is important from our past. In assigning historical significance, we can choose specific events, people, locations and ideas as being particularly important to us.

Since significance is a decision that we make, it means that different people can decide that different things are significant, or that they can disagree about the reasons a particular person, event, place or idea is important.

Therefore, significance is not the same to everyone, or at all times in history. What we consider to be important can change. As a result, some events which were considered significant a century ago may not be important to us now. Alternatively, we may consider something historically significant today that no-one cared about a hundred years ago.

Watch a video explanation on the History Skills YouTube channel:

How do people decide what is significant?

In order to decide why someone or something is important in history, we need to measure them against some criteria. There are various ways that people decide that something is significant, but here are four criteria which we can use.


The four criteria follow the acronym ‘NAME’: 

N - Novelty 

A - Applicability 

M - Memory 

E - Effects 


Each of the four criteria are explained below. 


Things are often considered to be important if they do something new, which had never been seen before. The word ‘novelty’ means “the quality of being new, original, or unusual".


This is often the way that people from the past measured the significance of people and events from their own time. When an event or person was mentioned by the people alive at the time, it usually shows us that they considered them to be particularly remarkable. 


Therefore, looking for what was novel, or “new”, about a person, event, location or idea, is often a good way to decide why it is significant.


  1. One of the reasons that Julius Caesar was considered significant by his peers is because he was the first Roman to successfully invade and conquer the region of Gaul. 
  2. World War One was considered significant at the time it was happening because of the incredible number of new technological advancements that were used for the first time.


Things from the past can suddenly be considered significant because people have realised that they are applicable to something happening in the present.


As people often say, “history repeats itself”, which means that when a major event occurs in our time, we look back into the past to see how others have dealt with similar things.


As a result, events from history that were rarely discussed before suddenly become important because they may be applicable today.  


  1. How the Ancient Romans incorporated foreign peoples into its empire might become significant when trying to understand modern immigration concerns. 
  2. The events of the Cold War conflict between the US and the USSR in the 1950s and 1960s might be considered significant as a way of understanding how to deal with modern tensions between America and Russia. 


Things often become significant because they have been remembered in a particular way over time. In history, it is common for certain people or events to become more famous with each passing year.


In these situations, we tend to focus on one particular aspect of a person or event, whether good or bad, and tend to ignore everything else about it. As a result, such things become significant primarily because of how people have talked about them years afterwards.

For example: 

The Gallipoli Campaign is considered to be a significant event in Australian history because it has been commemorated as an important event in the formation of Australia's national identity. 


Finally, things are frequently considered to be significant because a lot of people have been affected by them.


The effects caused by a person or event can either be immediate, or continue to impact more people over the days, months, years, decades, or even centuries afterwards. Typically, the more people affected, either for better or for worse, the more significant it is considered to be. 


  1. The Black Death is considered to be significant in European history because it killed an estimated one-third of the entire population of Europe in just four years. 
  2. William Wilberforce is considered to be a significant historical figure because he played a central role in abolishing the slave trade throughout the entire British empire. 

Example research questions

If you have been given a research task that is asking you to assess the significance of someone or something, you need to carefully decide which of the four criteria you'll use to build your sub-questions around.


Here are some preliminary questions which might help you in your research process:

Criteria Examples of sub-questions for a research task about historical significance

 What did people in the past think was important about the person, event or idea? 

What did this person, event or idea achieve which had not been done before?



In what way can the person, event or idea relate to modern events? 

In what ways is this person, event or idea similar to contemporary concerns? 



Why has this person, event or idea been discussed since that time?  

What single element of this person, event or idea has been the focus of commemorations? 



In what ways have people been affected by this person, event or idea? 

What changed as a direct result of this person, event or idea? 


Test your learning

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