How should I answer question 3 of the HAT paper: What can this source tell us about Ratramnus’s understanding of the world, and the means by which he acquired it?

Question 3 of the HAT paper is perhaps the hardest to prepare for since it typically uses obscure sources from periods you're likely to be unfamiliar with. But rather than be alarmed by this, you should remember that this is done deliberately to keep the exam as fair as possible, and to reduce the likelihood of applicants being distracted by outside knowledge, which the mark scheme does not reward. This whole exam, like the interviews that can follow, is much more about how you think than what you know. However, although Oxford are keen to stress that the HAT does not require preparation, it is definitely still worthwhile to pick up some good habits of thought and to practice your exam technique. This will both save you time and make sure you are not unnecessarily stressed on the day. To give you an idea of how to tackle the question, let's have a look at the example in the 2015 past paper. As you make your first reading of the text, annotate or underline parts that seem relevant to the question and then see if you can organise your observations into themes. It may not be necessary to organise your answer thematically (you're not marked for how well-structured your response is), but doing so will provide a clearer structure for yourself, giving you space to develop your points. You may notice that the 'dog-headed ones' seem to be the big theme of the passage and that it is this phenomenon rather than the 'world' per se, that Ratramnus is trying to understand. Nevertheless, it is fair to assume that the authorities he brings to bear in judging the important question of whether the 'dog-headed ones' have 'human souls,' are the same as those he uses for understanding the world in general. So where are these 'means' by which Ratramnus acquired his understanding of the world? As is often the case with these extracts, the first answers present themselves sequentially, almost paragraph by paragraph.

The first paragraph, thanking Rimbert for the information in his letter (central to the rest of the text), already invites a point about the author's reliance on letters and the experience of others for his understanding of the world. Looking further through the passage you will see references to other authorities the author turns to in assessing whether these 'dog-headed ones... possess the souls of humans or animals,' such as 'the opinion of our learned churchmen,' the writings of 'respected scholars,' and 'the authority of the Bible,' which is importantly referred to again with mention of 'the Book of Genesis.' Alongside his reliance on these sources, in the third paragraph Ratramnus suggests some of his own criteria for what it is to be human, such as the ability to 'cultivate fields,' 'distinguish between the lewd and the decent,' and a 'capacity to understand cause and effect.' This last phrase is particularly significant since it relates to Ratramnus's own expectation that 'human souls' should be 'rational' as well as his regard for reason and evidence in understanding the world, both of which he uses throughout to weigh the merits of various sources before reaching his conclusion. All this points to an understanding of the world that is based not only on the guidance of religious texts, but also on this monk's lived experience. To show a more analytical treatment of these means of understanding the world, it may be helpful to suggest which ones you think are more important. For instance, while he seems happy to challenge the opinion of the learned churchmen, the Bible is never contested. Having shown ways in which the source can clearly help answer the question, it is then a good idea to suggest ways in which the source does not provide such straightforward answers. Remember that as a source-based question, this a chance to use the source evaluation skills picked up in AS, so all the usual questions of authorship, authenticity, purpose, and audience can apply. With regard to authorship for instance, we can infer from the fact this is a response to a letter delivered by the 'young assistant Sarward' that the arrival of Rimbert's letter did not only practically depend on Sarward, but that the source itself could have been influenced by him, who may well have clarified for Ratramnus some of Rimbert's experiences while 'staying [at the monastery] awhile.' This is of course only speculative, but it is this kind of 'imaginative' questioning, or what the mark scheme sometimes refers to as 'constructive puzzling,' that can demonstrate a sensitive and empathetic reading. In this way, answering question 3 is as much about relaying what the source tells you at face-value, as it is about questioning its limits, speculating upon alternative readings and possibilities, and generally showing curiosity. Ultimately, the academics marking the exam will want to teach students who take a real interest in their subject (something less common than you might think), and who will really engage and ask questions - the HAT is an opportunity to prove this.

Answered by Michael J. HAT tutor

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