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CUR 100: Historical Perspective: Finding Primary Sources

Don't Be Shy

Take the bull by the horns. You can always stop by the library's reference desk or the Writing Center to get help or ask for a second opinion.

This image is from an 11th century manuscript, reprinted in an article in The Guardian about things monks wrote in the margins of the manuscripts they copied, including "writing is excessive drudgery. It crooks your back, it dims your sight, it twists your stomach and your sides."


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Primary Sources

Primary sources are records of the past. Historians use primary sources both to answer questions about the past (what happened? why? what was the experience of people involved? What insights about a time and place can we get through direct examination of historical evidence?) but also to figure out what to ask. 

You may find it easiest to start your research by looking at a source and simply thinking about what questions it poses: who is that person? why did they say what they said? What does this thing mean? What does this document say about women's roles in the middle ages or how the economy worked or what peasants really thought or what kind of religious experience they had? By using multiple sources, you can look for patterns or contrasts.

There are several collections of primary sources on reserve - behind the information desk. These collections generally provide some background and context as well as the primary source itself.


Is This Primary?

Good question! You are looking for things from the middle ages such as:

  • official documents
  • eyewitness accounts
  • chronicles written by people who lived during the middle ages
  • works of art
  • household records
  • religious documents 
  • personal narratives 

When these are translated and published for a modern audience, they usually have an introduction that explains the context of the source. You'll need to read carefully to separate that modern material from the actual primary source. 

Searching the Catalog for Primary Sources

If you're researching your own topic (with the approval of your instructor) these techniques may help you go beyond the resources that are on reserve.

  • Search for books by a historical person as author. 
  • Search for a topic (e.g. women, religion, war) and add the words MIDDLE AGES and SOURCES. You will still have to check to make sure they aren't simply essays about sources, but actually give you the historical sources themselves.   
  • Look for clues in secondary sources about people and documents that you may be able to find. 


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Searching for Primary Sources Online

Some Primary Sources on Reserve

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