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HIS 110: Europe, 1000-1648: Finding Primary Sources

About Primary Sources

The book your group has been assigned is an example of a Secondary Source, meaning it was written by a historian who was not around when the events they are analyzing were happening. Since the author wasn't there to experience the events discussed, they need to use Primary Sources to learn about what happened and what people at the time were thinking. Primary sources include first-hand accounts, accounts from those who had a direct connection to events, and documents created in the process of an event or around the same time.

Take a look at some of the primary sources the author of your assigned book references. They probably include historical chronicles, legal documents, and ephemera like letters and informal notes. All kinds of documents could constitute a primary source: letters, diaries, poems, pamphlets, wills, mortgages, official proclamations, a recipe written on scrap paper — all these are possible primary sources. The physical or material condition of the primary source object itself — a 500-year-old book, a painting, a folded up letter — can also be a potential source of information.

The boxes below will show available Print and Digital Resources for accessing primary sources.

A couple options for finding a primary source related to your assigned book:

Option A: Retrace Your Author's Steps

  • Consult the Notes and Bibliography to see what primary sources your author may have used to write their book.
  • See if you can get access to any of these sources using one of the tools described below.

Option B: Find primary sources from a similar time, place, and subject

  • Brainstorm a list of search terms related to your book.
    • For example: Maybe you are looking for primary sources about the medieval period, about France, and about dueling.
  • Use the resources listed on this page to search for a translated and/or modernized version of an original text from that time period that you can read and analyze.

Primary Sources at the Library

A Note on Searching the Catalog

To find primary source materials available in the Gustavus library, go to the Advanced Search in the library catalog. In one of the search boxes, enter the word "sources" and set the field to "Subject." Then, enter keywords related to your topic in another box. This search will bring back primary source materials that are in edited volumes.

Books are shelved in general subject categories using the Library of Congress classification system. You may want to supplement your use of the catalog with browsing shelf areas for your topic. Below is a brief listing of some of the subject locations in the field of history.

  • D History (General)
  • 111-203 Medieval
  • 204-475 Modern
  • 901-1075 Europe (General)
  • DA-DR European States individually

Gustavus Library's Collections can be searched in the catalog.

Search for Books, Music, Videos & More

Advanced search · Books, videos, and music

Letters can be a valuable source of evidence for illustrating daily life in a particular time and place. Though some letters are written with the idea of being later published, in many cases private letters provide details about life that would have been deemed unimportant (or too sensitive) for public consumption. If you use an edited collection of letters for your primary source assignment, check to see if there is an Index at the back that can point you to places where subjects you may be interested in are mentioned.

Documents can range from legal proceedings to laws and statutes to personal documents like wills, contracts, land, marriage and birth records. Unlike other primary sources, documents can sometimes capture the more mundane or business-like aspects of life, making them a great resource for learning about everyday practices that historical chronicles tend to overlook.

Histories or chronicles are sweeping narratives told by a person with direct knowledge of events as they occurred. The best of these writers make use of eyewitness testimony, rely on personal knowledge of events and personalities, and provide penetrating analyses of the famous people of their time. They are also not necessarily free from bias, and frequently omit subjects they deem unimportant which later historians interested in details of daily life might have found interesting.

Travel narratives are typically written by an author trying to describe what they saw on their travels to an audience back home. Travel writers can provide evidence of what buildings and settlements were around in a given time, and also the customs of people in the lands they visited. Be wary though: what such writers deem important to include can vary greatly, and it is wise to bear in mind that they may misunderstand the culture (or have a limited view) of the places they visit, or may credulously repeat fantastical things people tell them.

A sourcebook is a collection of primary source documents edited by a modern historian in order to offer readers a sampling of significant writings from the era in question. The choice of texts is decided by the editor, who will often introduce the selected texts and use them to illustrate some points about the history of the time period.

Cover ArtMedieval Europe : a short sourcebook by C. Warren Hollister; Marc A. Meyer; David S. Spear; Joe W. Leedom
Call Number: D113 .M4 2002
ISBN: 9780072417388
Publication Date: 2001-10-31
An image of a 14th century Froissart manuscript featuring a large beginning letter. The manuscript is decorated with text in red ink and decorative elements in gold and other paints.
Illuminated initial from a 15th century Froissart manuscript (BnF Mss. Français 2641) in the Bibliotheque Nationale du France

Primary Source Databases Online

Some databases include only the translated and transcribed text of the primary source documents. Others include scans of the original document (sometimes called a facsimile), which show the page layout and the typeface used. Some, like Britannica Original Sources, will show both views.

Both are acceptable to use, but you might prefer one over the other. Resources that have the text transcribed allow you to do a text search, and can be easier to read than some older typefaces. Those that show the original format allow you to see how the document looks, and imagine what it might have been like to read it during the time it was created.

Sometimes transcriptions will retain the original spelling of the document, which can be hard to read. Try reading the text out loud, it can take some time to get used to the differences from modern English.

Also, check our Guide to Primary Sources to find out how you can meet the primary sources "in person"!


WHO: ARTstor, a non-profit organization that builds and distributes the Digital Library, an online resource of more than 2 million images in the arts, architecture, humanities, and sciences.

WHAT: ARTstor Digital Library is a subscription database providing over 1.5 million digital images in the arts, architecture, humanities, and sciences, with a suite of software tools for teaching and research. Includes material from international museums, photographers, libraries, scholars, photo archives, and artists and artists' estates.

WHY IS THIS USEFUL: ARTstor offers you access to digital scans of art works from across the centuries, including medieval and Renaissance artists and art works.

Early English Books Online (EEBO)

WHO: ProQuest, a large publishing company that used to produce a very "vintage" technology called microform for universities, and now owns and licenses access to many databases.

WHAT: Digital facsimile images of nearly 100,000 books in English printed between 1473 and 1700 - virtually every work printed in England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales and British North America, plus works in English printed elsewhere.

Texts range from the first book printed in English by William Caxton through the age of Spenser and Shakespeare and the English Civil War. Included are works by Malory, Bacon, More, Erasmus, Boyle, Newton, Galileo; musical exercises by Henry Purcell; novels by Aphra Behn; prayer books, pamphlets, and proclamations; almanacs, calendars, and many other primary sources.

WHY IS THIS USEFUL: Want to read a book from the 15th to the 17th centuries? (And not just the text, but images of the actual pages of the books) For most people, EEBO is the easiest and fastest way. The site lets you download a PDF of entire books, or a selection of a book.

1) ProQuest digitized straight from microform; think 1970s photocopier and you have an idea of the image quality.
2) You are looking at images of books that are hundreds of years old. Prior to the late 16th century, nearly all English books were printed in Gothic rather than Roman type. The spelling of English words was not standardized until the mid-17th century, and of course the meanings and usages of words have also changed over time.
3) Because the type is unusual, it is difficult to use optical character recognition (OCR) technology to create a machine-readable text.

A screenshotted image of the title page of a parliamentary announcement of laws during the reign of Henry VIII. The page features both Roman and Gothic style text which tapers to a point as it nears the bottom of the page.

Early English Books Online - Text Creation Partnership (EEBO-TCP)

WHO: A consortium of universities that partner with ProQuest to produce machine-readable texts of early English books on EEBO.

WHAT: A database of machine-readable texts, with 34,963 texts digitized as of 2020. The consortium prioritized digitizing primarily those texts listed in The New Cambridge Bibliography of English Literature.

WHY IS THIS USEFUL: Making the text machine-readable allows you to do a full-text search, among other things. You also don't need to be able to read gothic letters in order to read this.

OBSTACLES: The spelling/orthography of the text is as-is without any editing to modernize the spelling. Words will be spelled significantly differently than they are today. For example:

"Iohan Froyssart [...] Tra[n]slated out of frenche into our maternall englysshe tonge, by Iohan Bourchier knight lorde Berners." (link)

LUNA: Folger Digital Image Collection

LUNA is the home of the digital collection of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC. The Folger Shakespeare Library contains one of the largest collections of manuscripts from early modern England outside of Great Britain. This is a great place to see letters, diaries, legal documents, recipes, and much more. You can also learn paleography -- the study of handwriting -- and volunteer to help the Folger transcribe manuscripts by participating in their monthly transcribathons.

Receipt book of Margaret Baker [manuscript] ca. 1675?.

Internet History Sourcebooks Project: Medieval Sourcebooks

A collection of public domain and copy-permitted historical texts presented cleanly (without advertising or excessive layout) for educational use. Primary sources are available here primarily for use in high-school and university/college courses. From the outset the site took a very broad view of the sources that should be available to students and as well as documents long associated with a "western civilization" approach to history also provides much information on Byzantine, Islamic, Jewish, Indian, East Asian, and African history. You will also find many documents especially relevant to women's history and LGBT studies.

Euro Docs: Medieval and Renaissance Europe

Links connect to European primary historical documents that are transcribed, reproduced in facsimile, or translated. In addition you will find video or sound files, maps, photographs or other imagery, databases, and other documentation. The sources cover a broad range of historical happenings (political, economic, social and cultural). The order of documents is chronological wherever possible.

Britannica Original Sources

WHO: Britannia Group includes Encyclopedia Britannica, Merriam-Webster Dictionary, and more.

WHAT: This database includes primary sources on a wide range of topics. All are transcribed, and translated into English (if applicable). Search by author, topic, or event.

WHY IS THIS USEFUL: Documents are sorted by topic and author, so they are easy to find. Machine-readable text allows you to search within sources. Footnotes provide context. Some pertinent topics under the Topics section include English History: English Labor Force; English History: The Rise of the Jury; English History: Role of Parishes; European Colonization of North America, 1562-1753; Christian Writings from the Reformation to 1750; Christian Piety of the Middle Ages; Reformation Voices; Rise of Great Britain, 710–1777; and King John's Magna Carta, 1215.

OBSTACLES: Does not include images or the original source. If you use the search feature to find sources, be sure you are using a primary source; some sources in this database are compilations of primary sources and include explanatory secondary information.

The Special Collections and Rare Books Room

Our Special Collections are housed on the second (main) floor, in the room next to the computer lab. Check with the reference librarian or the College Archives (third floor) for access to these materials, Monday-Friday, 8am-4:30pm. Although these items cannot be checked out, anyone is free to take a peek (or a long stare) at our collections. You can search the collection by adding "b8:special" to your catalog search.

Currently, there are approximately 1,000 cataloged items in Special Collections, ranging from the medieval period to political cartoons. The oldest item in our collection is a manuscript page from the 1100s. The main focus of our Special Collections is on works printed before 1850, although we have more recent items too. Some highlights from the collection include: illuminated manuscript pages from the 1100s, 1200s, and 1400s, the Gustav Vasa Bible, The Saint John's Bible Heritage Edition, first and unique edition copies of numerous works, and signed copies from other authors as diverse as Richard Nixon and André Malraux.

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