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Medieval History Guide: Finding Primary Sources

A guide to all things medieval in the library and on the web.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a primary source?

A primary source is a document or artifact from the time period that you are studying. For example, the text from a manuscript originally written in the thirteenth century is a primary source, as is an eighth-century sculpture. For more on primary sources, see Rampolla 6-10.

Where can I find primary sources?

You can find many primary sources in translation online (see the links on this page). You can also find primary sources in translation in books in the library, in textbooks, and in your course reader. You will also run into primary source quotes in good secondary sources. 

How do I evaluate a primary source?

Never assume that any primary source is going to tell you “the truth.” People in the past rarely wrote or made something because they wanted to provide future historians with “factual” evidence. You should approach a primary source with some key questions in mind:

• What is it? I.e., what was the function of the document or object?

• Who made it, and why?

• When and where was it made, and how does it reflect or relate to its historical context?

For more detailed information on evaluating different kinds of primary sources, see Rampolla 10-15.

How should I use primary sources in my papers?

Primary sources are called “primary” because they are the first and most important kind of evidence used by professional historians. That said, in lower-level courses and for shorter papers, students are usually expected to use more secondary than primary sources. For upper-level courses and research papers students are usually expected to engage equally with both kinds of sources. For independent research and honors, students should plan to engage heavily with primary sources. 

Primary Sources and Collections

Resource Hubs--Both Primary and Secondary Sources

Citing Your Sources

Citing your sources properly -- yes, even the images you use from the Internet -- is important and required. Generally, History courses require that you use Chicago citation style: footnotes and bibliography.

You should already own a copy of Mary L. Rampolla's A Pocket Guide to Writing in History. You can find all you need to know about formatting your footnotes and bibliography here, as well as helpful tips for evaluating sources and writing history papers. The inside of the back cover is a quick directory to documentation models. Each model gives you the format for your footnote (labeled “N”) and your bibliography entry (labeled “B”).

If you would like additional information, Purdue University's OWL Writing Lab Citation resources are the best ones out there on the web. Diane can help with citations, too!

Common formats for primary sources

An excerpt from a published collection of primary sources: see Rampolla #21 (page 125), “Other primary source in a published collection.”

An excerpt from the Internet Medieval Sourcebook: see Dr. Throop’s Style Sheet for a short form.

An excerpt from another website: see Rampolla #48 and 49 (page 144).

Still don’t know what format to use for your source? Get some ideas from Rampolla, use your initiative, create a ‘draft format’ and run it by Diane or Dr. Throop.