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HST 330: The Later Middle Ages

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The identification and analysis of primary sources are essential parts of historical research.  Some primary sources are, of course, only available in the library or archival collection that owns the documents.  Others maybe transcribed and even translated in books or on web sites. 

Analysing Historical Documents

All historians approach sources with a different set of skills, knowledge and experience, and therefore interpret documents differently. While documents have multiple interpretations, with no single one being the right one; it is possible for the document to be interpreted wrong.

In order to analyze a primary source you need information about two things: the document itself, and the era from which it comes. You can base your information about the time period on the readings you do in class and on lectures. On your own you need to think about the document itself. Ask yourself the following questions as you analyze the documents:

1. Look at the physical nature of your source. This is particularly important and powerful if you are dealing with an original source (i.e., an actual old letter, rather than a transcribed and published version of the same letter). What can you learn from the form of the source? (Was it written on fancy paper in elegant handwriting, or on scrap-paper, scribbled in pencil?) What does this tell you?

2. Think about the purpose of the source. What was the author's message or argument? What was he/she trying to get across? Is the message explicit, or are there implicit messages as well?

3. How does the author try to get the message across? What methods does he/she use?

4. What do you know about the author? Race, sex, class, occupation, religion, age, region, political beliefs? Does any of this matter? How?

5. Who constituted the intended audience? Was this source meant for one person's eyes, or for the public? How does that affect the source?

6. What can a careful reading of the text (even if it is an object) tell you? How does the language work? What are the important metaphors or symbols? What can the author's choice of words tell you? What about the silences--what does the author choose NOT to talk about?

Now you can evaluate the source as historical evidence.

1. Is it prescriptive--telling you what people thought should happen--or descriptive--telling you what people thought did happen?

2. Does it describe ideology and/or behavior?

3. Does it tell you about the beliefs/actions of the elite, or of "ordinary" people? From whose perspective?

4. What historical questions can you answer using this source? What are the benefits of using this kind of source?

5. What questions can this source NOT help you answer? What are the limitations of this type of source?

6. If we have read other historians' interpretations of this source or sources like this one, how does your analysis fit with theirs? In your opinion, does this source support or challenge their argument?

(text adapted from https://apps.carleton.edu/curricular/history/resources/study/primary/)

Using Primary Sources

Using primary sources can help you choose or develop your research project.  By starting with an appropriate reference source, such as the Dictionary of the Middle Ages REF D114 D5 1982, you will probably see in the bibliography for each article references to primary sources.  These may be collections of documents or editions of works by medieval writers in translation or in Latin or another original language.  You should check the library catalog for these printed editions. If the texts are not available in the library, you may request them from other libraries.

Many medieval texts have been digitized, translated or transcribed (in some cases, all three), and made available to the general public online. For translated/transcribed texts, it is important to make note of: who the translator/transcriber is (are they an expert in the field? are they affiliated with an academic institution? have they published their translation/transcription in an academic publication?); when the translation/transcription was made (is this a recent or historical translation/transcription?; and who is hosting the translation/transcription (is it an academic or heritage institution? is a personal website?). The answers to these questions should tell you if the translation/transcription is generally accepted by the historical community and if it meets scholarly standards. Whenever possible you should attempt to find a copy of the original text in order to verify the translation/transcription, however, this is not always possible. It is never a bad idea to verify with your professor if the version of the text you are interested in using is acceptable.

Medieval texts in English or in translation can be found at the following websites:

Medieval texts not translated

A number of European libraries and institutions have digitized their medieval manuscripts in part or completely. These digital copies have not been translated to English and the website that hosts them is often not in English.

The following is a small selection of digitized materials in languages other than English:

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