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HIST 299: Sinners or Saints?: Women and Gender in the Middle Ages (Bush): Primary Sources

Spring 2024

Working with Primary Sources


  • Keep your searches simple, and be creative with your search terms. How did people in the period you are researching speak and write?  What words would they have used to describe events or ideas? Are there specific names or organizations that you can focus in on? 

  • Work with, not against, your search tools. Databases designed for primary sources often will let you narrow your search by features like publication date, geographic location, or type of source. 
  • Pay attention to the order of search results.  If your search is very broad or you get a lot of results, sorting by relevance can help you find starting places. But when looking at newspapers or other sources that might build on each other and create a story over time, you may want to sort Oldest to Newest instead! 
  • Don't just search -- browse! Keyword searching for primary sources can be imprecise, especially if you don't know exactly what you're looking for. Give yourself time to click in and out of sources you're unsure of, browse through the pages, and look at the context of sources like newspaper articles (what other stories appeared on the same day? what advertisements?) for maximum information. 
  • Pace yourself. Primary sources can take longer to find than academic articles. You may also need more time to decipher, digest, and interpret the content of your primary sources. Leave yourself plenty of time to do this work, and ask questions or for assistance earlier rather than later! 


[Sources in Other Languages]

Using Google Translate for Web Research

Collections of Primary Sources

Collections of Primary Sources

Correspondence & Other 'Ephemera'

Modern Printings & Collections

Some medieval sources have been edited and reprinted in modern edited collections, or other modern publications. For example: 

Such compilations can be extremely helpful in making sources more accessible, especially those originally written in Latin! 

Here are some tips for locating other collections: 

  • Search the catalog for very general topics (women, "middle ages," medieval, etc.) combined with key terms such as sourcebook, editedanthology, etc. 
  • Use subject tags in the catalog such as Women > History > Middle Ages, 500-1500 > Sources, or Europe > History > Sources. 
  • Browse the stacks in key areas for your topic. 
  • Check the footnotes of your secondary sources. 


The following research guide has a number of great image resources: 

You may wish to take advantage of tools for reverse image searching to get more information about images you have found or to locate similar/related images. Ask Jennifer for help! 

 Guide to Reverse Image Searching 

Religious Sources

Misc. Web Archives

Some of the best digitized primary sources exist in scattered repositories dedicated to specific topics, collections, etc. But how do you find them?

Google Site Search is an invaluable tool for locating primary sources on the web: 

  • site:*.edu "middle ages" will search for references to the Middle Ages across educational websites and hit many libraries, archives and universities; 
  • site:*.org "middle ages" will search the same non-profit websites (including museums and other cultural heritage institutions, but also less reputable organizations -- so read carefully for bias!). 
  • Looking for sources from a specific country? Most countries have their own domain. For example, to find sources posted on Italian websites, you could search site:*.it. Just be aware of where these sources are coming from, and evaluate the websites carefully! 

You should also pay attention to any collections of primary sources referenced in your secondary sources. For example, if a course reading mentions that a particular university's archives have an important collection of documents relating to medieval medicine, you should visit the archives' site to find out if they have digitized any of these sources.