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Some Basic Research Tips for Students of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance  

Welcome to the world of research! James Burke, the creator of Connections, once said something to the effect of “Any job that has me sitting in a library every day for 7 hours, is my idea of heaven.” He certainly captured my idea of heaven as well. Of course, there is more to research than just sitting in a library... .


I like to think of historical research as a personal mystery story. What I am researching is a puzzle to be solved, and the research process is finding the clues and putting them together in order to solve the puzzle. As with any investigation, there are methods of working that are more likely to help you find and interpret the clues than others. These methods of working/investigating/interpretation are called “historical research methods” and “historiography” (literally, “writing history”).

What is history? Does it differ from historical/past “facts”? History is the interpretation of what we believe to be significant known past facts/events. In any given point of time in history, there were billions of “past facts” occurring. Very few of these facts left records that have survived to the present day. Some of the facts that were not recorded or their records did not survive were highly significant to understanding that point in time; some of the facts that left surviving records were relatively unimportant. To further complicate things, historians, based on the prejudices and cultural conditioning of their own times and places, decided that some of the facts that survived were important at one time, then other historians from a later date decided that other surviving facts were the more important. The important thing to remember is that even the most vigilant of historians are working to recreate a picture for which they have only very incomplete information and and a limited sense of what was the essential “facts.” The fewer known facts we have, the more interpretations can be created to place those facts into a satisfyingly whole picture.

Since all historians have biases (we all have certain cultural biases that form our “ground of being”), most good historians try to find ways to work around their biases and make their work as objective as possible. These ways constitute good “historical research methods” and good “historiography.” If you want to do a good job, you should do a little basic reading in historiography/historical research methods, especially that focused on Medieval or Renaissance/Early Modern studies (different periods have different types of source materials available, and therefore different approaches to studying them).

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Define and focus your topic or interest area

You should first do some general reading to acquire background and context for your topic. Even if you know a great deal about a certain subject, you should be able to place this subject into a social and cultural framework. This general reading may also lead you to suitable sources for more specific topics within a general area.

Once you have a basic idea of the social and cultural context of your subject, try to narrow your topic as much as possible. It is better for you to be thorough on a narrow topic, than to tackle a broad topic incompletely and inaccurately. It is also easier to find information, understand it, not be overwhelmed by it, and to interpret it if your topic is narrow.

Collect a variety of keywords for which to search for your topic in indices, card catalogs, Internet search engines. You may be surprised to find that your topic is listed under keywords you would never expect. I recently advised a person who wanted to find out about makers of 15th century lace to look under 15th century economic history. This may seem irrelevant until you realize that textile production was the second largest economic activity of the Middle Ages after agriculture. (This is where that generalized knowledge of social and cultural context comes in).

Source Types

Primary and Secondary Sources

Primary sources are sources (documents, artifacts) that were created at the time (and place) of an event or of a period of study. If the source records a specific event, the record should be created by a witness to that event. Secondary sources are those created after the fact, by people separated in time and/or by place from the event or period. Good secondary sources use primary sources as their foundations.

With artifacts, I personally distinguish direct and indirect primary sources. Direct primary sources are the artifacts themselves: surviving garments, tools, household items, etc.; and indirect primary sources are descriptions, either visual or written, of the artifacts (e.g., a painting of a gown, a household account reporting how many and what type of spoons were owned by a household for a given period). For many period artifacts, we have only indirect primary sources. Both are valuable to the understanding of artifacts.

Start with good secondary sources first. Primary sources have limitations and weaknesses, are often incomplete, and are difficult to interpret without an extensive background in the period and place involved. Scholarly secondary sources will help you understand the nature of the primary source materials, their strengths and limitations, and methods of interpretation. Do not skip this step! Then cautiously proceed to using primary sources, continuing to use secondary sources as collaboration and means to check your interpretations.

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Evaluating Secondary Sources

A guide to evaluating secondary sources has been posted on this site.

Evaluating Primary Sources

Depending on the specific source, you should take a class on or at least read a good textbook on the production of that source or on the productions of primary sources from a given period and place. I have always believed that people researching any decorative art from the Middle Ages or Renaissance should take a good upper-division or ( or if you are up to it, graduate level) art history class for that time period. This will help you understand the social/cultural milieux of the time, the place, the artisanal class, the consumer of the artifacts, and the conventions used at the time. It is easy to misinterpret a source if you don’t know what the maker is trying to achieve in producing the object.

Some questions you should be asking of your sources are:

  • When and where was this source produced?
  • Who produced the source?
  • For what “audience” was this source produced?
  • Why was this source produced? Is it typical or unusual, even unique?
  • Where was the source found? Was is far from where it was produced? Why?
  • Did the producer have first-hand knowledge of what he or she was depicting/describing?
  • Why did this source survive to the present day? Does this skew our understanding of how the source relates to the time and place of study? If so, how?
  • Has this source been modified? When? Why?
  • Is the source complete?
  • Are there comparable sources? How do they compare?
  • What kind of information does the source contain?
  • What kind of information does the source not contain or that you wished it contained?
  • What conventions were in effect at the time the source was produced? How did these affect the source?
  • Are there other primary sources that can be used to collaborate, contradict, or supplement the information that the source gives?
  • Is the source a transcription or reprint of an original document? Is the source a translation? If you can read the original language, do so and compare it to the translation.
  • What are the known limitations of this type of source?
  • How have other historians used this source?

If you can answer most of these questions, then you are ready to use primary sources in a meaningful way.

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Places to Find Information

Public Libraries

Characteristics of the public library for research:

  • You can find books, popular periodicals, periodical indices, sometimes on-line searches and databases.
  • Limitations: Public libraries try to be all things to all people, staff not as knowledgeable as in an academic library, sources are often outdated, inaccurate (and sometimes just plain wrong), sources are targeted for a high school-educated patron and often are not properly footnoted or have any bibliography, and funding low and being cut. Very scholarly sources are rarely found in public libraries. Newer online and CD-ROM sources help counter some of the outdated books and magazines.
  • Pros: easily available, free, most libraries have Interlibrary Loan (ILL) services so you can request better sources and pick them up at a convenient place either for free or for a nominal charge.
  • Reference librarians should know what is in the entire system and recommend good beginning sources.
  • ILL, some indexes and on-line sources

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Academic Libraries

  • These have books, scholarly journals, microfilmed primary documentation (and sometimes “real” primary documents, journal indices, on-line searches, trained reference librarians, and some libraries may have printed research guides for various fields.
  • Limitations: Borrowing privileges may be reserved to students, faculty, staff, and sometimes alumni (if you are an alumnus/a of a local college or university, see if your alumni association membership confers borrowing privileges). Access to CD-ROM indices may be even more limited, but you can search through the printed versions of these indices (usually found in the reference section).
  • Pros: Good, scholarly, and often up-to-date sources — especially journals are available. You can browse stacks (usually); this can be useful in that sometimes a catalog search will indicate one possible source, and the book next to it on the shelf is even better for your topic. Reference librarians are more knowledgeable, and you may be able to arrange an appointment with a specialized librarian in your field. Many larger universities also have special collections and specialized libraries on certain fields. Many primary documentary sources are on microfilm.
  • Look for colleges or universities that have Medieval Studies and/or Renaissance Studies departments for the best collections.

Museums (and Museum Libraries)

You can locate museums that have relevant collections in such guides as the American Association of Museums Guide or ICOM (International Commission on Museums) guides. There are also online listings of museums (the Virtual Museum is an example). Coffee table art and history books will often list a museum, archive or library collection source for a photograph of an object. Coffee table art books for particular museums may also have photographs of a relevant object or of an art work that shows the object.

Visit publicly displayed collections first. If the museum has a more complete catalog available about the objects it holds, consult that to get information about objects not displayed. Many museums have libraries of information relevant to their collections; sometimes you can make appointments to visit that library. You may want to inquire about any requirements or restrictions first. For example, the Folger Shakespeare Library (Washington, D.C.) only allows people who are professional academics or Ph.D. candidates in a related field to use that library, but the Textile Museum (Washington, DC) has a library open to the public two or three days a week (unless they have recently changed their policies).

If you have questions about a particular object, you can write to curator/collections manager for more information. Sometimes you can also write to curator/collections manager to see items in the collection not on public display. Try to find out as much about the artifacts as possible before seeing objects (don’t waste the curator’s time with questions to which you can find answers from publicly available sources; use this method to find things you cannot find out any other way).

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Academic Institutions

Take a class relevant to your subject. In this way, you will probably get good bibliographies to work from, and a person who should know the subject to ask specific questions of.

Check the course offerings for upper division and graduate classes on your subject. Go to the institution’s bookstore and look for the books being used by that class. Make a list of these to get from library or to buy (after evaluating them first). To be fair to the students, you should not buy said books from a university bookstore until at least three weeks after classes start. Also many classes now post their reading lists on college/university web sites; you may want to check the web sites for that institution to see if that is done (check both for course name/number and for professor’s name). Or you might want to make an appointment with an instructor in the field of your interest (if any) and ask for a recommended beginning bibliography.


When using search engines and directories, try to keep your key words specific. Look for bibliographies and downloadable texts and scholarly articles. Much Internet information is neither accurate nor scholarly. Use the same criteria for evaluation that you would use for any secondary source.

Some good medieval sources on the Web:

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Select Bibliography

Historiography and Historical Research Methods

My thanks to Dayle Boyd for some of the sources shown here.

Documentary Sources

Appleby, Joyce, et al. Telling the Truth About History. n.p., 1994.

Barzun and Graff. The Modern Researcher. 4th ed. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1985.

Burke, Peter, et al. New Perspectives on Historical Writing. University Park: Penn State University Press, 1986.

Cantor. Norman F. Inventing the Middle Ages: The Lives, Works, and Ideas of the Great Medievalists of the Twentieth Century. New York: Quill/William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1991.

Carr, Edward Hallet. What Is History? New York: Vintage Books, 1961.

Commager, Henry Steele. The Study of History. Columbus: Charles Merrill Books, 1966.

Fisher, David Hackett. Historian’s Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought. New York: Harper and Row, 1970.

Fowler, Peter J. The Past in Contemporary Society: Then, Now. London/New York: Routledge Press, 1992.

Green, William A. History, Historians and the Dynamics of Change. n.p., 1993.

Kammen, Michael, ed. The Past Before Us: Contemporary Historical Writing in the United States. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982.

Lowenthal. David. The Past Is a Foreign Country. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Rosenthal, Joel. T., ed. Medieval Women and the Sources of Medieval History. Athens and London: University of Georgia Press, 1990.

Sharpe, Jim. “History from Below.” In New Perspectives on Historical Writing, ed. Peter Burke, et al. University Park: Penn State University Press, 1986.

Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher. A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard Based on Her Diary 1785–1812. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990.

Material Culture

Antal, Frederick. Florentine Painting and Its Social Background. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., Ltd., 1947.

Arnold, Janet. The Handbook of Costume. London: Macmillan, 1973.

Artz, Frederick. The Mind of the Middle Ages AD 200–1500: An Historical Survey. 3d ed. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1980.

Baxandall, Michael. Painting and Experience in Fifteenth Century Italy: A Primer in the Social History of Pictorial Style. 2d ed. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1988).

Deetz, James. In Small Things Forgotten: The Archaeology of Early American Life. New York: Anchor Press, 1977.

Gaskell, Ivan, “History of Images.” In New Perspectives on Historical Writing, ed. Peter Burke, et al. University Park: Penn State University Press, 1986.

Glassie, Henry. “Meaningful Things and Appropriate Myths: The Artifact’s Place in American Studies.” In Material Life in America: 1600–1860, ed. Robert Blair St. George, et al., 63–94. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1988.

Hollander, Anne. Seeing Through Clothes. New York: Avon Books, 1975.

Huizinga, Johan. The Waning of the Middle Ages: A Study of the Forms of Life, Thought and Art in France and the Netherlands in the XIVth and XVth Centuries. London: Edward Arnold, 1924.

Payne, Blanche, Geitel Winakor, and Jane Farrell-Beck, The History of Costume: From Ancient Mesopotamia Through the Twentieth Century. 2d ed. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1992. Please make sure you are using the second edition!!!

Prown, Jules “Mind in Matter: An Introduction to Material Culture Theory and Method.” In Material Life in America: 1600–1860, ed. Robert Blair St. George, et al., 17–38. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1988.

Schlelereth, Thomas J., ed. Material Culture Studies in America. Nashville, Tenn.: The American Association for State and Local History, 1982.

St. George, Robert Blair. “Introduction.” In Material Life in America: 1600–1860, ed. Robert Blair St. George, et al., 3–16. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1988.

Washburn, Wilcomb E. “Manuscripts and Manufacts.” In Material Culture Studies in America, ed. Thomas J. Schlelereth, 101–113. Nashville, Tenn.: The American Association for State and Local History, 1982.

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