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UMW Libraries
Simpson Library | Special Collections

ARTH 326: Romanesque and Gothic Art: Primary sources (evidence)

Primary sources

A primary source is anything that provides first-hand evidence. In the context of art history, primary sources are written documents from the time period that you're studying.

In addition to written documents, another source of first-hand evidence is the artworks themselves (or images of artworks). However, when art historians talk about "primary sources," they're usually referring to written documents, not to images. It's assumed that you will consult high-quality images of the artworks you're studying.

Below are three strategies for finding primary sources for Romanesque or Gothic art.

Strategy #1: Collections of primary sources

Most of the books in the library's collection are secondary sources, but some of our books are collections of primary sources. Here's an example of a collection of primary sources about Gothic art.

To find these books, use the Advanced Search in Quest. On a separate line, add the word "Sources" to your search, and set the dropdown menu to Subject. Then, set the Material Type to Books. Your search will look like this:

A screenshot of a Quest Advanced Search, showing the material type set to "books" and a Subject search for the word "sources"


In the image above, the search term "medieval art" is just an example. You could try narrower terms such as "gothic art." You could also try search terms that don't include "art" -- for example, if you wanted to find primary sources about the history of Christianity, you would search for "church history" on the first line and "sources" on the second line.

Strategy #2: Primary sources reproduced within secondary sources

Secondary sources sometimes are published with reproductions of primary sources. Here are some examples:

  • A book might have an appendix that is a reproduction of a primary source document.
  • A journal article might contain excerpts from a primary source document (usually rendered as block quotes within the text).

Unfortunately, there isn't a way to limit your search to secondary sources that contain primary sources. Instead, search for secondary sources in the usual ways, and keep an eye out for any that contain primary sources. In particular, whenever you're examining a book, be sure to check the table of contents to see whether the book includes any primary source documents.

Strategy #3: Primary sources online

One nice thing about studying Medieval art is that all of the primary sources are old enough to be out of copyright. This means that they are often freely available on the Internet. Therefore, once you discover that a particular primary source document exists, you may be able to find the full text simply by Googling the title of the document.

To discover which primary source documents exist, read through secondary sources and see which primary sources they mention.

Even if you don't have a particular document in mind, there are plenty of places on the Internet where you can browse collections of Medieval documents. Here are a few to get you started: