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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 four strategies for finding primary sources for Romanesque or Gothic art.

Strategy #1: Find collections of primary sources in Simpson Library

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 the word "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: Find primary sources online

There are plenty of places on the Internet where you can browse collections of medieval documents. Here are a few to get you started:

Strategy #3: Use the same primary sources that the experts are using

Art historians often mention primary sources in their writings. As you read books and journal articles (secondary sources), keep an eye out for the titles of particular primary sources. Once you know that those sources exist, you can search for them by their titles.

Another way to learn what sources exist is to browse a bibliography (a list of sources). I recommend the searchable Online Medieval Sources Bibliography, which doesn't provide full text, but will tell you what's out there.

How do you search for the full text of a primary source? Try this:

  1. Start with Google. There are copies of medieval primary sources all over the Internet, and Google is pretty good at finding them if you give Google the title of the source.
  2. If Google can't find a particular source, try searching for that source in the online collections listed above.
  3. If you still can't find that source, ask a librarian.

Strategy #4: Find primary sources reproduced within secondary sources

Secondary sources sometimes include reproductions of primary sources.

For example:

  • 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.