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Gender and Sexuality in the Middle Ages: Your primary source assignment

Your assignment is to learn as much as possible about the primary source you choose by examining the time and place that it came from, and determine where and how your document fits into the broader historical setting from which it came. Some questions  you  might ask of your source:

  • What is the origin of the primary source?  Who created it?  How did the author’s personal circumstances affect what was written?
  • Who was the author’s intended audience?
  • Why was the document written? 
  • How might the circumstances of the document’s creation have affected its content?
  • What is the historical significance of the document?

Here is Willliam and Mary University's excellent advice on how to analyze a primary source.

Distinguishing and selecting a primary source

Internet Medieval Sourcebook: Browse this large website for a primary document for your analysis. 
Sexuality in Medieval Europe (Karras): Browse here for more primary documents, and a timeline of the period.

As you browse, it is important you distinguish primary from secondary sources, particularly when using the websites above, which includes both types of sources. 

Your task: Compare the following sources. Are they primary or secondary sources? How can you tell?

This is a primary source: 26 votes (96.3%)
This is a secondary source: 1 votes (3.7%)
Total Votes: 27
This is a primary source: 0 votes (0%)
This is a secondary source: 22 votes (100%)
Total Votes: 22

Finding background information

The first step in primary document analysis is often consulting background sources - encyclopedias or other reference books - to learn the basics of the text, author, time period or topic at hand.

Your task

1) Take 5 minutes to skim this primary document: Prologue to Wife of Bath's Tale, by Geoffrey Chaucer, in order to get a general sense of what it is about. Make a not of any key points / key terms that might help describe what the document is about.

2) Find an entry/article about either the author, Geoffrey Chaucer OR the poem in one of the background sources listed on the Background Sources tab to the right of this page. Preferred tool: Oxford Reference: History. The most helpful entries will come from historical rather than literary sources, though both may be useful.

3) Take two minutes to skim the encyclopedia entry/article you find. Talk to your neighbour briefly about some things you learned about either Chaucer or the Wife of Bath from the encyclopedia entry. How might this information help with a primary source analysis?  What did you learn that would lead you to more information? 

Other scholarly encyclopedias on medieval history

Finding scholarly books and journal articles

The next step in a primary document analysis is to find more detailed information that will help you better understand the context of your document, e.g., a book about the era/event/author or an article discussing the text. These will be important for your presentations.

Use the LibrarySearch discovery tool on the library homepage to find books and articles on your author/era/issue/region 

  • Scholarly books will give you the big picture on your topic; look for relevant chapter titles.
    • For primary document analysis, books can be more helpful than articles, at least in the beginning, because they usually provide more context. They are also excellent sources of biographical information.
  • Scholarly articles will explore narrower aspects of your era/issue/region/author's life.
    • Use journal articles to fill in the blanks for your analysis or presentation, only after you have explored encyclopedias and scholarly books.

Start with simple searches for your document analysis, for example:

  • author's name (be on the lookout for alternate names/titles for your author)
  • title of primary document
  • event or location associated with document or author
  • historical era (Middle Ages, Medieval) + contextual term (sex, gender, women etc.). This approach will be particularly important if your source has an author who has not been widely studied, or if the author is unknown.

Still looking for information? Use one of the journal article databases on the ARTICLES tab of this guide. Best bests for the medieval time period include:

  • Historical Abstracts
  • Project Muse
  • Jstor
  • Academic Search Complete
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Alice Swabey
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