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Why Study History Through Primary Sources

[Adapted from James Harvey Robinson, "The Historical point of View", in Readings in European History, Vol I, (Boston: Ginn, 1904), 1-13 ]

The Sources of History

It is clear that all our information in regard to past events and conditions must be derived from evidence of some kind. This evidence is called the source. Sometimes there are a number of good and reliable sources for an event, as, for example, for the decapitation of King Charles I of England in 1649, or for the march of Napoleon into Russia. Sometimes there is but a single, unreliable source, as, for instance, in the case of the burial of King Alaric in a river bed. For a great many important matters about which we should like to know there are, unfortunately, no written sources at all, and we can only guess how things were. For example, we do not know what the Germans were doing before Julius Caesar came into contact with them and took the trouble to give a brief account of them. We can learn but little about the bishops of Rome (or popes) before the time of the Emperor Constantine for few references to them have come down to us. Few, however, of those who read and study history ever come into contact with the primary, or first­hand sources; they get their information at second hand. is much more convenient to read what the modern historian Edward Gibbon has say of Constantine than to refer to Eusebius, Eutropius and other ancient writers from whom he gained knowledge. Moreover, Gibbon carefully studied and compared all the primary sources, and it may be urged that he has given a truer, fuller, and more attractive account of the period than can be found in any one of them. His Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is certainly a work of the highest rank; but, nevertheless, it is only report of others' reports. It is therefore not a primary but a secondary source.

The Problem of Secondhand Knowledge

Most of the historical knowledge current among is not, however, derived from even secondary source such as Gibbon and similar authoritative writers, comes from the reading of textbooks, encyclopedia stories, dramas, and magazine articles. Popular manual and articles are commonly written by those who know little or nothing of the primary sources; they are consequently at least third hand, even when based upon the best secondary accounts. As a matter of fact, they usually patched together from older manuals and articles and may be four, five, or six removes from the original source of knowledge. It is well known that the oftener a report passes from mouth to mouth the less trustworthy and accurate does it tend to become. Unimportant details which appeal to the imagination will be magnified, while fundamental considerations are easily forgotten, if they happen be prosaic and commonplace. Historians, like other people, are sometimes fond of good stories and may be led astray by some false rumor which, once started into circulation, gets farther and farther from the truth with each repetition. For example, a distinguished historian of the Church, Cardinal Baronius, writing about 1600, made the statement, upon very insufficient evidence, that, as the year 1000 approached, the people of Europe generally believed that the world was about to come to an end. Robertson, a very popular Scotch historian of the eighteenth century, repeated the statement and went on to describe the terrible panic which seized upon sinful men as the awful year drew on. Succeeding writers, including some very distinguished ones, accepted and even elaborated Robertson's account. About thirty years ago, however, a French scholar pointed out that there was really no adequate basis for this strange tale. To the chroniclers of the time the year 1000 was clearly no more portentous than 997 or 1003. This story of the panic, which passed current as historical fact for some three hundred years, offers an excellent illustration of the danger of relying upon secondary sources. [note (1998): In this case historical revisionism has come full circle - there are now a number of historians who do think the year 1000 was of some cultural importance.]

Questions to Ask about a Historical Work

One of the first questions then to ask upon taking up an historical work is, Where did the writer obtain the information? Has the writer simply copied his statements from the more easily accessible works in a familiar language, however unreliable and out of date they may be; or, dissatisfied with such uncertain sources, has the writer become familiar with the most recent researches of the distinguished scholars in the field, in whatever language they may have been written ; or, still better, has the historian made a personal study of the original evidence which has come down to us of the events and conditions which are under discussion? For example, a little book or essay on Charlemagne might be written after reading Hodgkin's Charles the Great, West's Alcuin, and one or two other easily accessible books on the subject. On the other hand, the writer might turn to the great French and German treatises Charlemagne's reign and become acquainted with all articles which have appeared on the subject in historical journals or in the transactions of learned societies. Every conscientious historian would wish, however, to go still farther and directly see the evidence and draw personal conclusions. A good historian would turn to the sources themselves and carefully read the Annals of the Monastery of Lorsch, the life of Charlemagne by his secretary, Einhard, and the so­called Annals of Einhard. Such a research would also scrutinize all the numerous laws passed in Charlemagne's reign and consult all the writers of the time who refer to the emperor or to public events. In this way mastery would be gained of all that the past has handed down to us upon this subject and all that is to be known about the matter. The most reliable historians, therefore, are ones who examines the sources for themselves, but who at the same time take advantage of the suggestions, criticisms, and explanations which have been made by other scholars who have also studied the original documents.

The Necessity of Using Primary Sources

No improvement in the methods of historical instruction in our high schools and colleges bids fair to produce better results than the plan of bringing the student into contact with the first­hand accounts of events, or, as they are technically termed, the primary sources. This term may perhaps call up in the minds of some the vision of a solitary stoop­shouldered, spectacled enthusiast, engaged in painfully deciphering obscure Latin abbreviations on yellow parchment. But it is a mistake to conclude that the primary sources are always difficult to get at, dull, and hard to read. On the contrary, they are sometimes ready to hand, and are often more vivid and entertaining than even the most striking descriptions by the pen of gifted writers like Gibbon or Macaulay. The best secondary authorities stand to the sources somewhat as the description of a work of art or of a masterpiece of literature stands to the original. Just as we cannot afford to ignore the picture itself, or the great poem or drama, and confine ourselves to some one else's account of it, so in our historical work we ought to grasp every opportunity of examining for ourselves the foundations upon which history rests. It may, of course, be urged that the trained historians, after acquainting themselves with the people and the circumstances of a particular period, can make better use of the sources than any relatively unskilled student. But, admitting the force of this argument, there is, nevertheless, so much to be learned from a study of the original accounts that cannot be reproduced by the most skilled hand, that no earnest student or reader should be content with second­hand descriptions when primary sources are available. The sources are unconsciously molded by the spirit of the time in which they were written. Every line gives some hint of the period in which the author lived and makes an impression upon us which volumes of second­hand accounts can never produce. The mere information, too, comes to us in a form which we do not easily forget. The facts sink into our memory. One who actually talked with Attila, or who witnessed the capture of Jerusalem by the crusaders, is clearly more likely to excite our interest than a writer of our own day, however much the modern may know of the king of the Huns or of the first crusade. It makes no great impression upon us to be told that the scholars of Dante's time had begun to be interested once more in the ancient learning of the Greeks and Romans; but no one can for get Dante's own poetic account of his kindly reception in the lower regions by the august representatives of pagan literature, ­ Homer, Horace, Ovid, and Lucan, ­ people "with eyes slow and grave, of great authority in their looks," who "spake seldom and with soft voices." Moreover, the study of the sources enables us to some extent to form our own opinions of the past, so that we need not rely entirely upon mere manuals, which are always one, and generally two or three, removes from the sources themselves. When we get at the sources themselves we no longer merely read and memorize; we begin to consider what may be safely inferred from the statements before us and so. develop the all­important faculty of criticism. We are not simply accumulating facts but are attempting to determine their true nature and meaning. The power to do this is not alone necessary to scholarly work; it is of the utmost importance as well in dealing with the affairs of everyday life. To take a single illustration : one cannot fail to see from a study the sources that Luther was exceedingly unfair to his enemies and ascribed their conduct to evil motives when they were acting quite consistently and according to what they considered the truth. His opponents, on the other hand, treated him with equal unfairness and proclaimed him a wicked and profligate man because he refused to accept their views. We meet precisely the same unfairness nowadays, as, for instance, in the case of a municipal election, where each party speaks only evil of the other. It is, however, not so hard to look impartially at the motives and conduct of people who lived long ago as it is to be fair-minded in matters which interest us personally very deeply. By cultivating sympathy and impartiality in dealing with the past we may hope to reach a point where we can view the present coolly and temperately. In this way really thoughtful, historical study serves to develop the very fundamental virtues of sympathy, fairness, and caution in forming our judgments.

The Modern Availability of Primary Sources

Even as late as the early 19th century [note (1998): a hundred years before Robinson was writing] the path to the sources of European history was still a thorny one. The manuscripts of historical importance were often scattered about in innumerable small collections, chiefly in the monasteries. The documents were stacked up in dark rooms, damp cellars, and dusty garrets. They were often carelessly transcribed, full of blunders, and illegible except to those specially versed in the art of deciphering ancient handwriting. There were usually no catalogues and nthing to guide the investigator to the material which was needed. The scholar was forced to travel from place to place and turn over masses of worthless or irrelevant matieral in the uncertain quest for the little which might be useful. But all this is changed. Scholars may now sit at a convenient desk in a comfortable, well­lighted library; they have clearly printed books before them, the texts of which have been established by a comparison of all the known manuscripts of the work in question. These have been collated by an expert; errors have been eliminated, and difficult passages annotated. The work has been carefully analyzed and supplied with an index, so that one may discover in a few moments just those paragraphs which have to do with the subject in hand. The task of rendering the sources available has been a long and painful one, and has been going on for three or four hundred years. As early as the sixteenth century scholars began to bring together the mediaeval chronicles and print them in convenient collections. In the time of King Louis XIV of France a group of Benedictine monks in France won new distinction for their ancient order by publishing several admirable series and by preparing treatises to facilitate historical research. The nineteenth century witnessed a development of the critical scientific spirit which has made it necessary to reprint many sources that had appeared previously in a defective form. Moreover, thousands of volumes of precious material hitherto available only in manuscript have been added to our resources. The most notable of the many collections is that which has been in course of publication in Gerinany since 1826, ­ the Monumenta Germaniae Historica. Begun under the auspices of an historical society, it was, upon the death of Pertz, the original editor, placed under the supervision of a government commission (1875). The volumes published since that date have established a standard of the highest excellence.' In England many volumes of historical material have been issued since 1858 under the direction of the Master of the Rolls, and constitute the so­called Rolls Series. France, Italy, Austria, Belgium, and other European countries have each their series, great and small. Some of these enjoy the support of the government, but the greater part of them are due to the enterprise of historical societies or individual scholars. So rapidly are the sources being printed that it is no longer necessary in most fields of historical research to rely as formerly, upon the manuscripts in the European libraries and archives. Some, at least, of our very best university and public libraries now contain many of the great collections of printed sources, and it is possible to carry on satisfactory historical research in some fields in Boston or New York as well as in London or Paris. It would be useless to enumerate the names of these many series, even of the very important ones, for it is impossible to infer from the general title of an extensive set what particular works and documents it contains. Moreover, the modern publication, investigation, and criticism of the sources have led to the preparation of a number of indispensable works of reference which do not aim to deal directly with history but to serve as I guide to those in search of the material upon which the historian must rely. A very few of the most noteworthy will be mentioned here as illustrations of the apparatus necessary in all professional historical study.

Guides to Using Primary Sources

To learn what the sources are and where they ma be found is the first requisite of historical investigation. A French writer, Langlois, has published a very useful bibliography of historical bibliographies, a catalogue of the best lists of sources and of historical treatises.
  • Langlois, Manuel de bibliographie historique, Part 1, "Instruments bibliographiques," 2d ed., Paris, 1901,
Such lists are very numerous and often voluminous The most useful and scholarly is Potthast's Wegweise,or "guide," in two stout volumes.
  • Potthast, Wegweiser durch die Geschichtswerke des Europäischen Mittelalters bis 1500, 2 Vols., 2d ed., Berlin, 1895­1896
The compiler has with infinite patience, sought to bring together in at alphabetical list the sources for the history of western Europe from the year 400 to 1500, and to state whet and where they have been printed. One anxious to lea r whether there has been a new critical edition of a particular chronicle, or whether there are any lives of St. Boniface, or Gregory VIII, or Frederick Barbarossa, written by those who lived in their times, can obtain the desired information from Potthast, as well as a list of modern works relating to the topic under consideration. Admirable guides exist for the study of particular countries. German scholars have compiled a list of all the important books and articles relating to the history of their own country from the time of Tacitus to the present day.
  • Dahlmann­Waitz, Quellenkunde der deutschen Geschichte, 6th ed., Göttingen, 1894,
A still better and more extensive work by Molinier and others is in course of publication for the history of France.
  • Les sources de l'histoire de France, des origines aux guerres d'Italie (1494); to be continued to 1815 ­ 5 vols., (Paris: 1901-)
Of course the history both of France and of Germany is so closely associated with that of other European countries that the above­mentioned guides are very valuable for the student of general European affairs. A similar collection of titles has been prepared by Professor Charles Gross for England.
  • Sources of English History, Longmans, 1901,
For an explanation of the many troublesome tern and expressions used in medieval writings one should turn to the monumental Dictionary of Mediaeval Latin originally compiled by Du Cange and first issued in 1678. In successive editions, later scholars have added many terms which Du Cange overlooked, but one is still often disappointed not to find words be would like have explained.
  • Glossarium mediae et infimae latinitatis, 7 Vols, Paris, 1840-
While but few of the aids to historical research are here given, those mentioned are of the utmost importance by reason of the range and accuracy of the information which they furnish and of the ease with which they can be consulted. No really advanced work in history can be carried on without their aid. [Note (1998): These works of nineteenth-century scholarship remain valuable, but must be supplemented by newer and more recent guides. For current students whose primary language is English, the Dictionary of the Middle Ages is a good place to find basic starting points for research. Modern online library catalogues - such as the University of California MELVYL Catalog - also provide help unimaginable to scholars of only twenty years ago.]


  1. What is the difference between a Primary Source and a Secondary Source?
  2. Give an example of a primary source.
  3. Give and example of a secondary source.
  4. Discuss the problem of using information from newspaper articles and textbooks?
  5. What happened in the nineteenth-century to make primary sources from the middle ages more accessible? From the discussion above, scholars from which nations lead the research effort.
  6. What is the Monumenta Germaniae Historica?
  7. What questions should you ask about a modern writer of history in order to determine reliability?
  8. Suggest ways in which you might find out if the modern English-language writer has looked at primary and secondary sources in a language other than English?
  9. Give examples of types of primary sources that might be available for modern American history since 1945?
  10. After looking at the Medieval Sourcebook Selected Sources page, give examples of the types of primary sources available for the middle ages.
  11. Taking into consideration questions 9. and 10., give an example of a historical question or issue we could study for modern America, but would not have available sources to study for the middle ages.


<> Note: Although this text is basically Robinson's, it has been altered in a number of ways:
  • Since the text is intended to be given to modern students, the assumption that a "historian" is male has been removed.
  • References to some books which were "modern" in 1904, but are now very outdated have been removed.
  • Parts have been condensed.


Source: James Harvey Robinson, ed., Readings in European History: Vol. I: (Boston:: Ginn and co., 1904), 1-13.

This text is part of the Internet Medieval Source Book. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts related to medieval and Byzantine history.

Unless otherwise indicated the specific electronic form of the document is copyright. Permission is granted for electronic copying, distribution in print form for educational purposes and personal use. If you do reduplicate the document, indicate the source. No permission is granted for commercial use.

© Paul Halsall January 1998

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