World Civilizations


Research Help

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PART ONE of THREE: To begin this project, scan the links at the Medieval Sourcebook and choose a person (either an author or an historical figure) who interests you. Explore their story through the letters, histories or literature available. Note what this story teaches you about some aspect of medieval life. (Remember, in a short paper you cannot discuss all aspects of medieval life all over Europe. The trick to a good paper is focusing, narrowing your topic. Don't try to discuss marriage, narrow to choosing a mate in rural England. You can't cover all of Theodora's colorful life, but you could discuss her commitment to Christianity after her rise to royalty. As you review the records, keep in mind that you are looking for an incident to discuss, a pattern to analyze, or a topic to explore. Keep careful notes as you read so that you can use quotes from your primary sources as evidence.

A list of possible topics is included below.

PART TWO of THREE: The next step is to discover how the life of your subject fits in with the time period generally. You must know a little bit about their world. What country did they live in? Who was king? What is the state religion? What values seem to be important to the society? There are some good general sources on the Link Collection. Take a look at a timeline, a history of the country you're studying, read your textbook. As you research, ask yourself, does my subject's economic or social status play a part in her/his beliefs? You needn't necessarily include this information in your paper, but you must understand it, or you will have difficulty truly understanding your subject.

PART THREE of THREE: You've read an account of a person(s) or a topic of interest. What have you learned about that persons' views? About the medieval world? Have you chosen an incident or an opinion expressed on which you wish to base your paper? Do you see any easily identifiable patterns? Remember, the more specific your answer to these questions are, the better your paper will be. Discuss Heloise's rejection of Abelard's proposal and reasons for it or the dowry, how it was determined, who paid, and how much, rather than medieval marriage in general. If you are comparing sources, ask yourself what accounts for the differences? The similarities? What do your subject's experiences and ideas teach us about the world he or she inhabited? What have the sources taught you? Can you categorize this knowledge and present it so that someone else learns the same kinds of things from your paper? Share with your reader what you've learned. Whether you wish to compare two positions or teach your reader about one person, your material must be well organized and presented. Use primary source evidence to support your claims, and focus, focus, focus.

Here are some of the interesting lives or topics you might explore in The Medieval Sourcebook.

Justinian or Theodora
Ruler of Byzantium and his colorful wife make a great study. Read about Theodora's questionable beginnings or Justinian's Hagia Sophia.

Possible Topics:

  • Compare Procopius' Secret History (note you have a full text version available rather than just a short excerpt) with his public histories On the Wars and Buildings. What do you think accounts for the discrepancies?
  • Review all available sources for Justinian's role as king. What does his reign teach you about the concept of kingship in the Byzantine Empire.
  • His wife, Theodora, is a fascinating study. Procopius apparently despised her. You could compare his records to the records of other historians. Was she an opportunist or a reformer?

Peter Abelard and Heloise
Peter, a 12th century philosopher, leaves a very readable autobiography, HistoriaCalamitatum on this site. His disastrous love affair with one of his students, Heloise (a brilliant person herself) results in a son, a castration, and life as nun and monk for the ill-fated lovers.

Possible Topics:

  • Examine his treatment of women, and his description of Heloise. Do you think that all medieval women were timid mice who lived to marry and make a home? Read about Heloise's response to his proposal of marriage. I love the quote "Who can endure the continual untidiness of children?"
  • Keep track of all the references he makes to other literature. You'll find he expects his reader to be familiar with a vast body of materials. Who was he writing for? Which works does he cite? How many of them are secular sources? Abelard was one of the earliest scholars to bring back references to Aristotle and other classical authors. How many greek sources does he use? Could you do a paper on the kinds of references he makes? How many are scriptural? How many are greek philosophers? How many are his contemporaries?
  • If you're feeling really ambitious, go to the library and read the letters they wrote to each other, and also secondary works about Heloise. Did she write? What did she write? How do her thoughts compare to his? You could also read Sic et Non one of Peter's philosophical works. Write specifically about a point they seem to disagree upon, such as the necessity of marriage or the role of women.

Perhaps you'd rather do a survey of several texts rather than focusing on one person. This sort of study can produce a very good paper, IF YOU FOCUS. Limit your observations to one facet of medieval life. You can't cover all aspects of the female experience during this era in a short paper. You could cover a very specific aspect, such as women's roles in religious orders.

Possible Topics:

  • Sexuality. There are some good references (written by men, of course, but still good) which outline what is acceptable and not acceptable. Fascinating. Did you know that according to Thomas Aquinas "The man who is just married has, in virtue of the betrothal, a certain right in her: wherefore, although he sins by using violence, he is not guilty of the crime of rape."
  • Read Bernardino's sermons on Wives and Widows. Amazing discussion of the Profit, Pleasure and Honesty a man needs from his wife. "Yet if she be of a swinish nature, unkempt, unwashed, careless of her household, then is the love and friendship so much the less."
  • The Goodman of Paris on ideal marriage has fascinating advice from a medieval frenchman to his 15 year old bride. He advises her how to seek and treat her next husband (he was an elderly man), and ends with recipes. If you are interested in cooking or the lifestyle medieval people, this site may have some interesting information for you.
  • Christian Women, Muslim Women. There are some great sources on this site for both, take a look at portions of the Quran, and some early Muslim authors here. The section on early Christianity is here. Also, visit the section on women, link above.
  • If you want to do a survey on general attitudes toward marriage, look at the section on women (above) and marriage. Also, Newly Translated Texts has some fabulous documents. Scroll down to where it says "translated by Paul Hyams of Cornell University" (not very far) and you will find about twelve fascinating betrothal agreements, legal cases such as the woman who sued to regain her husband from his lover, and other revealing sources.

Go back to the assignment.
Go back to the Link Collection.
Go back to The Medieval Sourcebook.

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World Civilizations

RESEARCH: Ralph'sWorld Civilizations
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Last revised February 27, 1997.
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