Researching the Middle Ages: A Guide for Students

Sally Foulkrod, Librarian, The Solebury School, New Hope PA

Your assignment is to research the Middle Ages. Because your mission may seem overwhelming at the beginning, the purpose of this guide is to start you on your research path. Always remember that your librarian is available to help you at every stage of your research and offer you research directions and guidance–Please Ask!


Define your subject! If your teacher has assigned a specific topic, this step has been done for you. If not, select a good general encyclopedia (Britannica is one, but not the only one), read about the Middle Ages, and begin taking notes. Since this period of history covers a lot of ground, both chronologically and geographically, this introductory step will help you select an aspect of the Middle Ages that interests you. If you are using an electronic or online version of an encyclopedia that offers links to other sites on this topic, follow the links. When you are better acquainted with your subject, leave the general encyclopedias behind and check your topic in a reference source that deals specifically with the Middle Ages: Dictionary of the Middle Ages is an example, but again, not the only example.

As you take notes, don’t worry about organization. List ideas for your project and note supporting information. “Brainstorm” on paper. Begin to look for an emerging theme or pattern.


When you feel that your preliminary research is complete, outline your project and list the information you will need. If you will need to visit other libraries, museums, or galleries, plan now to accomplish this. Your outline will help keep your topic in focus and organize your information for your final paper–edit and revise it as necessary.


At the library catalog, look up titles and authors that you have found from your preliminary reading. If your library doesn’t have the material you need, ask the librarian to borrow it for you through interlibrary loan. Do this first–interlibrary loan takes up to two weeks.

If you don’t know any titles or authors, begin with a subject search. Subject headings used for library materials are selected from authority lists, and are intended to make subject classification uniform from library to library. To research the Middle Ages in England, use “Great Britain—History–….” The subject is further divided by time period. (For a different country, replace “Great Britain” with that country’s name.) Next try “Middle Ages—History.” If your library uses a card catalog, follow the “see” and “see also” references–they are the catalog’s equivalent of electronic links.

If your library’s catalog is computerized, you will need to do a keyword search as well as a subject search. A keyword is an important topic word that can be located in the author, title, publishing information, subject, or summary of the cataloged material. A keyword may or may not be a subject heading. Before you begin, take time to read the “help” screen to see if there are any particular features of keyword searching you should be familiar with. (Does the computer search author, title, subject, and descriptive fields individually or all inclusively? Does it automatically search variant spellings–medieval/mediaeval?) Use “AND” or “OR” to combine keywords (Middle Ages AND Medicine AND England); use “NOT” to eliminate sections of information not pertinent to your search (Richard III NOT Shakespeare).

A subject query searches for specific types and locations of information. A keyword query is more flexible, and can retrieve a topic word not used at the beginning of a phrase (“Medieval” in “Art, Medieval”), but can be less specific. (Anne Neville, wife of Richard III, is assigned the subject heading “Anne, Queen, Consort of Richard III, King of England, 1456-1485.” If you didn’t know her name, you could find information about her by running a keyword search using “queen AND Richard III.” However, when I ran this search, the computer also offered me a book about George III and Queen Charlotte whose author was named Richard.) Use the two types of search together to find a maximum amount of information on your topic.

When you have located in the catalog books you wish to consult, look for them on the shelves. Examine the books’ index and contents pages and briefly leaf through the books to see if they provide the information that you are looking for. Browse through the materials with the same classification numbers as your books–you may find materials that you overlooked in the catalog. Check the same classification numbers in the reference section also.

Consult your librarian to see what periodical indexes are available in your library. Unless you are looking for a particular journal article, search the indexes using your subjects and keywords, both for online and print sources. If the article is not available in your library or online, your librarian may be able to borrow it through interlibrary loan.

Ask your librarian what reference materials on the Middle Ages the library has available on cd-rom.


Research your topic on the internet. Since you are reading this, you have found an excellent site for research on the Middle Ages. This location offers many links to related sites, including Georgetown University’s Labyrinth site. Labyrinth and ORB  – the Online Reference Book for Medieval Studies, are two examples of sites which should be included in any on-line research of the Middle Ages, just be sure you follow the links.

After you research the above-mentioned sites (and follow the pertinent links!), you may wish to see what is available on the web in general. The latest generation of web searches uses multiple-search engines such as Dogpile ( or Beaucoup(–to list only two–which allow you to simultaneously search your keywords across more than one search engine. Check the “help” section to see how the particular search engine links keywords.

Be aware as you do research using the internet that not even the best search engines index all the material available on the Web. When you use internet sources, it is imperative that you carefully evaluate your source for authenticity. Who is the authority for the source? Is the site maintained by an individual? Educational institution? Organization? What is their purpose for posting the information? What is the author’s source of information? Can you verify this information in a print source?

Make sure throughout your research that you keep a conscientious record of your source material–you will most likely be required to include a list of works cited in your report or project.

A final word

Enjoy your research. The subject of the Middle Ages can provide you with fascinating topics for life-long study.

(And don’t forget to return your library books!)