Modern European Cultural History

Guidelines for Reading a Primary Text


History is based on the study of primary texts and documents.  As you study history, one of the most important things you can learn is the process by which historians transform texts and documents into history.  Learning how to read a text is a first step.  In this assignment, you will read brief excerpts from a primary source text together with some secondary material (largely from Matthews and Platt, The Western Humanities) to provide a historical context for the text read.  The assignment is designed to help you approach a text critically, to figure out what are the right questions to ask about a text, and how to find the answers to those questions.


Read each of the assigned texts without stopping to take notes or look anything up.  Then, go back and read each of them carefully, marking the sections that seem most important or interesting to you or most problematic.  Note any questions that your reading brings to mind.  Next, read the introductory material to each text and the section in The Western Humanities on each of the authors.  Now read the document one more time, making notes on anything that you understand better after having read the secondary materials.  Finally, answer the questions for each text.

Key Questions to Ask About a Text

1. What does the author explicitly say in this text?  In short, summarize the text in your own words.

2. What does the author imply (if anyhting) in the text?

3. What additional or specialized information is needed to read and understand each text?  Where might such information be found?


4.  What is the date of this text and where was it written?

5. Who was the author of this text?

6. What do you know about the author of this text?

7. How did the identity of the author of this text affect its content?


8. Who or what was the primary audience for this text?  For whom did the author write this text?  Of what importance is this information for an analysis of this text?

9. Who or what was the secondary audience of this text? (Who else, besides the primary audience, might have read this text?)

10. How did the audiences respond to this text?  Of what importance is this information for an analysis of this text?

Broad Historical Context
11. What important Historical events were taking place at the time this text was written that may have affected its creation (even though they are not mentioned in the text)?

12. Does the text belong to a larger set or series of texts?  If so, how does this knowledge advance our understanding of this particular text?

Specific Historical Context

13. Under what immediate circumstances was this text written?


14. Where and under what circumstances was this text written?  What did its author intend it to accomplish?

15. What did this text accomplish and how?  Are these different from what the author intended?  How might this have happened?

16. How and why was this text preserved and presented in whatever form you found it?  (For example, if it is a letter, why was it saved and put in an archive?  If it is printed matter, why was it preserved in a library?)

This Page is Maintained by Robert W. Brown
Last Update: 20 January 2004

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