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HIST 469 Crime and Punishment in Early Modern Europe

About Primary Sources

Searching for primary sources can be overwhelming - there are a lot out there! For the topic of crime and punishment, you might find a few different types helpful. Also remember that these primary sources were written by a certain person or organization, for a certain purpose; they are generally not objective accounts of the event. Below are some examples and how you might begin thinking about this concept:

Trial transcripts: Can give dates, names, and events surrounding the case. Can provide witness testimony - this testimony can reveal the morals, standards, or beliefs of the time or place in question. The person testifying might have felt threatened so lied or exaggerated; they may also be testifying against someone that they do not like. Keep this in mind as you read witness accounts.

Newspaper articles: Can give dates, names, and events surrounding a case. May be written in a sensational or exaggerated way to gain additional readership; thus, may only discuss the most shocking parts of a trial rather than the day-to-day facts, distorting the story.

Legal books or monographs: May be "prescriptive" - that is, the books tried to tell people how they should act, but this does not mean that people actually acted that way. Reflects what people in power wanted from citizen's behavior, what the legal and moral codes of the time were. May better reflect anxieties or threats to power, as those in power felt the need to create these laws to prevent some type of behavior.

... these are just a few examples of how to rethink these sources!

Searching for Primary Sources

Some tips on searching for primary sources:


  • Keep track of the language of the time (e.g. sodomy vs. buggery)
  • Target your searches. What were the main events, people, or places surrounding your topic? (For example: search for a specific case, law, person, place, crime)
  • Look at your secondary sources. Are they citing a primary source that could be useful to you? These will lead you to fuller repositories.
  • Ask yourself what you are trying to illustrate. Or, what will help you to answer your research question?
  • Example: What does the crime of vagabonding tell us about the moral codes of that society? (look at: trial transcripts; witness testimony; newspaper accounts)
  • Example: Who were the individuals accused of grand larceny and what does this tell us about identity and status? (look at: prison records; tax records; census records)
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