Books Features

Four Medieval Sourcebooks for Instructors, Students and Enthusiasts

By Lucie Laumonier

Some cool compilations of short texts in translation about the Middle Ages. Including one you can download for free.

Working as a prof, course instructor and scholar, I’ve sometimes struggled with finding primary sources in translation for students. But why you may ask? There are so many translated medieval documents out there, either in print or on the Internet! Well, this is true for sure. But finding the right excerpt can take hours if you have to go through an entire book. It’s also a daunting task when you scout the Internet and want to find a proper scholarly (and modern) translation. Fortunately, medievalists often team up to create thematic sourcebooks! Sourcebooks are compilations of excerpts from medieval texts and treatises, translated into modern English and contextualized in a brief introduction by historians and medieval studies scholars.


The reasons why I like sourcebooks so much are threefold. First, they are really convenient when teaching. They immerse students in the medieval era through various types of texts, some of which are surprising, funny or downright dramatic (cue to plague sourcebooks!). Second, as a scholar, they are helpful when it comes to writing broad introductory chapters or encyclopedia entries. When doing so, one needs to draw from various texts. But scholars are usually experts in one specific geographic area and chronological era… so sourcebooks come in handy: they provide a broad range of precise examples from all over the globe and through the entire medieval period. Third, I find that sourcebooks can be read like a compilation of short stories. You can open the book at a random page, read one or two sources and close the book. It’s not too daunting, not too long, just the perfect read for a bus ride!

Here you go! In what follows, I’ve compiled some of my favourite sourcebooks: one on travels and travellers, one on the plague, one on the crusades, and a free one, on disabilities.


My favourite: Travels and Travelers!

Medieval Travels and Travelers: A Reader, edited by John F. Romano (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2020)

As you may or may not know, the University of Toronto Press has a great and over-expanding series of readers (e.g. sourcebooks), called Readings on Medieval Civilizations and Cultures, which volume XXII, published in 2020, has really caught my eye. I have yet to teach a course on medieval travels but it’s something I would absolutely love!

Medieval Travels and Travelers combines long excerpts of European and Middle Eastern sources organized thematically. The first section, Mapping out Journeys, comprises medieval maps – unfortunately in black and white – and texts describing the world and its geography. The second part of the sourcebook is devoted to religious journeys, such as pilgrimages, missions to convert ‘pagans,’ and mystic journeys from the earth to heaven. The texts selected cover the early, central and late Middle Ages and a great geographical scope. This global perspective, which really makes the sourcebook a wonderful resource, continues throughout the following chapters.

The third chapter looks at business travels through a broad array of sources: letters from Jewish merchants from Cairo, an Italian merchant handbook, a Muslim postmaster’s treatise and  Marco Polo’s Travels – to only cite a few. Then comes the fourth section, Diplomatic Journeys, with accounts of a tenth-century embassy travelling from Baghdad to Eastern Europe, another to Constantinople, a visit to Baghdad under Mongol rule, and fifteenth-century travels to India and China. The fifth and final chapter, probably my favourite, is devoted to journeys of ‘discovery and adventures’ (how exciting!).  The chapter compiles excerpts from famous sources, like the Saga of the Greenlanders, Benjamin of Tudela’s Itinerary, or the travels of Ibn Battuta.


The sourcebook is a must-have for people who enjoy the quirkiness of medieval literature and the vivid details that come with it! The longer excerpts it contains make it the perfect short-story book I mentioned in the introduction.

Buy this book on | |

A Classic: The Black Death

The Black Death, translated and edited by Rosemary Horrox (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994)

This one is an oldie but a safe pick. Because it’s almost twenty years old, it’s best paired with recent scholarship about the second pandemic. Indeed, research on the Black Death has been profoundly renewed these past years (see my series of articles on the topic). Yet, the primary sources translated and printed in this sourcebook remain central to the study of the disease. They are full of vivid depictions of the plague’s devastation in Europe–the geographical focus of Horrox, who devotes several examples to the British Isles.

The sourcebook is divided into three main sections: Narrative Accounts (texts describing the plague’s arrival and waves); Explanations and Responses (how the Church, medieval scientists and regular people understood and reacted to the disease); and Consequences (deaths, abandonment of land, legal documents). Arguably, the sourcebook lacks non-European documents. Yet, it remains a treasure trove of plague-related primary sources for Western Europe, going beyond the usual documents that you probably already know.


Buy this book on | |

A Well-Loved Topic: The Crusades

The Crusades: A Reader, edited by S. J. Allen and Emily Amt (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014), 2nd edition

If you’ve listened to my podcast or read some of my articles, you know that I’m not into the Crusades. However, it’s a topic close to the hearts of many people who study and/or love the Middle Ages, which is why I’ve incorporated this sourcebook here. It is quite thorough, with over 450 pages of primary sources in translation, and draws from documents written from all sides of the conflict. The sourcebook is divided into 10 chapters, following roughly the chronology of the events. It focuses mainly on the Eastern crusades but one chapter is devoted to the Northern European ones.

Let’s skim through its content. The sourcebook opens with Christian and Muslim texts preceding 1095, setting the stage for the launch of the armed pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Chapters 2, 3 and 4 are concerned with the first crusade, the establishment of the crusader states, and the second and third crusades. Until that point, most sources translated and compiled are narrative, e.g. chronicles, histories, travel stories, and so forth. Chapter 5, titled ‘Setting out and Returning Home’ brings the topic closer to the lived experiences of the Crusaders with a collection of documents of practice. The book then moves to the Fourth Crusade and the age of Innocent III, before delving into the Baltic Crusades (chapter 7) and the specific case of Iberia (chapter 8). The penultimate section of the sourcebook looks at the end of the Middle Eastern Crusades with a collection of documents contextualizing the later stages of the wars and bringing into light the criticisms the Crusades faced.

Last but not least, the tenth chapter of the book (‘Modern Perception of the Crusades’) offers a historiographical perspective on the Crusades: how have historians–from the eighteenth century to today–described and analyzed the Crusades? While readers might skip this section, it is, I believe, a welcome contribution to the sourcebook. The crusades have been and still are a loaded topic, that we look at through our own biases and beliefs. This final chapter thus reminds us that self-awareness is key!


Buy this book on | |

A Freebie: Medieval Disability

Medieval Disability Sourcebook – Western Europe, edited by Cameron Hunt McNabb (Punctum Books: 2020)

First, some great news: this recent sourcebook carries a Creative Commons International License, meaning that its online version is free and available for download! Over forty scholars have banded together to compile a wide array of medieval documents concerned with disabilities, for a sourcebook of 500 pages. Designed for both students and scholars, the sourcebook provides, in many cases, two versions of each text: one in its original language (Latin, Middle English or else), and one in modern English.

Rather than being divided thematically, the sourcebook is organized following the nature of documents. The first section, Historical and Medical Documents, compiles documents of practice, that is documents drafted by courts and municipal authorities, such as inquiries or tax reliefs. It is important to note, however, that actual excerpts from medical treatises are notably absent from that section. The second section, Religious Texts, provides excerpts of the Bible, a solid selection of miracles and of lives of saints. The third section moves to poetry, the fourth to prose (with the inclusion of Sagas), the fifth to drama, and, finally, the last chunk of the book looks at visual representations of impairment.

This sourcebook is a welcome and necessary contribution to disability studies. Yet, like Horrox’s sourcebook, the focus is on medieval England, with an abundance of British texts and examples.

Buy the paperback version of this book on | |

I have many many many more sourcebooks on my bookshelves and would love to recommend some more! Let us know if you enjoyed these recommendations!

Lucie Laumonier is an Affiliate assistant professor at Concordia University. Click here to view her page.

Click here to read more from Lucie Laumonier