Amateur Tip – How I Remember Stuff

11 May

The value of this will depend on what level you intend to take your Medieval interest to. It should go without saying (but may not so I’ll say it anyway) that this is how I do things and what works for me. This post is more along the lines of suggesting something you may want to think about and not me saying I have “the answer.”

When I first started reading about Medieval History, I mainly wanted to get a “feel” for the period to help me write fiction. I figured that if I needed something factual I could hit a library for research (the Internet was very young at the time) and since I was writing fantasy, not historical fiction, I could deviate from historical reality so long as that deviation made logical sense.

So my reading consisted of just that – read a book, stick it on the shelf. I’d write a few sentences as a summary and stick it in a word doc (I’ve sent that to people and will happily do so again but it’s mostly from books I read before about 2000). Then I started becoming involved in discussions of the Middle Ages, primarily on-line. My “system” (not a system at all) worked for a while until this usenet group I participated in became inhabited by a troll. And not just your ordinary troll but a fairly intelligent one who enjoyed blasting holes in what other people had to say – not by offering information on his own, but by pointing out flaws – real or imagined – in other people’s arguments. One of his favorite tactics was to take a post and rip it for not citing any sources, providing evidence, etc.

For the most part this was stupid – usenet isn’t an academic discussion group. But it had the effect of getting me to start paying attention to where I got my information so if someone called me on something, I could recall that information more quickly than the process of checking out the 3-4 books I may have read that in, searching the indexes and (hopefully) finding the info to cite.

This has led to a change in my reading habits. For the past several years, whenever I read something I keep a notepad nearby and jot down anything which I think I may want to refer to for future reference. These can be broad concepts but typically these are specific arguments, quotes or research findings that have a bearing on issues I’m interested in. I’ve found that writing an actual review I intend for public consumption raises my recall level immensely – those take me 2-4 hours to put together, I have to refer back to whole passages/sections of the book, cite specific statements, etc. Unfortunately I haven’t reached the point where I do that for everything I read.

However when I have time, I take my notes and enter them into a spreadsheet. The columns are titled Topic, Time, Region, Author, Title, Pub Date, ISBN, pp, Category, Location, Date Read, and Comments. Most of these are self-explanatory but for those that aren’t:

  • Time – the period this item refers to – could be a century, specific year or even a conceptual time such as “Investiture”.
  • pp – page(s) on which I found the item
  • Category – book, article, web (typically I save something of interest I find on the web – no guarantee it’ll be there forever)
  • Location – owned, library(which library), downloaded (with file name), URL
I wish I had started doing this 15 years ago. As an example of why, at one time during a discussion on life expectancy I recalled reading that once someone had survived childhood, his or her chances of surviving to the 40’s were pretty good. But I couldn’t recall where so I had to go through 7 different books to find what I was looking for in Life in the Middle Ages by Hans-Werner Goetz (Notre Dame, 1993) where he discusses how average life expectancy was between 25 and 32 however this was skewed by high infant mortality rates and men and women who survived childhood had a life expectancy of 47 and 44, respectively. (p 17) I think I spent a couple of hours trying to find that information. 1

What led me to think about this is that I’m currently reading Soldiers of Christ: Saints and Saints’ Lives from Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages by Noble and Head, eds., (Penn State, 1995). I’ve read a fair amount of hagiography and even debated not going through the vitae in this volume, just the intro’s – I know the hagiographical norms fairly well and even though this would include some biographical and historical information, I thought maybe I should just skim it. But I decided to dive in – you never know, right?

I don’t have a lot of notes from this book but last night I was reading, “The Hodoeporicon of Saint Willibald” by Huneberc of Heidenheim, translated by C. H. Talbot. The first notable item is that Huneberc was a woman. Female authors in the early Middle Ages (this was written in the 8th century) are relatively rare. The other notable item for me goes back to myth-busting and refers to bathing – during his travels Willibald and his companions were captured by Muslims in Syria and imprisoned. A merchant tried to have them released and failed but remained concerned about them and, “Every day, therefore, he sent them dinner and supper, and on Wednesday and Saturday he sent his son to the prison and took them out for a bath and then took them back again.” (p 152)

Next time I come across someone who gives me the “dirty medievals never bathed” line, I have one more piece of ammo to throw at him/her. Willibald and his companions received two main creature comforts from their benefactor – food, and bathing twice a week. The fact that they received this AND that it was notable enough to be recorded in his vita says a great deal about their desire for cleanliness – Take THAT William Manchester! Plus the gender of the author has implications for the role of women and female literacy.

To finish this up, my notes from this vita are as follows:

  • Willibald – pp 141-45 – Huneberc female author, 8th c., “female weakness” in prologue
  • Willibald – p 152 – bathing
Once I get done reading the entire book, I’ll enter my notes (expanded of course – the comments will include details) under the topics “Source”, “CE 8”, “Bathing”, “Education”, “Literacy”, “Women, Medieval”, and “Women, Authors” along with whatever else I come across. And yes, I will post identical information under multiple topics – there may even be more topics once I get there. I’d rather have too many than not enough – digital space is plentiful.

I didn’t know I’d become addicted to Medieval History 15 years ago but I did – and I wish I’d done some sort of note taking from day 1. If you think you may reach the point where you’ll become involved in discussions of this sort, I think you’ll find that spending a half hour or so per book (which is usually all it takes me though there are exceptions) to use some sort of indexed reference system will be well worth your while.

1 There’s a ton of more recent information out there on this topic since I went hunting for this back in, say, 1998 or so. Please don’t reference this as “According to the Medieval History Geek . . .”


Posted by on May 11, 2010 in Amateur Tips


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7 responses to “Amateur Tip – How I Remember Stuff

  1. Jonathan Jarrett

    May 18, 2010 at 10:45 pm

    I had in fact been wondering how you managed to retain so much of the vast amount that you apparently read… This is an object lesson to many researchers, I think, though it would be less good for novices because you have, of course, to know what's likely to be significant to note it. For them I'm not sure there's any alternative to just soaking it all up. Do you think the system you've devised is coming out of your employment history, if I may ask?

  2. Jonathan Jarrett

    May 18, 2010 at 10:58 pm

    Oh yeah, and if that troll would repost most of his screeds with typoes corrected under the word 'recte', then I know where you were, and I left because it was hateful, but hey, we met before we met perhaps.

  3. Medieval History Geek

    May 19, 2010 at 9:59 am

    My employment history isn't much – before I went back to school I trained horses for a living for several years. Can't imagine that having a lot to do with it. I just think it was wondering if there was a way to come up with quicker recall. I suppose that could somehow relate to what I'm doing now – any of us who are in the business of working with information has at one time or another wished to be able to "get at" something we can't quite recall, or at least been able to find it quicker. But I don't do this at work – instead I have file cabinets, notebooks, a secretary who helps keep me from screwing up too badly and of course colleagues.As to your second question, it was indeed that group – I was fairly active from the late 90's to about 2001 or 2002 but pretty much dropped out until last summer when the troll seemed to have slowed down. The group just wasn't worth the hassle when he was trying to blast everything anyone said for no good reason. It's taken a LONG time but the group seems to be on the mend.


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