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
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
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 . . .”