Category Archives: Amateur Tips

Embarrassing Amateur Moments Supplement

Lately life’s been getting in the way of me making substantive posts. I’d say that’s unfortunate but it’s actually good; just not for this blog.

However the other day I was driving and heard something on the radio which applies perfectly to a post I made a couple of years ago about Embarrassing Amateur Moments. In that post I mentioned that one of my problems is not knowing how to pronounce things. I read a lot but I don’t attend a lot of seminars and am not involved in regular discussions with historians. I don’t know how to pronounce a variety of things; historical figures, place-names, even names of modern historians. At one time this bothered me until I adopted a policy of figuring that most historians had better things to worry about so I wouldn’t overly concern myself with it either.

In the US (and these days I’m sure it’s available internationally) a sports network, ESPN, has a morning talk show called Mike and Mike, featuring a retired (American) football player, Mike Golich and a sportswriter, Mike Greenberg. I was listening to it the other day and heard an actor/comedian, Kevin Hart, discussing an issue he had pronouncing the word “facade.” Here’s a link to the audio. The facade conversation begins about 3:30 into it.

Let’s face it, pronouncing something like “Amalasuintha” isn’t easy. And what the heck do you do with Welsh? Seriously – Rhwng Gwy a Hafren? Gwynfardd Brycheiniog? I’m sure there are rules and once you learn them it’s simple but speaking as a layperson, I consider Welsh to be significantly lacking in vowels.

So as a supplement to that earlier post, if you ever get into a conversation with someone (doesn’t have to be a historian, any subject matter specialist will do) and find out after the fact that you butchered a pronunciation, go back and listen to this. It’ll make you feel better.


Posted by on February 23, 2014 in Amateur Tips


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Why I’m not a(n) Historian

I’ve recently been involved in an off-blog e-mail exchange with someone who initially contacted me thinking I’m a historian. This is not the first time this has happened but this morning, while being snowed in for about the 5th time this winter, seems like a good time to explain why I am not in more detail. I have always tried very hard not to give this perception and have commented frequently that I am not, never have been, and likely never will be a historian. I’m going to try to rank my reasons in order of importance. 1

1. I cannot read source material in its original language. This is the elephant in the room. All I can read is translations. Not only that but any time you read a translation, you’re reading the translator’s interpretation of the source. I comment on sources a lot. I enjoy reading them and have reached the point where, rather than read multiple secondary sources and THEN read the primary/contemporary sources, I’d rather read the sources first, then find out what modern historians think about them. This is, I think, an important evolution in my knowledge of history, that I’m comfortable enough in my own assessments to do this. It is likely the one area which causes the most misconceptions that I may be a historian. I’m not. Unless I can read, assess, and interpret the earliest extant version of source material for myself, not through the eyes of others, I am not a historian. This is more than a rule for me; it’s a law. 2

2. I haven’t been trained. I think I’ve learned a fair amount on my own (not to say that others haven’t been kind enough to help me) but there’s a lot to be said for formal education. You are required to submit work to an authority who will return this to you after providing a critical assessment. You will need to hone your craft through a fairly rigorous review process. This is also a reason why advanced degrees matter. This isn’t as much of a go/no go criterion as number 1. I do think someone without a degree can become a historian. You can submit publications for review, work with historians on projects and observe and learn from their methods, etc. You certainly can learn a new language(or a very old one). It’s not a “you’re dead on the spot if you can’t do this” type of qualification like the inability to read sources but for me it’s pretty strong. I can read books on historical methodology and I’ll learn a lot. But without another party evaluating what I’ve done a big part of the process is missing.

3. I’m not paid for it. I think labels and titles have some importance (if I believed otherwise this post wouldn’t exist). Before I got myself a real job I used to be a horse trainer. I used to tell amateurs all the time that if they knew horses very well they could probably train their horse as well as I could, it just would take longer. I was riding 10 or more horses a day, doing this 12-14 hours/day six days a week. The sheer number of experiences I had with horses, each with his/her own little idiosyncrasies, meant I could figure out what was going on and what to do more quickly. What I could get done in 90 or 120 days would probably take them 6-8 months. If these amateurs chose to do this that didn’t make them horse trainers but people who trained a horse or two. There’s a difference between someone who derives his or her income from something and someone who does not. In this case one is a historian, the other (even if he/she can read sources and has been trained) is someone who does history. I will not get 100% agreement on this one, but I think the fact that someone believes that what you do has economic value means something. For me, if I’m not getting paid for it, I’m not a member of a profession.

When I started this post I thought I’d have a much longer list but once I began thinking on it I decided that just about everything I had fit under one of these categories. For example, part of being a historian is being a member of the profession which means you’re submitting material for publication, review, and critique. This actually fits under #2 (receiving assessments and critiques), at a different point in one’s career.

Also, I haven’t listed things which might make you a good vs a bad historian. The best example of this I can think of is professional development. I would say that a good historian tries to stay current. He or she will attend professional conferences, remain current on developments in his or her area(s) of expertise, etc. Someone who fails to do this does not necessarily cease to be a historian, he or she just likely isn’t a very good one.

I have reached the point where I think I can assess the validity of a historian’s argument and his/her methodology. I take some pride in this and it’s taken me a long time to reach this point. It’s a nice skill though I still have a lot to learn about it. But it doesn’t make me a historian.

1 By history I mean assessing the past using written source material (including inscriptions and art). Archaeologists are involved with studies all the time which they evaluate and interpret, frequently without a single textual piece of evidence. For me, while there’s a ton of overlap and members of each profession should at least be conversant with the others’ methods, this does not make an archaeologist a historian (though some people are both).

2 I don’t want to imply that a historian, in writing, must have personally read every single source on a topic to construct an argument, just that he or she must be able to go back to a source to assess it if they find another historian’s interpretation questionable.


Posted by on January 26, 2014 in Amateur Tips


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Those Embarrassing Amateur Moments

I’m going to file this in my Amateur Tips page.

I was going through my book review page and updating the links so the destinations would be on WordPress and not Blogger. I came across a couple of embarrassing errors on my part and decided this would be worth posting about to, hopefully, help other non-professionals. This post is applicable for fields other than history.

As an amateur there are a ton of things I don’t know. For the most part, I think I know I don’t know stuff, but sometimes I forget about my lack of knowledge and in a few cases this lack of knowledge makes me feel like an absolute idiot.

The motivation for this is Gillian Clark. A couple of months ago I posted some comments on Hagith Sivan’s Galla Placidia: The Last Roman Empress. During that discussion I referred to Dr. Sivan as male and a commenter kindly told me that Dr. Sivan is female. As I was updating my book review links my Romans, Barbarians and the Transformation of the Roman World review included a discussion of an essay by Gillian Clark where I again mistakenly referred to Dr. Clark as male. Uh-oh. I probably shouldn’t admit this because I never used a personal pronoun for this review but I did a web search and discovered that Beate Dignas is also a woman.

Pretty embarrassing, right? I’m going to need to read through all my reviews and make sure I haven’t made this mistake elsewhere.

This is not the only embarrassing thing I’ve ever done related to history. Now I don’t get embarrassed about just not knowing stuff, usually. However there are specific examples which are a bit more glaring than others:

Personal Names of Professionals: Sometimes I don’t know how to pronounce them. I get to exactly one medieval conference each year. I am not involved in medieval history department meetings, conference calls about history projects, discussions about organizing programs or conferences or, beyond this blog, much of any medieval history discussion. I do not know how to pronounce people’s names. I can’t recall this being a problem too often but it has happened. Just from a quick scan of my book reviews, I do not know, for sure, how to pronounce the last names of Roger Bagnall, Stephen Pollington or Bernadette Filotas. I have a pronunciation in my brain which I would use if forced, but I do not know if it’s correct. A side bit of advice; when introducing speakers or a panel at a conference always ask them how to pronounce their names. I continue to be astonished how often this doesn’t happen.

Pronunciation of Contemporary Historical Figures: Several years ago at Kalamazoo I attended several sessions which prominently featured Augustine of Hippo. To that point I knew (see, there was no question of this – I knew it) that his name was pronounced “aw-gus-TEEN”, with the third syllable emphasized. Imagine my surprise when speaker after speaker pronounced it “aw-GUS-tin.” (Sorry – I’m using caps rather than accents as would be proper). Now Augustine’s sort of an important person in history, right? And I didn’t know how to pronounce his name. I will note that one speaker did use my prior pronunciation so apparently this isn’t quite a slam dunk but the majority of folks used the second.

Pronunciation of Terms: Every now and then a term will come up, generally one used in a specific historical context, where I’ll find out I’ve been pronouncing it incorrectly. Sometimes it will be a Latin term, sometimes just common usage. A nice example (two actually) is that for both Merovingian and Carolingian I was using a hard g, similar to how you’d pronounce “linguist,” rather than a soft g as in “fringe.” I spent my first Kalamazoo, for the most part, pronouncing this incorrectly. Nobody laughed at or made fun of me or, to the best of my knowledge, decided not to talk to me because of it. Though again, I’m not sure this pronunciation is quite a slam dunk.

What’s my advice for other amateurs about this?


While you may suffer momentary embarrassment, most professionals a) won’t remember it ten minutes later and b) won’t make a big deal about it. The fact that you may not know something should not keep you from talking to people about this stuff.

There are a few historians who I suspect would make a big deal about it. A couple of years ago at Kalamazoo I was perusing some books (shocking, I know) and a well known Early Medieval Historian (EMH) and a colleague were near me. The colleague picked up a book and asked, “What about this?” The EMH responded dismissively, “That’s just some popular thing.”

I’ve run across this person before so it wasn’t just this overheard conversation but I know this individual does everything for his career based as if his entire professional existence is contained within his select field. He does not think educating the public at large is important and the only people whose opinion he cares about are other professional historians.

Peer review, respect, interaction, etc. is important in any field, academic or not. However any academic has a responsibility to the world at large. Or at least I hope we do – otherwise what the heck are we doing this for? Particularly if we’re getting paid and this is even more important if we’re at a publicly funded institution.

This individual might not be particularly forgiving over a slip-up. My guess is he’d think my blog is complete garbage. My advice is that if you run across someone with this mindset, don’t worry about it. At all.

In essence, if you go to a conference or have an opportunity to interact with a professional in some other way, don’t let this potentially embarrassing stuff limit you. It’s not a big deal, and the people whose opinions matter, by and large, won’t think it’s that important. There is a limit to this – being ignorant and trying to come across as knowledgeable will, rightfully, irritate people. And they’ll figure it out in a hurry. I think it’s important for non-professionals to understand how much time and effort a professional has put into his or her career. We’re talking, likely, over ten years of higher education, publishing a dissertation and all of the work that goes into remaining current in a field which changes fairly rapidly. That’s a big difference from myself, who’s interested in history and spends a fair amount of his spare time learning about it. History is important to me but it is far more important (I suspect) to someone whose career is based on it.

My preference is to be upfront to avoid misunderstandings. At Kalamazoo, whenever anyone asks me what my field is, I reply, “I’m very likely the least intelligent person here. I’m a complete amateur and this is what I do on vacation.” Feel free to use it. Some day I really want to answer, “Agronomy, Farm Management and Agrosecurity,” just to see what comes from that.

As an example of how I believe most professionals view the less knowledgeable, let me offer this as an example. I was at a National No-Till Farming Conference a few years ago and was seated next to a young lady who I later found out was a first-time attendee and was working one of the vendor booths. She didn’t know a lot but wanted to learn more, simply from the standpoint of being better able to communicate with people at future conferences. I ended up walking her through several basic concepts during the week. One in particular which I recall was related to no-till drills. She did not need to know specific settings for depth gauges, the types of press wheels to use in specific situations or whether to have wavy, fluted or smooth coulters (this all varies depending on manufacturer anyway). However she did need to know that you would set up and equip your no-till drill differently if you were planting in April in Minnesota on Clay soils vs in June in Tennessee on a sandy loam and, in general terms, why. I know I was able to help her out and it helped me out too.

In my experience most historians are no different. Keep in mind sometimes they’re busy, they may be in the middle of working on a project, at a conference they’ll attend a bookseller’s reception in hopes of getting published, not for free wine, etc. But they also have better things to do than worry about an embarrassing slip-up. Be up front about your inexperience, relax, and interact. I don’t know of a better way to learn.

NOTE: I posted an addendum to this in February, 2014 which you might find useful, or at least entertaining if you click on one of the links.


Posted by on December 31, 2011 in Amateur Tips


Medieval Holiday & Bibliography Tip

It seems like every year I have to take a couple of weeks and clear my brain of Medieval Stuff. 1 I’ve been going through that phase since roughly the first of the year. The book I’m reading – and it’s a pretty good book – is something I started just after Christmas. I’ve thought of posting but A) mostly it would be “fluff” posts and B) I haven’t really felt like it. I think I’m coming out of this soporific state. Unfortunately, work is about to get cranking again but I’m hoping for a post or two before this happens.

The following is a true amateur tip; every professional I know already does something like this, whether it’s using a tool such as Endnote or Zotero, or through a system he or she has developed. I’ve accumulated a fair amount of source material, English translations of course. While I’m reading, among the notes I jot down are sources I may want to have a look at. The problem is, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for me to recall if I already have a source or not.

This isn’t much of a problem with standalone volumes. I haven’t reached the point where I gather sources just to have them around for reference (see below for my exception, downloads). When I get them, I read them. So I know I have, for example, Paulinus of Nola’s poems, Augustine’s City of God and Gregory the Great’s Dialogues and Pastoral Care.

The problem is collections of sources. I’m a big fan of these. I think they’re a great intro to a period or subject and the ones I’ve read generally do a good job of pointing the reader (or at least me) in the direction of additional source material. There’s an excellent series, “Readings in Medieval Civilizations and Cultures” edited by Paul Edward Dutton and published by The University of Toronto Press. I have several of these books as well as other collections. Although I’ve kept a record of what books I have on my shelves for a long time, this doesn’t tell me what sources they contain.

I also have downloaded quite a few sources. It’s very easy for me to forget I have, for example, Irenaeus’ Against the Heresies which I downloaded from The Internet Archive. I don’t read downloaded texts cover-to-cover on my computer but remembering that I have them to refer to would be nice.

So my tip is; if you believe you’ll reach the point where recalling sources will be important to you, start keeping a record of them now. I’ve just started building a spreadsheet for mine and I can tell it’s going to be a larger task than I originally thought. The first book I pulled off the shelf was The Black Death by Rosemary Horrox, Manchester University Press (1994) ISBN: 9-78019-034985. It contains excerpts from 125 different sources about the 1348-50 Plague Event. It would have been far easier if I’d recorded these as I went along rather than waiting 15 years, after I’d accumulated several hundred books. I have a start on it with my Hagiography collection but there’s a lot more to add to it. 2

This seems so basic and obvious that I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that I haven’t done this long ago. But I haven’t and it’s becoming an issue.

1 OK – I have to tell this story. In college a Communication Arts Prof once told our class, “If you ever think of using the word “stuff” in a speech or paper, I want you to think of it as what accumulates around your belly-button when you haven’t taken a bath for several weeks.” Now I can’t recall ever neglecting my personal hygiene for quite that long of a period but the message was clear and has stayed with me for a long time – and I use “stuff” all the time (for informal communication, not professional publications). So if my use of it makes you cringe, it’s a deliberate affectation on my part, and I really can’t tell you why.

2 I had enough trouble fitting my Hagiography collection into a web page that I won’t be doing this for my source collection but once I finish it, I’ll be happy to e-mail the spreadsheet to anyone who asks.


Posted by on January 15, 2011 in Amateur Tips


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Why Study History?

I’ve debated posting on this almost since I began blogging. As I started this blog the issue of King’s College London eliminating the Palaeography Department was a very significant item of discussion among medievalists. This relates to the whole, “What good is history?” conversation that seems to come up whenever higher education is facing budget cuts. It even became one of my first blog posts though I didn’t really know what I was talking about.

One of the reasons I haven’t made this post is I’ve been unable to think of a way to do this effectively that won’t relate strongly to what I do in my real job. When I began this blog I considered anonymity. I understand why many bloggers choose to do so however I did not (and do not) intend this blog to be about that part of my life and I also love my job. Is it perfect? Hardly. Are there things I might gripe about from time to time? You bet – you find the perfect employer and I’ll be convinced you’re removed from reality. But I enjoy what I do tremendously and can’t think of a situation where I’d engage in a negative discussion of my employer. So I wasn’t worried about being identified. However I am also a boring person. I want people to come to this blog to read and discuss history. People won’t be interested in reading about me and this topic is deeply rooted in my personal experiences in “nothistory.”

To be brief, I work at a major US research university which has traditionally focused more on the sciences than the humanities. I am a member of one of these more science-based schools and departments. I believe our humanities are very solid with many outstanding faculty members and students, but they don’t receive the recognition the sciences and engineering do. And I think history and the study of history is very important.

What finally urged me to make this post (I always figured this would happen – it’s been trying to burst from me for a long time) is Guy Halsall’s recent post on the value of studying history. It should be obvious that our perspectives will be different. He’s one of the foremost research historians on the planet, at least for the period I’m most interested in. I’m, well, I’m what I wrote in the above paragraph and, as I state in the upper right hand corner of this blog, I have no formal history training and haven’t taken a history course since my junior year in high school. Dr Halsall has chosen to focus on the value of studying history as it relates to current events and making informed decisions about what’s going on in the world. I’m going to choose a different aspect and illustrate it with an anecdotal example – me.

Several years ago we did a survey study of what the major employers hoped they were getting when they hired graduates of one of our departments. This has been presented publicly so I’m not divulging any secrets. They found that the vast majority of employers were looking for graduates who fit into one of two categories. For one category, they wanted new hires with technical knowledge and ability. These employees could walk into the workplace, understand the processes/procedures used and possess the skill set to “hit it” and immediately set about doing whatever the employer wanted them to do. The second category were employers looking for graduates who possessed critical thinking skills. These companies expected their workforce to be exposed to a constantly changing business environment where the ability to learn, think, and assess information was (and is) essential. I don’t recall which of these two categories was larger but they dwarfed the other responses. So having students in the sciences take substantial coursework in the humanities, or at least classes that require the analysis of sources of information (there are courses like this within science departments), is a very reasonable and, IMO, desirable program of study.

Does this mean I’m arguing that, the next time we find ourselves forced to make retrenchment decisions based on limited resources, we should cut the sciences instead of humanities? Hardly – folks further up the food chain who are smarter than I and have access to much more information will be making that call. What I’m saying is I don’t buy the argument that the humanities are unimportant or should automatically be discounted in favor of the sciences. They form an important part of a balanced course of study which will benefit students in all academic programs. This must be considered.

This brings us to the section of this post which will be substantially about me – sorry folks. As Dr. Halsall said, the vast majority of history students will not spend their lives employed in history. Most won’t be professors or high school history teachers. They won’t be museum curators or work for the History Channel. They’ll work in some other job, as a college/university graduate.

Overwhelmingly, we live in an information age. We are exposed to a massive amount of information originating from a tremendously varied selection of sources. How do we decide which sources are valid, viable, reliable and may be used to make quality, informed decisions? How will, say, a corporate purchasing director decide between the information presented by the representatives of multiple product lines? Which research and promotional material(s) is/are valid? Which sources can you trust? The ability to critically examine and assess source material, so essential to historical study, will be invaluable here as well as in a lot (I can’t quantify this – hundreds? thousands?) of other jobs and careers.

I am not going to try to describe my job because the system in which I work is somewhat unique and takes far more than a blog post to explain. As a woefully inadequate description, I help people and communities solve problems, address issues and take advantage of opportunities utilizing the knowledge of the university (and other universities) as well as my own knowledge and skill set. I have recently become highly involved in a new opportunity that has come to Indiana. This was not an area which my university had engaged in extensive research in so I was unable to use this as a major source of information (this has been changing but even here, our engineering school is not looking into those aspects I needed information on). Instead I had to look elsewhere to educate myself and those I worked with regarding a host of issues related to this.

By engaging in this process I helped develop our local community’s response to this and now I travel around the state helping other communities deal with the issues related to this topic. This area has become somewhat controversial. Various individuals, groups and stakeholders have offered a wide variety of opinions and papers, research reports, etc. on the topic. Without the ability to critically assess the validity of these information sources through an understanding of research methodology and textual analysis, I would have been unable to help with this effort, at least to this extent. And this is important; something which has the potential to transform a community for decades to come. We have to get this right, or as right as we possibly can. My study of history – completely as a hobby and without any grounding in formal study or, even, much methodological knowledge – was and continues to be an invaluable aid. This is not the exception, but rather the rule. I use these skills, those I have gained from a completely informal interest in history, on an almost daily basis.*

So in the end, though my focus is different, I’m 100% with Dr. Halsall. This is the information age. We are bombarded with thoughts and opinions on all sorts of topics. How are we – all of us – to decide what’s worth listening to and what should be ignored? The study of history; training in the examination of sources of information and the ability to critically assess their validity; is a wonderful addition to an individual’s toolkit of skills which will help him or her get along in the world. I encourage people to consider this and, for the student charting a course of study in higher education, don’t just bury yourself in the technical courses. Use your electives wisely and take some coursework which will help you to learn and practice critical thinking skills. I think you’ll find this useful as you move through life, whatever your career choice.

*I should mention that I have colleagues who are excellent at what they do but do not have my interest in history. They have developed a skill set they use effectively but for me, what I’ve picked up through my interest in history has played a large role in how I approach information gathering as a step toward addressing issues and solving problems.


Posted by on October 30, 2010 in Amateur Tips


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Amateur Tip: A Few of My Favorite Things

I’ve highlighted some of my favorite blogs before. Thought it might be helpful if I did the same for some websites.

On the left of this page, part way down, are some links I consider useful for folks like me without access to some of the academic resources historians have access to. Actually, I have a lot of that access since I work for a University – I just don’t know how to use all of it. In any case, I have over a hundred medieval and ancient sites bookmarked for my use but including all of those on my blog wouldn’t help anyone. The ones I’ve included on my blog page are those leading either to online journals or source material.


If you’re into maps, these sites may be of interest:

  • Euratlas is the map site I visit most frequently. It has dozens of maps of interest ranging from the 4th millennium BC to now. I particularly like the century-by-century progression of Europe myself.
  • The Ancient World Mapping Center goes well beyond providing some free maps (which you may find through a link on the left of the main page). It also includes information and links related to current research into mapping and cartography.
  • The Collaborative Numismatics Page has much, much more than just maps. I’ve linked to the map page here but you’ll want to check out the Numiswiki main page for loads of information, primarily ancient.

Art and Images

One of my very favorite, recently discovered sites is Kornbluth Photography. I probably shouldn’t call this a “discovered” site so much as one I was led by the nose to. Genevra Kornbluth gave a very interesting paper on archaeological finds in 5th-7th century Western Europe at the 2010 International Congress for Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo. She provided her website address there. After looking through it, I was hooked. If you’re into Art History – or, like me, just like looking at very old pretty stuff – she has bushels of images with accompanying descriptions. And if you’re an academic and looking for an image for your current book project, you may find something of use (this is what she does for a living so there will likely be a fee – these images are NOT public domain or for indiscriminate use). I also love the fact that when; in addition to never bathing, indiscriminately killing one another and nobody reading; someone throws the old, “after the fall of Rome nobody did any art” at me, I have a wonderful site to point them to that illustrates that no, this is very, very wrong.

Texts and Source Material

I’ve mentioned before how I like to do my reading. Generally, I read several secondary works covering a topic at the same time. While taking my notes, on a separate sheet of paper I also write down a list of materials I want to find; additional secondary works, journal articles, etc., and; primary and contemporary or near-contemporary source materials. The following sites are those I’ve found very useful when looking for sources:

  • The Medieval Sourcebook is such an astonishingly useful site that I have a hard time describing it. Dozens of sources translated into English, or links to them. Paul Halsall, the author, is a God – at least when it comes to his contribution to access to Medieval resources. Even though he is no longer (I don’t believe) actively maintaining the Sourcebook, it remains a wonderful resource.
  • I’d call Roger Pearse a God too except I know he’d prefer some other term. So I’ll revert to Steve Muhlberger’s characterization of him as a Benefactor of Humanity. The Tertullian Project is his main page (he has others) where the results of his effort to translate public domain source material into English are displayed. If you’re looking for materials on early Christianity, this is a wonderful site.
  • Another excellent source covering the same general area (and one I know Roger has contributed to) is the Christian Classics Ethereal Library. This site contains a treasure of source material related to Early Christianity and the Early Church, translated into English. Downloading materials requires a small fee however you may read them online for free.
  • The final site I’m going to point out today is Fordham University’s Bibliography of Medieval Sources Page. When I start looking for source materials, this is one of the first places I look. The bibliography is searchable and easy to use. Generally I only input the medieval author name, the original language, and that I’m looking for materials translated into English. It includes materials available online as well as those that have been translated and published. Obviously, it’s not 100% complete but it’s a great starting point and, if you happen to go there and notice they’re missing something, use their feedback page to help them update the site.

So these are just a few of the sites I consider useful for finding source materials for those without access to a university or comprehensive public library system. This is just the tip of the iceberg and most of my links here are to other collections of sources, or online journals. If you have other sites to add, please either e-mail me or include them in comments on this page.

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Posted by on September 26, 2010 in Amateur Tips, Resources


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Amateur Tip – How I Remember Stuff

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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I love mythbusters, particularly Medieval ones. Maybe it’s because 15 years ago I believed a lot of them. For example, I totally believed that at the end of the Roman Empire the Western world completely, 100% fell apart. I believed that Medievals never washed and that virtually nobody could read. I can’t tell you today exactly why I believed this stuff (I’m sure I had my reasons) but I did. Maybe I wouldn’t have gone as far as William Manchester and thought everyone ran around naked (having done agricultural labor myself, that just seems an insane concept) but if someone had analyzed Lord of the Rings and told me that no, in Tolkien’s mind Sauron wasn’t analogous to Hitler but to a historical bloodthirsty, raging killer maniac warlord who set up shop in Trier after the end of the Empire, I’d have bought it.

Most of us have probably seen what I call “The Baby and the Bathwater” e-mail that’s gone around. Fortunately, this has been soundly debunked by Barbara Mikkelson on Snopes

Thanks to Steve Muhlberger for pointing out this site which identifies more common historical errors. Most of the errors are ancient but there are a few Medieval ones sprinkled in. I particularly enjoyed number 27 though I think he could have changed that to read, “The Christians systematically destroyed ancient manuscripts” and had even more of an impact.* I haven’t really given it much thought but I bet I believed this one too 15 years ago.

* The book on manuscript transmission that’s been referred to me by someone who should know (I haven’t read it) is Scribes and Scholars: A Guide to the Transmission of Greek and Latin Literature by Reynolds and Wilson, Oxford University Press (1991). ISBN: 978-0198721468. There are plenty of newer books out there on this too.


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Another Tip for Amateurs – Library Features

This post originally began as a tangent to a post about another topic. It didn’t take long for me to realize that my tangent would detract from what I wanted to get across there – and to figure out that this was worth its own post.

For an amateur, access to reasonably priced books is often a significant limiting factor. I know when I first started reading history it was a bit of a jolt transitioning from buying $6.95 paperback fiction to $20-$30 non-fiction. Eventually I got used to that enough to where I frequently buy books in the $60-$80 range – it has to be a very useful book though.

This brings us to the world of the Inter Library Loan (ILL). Many if not most of you are at least somewhat aware of this so this is more of a reminder. Use it. I’ve been astonished at what our little (town of 15,000 people) public library has been able to acquire for me. I’ve received fairly specialized books housed at Notre Dame, Indiana University, Taylor University, Oberlin College, etc. And the fee is next to nothing. So if you see a book and buying it is beyond your means, talk to your library.

What many people don’t seem to be aware of are subscription services your local library may have. I’ve told several people to check and find out if their library subscribes to JSTOR – a subscription service which provides access to many journals, in digital form. They are frequently surprised to find their library has it. If your library doesn’t, you may want to try finding several people interested in having journal access beyond what the library subscribes to – these don’t have to be history people either – and talk to the library. If they see there’s an interest in the service they may be willing to purchase it – or if you get enough people, ask the library if they’d consider subscribing if you can find enough donors to cover the cost. There are other services besides JSTOR – Project MUSE is one I’m familiar with. I’m not up on the inner workings of all this because through my “nothistory” job at a university I have access to all sorts of stuff through the library and they make it easy, but it’s amazing how many good public libraries offer many of these same services.

And finally, since I mentioned university libraries, if you want additional access to resources, ask the college or university you graduated from about alumni library accounts. Depending on the type of institution, they may not have many of the books you may be looking for but they often have JSTOR or other journal access. I try to keep up on things by looking through 5 journals on a regular basis – Speculum, Journal of Late Antiquity, Early Medieval Europe, the American Historical Review and the English Historical Review. I subscribe to Speculum (access through JSTOR isn’t available for the most recent 5 years) and JLA, and access the others through the University. And often something from another journal is cited, such as the article I mentioned in my Rich Peasant/Poor Peasant post which I can access through JSTOR.

Many institutions of higher education offer alumni accounts. Sometimes you may not receive all the bells and whistles of faculty and student accounts but it is absolutely worth asking about. And in this day and age of digital information, even if you’re physically thousands of miles away from your library, you can still access many of the resources.


Posted by on April 16, 2010 in Amateur Tips, Resources


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Historical Revisionism

I just finished Florin Curta’s The Making of the Slavs: History and Archaeology of the Lower Danube Region c. 500-700 (Cambridge University Press, 2001). There are several good reviews out there such as Paul Stephenson’s (2002) 1 and, in this case, even the ones up on Amazon are pretty good so I’m not going to write one. However this book is one which argues (and argues well – a very detailed examination of the evidence) for a significant revision of the traditional opinion of the Slavs as being an ethnic group during the period covered.

For some reason this brought to mind several recent arguments I’ve either participated in or observed on non-Academic discussion boards. Recently on the usenet group soc.history.medieval there was an extensive discussion of feudalism. One of the participants strenuously and prodigiously argued that the rejection of the “ism” or “system” related to feudal structures proposed by Susan Reynolds and others 2 was nothing more than an unsupported re-writing of history and that the 18th and 19th century historians had it right. Larry Swain participated in this and I admire his tenacity – I just sat back and watched in horrified awe as someone repeatedly rejected well-supported and argued posts discussing charters and other evidence which showed that any argument in favor of some sort of all-encompassing feudal system stands on very shaky ground.

For myself, I was recently involved in a conversation on Library Thing in the Ancient History discussion group. There a couple of posters argued that the end of the Roman Empire could be viewed as nothing other than disastrous – that the level of civilization crashed and burned and if the Empire had survived we might have landed on the Moon centuries ago. Statements in this discussion included, “Civilization was set back a full 1000 years with global implications” and “I guess I remain amazed that it has become so important for historians to refute the fall and call it something else.” In other words, historians changed the way they viewed something simply because they wanted to (there were other errors of fact not relevant to this post). The dirty phrase for this seems to be either “Historical Revisionism” or “Rewriting History.”

If there’s a purpose for this blog (other than self-indulgence) it’s so a reasonably well-read amateur (I hope – how well-read I am must ultimately be judged by others) can post a few things which may be helpful to amateurs just beginning to study the period.

So here’s my first blog suggestion for amateurs: Any time you’re tempted to call a newer work or current understanding an unwarranted rewriting of history, please do two things:

First – Remember that all history is rewriting history. Rewriting history is what historians do – they publish articles and books which, hopefully, increase our understanding of a period and/or issue. This often replaces an older understanding. This shouldn’t be a dirty term (though most historians would likely prefer the use of “reinterpret” rather than “rewrite”).

Second – Ask yourself, related to the issue in question, whether an author’s argument for a new interpretation is based on his or her desire to see things differently, or on the basis of new evidence. Or even, in some cases, by finding new patterns in old evidence. Is the argument based on fact or pure opinion?

It would be naive to claim that nobody has ever argued for a new historical understanding based on nothing more than their desire for things to be viewed differently, however this happens surprisingly little, at least over the past couple of decades. I think you’ll find that most historians are motivated by something more substantial.

1 Stephenson, Paul, (2002). The International Historical Review 24, 629-631.

2 Reynolds’ Fiefs and Vassals (1994) is more of a culmination of over two decades of debate which seems to have started in earnest with an article by Elizabeth Brown in The American Historical Review in 1974, and there were plenty of rumblings before that.

Brown, Elizabeth A. R., (1974). “The Tyranny of a Construct: Feudalism and Historians of Medieval Europe”, The American Historical Review 79, 1063-1088.

Curta, Florin, (2001). The Making of the Slavs: History and Archaeology of the Lower Danube Region c. 500-700 (Cambridge, UK) ISBN: 9780521-036153.

Reynolds, Susan, (1994). Fiefs and Vassals: The Medieval Evidence Reinterpreted (New York) ISBN: 9780198-206484.


Posted by on March 31, 2010 in Amateur Tips, Historiography


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