“What we need is better-quality pedantry”

Cover of Anderson & Bellenger, Medieval Worlds
With a bit of luck this will get the citation anger out of my system. But, as you may observe at the side-bar, I’m currently delving into a sourcebook that I was given for teaching by a kindly patron, Roberta Anderson’s & Dominic Bellenger’s Medieval Worlds. And, although I am not myself a huge fan of the whole ‘mentalités’ thing, being one who would like to know what happened to people before saying what they thought about it,1 they have a relatively deft and subtle approach to it. The only critique I’d make so far is that jumping from Langland to Augustine to Ælfric to Boniface VIII to Justin Martyr to Arthurian legend, without really giving any consideration to the centuries and hundreds of miles that separate the context of these sources, results in a very blanket view of medieval culture that almost no-one at any one of those sources’ points of origin would recognise, even though the book’s title attempts to stress variation.

A niggle however is in the citation. Mostly their citation is fine, although the old problem with how you represent authors’ names when their translation’s title page doesn’t is a bit difficult. The main problem is online stuff. Humanities authors are slower with this than we should be: suggested standards do exist, whether you may like them or not. I think we all need to agree that a bare URL is not enough though. Firstly this tells one nothing about what the actual source of your text is: a student essay? an online version of a reputable, but nineteenth-century, textbook? a Ph.D. by a modern researcher? or a pop-culture soundbite by a journalist with his facts wrong? There’s only so much you can deduce from a domain name. Secondly, of course, documents move, and one may not be able to find them again if the old URL is all that you give.

So, for example, when Anderson & Bellenger give a useful bit of Ælfric on the Three Orders, citing as source only the URL http://www.wwnorton.com/nael/nto/middle/estates/aelfric.htm,
this neatly illustrates both problems by looking, to the unwary, as if it’s coming off the site of an anti-virus software company, and by no longer being there. This is not a cite.

Now obviously one can go too far in the other direction. There are some, for example, who would say that this is not a sensible citation either:

But now you know a lot more about the quality of their source material, which is actually better than one might have feared, no?

Please, at least give the page author the credit of mentioning him or her by name, and using his or her title for the work; and please, give yourself the safety of stating when it was last modified (find the ‘Page Info’ menu items in your browser if you don’t know how to get this), because there is no closer equivalent to a publication date on the Internet, and of stating when you saw it there, in case by the time someone checks it should be gone and they thus have no proof you didn’t make it up and nothing with which to make a search of the Wayback Machine useful.

Mind you, I’m not really one to talk. I completely misread the shelfmark in the Salat cite mentioned in the previous entry, which I have now silently edited to make me look less stupid (another good reason to give last-modified dates, note—unscrupulous web users may change an online text in a way that you can’t with a printed source). And I’ve shamelessly lifted the title quote from `someone I know off the Internets’, who should at least be named as Mr Daniel Bye, with whose opinions I do not often otherwise coincide but which in this particular case I fully endorse with this very edit.

Lastly, and unconnectedly, the sidebar no longer reflects that I was reading Arthur Marwick’s It: a history of human beauty. I should just like to advise you not to do this, and also not to buy the once-read, near-mint copy of it that will shortly be adorning a Cambridge market stall. It’s trash, and I don’t say that or sell books lightly. The methodology and model is inconsistent and inadequately thought through, far too much of the evidence intuitive and anecdotal, and the few pieces of interesting presentation marred by continual parenthetical and prejudice-laden sidetracks. I seriously wouldn’t bother.

1. I can of course see that we have to approach the question of events through sources which were created out of people’s thought processes. But these are not the only sources! and sometimes, in my darker moments, when I run into someone who’s making a success out of insisting that this is the be-all and end-all of medieval history and all we can truly know about the period, I want to up-end them into an archæological trench through a midden, and bury them in pollen analyses, shouting, “Look! Empirical non-literary data!” Nearly.

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