Better-quality pedantry

I think I have now given up on Anderson & Bellenger’s Medieval Worlds as any kind of textbook. It is not, as I said, that the selection of texts is bad, because it isn’t, it’s wide-ranging, intelligent and interesting. It’s not the citation, even, though problems with do irk me. (You noticed? Well fair enough.) It’s not even the fact that so much of its content is recycled from earlier source gatherings, because this is standard practice, though the fact that those references are all you get mean that in many ways you’d be better off with one of those textbooks, because they’d tell you where the source actually comes from. (I mention some of the books I mean below.)

Cover of Anderson & Bellenger, Medieval Worlds

The problem, the problem that means you shouldn’t let your students have this, is the utter lack of context for the texts. I just got through the chapter about the Papacy. And fair enough, we do want the Bull of Innocent III accepting King John of England’s submission to the Papacy in there I think, it’s not even obviously on the web. I might prefer that it was actually captioned as that, rather than as John’s letter of submission, which instead it merely contains, but I’ll live. However, it is necessary to tell the reader that John and England were under a papal interdict at the time, or else it looks like spontaneous Romanist piety and little could be further from the truth.

Likewise, it is useful that the chapter opens with The Donation of Constantine, because you can’t really cover the topic without it. It is odd to place it there, though, as Anderson & Bellenger’s sorting is roughly chronological, and so it would only belong there if its purported date were accurate. Also, in an ideal world, the excerpt would include the portion of the text that allotted to the popes the secular dominion over the lands of Rome, because it supports so many later claims that the editors do indeed discuss, and there is as linked above a public-domain version at the Internet Medieval Sourcebook.

But mainly, it would help if the reader was told the document was a forgery! They do at least caption it “c. 750″ but, given its odd position in the chapter that’s only going to alert the sharpest students. Unless you have a whole class of these, you want to use something else, you really do. For lack of a sentence or two about each actual source in this supposed source-book, the final result is interesting but also wildly misleading.

But this leads me onto another question. You can’t teach with this book, mainly because it will make more work for you in explaining the sources than not giving them at all. Also, of course, it being so new, you couldn’t really photocopy chunks because lots of it is still in copyright—not that several of the places I’ve seen teaching really worried about that, and it is sometimes hard to see copyright law as anything other than ridiculous these days—but assuming that you do care, you have a problem. The publishers would like you, of course, to get your students to buy a copy each, but you won’t do this because of the problems I’ve outlined (I hope). So what do you do?

Assuming that you find the Internet Medieval Sourcebook a bit thin in places, which I think would be fair enough, the obvious texts of this kind are things like:

  • Oliver J. Thatcher & Edgar H. McNeal (edd./transl.), A Source Book for Medieval History: Selected Documents Illustrating the History of Europe in the Middle Age (New York 1905; repr. 1971)
  • Ernest F. Henderson (ed./transl.), Select Historical Documents of the Middle Ages (London 1892, repr. 1896 and several times since)
  • David F. Herlihy (ed.), Medieval Culture and Society (London 1968)
  • Patrick Geary (ed./transl.), Readings in Medieval History (Peterborough 1989, 2nd edn. 1997)
  • Alfred. J. Andrea (ed.), The Medieval Record: sources of medieval history (Chicago 1997)

These all have their problems. The first two are now pretty definitively public-domain, and have thus been plundered by several of the others and the IMSB, and the translations are usually OK but rather stuffy and of course written with Victorian mores shot through them. And because they’re so old, you can’t possibly equip a class with them so it means a lot of photocopying. Herlihy isn’t yet public-domain in at least the USA, and in any case it comes with its own particular spin, not one I disagree with per se but it’s there. It’s recently been reprinted so could probably be bought in bulk, but you might still not want to, and some of its translations go back to the older two anyway. (It’s all very medieval…)

I’ve seen Geary and it’s good but its publishers, as the IMSB found to their discomfort, are jealous of copyright. I haven’t used Andrea but I only know of it because Anderson & Bellenger do; they also use Henderson and Thatcher & McNeal. I suppose these are your options. But as yet, I’ve never seen a course teacher dare to rely on his or her students all buying the source-book anyway, so it comes down to photocopying in the end. And how would we teach if the copyrights were all enforced, then?

I also wanted to mention, because I’ve used them and found them good, but too specialised for this general edit:

  • Paul E. Dutton (ed./transl.), Carolingian Civilization: a reader (Peterborough ON 1997)
  • Brian E. Tierney (ed./transl.), The Crisis of Church and State, 1050-1300: with selected documents (Englewood Cliffs 1964, repr. Cambridge MA 1989)
  • Edward Peters (ed.), The First Crusade: the Chronicle of Fulcher of Chartres and other source materials, Middle Ages Series (Pennsylvania 1971, repr. 1998), especially the reprint which adds some useful extra Byzantine material

These people are or were trying to help, and it’s a pity that the law makes it so difficult for us to take advantage of it.


8 responses to “Better-quality pedantry

  1. I’ve been using Andrea and Overfield for my World Civ surveys, and am starting to hate it. Why? Too much information. The introductory sections are so long and involved that the students tend to pay more attention to them than to the actual sources. There are also far too many leading questions. I don’t want the authors telling the students what to look for. I want the students to come at the texts expecting that they can be used in different ways, and A&O’s questions sometimes preclude that. Moreover, the editors often add internal commentary in the form of section headings that are not clearly marked as editorial divisions. This makes it extremely hard for the reader (including the faculty person sometimes) to judge authorial intent and audience.

    I think your comment about the Donation being a forgery is important. That’s the kind of thing that should be included. I’m not as sure about letting the reader know that England was under Interdict, although it’s not going to hurt anyone and is probably more helpful than not. It does remove the opportunity to ask students to try to integrate the source material with other readings, though.

  2. There’s a sense, isn’t there, in which if you’re having to patch it with other readings, a source-book is kind of redundant. But I may not be being imaginative enough in getting students to engage with the sources.
    It strikes me that the last course I taught on was possibly asking quite a lot of the students in terms of unguided source criticism, so I was grateful for them being guided at all in a way that you might not be. I agree that there can be too much editorial, and this is why I wouldn’t want to use Herlihy’s books first off for example. I think my ideal amount of commentary is probably what the IMSB provides: what, by whom, when, one or two issues if there are some, not much more. But at the very least you need date and geographical location, ideally half a sentence of detail about the author (“probably a laymen writing at the court of King Alfred”, for an example I’ve just made up) and from that can spring discussions and evaluations. Or am I expecting the source book to do too much work that rest of the reading lists should be covering?
    Anyway, Anderson & Bellenger give very short linking paragraphs that sometimes explain who wrote the next source and what it’s relevant to in their scheme, but not always, and it’s really not enough in my pedant’s opinion.

  3. Oh, I think you definitely need all the basics — or at least most of them! Date and author, location is nice. Issues? maybe.

    I give my students a set of boilerplate questions. Author, date, location, type of document, intended audience, and three questions (not things they can look up in the dictionary) or pieces of evidence and examples of how a historian might use them. These things can be as simple as, “the author mentions cavalry and bowmen, so it tells us something about the kind of armies they had and how they fought.”

    I start off with my first-years very slowly, and build. It works with some of them. The hardest part is convincing them that they shouldn’t summarise the document.

  4. There’s much in what you say and I think it comes down to a starting difference in what we are (or my case were) trying to achieve. You’re talking about building historians and inculcating critical skills, which is of course what a degree is supposed to do and that. I’m still talking as if I were still teaching at Birkbeck. Now you may know from Simon or elsewhere, but other readers won’t perhaps, that Birkbeck is essentially a college for part-time adult students, so a reasonable part of my students were twice my age, and almost all of them already on a career path—they were just there to learn things. As a result I was very focused on trying to make sure they came out of the classes knowing about things that had happened in medieval Europe, more so than working on their critical skills.

    Now when I am teaching again, which one way or another I will be next UK term, I shan’t be doing it to that kind of audience, so your thoughts are very well-timed. This general was in danger of fighting the last war again…

  5. I didn’t realise that about Birkbeck — partially because campuses like that in the US tend not to have postgraduate programmes, and because, well, your thesis director is so damned prolific.

    I used to teach at several community colleges, which are two-year institutions that have several missions — providing the first two years of a university education to people who aren’t sure of what to study or can’t afford to (or didn’t qualify to) go directly to a uni. Then there are the ‘non-trads’ — adult students who have come back to start the degree they never got or just to take classes in tings that interest them — much as you describe. Then there are the people who are pursuing some sort of vocational/technical programme, and need some basic general ed requirements as well.

    I don’t know if this works for you or if it helps, but New Kid made a great differentiation between History majors and History Channel majors. I decided long ago that I just wouldn’t teach to the latter. After I explained to my students that they were going to be learning History by doing History, a very few did drop the course. But overall, I’ve found that, if I make sure to connect every one of their discussions of the primary sources back to the narrative readings I’ve given them, and throw in a formal lecture that reinforces those points now and again, the students really do tend to respond pretty well.

    I’m sorry if I’m sounding preachy. I’m still working this out, and I’m panicking about the Greco-Roman survey I’m teaching this coming fall term, partially because I do have a hard time balancing the ‘doing’ and the ‘delivering a well-constructed lecture’ parts. So part of this is me hijacking your comments to reinforce for myself what I know has worked in the past! Sorry ;-)

  6. By all means verbalise at me if it helps you think! I make my friends suffer in just the same way. Still have some, alarmingly… I can see the balance problem you talk of there, I was wondering about it indeed as I will be lecturing a survey course myself most likely, albeit not one so far outside my usual period.

    Birkbeck is an odd one. Not many people are coming there as undergraduates to do their first degree straight out of school, but a reasonable number go on to do Masters, at least in History, and meanwhile it recruits long-term postgraduates on an entirely different basis. I came there because of Matthew, but I’d had no connection with it before.

    I like the History/History Channel division, but it may work less well–slightly–in the UK where a degree is usually single-subject, not major+minor. But mainly, I’m unlikely to be in that kind of control of a course for a little while, so I’ll be teaching what I’m told. When I can, though, yes, I can see the point…

  7. Well, that’s the blessing and the curse of the US system. Academic freedom is sacrosanct. It’s just not the same academic freedom that most people think of. So we have an awful lot of latitude in what we teach — or at least in how we teach it. Next year, I have four courses that are ‘service’ courses. That accounts for 6 of the courses I teach. As long as I follow what’s in the catalogue as far as content goes, I’m pretty much free to teach as I’d like. The other two courses are special topics courses, so again, it’s what I want. No one double-marks my work, no one checks my exams to see that they’re fair. I’m pretty much the only person I know who is uncomfortable with this. I happen to think that working with one’s colleagues to ensure consistency is a good thing. But that won’t happen anyway, as no one else in my department has a clue about what I teach.

    On the other hand, LDW is an actual professor, and he still has to teach the courses he’s given. I’m not sure I’d want to be very senior faculty and not have any choices!

  8. The lack of double-marking is kind of frightening, as it means that personal enmity could wreck a budding career. (Perhaps this is just practice for the real world…)

    I’ve applied for posts where I would have been almost the only medievalist on staff, and ones where I would have been in a small cluster, and I was never sure which I’d rather have, the support of a consistent Faculty approach or the freedom to teach what I thought needed teaching. Until I land one at last, I don’t have to make up my mind I guess…

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