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Online Reference Book (ORB) for Medieval Studies
Kathryn Talarico
Printer-Friendly Version

Reviewed by:
Jonathan Rotondo-McCord
Xavier University of Louisiana
March 2004

This website aims to be an authentic academic site that offers primary and peer-reviewed secondary source materials dealing with the European Middle Ages. A straightforward navigation bar at the top of most pages (along with an efficient search engine) provides access to the chief components.

The first of these is the “Encyclopedia,” arranged by period and topic. It functions as the core of the site, and consists of seven main sections: early medieval, high medieval (ca. 1000-1300), late medieval (ca. 1300-1500), medieval Slavic and Russian resources (via an offsite link to the University of Pittsburgh), religion, languages and linguistics, and culture (including art history, literature, medieval Judaism, and medieval women). Each main topic is subdivided into individually-edited sections and subsections that provide lists of links in outline form. Outlines consist of essays written for the ORB, primary-source texts, bibliographies, resources for teaching, and other online resources, such as images and maps, museums, libraries, medieval studies centers, professional organizations, and scholarly conferences. Some outline listings offer no material or are still in a preliminary stage, while others are thorough, such as Thomas Head’s section on hagiography).

The “Library” intends to provide access to primary sources. There are four headings: links to The ORB’s “Text Library”, Paul Halsall’s Internet Medieval Sourcebook, the Global Catholic Network Library (EWTN’s search engine), and a list of more than 200 individual primary-source documents on the Web. Unfortunately, many of these links are broken or use older protocols that are not supported well by all browser versions. The onsite “Text Library” contains less than 20 headings, some texts and transcriptions are incomplete, and at least half of its listings are links to other sites. Another main section, “Reference,” duplicates much of the Library page.

The “Teaching” component links to six other websites offering ideas and even lesson plans about teaching the Middle Ages. See, for example, the University of North Carolina site providing lesson plans on using computer technology to teach Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. “Teaching” also provides about 30 sample syllabi, two links to offsite maps, seven links to illustration collections, three calendar programs, and three bibliographies.

The “General” section deals with popular views of the Middle Ages. Students will find Stephen Morillo’s medieval cartoons amusing and can explore information about films with medieval themes and websites on the “living” Middle Ages. Other secondary-source links point to Online Textbooks, such as Steven Muhlberger’s Medieval England, a guide for undergraduates who wish to use the ORB as a research paper resource, and a guide for graduate students called “What Every Medievalist Should Know.”

For teaching purposes, the Encyclopedia section is probably the most useful part of the site, in spite of its uneven development. Its chronological and thematic arrangement makes it an easy fit with traditionally taught survey courses in which its materials can be used to supplement textbook coverage of a particular era of medieval history. Teachers looking for primary and secondary sources on the Crusades or medieval women, for example, will find useful outline lists of links on “Military Orders” and “Women’s Studies.”

One of the most accessible parts of the site for students in introductory history courses is “Misconceptions about the Middle Ages.” This offers a series of brief articles, written specifically for the ORB, with titles such as “The Myth of the Mounted Knight,” “An Austere Age without Laughter,” and “The Round World.” Although these are not primary sources, they could function as useful starting points for class discussion or “before-and-after” journal entries about students’ preconceptions of medieval people.

In many respects, the ORB is similar to Paul Halsall’s Internet Medieval Sourcebook, to which it gratefully acknowledges its debt. Halsall’s site aims to emphasize primary sources more prominently; the ORB tries to group sources more closely by theme. Unfortunately, much of the ORB is incomplete or inconsistent. Under the Encyclopedia heading “Culture,” for example, “Jewish Religion and Culture” is listed as a category, but does not yet offer a link to any topical outline. Under “Religion,” however, a link is provided to a developed outline listing for “Judaism.” Another drawback for teaching purposes is the site’s frequent failure to identify offsite links as such. Also, a large number of broken links throughout the site can easily frustrate a user. In fairness, the ORB site seems recently to have moved to a new server, so perhaps the rough edges are due to a transitional period. In any case, teachers will need to check the site carefully before assigning it for student use.

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