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The Internet Medieval Sourcebook turns 25 years old

If you study the Middle Ages, there is one website that you would have certainly visited – the Internet Medieval Sourcebook. As the site turns 25 years old this year, we look back on its creation and legacy with its founder, Paul Halsall.

The Internet as we know it began to emerge in the late 1980s, with most people having little idea what the World Wide Web could accomplish. By the 1990s, one could find online resources about the Middle Ages – the listserv Mediev-l was particularly successful at connecting medievalists around the world. However, it was still very difficult to get basic materials such as translations of medieval texts.

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It was during this time that a graduate student named Paul Halsall took an interest in the Internet. He was in the midst of a PhD program at Fordham University, researching Byzantine female saints. He noticed that in university classes instructors were often making use of translated sources, often originating from older books that were now in the public domain. He believed that an online resource should be created that would make it easier to get these sources.

“My goal was to create a repository of about a hundred documents that would be available for lecturers to assign in medieval survey courses,” Halsall explains. “At the time, it was not really expected that every student would have access to the net, and I tended to think of this as texts for lecturers to print out and format as they wanted. For example, as documents to add to course packs. The project was always directed at helping people to teach rather than as a research tool.”

The Internet Medieval Sourcebook as it looked in 1997.

On January 26th, 1996, the Internet Medieval Sourcebook was launched. It would offer readers English translations of a wide variety of sources, including snippets of works that retold important battles or parts of law codes, as well as the full versions of chronicles and saints’ lives. The content grew rapidly, and Halsall half-jokingly notes that for him, “was often a way to avoid working on my PhD dissertation.”

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He explains how it was to work on the sourcebook over the first few years:

I acquired a scanner, bought OCR software, and then also acquired copies of the long out of copyright original publications. I also was able to ascertain in some cases that works published after the 1923 cut-off (at the time) had not had their copyright renewed and were “fair game.” I also began to approach people (and some people approached me for new translations.). There was a fellow scholar at UCLA, Jerome Arkenberg, who joined in and scanned hundreds of texts.

Often this would take five to six hours of my day. So for about two to three years it was literally thousands and thousands of hours. That involved scanning, correcting OCR errors (some still persist), formatting and so on. Then each text had to be fit into the index pages – it is those which make the site useful I think.  In some cases that was a lot of work to keep track of. For example a text on Jewish-Muslim relations in Granada might require being listed in 6 separate indexes.  And it was all hand-coded (using TxtPad). It might have been useful to have used some kind of database structure but frankly I did not know how.

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The scope of the project also grew, as Halsall added new sourcebooks covering topics such as ancient history, LGBT History, and the history of science. All are now under the umbrella of the Internet History Sourcebooks Project, which contains more than a dozen sourcebooks and thousands of pages. The sourcebook also linked to other websites that offered translated sources, but Halsall notes that many of the links would fail, as over the years other online projects were abandoned or changed their internal structures. The Internet Medieval Sourcebook continued to prosper, with countless university professors making use of it for readings in their courses.

The site went through a major redesign in 2011, including replacing its parchment backgrounds in favour of the now universal print and white space design – although Paul Halsall prefers the original look.

The site had remained very consistent over the years, and ranks near the top of the listings when searching for ‘medieval’ on Google – the Internet Medieval Sourcebook actually predates Google by more than two years. Today, the site gets more than six million page views a year, with activity peaking during the school year. Although the site is independent, it is provided a home by the Center for Medieval Studies at Fordham University and Halsall notes that without that support it would have been much harder to sustain.

Even more remarkable is that in the online environment, which is often very competitive in regards to reaching audiences, Halsall never went out of his way to market or monetize the sourcebook. “In a way I don’t care how popular it became,” he says. “I was not undertaking the project for money and I was certainly not interested in doing things to boost user-ship in the way that enterprises with bottom lines have to do.”

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As for the future of this site, Halsall says, ”I tend to see the Internet History Sourcebooks Project as an expanding publication. It is meant to provide stable and predictable access to texts for teachers and lecturers and to be used in conjunction with the many other resources available. I don’t feel driven to make it ever bigger, nor to add as many bells and whistles as possible. If people reading this want to submit new translations though, I am very ready to mount them on the site.”

Top-ten most used medieval documents:

1. Urban II: Five Versions of Speech at Clermont

2. Columbus: Extracts from Journal

3. Einhard: Life of Charlemagne

4. Witchcraft Documents (15th Century)

5. Gregory of Tours (539-594): History of the Franks: Books I-X

6. Passion of SS Perpetua and Felicity

7. Boccaccio: The Decameron – Introduction

8. Everyman (play)

9. 1348 Jews and the Black Death

10. Travels of Ibn Battuta

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