Medieval Feminist Web Site Garners Attention
When Margaret Schaus was an undergraduate, she had no comprehensive resource to turn to in her research on medieval women. Fifteen years later when she began helping students at the Haverford College library do the same kind of research, there was a flood of publications but still no index available.
Now Schaus has taken it upon herself to combine new technology with a historic perspective by creating a World Wide Web database for medieval feminist research. In doing so, she has put together the first history database for Web users free of charge.
An exhaustive project, Schaus' index encompasses journal articles, book reviews and essays in collections from all academic disciplines. It has garnered accolades from medieval scholars worldwide and earned her an invitation to conduct a workshop at the prestigious Medieval Academy of America at their convention this year.
A reference librarian and bibliographer, Schaus has tried to make the Medieval Feminist Index as comprehensive as possible, with a special emphasis on foreign language materials. The index covers the thousand years before 1500 A.D. in Europe, North Africa and the Near East in English, French and German publications, and Schaus plans to add Spanish and Italian language publications later with the help of volunteer indexers. There are over 1,000 records for 1995 and 1996, and more than 100 new entries are being made each month.
A unique aspect of the Index is that it includes a thorough description of each item. "Secondary sources in medieval studies are very difficult to locate," Schaus explains," because much of the scholarship is published in essay collections and specialized journals.
"This index is designed to pull out all the single pieces," says Schaus.
In addition to author, title, subject and source, the Index includes geographic area, time period, descriptions of illustrations and tables, article type and the primary sources used. With such detail, the Index reflects the flood of information on women that lay largely ignored until recently. A quick search of the Index shows, for example, that medieval women were frequently involved in commissioning art, selling beer, managing the financial and spiritual affairs of monasteries, composing love songs and copying manuscripts.
Schaus has received widespread praise from colleagues and scholars. "I am currently completing a book on women's literacy in late medieval England and have found this index extremely helpful in tracking down articles in publications to which I have no access," says Josephine Tarvers, a historian at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina. Tarvers adds that she now points her students toward the Web site as well, because it provides access to resources many other sites do not.
Other scholars concur. "Margaret Schaus' Medieval Feminist Index is a major contribution," says Haverford College historian Susan Stuard. "This index is very thorough, and I believe it will be the model for all these types of indices in the future," she adds.
Stuard contends that some of the best research tools have been developed in the area of women's studies, largely because "we've had friends among the librarians, women who have themselves been interested in women's studies and thought it was important to make these resources available to scholars and other interested people."
Indeed, it was an early interest in medieval studies that led Schaus to a life in academia. A high school teacher who loved the Middle Ages introduced her to the work of Eileen Power, one of the first historians to focus on women's issues. Powers' Medieval People in particular sparked Schaus' fascination. After receiving her master's degree in medieval history from the University of Toronto, she later completed a second master's in library and information science from the University of California at Berkeley.
For what has truly become a labor of love, Schaus can often be found in front of her computer during the weekends. "We have begun a database that serves scholars and students in all fields of medieval studies," she says. "I hope it will encourage others to organize and create high quality Web sources, especially ones for women's studies."
In addition to a host of volunteers around the country, Chris Africa at the University of Iowa was among the first to collaborate with Schaus on the Index and continues to maintain the database. Its World Wide Web address is: http://www.haverford.edu/library/reference/mschaus/mfi/mfi.html.