Albrecht Classen

title.none: Gray, Walker, Lalonde, An Interactive Exploration (Albrecht Classen)

identifier.other: baj9928.0206.018 02.06.18

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Albrecht Classen, University of Arizona,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2002

identifier.citation: Gray, Kathleen, Producer, David Walker, Project Manager, Michael Lalonde, Programmer. An Interactive Exploration of Women in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Hamilton, Canada: McMasters University, 1999. Pp.. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 02.06.18

Gray, Kathleen, Producer, David Walker, Project Manager, Michael Lalonde, Programmer. An Interactive Exploration of Women in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Hamilton, Canada: McMasters University, 1999. Pp.. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Albrecht Classen
University of Arizona

This is an impressive CD-ROM for the teaching of women's literature, culture, history, economic conditions, and religion in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. The minimum system requirements are, for the PC, a 486 processor, Windows 3.1, 95 or 98, 16MB RAM, 5MB hard drive space, and sound card, for Macintosh, Power Macintosh, System 7.5, 16 MB RAM, 5MB hard drive space.

The installation of this program seems to be quite easy if one follows the instructions printed in the accompanying jacket. For Windows 3.x one has to insert the CD-ROM into the drive and launch File Manager. Next one has to select the CD-ROM drive and double-click on QT16.EXE. In Windows 95 one must first install QuickTime, then insert the CD-ROM into the drive and launch Windows Explorer; subsequently select CD-ROM drive and double click on QT16.EXE again. Almost the same requirements for Macintosh apply, except that one has to re-start the computer after the installation. Further information about the program itself, the project as a whole, about current and future television series, see the web-site at:

This web-site does not, however, substitute in any way for the CD-ROM, even though one sees a quick demonstration of what materials are available on the CD-ROM.

If technical problems occur, the user is invited to consult additional instructions in the README.TXT Windows file and the Read me first! Macintosh file. I had no major difficulties with starting the program, but it was not as easy as the instructions imply, but this depends very much on one's technological expertise in installing the software from any CD- ROM. The necessary step which most experts might simply assume to be general knowledge is to search in the menu for "Sybils2.exe" and click on it which finally starts to load the program. It always seems so puzzling why the producers of such CD-ROMs and similar computer software assume so much and barely bother to explain really all the steps necessary for the installation of such programs.

The program begins with some general introductions, then opens up a menu with a whole series of links to: Timeline, Scriptorium, Queens and Courtiers, Women and Spirituality, Women and the Law, and Further Pathways. Accompanying music can be turned on or off. If one points the cursor to the top right hand corner anywhere during the program, a particular feature opens up allowing the user to return back either to the index or to the main menu. The index is a pleasant feature as it allows the user to jump right into the desired document, shortcutting the longer path from the main menu to the individual pages, and then to the sub-links. The user can also decide with a simple click whether s/he wants an essay, a biography, an image, or information from the timeline. The timeline extends from antiquity to the 1652, offering all kinds of dates providing an interesting framework for women's history, such as Jerome's translation of the Vulgate, the deposition of the last Western Roman Emperor, Boethius' Consolatio, the reign of Charlemagne, etc. However, a critical analysis of this chronological chart makes one wonder about the criteria used. Why is there a reference to the erection of the Hagia Sophia and of Notre Dame in Paris, whereas so many other significant buildings could have been mentioned as well? How does the Schism between the Eastern and the Western Church fit into a history of medieval women? Peter Abelard is mentioned separately from Heloise. To mention when the first cocoa beans were imported to Europe (1528) appeals to the general cultural historian, but seems to be out of place in the context of women's history. Granted any timeline has its own problems, and students will be well served with the selection offered here, though occasional inclusion of "ca." such as for the life dates of Christine de Pizan would have been more appropriate than the claim of exactitude. Nevertheless, the lacunae can easily be utilized as teaching assignments, and much discussion will ensue from the selection anyway.

More important names or terms are hyperlinked and, once clicked, open to another window with background information.

In the "Scriptorium" the true value of a CD-ROM becomes apparent. Here a number of valuable medieval manuscripts are presented page by page, with much background information. These manuscripts include: The McMaster Regola delle sore di Santa Chiara from ca. 1446, a late fifteenth-century Book of Hours, acquired by McMaster in 1967, a Nuremberg chronicle from 1493 (printed), acquired by McMaster in 1970, a Middle Dutch Legendary, acquired in 1968, then a large number of musical pieces from the early to the late Middle Ages, a bibliography, and a list of sources used for the creation of this CD-ROM..

The possibility to virtually leave through the manuscripts is a very nice feature. The Liber Chronicarum or Nuremberg Chronicle is also introduced through a video in which Mary Silcox discusses the book's history, content, layout, and artistic quality. It remains unclear, however, what the connection might be to the topic "Exploration of Women in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance". The same question arises with regard to the musical samples which are taken from many centuries and different countries. Some of them represent women's songs, such as "A Chantar" by the troubairitz Comtessa de Dia (not 'Die') or "O Ecclesia" by Hildegart of Bingen. The majority of the songs, however, has very little to do with the topic of this CD-ROM. The German song "Isbruck ich muss dich lassen" by Heinrich Isaac is a popular sixteenth-century tune and does not quite fit into the framework of medieval and Renaissance women, as it is neither medieval nor a product of the Renaissance. The large number of Hungarian folksongs, collected by Bela Bartok, seem to be out of place here entirely. The piano version of a thirteenth-century English dance is simply anachronistic. Nevertheless, maybe from a pedagogical point of view, this section would be very useful in a general class introducing students to the world of the Middle Ages and its music.

The section on queens and courtiers offers much valuable material, including scholarly articles, visuals, music, and bibliographies. Didactically, however, it remains unclear what the user is supposed to do with them. If they were available on-line, the instructor could assign individual sections to students as homework, but this is much more difficult with a CD-ROM. The link for Christine de Pizan opens with a nice illustration of herself, and then proceeds with a biography in French, which seems puzzling in the context of all other links aimed at an English-speaking audience. To my surprise I did not find any extensive primary text (in English translation) which would have been a great asset, though they are so easily available on the web nowadays (see, for example,, go to "Middle Ages," then to "Literature," then to "Christine de Pizan:

The next section deals with women and spirituality, such as the veneration of the Virgin Mary, the role of mystics, French prophetesses (Jean d'Arc, Christine de Pizan [?), and Marguerite Porete, among others). German, Swedish, Italian, or English mystics were unfortunately not included here, although Angela da Foligno or Mechthild von Magdeburg would have been much more appropriate. And the scholarly texts are already of an older date, whereas primary texts would have been a wonderful addition.

Finally, the section on "Women and the Law" provides many links to individual medieval women who fought, prayed, and worked. Moreover, we find texts about rape and its legal treatment, and also about women on the margins, such as lepers, heretics, witches, and Jews. Many times we are greeted with medieval music when we click on a major link to a new chapter. The CD- ROM indeed offers a number of impressive features, making full use of the hypertext. The user can easily find background information, listen to accompanying music, study visuals, and also take a close look at manuscripts and early modern printed books.

There are many options for further developments, as the link to other pathways indicate. These pathways are not established yet, but the icons indicate what potentials there are in using digital technology in teaching medieval and Renaissance culture, literature, and history. The next edition should include many primary texts, both in the original and in their English translation. Both versions should be hyperlinked. The selection of musical samples, though quite nice at this point, needs a much better focus, and more care needs to be taken for a critical assessment of the historical quality of these performances. The same applies to some of the other pages. This CD-ROM proves to be helpful in teaching the Middle Ages, and also medieval women's lives and works, but the focus is not yet fully developed. Still, I do recommend this CD-ROM for a number of reasons outlined above, but I also see a bit of room for improvement.

Unfortunately, the technological set-up proved to be frustrating. The first copy of my CD-ROM made it impossible to read any of the right-hand side of the texts (simply cut off). The second copy, by then Sibyl2, seemed to solve this problem on my PC, but once I wanted to use it in one of our up- to-date computer labs, the same problem reappeared and could not even be solved by the computer experts.