Research and How to Mug It in a Dark Alley

Back in the Later Stone Age of the internet, people used to get really upset at how other people seemed to be able to find things on the web that they couldn’t.


Rose of Cimarron

And then some well-meaning other person would start throwing around terms like “Boolean” and “confined relevance” and the upset person would slink away to the Public Library and try to do the research the old-fashioned way.

Times have changed. Google got rid of whatever it was that was making it so hard to figure out how to put search terms into the machine – where do the quote marks go? Do I need “+” here or “/” or the word “or”?

Now you can just enter three or four nouns that you think might be somewhat relevant to your subject and the genies in the bottle magically figure it out for you.

Seriously. They do.

Try typing in    magic street medieval tricks    into your search bar. No commas, no quote marks, no ifs, ands, or buts.

And you get perfectly comprehensible sites that deal with what you are, in fact, probably looking for, which is information on pre-industrial age marketplace entertainers who did what is nowadays called “sleight-of-hand” or “table magic”.

The real problem is getting to something more than surface information. Those first few sites are good, sure, but they aren’t in-depth.

And maybe that’s okay – maybe you just need the basic stuff so you can slide in one sentence about a nifty distraction happening on your village green on market day, so that the Main Character doesn’t notice her baby brother is being kidnapped.

But it’s possible that you need more. Maybe you need to make sure that the trick is something that would and could be performed in your mythical version of France in 1180. You might want to use a coin trick, but can you be sure that common folk even used coins in alt.Provence back then? And if so, what coins?

More Googling will ensue, but in many cases, Google might fail you. I’m not saying there isn’t at least one website devoted to any subject, be they never so obscure or nigglingly specific, but – like everyday news – you need to be sure that the information you are getting is accurate.

When this happens, here’s a trick:

Go back up to the search bar and niggle around till it gives you the pull-down menu of alternate choices relevant to the original search term. For the search terms I used here, it will probably look like this:

Secretum philosophorum
magic in medieval times
Medieval magic spells
black magic

Check those out…

There are also some alternative search engines, and I’m not talking Yahoo! here.

Try “Google Scholar” – it can give you some books and articles that can point you in better directions. is a really good source as well: people who have written papers on pretty much every topic under the sun have uploaded things there, and it’s free (no paywall! A rarity for things like this) and if you can get access for something like Jstor, there are even more possibilities. Usually, most colleges and universities have that access, and while it is neither universal nor well-publicized, many of these institutions have options like “community cards” that can get you in the door and accessing those catalogues at will.

FREX: University of Calgary has gone almost completely digital, and will assign anyone a free user account good for three months, so that you can get onto a terminal there and look at/download anything you find, and there are literally thousands of aggregate sites with scholarly articles on everything under the sun.

Pro tip: Bring a USB stick with a lot of storage space.

If you aren’t sure how to use these things, read this   because it will help.

If all else fails, go to that college library and ask at the desk. Library people will (probably) be only too happy to explain things to you.

But you will need to use your judgment, no matter where the information comes from. Try to get more than one source, and look for things like citations and bibliographies that suggest that the author did not pull a research rabbit out of their hat.

Trust me. You don’t need some 2-star review just because you had the street performer in alt.Provence pull a denier out from behind the miller’s ear in an era when the franc was already in use.


3 thoughts on “Research and How to Mug It in a Dark Alley

  1. If you want in depth information about objects (both historic and prehistoric) I;d suggest the Portable Antiquities Scheme database. They have good in depth essays on things like coins and jewellery. Want to know when a particular coin was in circulation and how popular it was? How likely was a coin from Mercia to be found in one of the other kingdoms? And just when did cruciform brooches go out of style? The entries have photos, measurements, and references, so you can look up more details or know exactly how much that penannular brooch weighed.

    I thought that Google Scholar was pretty much dead in the water these days. Most people just use or ResearchGate these days. ResearchGate is trying to give Acadenia a run for its money, but they still have a wonky search engine. For example I get way to many modern engineering hits when I look for archaeometallurgy. I expect that will get fixed when they get more users.


  2. Researching is one of my love/hates. I love to go exploring on Google, but at the end of it I find I don’t really have the information I wanted! Thanks for the tips, very handy!


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