Bad History, Hippocrates, hysteria, internet

Quote/unquote: basic errors in using the internet for doing history

Just occasionally, even I am shocked at how people don’t bother to look at the basics when using a web page as evidence for their arguments: who wrote this? when did they write it? what’s their evidence? are they using that evidence properly? This happened today. I was engaging in one of those chats on Twitter about the history of medicine, and found that one of the sites being used as evidence was this one. It was created by a student as part of a Western Civ course. There are no dates on her ‘research report’ or on the course syllabus from which it comes, but as nothing is from later than my Hippocrates’ Woman book (not ‘Women’, as she labels it) of 1998, I suspect it’s been up there for a while.

She repeats the usual stuff about how The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates was one of the first to identify this disorder. He noticed hysteria was common in women…

As readers of this blog are already aware, the term ‘hysteria’ was never used in ancient Greek medicine; and let’s not even get into that thing about ‘Hippocrates‘ having written the gynaecological texts, or any others in the ‘Hippocratic corpus’… 

The student quotes me in this section:

We can relate this passage to writings found in Hippocratic corpus where the wandering womb was responsible for all illnesses. Hysteria was the name given to a number of female illnesses.

“Hysteria has been a label used for potpourri of female ailments and non-ailments alike since antiquity….The Greeks and Romans called almost all female complaints hysteria, and believed the cause of all these female maladies to be a wandering uterus…In various Hippocratic texts the term hysteria is applied to a large variety of female complaints.” (King, 206)
To reiterate, the word hysteria is derived from the Greek language and means womb.

Well, no, it doesn’t. But my focus here is on that little ‘(King, 206)’ thing. I’ve never said any of that; in fact, I’ve written extensively about how all those thoughts attributed to me are entirely mistaken. So how did the error arise? Simples. Here’s that page in the real world:

IMG_2387The thing I did is called ‘quoting’. The thing the student did is possibly ‘taking notes without being sufficiently careful’, or perhaps ‘rushing’. And maybe she had other things to think about besides accurate citations. Fine; we all make mistakes.

The problem, I think, lies not with the student; she was young, and she didn’t even know that this thing she wrote would end up being seen as a reliable source (I’m maybe rather less generous about her professor, but I’m sure teaching Western Civ is a nightmare). The problem lies with those who quote from this piece as if it has some sort of authority just because it exists on the internet.

This is such a basic error, but it’s one of the reasons why it’s important that historians engage with the internet, blog, write for online journals, publish open-access materials: and then put some work into drawing attention to what they’ve written. If there’s nothing good up there, then there’s even more reason for those new to the subject to end up with something as unreliable as this … although I still think such newcomers should do the simple thing of checking out what sort of website it is!

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