Research Progress Notes – Week of November 5th

In my first week in the archive, I consider appropriate packing strategies for short trips, grapple with late medieval handwriting, and deal with not being an expert in manuscripts.


Ok this seems kind of silly, but when your work requires a lot of travel, you’ve got to figure out how to make that travel bearable, and that means packing appropriately. When I show up at an archive, I want to look professional, but professional academic means something different than, say, professional consultant. Blazers are good, but suiting often looks too formal. You want to dress somewhat conservatively so you’re taken seriously, but also comfortably because reading rooms are uncomfortable. You typically need layers because libraries are portals to the arctic.

My solution this week was:

  • a pair of green twill pants from Bridge & Burn, which is my new favorite purveyor of pants (no, I don’t have enough readership for this to be sponcon, I just really like their pants), a light short-sleeve knitted button-down, a camel blazer with the sleeves rolled up to show the lining (and give my arms a little breathing room), and some soft leather oxfords. This outfit was great in terms of temperature – the reading room turned out to be comfortable, so I didn’t need to take off the blazer (but I could have without looking like a 17-year-old) but the whole thing was still warm enough for the plane. But the shoes ended up being too soft – I needed more support for the amount of walking across campus I did. I’m also encountering the problem that post-pregnancy many of my old standby shirts no longer fit me – they either ride up and show my stomach or they’re too tight in the bust. My knitted button-down was one of the few that seemed ok, but I realized that it kept getting pushed up and gapping, which is not great.
  • a pair of black ponte pants that I wore with both a black shirt and a printed shirt, both sleeveless. I kept the blazer for those days as well. The blazer is particularly great because it has pockets, which is nice when you’re not allowed to bring your bag into the reading room, but you still need a place for a phone, your locker key, and maybe a tissue.

Because my trips are short (2 1/2 days of total usable work time), I spend a lot of this week hauling my bag around with me, in addition to my work bag. Did I say work bag? I meant pumping bag. Because when you have infants and you want to still be able to breastfeed after 3 days of not seeing them, you also need to pump breastmilk every 4-6 hours. So I’ve traded out my usual laptop bag for a backpack diaper bag that happens to have a laptop sleeve in it, because this was the only bag I could find that fit both my laptop and breast pump. I also have a little lunch bag in there that freezes so that I can keep my milk cold after I’ve pumped it. This worked out great except that the bag is heavy and I still hate carrying a backpack because it puts so much strain on my waist and hips. I’ll see if I can pare it down, but the things making it heavy are the laptop and the pump, so probably not.


Important stuff:

Ok, so about my research. All my domestic archival research is a fishing expedition. If my dissertation is an attempt to find intellectual transmission in things that aren’t translated texts because I think there weren’t enough of those to make an impact, then I still need to explore the actual translated texts. First, because I might be wrong, there might be plenty of translated texts that have just been lost for some reason. Second, because if there was no translation movement, I still want to see how we got this idea that there was – how were these texts received in the couple of centuries after they became available in Latin?

So, most of the texts I’m looking at are way later than what I’m used to – I looked through the archives’ catalogs and pulled anything that looked relevant as long as it was from before the sixteenth century. After a while, I started focusing on texts that, in the holding description, said something about urine. Why urine? Back when I first started thinking about translation in southern Italy, I did a small project on Constantine the African, who came to be a sort of poster boy for uroscopy, the diagnostic method of examining the color and consistency of a patient’s urine through a clear flask. I already had a reference point for urine through Constantine, so I started noticing mentions of urine in the archive catalog, but I was surprised how often it was showing up, so I wanted to see what that was about.

This week, I started looking at two manuscripts in UCLA’s Darling Biomedical Sciences Library, both from the Benjamin collection. I didn’t give more than a cursory glance at one, just enough to know that it is an absolutely massive work from the late 15th century, a collection of various texts, and the unifying theme seems to be urine. One section toward the end (I say section based on the fact that even I can tell it’s a different handwriting) has rough illustrations of urine flasks.

But the other manuscript is what I’ve spent most of my time on, despite the fact that it’s a fragment – a single leaf of vellum from the very early fourteenth century. It’s the first page of the second book of Bernard of Gordon’s Liber de conservatione, a section that is about… urine. This leaf is giving me a lot of trouble because it’s written in full on gothic script with a ton of abbreviations and ligatures, and it’s like reading an entirely different alphabet. I’ve done a small amount of palaeography in the past (studying old writing systems), but I’m really not an expert, and especially not in this style of handwriting. Gothic script is famous for being hard to read because the foundational stroke is identical for a lot of common letters, so it can be really difficult to read words that have letters like i, u, v, m, and n in a row, and it can be hard to distinguish c, e, and r. This particular manuscript also uses abbreviations for whole words, rather than a symbol that just indicates a missing letter. So deciphering the text isn’t just about recognizing the symbols, it requires an understanding of the content to infer a word that makes sense in context. To help me decipher these symbols, I found a guide to gothic script and another for Latin scribal abbreviations. These were a huge help, but I still had a hard time reading, and I’m not sure it will be worth my time to actually transcribe the whole thing. IMG_20181107_152523.jpg

Trying to figure out this leaf has been a really good research experience so far, although I’m not sure I’m actually going anywhere useful with it yet. After I realized I could barely recognize the letters, I started looking around for any kind of help I could get. I looked more closely at the page and noticed holes around the edges and slices – I realized this sheet was intentionally cut out of the manuscript and then mounted for display. I looked at the illuminations and noticed odd coloration, including a green urine flask that seems extremely out of place – possibly paint made with copper that has turned green! And then after checking facebook and debating whether I’d spent enough time looking at this thing so I could move on, I decided to google some help. The one line I could read was the incipit (the chapter heading) and only because the card included with the manuscript by the seller had a transcription of it. So I used that transcription to try to start reading other parts of the text, but I didn’t get very far before I ran into letters and symbols that weren’t in the incipit and that I still couldn’t understand. So I decided to see if I could find a transcription of the whole text somewhere – it’s important for me to remember that I don’t need to figure out every little thing about all of these manuscripts, and I should lean on other people’s work as much as possible. I couldn’t find one, but I did find an article about all of the printed versions of the text, and a book about the author. This gave me some important context, since I don’t know a lot about Bernard of Gordon.

The book, by Luke Demaitre, took the position that Bernard’s works are very sparsely influenced by Arabic science, that on the whole they make explicit reference to Galen and Hippocrates twice as much as to Arab scientific writers. Except, contrary to Demaitre’s point, they actually reference Galen and Avicenna the most, then Hippocrates is a distant third, then all other Arab writers. This raised an interesting point for me, that Bernard wrote a book about uroscopy without really talking about Constantine the African, al-Majousi (his source, known in Latin as Haly Abbas or Haly), or Isaac Israeli, the other major expert on urine known to this era. And then my eyes went back to the image on the recto side of the leaf (the side that would have been on the right when the book was open), a tiny image of a man showing a urine flask to a small group of men that was painted inside the initial letter D of the text. img_20181105_132358.jpgThis is a really common image in later medieval medicine, as the urine flask, so historians of medicine like to say, came to be a symbol of medicine the way a stethoscope is today. But given how early this manuscript is in that history, it made me wonder when it came into use. And especially if this work didn’t draw on texts specifically on urine, which I think are more likely to have had this kind of illustration, I’m curious how this image developed. If it doesn’t exist in Arabic manuscripts (which I’m pretty sure it doesn’t, but I’d like to find out), then it’s an entirely Latin invention, even though the concept of uroscopy seems to have come into Latin from Arabic. This is really interesting for my purposes surrounding translation/transmission, because it would suggest that Arabic works weren’t copied directly, but interpreted and expanded on into a new context. My next thought is to see if I can find some Arabic uroscopy manuscripts from this time and examine them for illustrations.

All in all, a good start. I’m really unsure about the direction I’m going, though, and whether any of these manuscripts is really useful to my project as I’ve envisioned it. I’ll probably skip ahead to looking at the manuscripts that I think are going to be most useful next week, which is a set of fragments of twelfth-century Sicilian medical manuscripts. I’m definitely feeling the imposter syndrome right now – for me, it comes up with anything having to do with language because my language skills are comparatively weak. I keep reminding myself that it’s ok to go slow and do what I can, but it’s hard amid so much uncertainty.