Research Progress Notes – Week of November 26th


Last week I stayed home and did some editing. This week I read more medieval writings about urine. So, pretty mundane stuff.

Hey, what happened to last week?

My flight last Sunday was canceled and I couldn’t get on another one soon enough to make the trip worth it, since I was going to come back Tuesday night anyway to leave enough time to fly for Thanksgiving. So last week was a bust, research-wise. It did give me the chance to finally implement edits on my article, though.

I’ve been working on this piece for a really long time. The article is on the meaning of copper as a material in the medieval Mediterranean and focuses on the doors of the Monreale Duomo as a case study. I’ve written a lot of different versions of this thing over the last three years. The first was a seminar paper for an art history course back in 2015, which just raised the idea of using copper as a lens for understanding how medieval people saw scientific concepts in practice. I wanted to come back to it, though, and so I decided to turn that into my MA thesis – this was both a seminar paper for another art history course, focusing just on the Monreale doors, and a separate MA thesis, which got more into the intellectual tradition around copper. The MA thesis also helped me formulate my dissertation topic, so a big portion of that paper was about translation in Sicily and the historical problems surrounding it. Once I wrote those, I knew I wanted to formulate them into the start of a dissertation – as I was working on those projects, I was becoming addicted to thinking about copper and I loved the overlaps I kept seeing with other aspects of my interests, so it just seemed like a project I could work with for a long time.

So I submitted abstracts for versions of those papers to a couple of conferences, hoping to get feedback from those that would help me hone the paper into something publishable or lay the groundwork for dissertation research. I ended up presenting 3 different conference versions. The first (chronologically) was at the Haskins Society’s special meeting on the Normans in the South at Oxford in the summer of 2017, where I presented the art history version of the paper that focused heavily on copper doors as a category and how to interpret them by focusing on copper as a material. Just a few months later, at the Haskins Annual Meeting in the fall, I presented a 5 minute talk of the paper that broke down the core concept of using Monreale’s doors as a focal point to see how ideas that entered Sicily through Arabic science translated into practice – the talk was followed by 45 minutes of small group discussions. Then, a few months after that, I presented a full but still short version of the paper at the Medieval Academy meeting in the spring. It was a busy year of conferences, since I’m used to one conference in a calendar year, not 3.

Presenting at these conferences did a lot for me. First of all, I love conferences – I’ve made a lot of friends who are at all stages of their careers through these events, and I find it really community-building and personally enriching. The Normans in the South conference gave me the opportunity to meet people in my field whose work I’ve read, and also to meet a lot of the other grad students from all over the world who are also working on these topics but may not have been published yet. For myself and my work, I got a lot of feedback, and hearing my own work aloud, especially in the context of the other papers on my panels, helped me think about it in the context of my field. Rewriting the work so many times at different lengths, with a different focus each time, and with different parts of my research in play, helped me distill the project down to its core and eventually figure out what I really wanted to talk about. The most practical way these conferences helped me, though, was that I won two pretty big awards. Haskins and the Medieval Academy both run essay contests every year with actual substantive prizes, and I won both of them. For the medieval academy, this paid for my trip to the conference (and gave me massive bragging rights, and basically advertised my talk to the entire conference and encouraged people to show up to it). For Haskins, the prize also reimbursed my travel expenses, but way more importantly, the society is publishing my paper in their journal. So now, after distilling my paper down, I’ve fleshed it out again and turned it into an article, which is a helpful step along the way to making it a dissertation chapter (or, more likely, 2-3 chapter section). This is a crazy change for me, because I have never won an award before this. I was chugging along with a CV that only had seminar papers and a lot of teaching experience, but no publications, no awards, no funding. And then, in a single 6 month period I won these two awards, multiple fellowships, and got a real publication credit. It’s a rush (and now I’m very tired).

The editing process has been nerve-racking, in part because it comes at what is already a busy time, but also because the Haskins journal editor is my undergraduate adviser. I had been putting off even reading his comments for months because I was so afraid that he was going to tell me he didn’t like it – I couldn’t remember why I felt this way, based on our interactions while I was his student, but I immediately got anxious just realizing he had sent me comments. When I finally read them, I remembered why – I never felt that he really liked my work or was impressed by my writing. It never occurred to him to recommend that I become a history major or a writing tutor, two things I had already done when he met me (he recommended several of my friends for both of these, and seemed shocked when I told him I was both). He admitted when I asked him to write my grad school recommendations that he hadn’t taken me seriously at all until just before I started working on my senior thesis, when I volunteered to fully work through and edit a seminar paper I wrote for him until he felt it was really done. He and I have a hard time communicating – there’s just something about the way we each think that doesn’t quite mesh and it leads to simple, straightforward confusion. This really came across in his comments on my article – most of them were some variation on “I literally don’t understand what this sentence means.” Very frustrating.

So last week, after passively thinking about his comments for almost a month, I sat down to blitz my edits. He had two comments that were really essential for helping me improve the piece (he was still a really good adviser, after all, and his comments can be really transformative). The first was telling me to do a better job of defining Norman Sicily – this was a familiar comment, since in an undergrad seminar he spent literally two months asking me to justify my use of the term “Islamic art”. The second was telling me to move my description of the Monreale doors to the beginning of the paper – I’ve known since the first iteration of this paper that I had to do this, but I hadn’t figured out how. In thinking about the definition of Norman Sicily, I ended up being able to way more effectively articulate my thesis and put together an introduction that actually accurately set up the whole article. And when I moved the description of the doors to the front of the paper, I ended up reshuffling the other sections as well, and suddenly they actually had a logical flow. I think my problem with academic writing tends to be that I develop really involved, complicated arguments and I have a hard time detangling them and presenting them in a linear, logical fashion. I see the evidence and immediately think of the thesis and they just ping back and forth between each other. Having someone read my work who already doesn’t understand the way I write is really useful, because he asks exactly the questions that point at where my logic doesn’t flow. I’m really happy with where the article is now, and I’m excited to get it published.


This week: Trying to make sense of random fragments.

Most of my time in archives this year will be spent looking at nearly random fragments and manuscripts. Most of my colleagues pick a collection and then work through it to answer a question that specifically relates to how that collection came together – records of the London Fire Brigade to understand how the professional fire service developed in the 19th century, for instance. Most medieval historians are either working on a single text that exists in multiple different copies, or they are looking at a category of documents like papal bulls that are easy to identify. My sources, on the other hand, are anything having to do with translated science in Latin from the late eleventh century through the end of the fourteenth. And since no one really cared about Sicily in particular until a few years ago, south Italian manuscripts are spread very thinly across libraries in Europe and the US. I couldn’t make my source base any more specific because the point of this part of the research is to figure out why there isn’t much of a record of translation in medieval Sicily (when Sicily is supposed to be the center of a translation movement). I didn’t have an obvious set of documents to look at, except for a handful of translations from Sicily that a lot of people who are way more qualified than me have already looked at really extensively. I’m not a documents person – my strength isn’t in language, I don’t know much about paleography, and I don’t have the patience to spend two months sitting with a single manuscript. Some of the biggest names in my field are currently publishing books on those documents – they’re doing a much more thorough job on that material than I would. I’ll read their work, but I don’t think I can add anything to it that they aren’t already doing. I’m interested in the bigger picture – how do ideas that entered the Latin world through translation show up? So I wanted to look at a range of documents from after the translation movement to get a sense of whether these ideas were suddenly there and how those documents explained where they came from.

During my first two weeks I was able to start to piece together a theme to provide a framework – I’m now looking at the concept of uroscopy as a case study to track the acquisition of Arabic knowledge by Latin readers. But not every text I found is about urine (how weird a sentence is that?). UCLA’s manuscript collection includes a lot of other texts on medicine, philosophy, and classical writings that hint at translation. These are mostly fragments, which I think is telling – there just isn’t much in the way of a surviving manuscript tradition from medieval Sicily. I don’t know why that is, and it could be a bias of American libraries – maybe Sicily just didn’t appeal when collectors were buying up medieval stuff in the first half of the 20th century. It’s important to remember that Americans on average in the early 20th century felt the same way about Italians as they do about Latin Americans now. So this week I looked at anything that could have come from southern Italy, just to get a sense of what documentary culture there was, and maybe try to find some clues or trends.

Binding. Oddly, one things that stood out in these fragments was how many of these texts had been used as binding for another book. It’s like in elementary school when you would use newspaper to make a cover for your textbook – these sheets of parchment look just like that. img_20181128_110254.jpg And the binding says the same thing about these sheets as it does about newspaper – you’re done reading it, it’s readily available, and you’re not worried about what’s on it because either you know it well enough to remember the information or there’s a lot more where that came from. My photo here is unfortunately not very good because the document was covered in plastic and there was intense overhead lighting, but you can see the outline of the page, which is what matters. This manuscript is a pretty big one – it would have been pretty expensive when it was first made. There are no illuminations, but the handwriting is nice and even and the parchment is good quality. The only reason to reuse this as binding is if you really just have it lying around with no good purpose. And since this text in particular (Isaac Israeli’s Liber Urinarum) continued to be in use for another 300 years, it’s more likely that this book was less valuable simply because it was readily available.

Translated works in France and England. One surprising thing that’s come up a lot as I’ve skimmed library catalogs for relevant manuscripts is how many texts on medicine or classical science are from late 12th century England or France. It’s enough now that I’m genuinely surprised. After all, the translation movements were supposed to be in the south – Italy and Iberia – so how did these documents make it so far north? It’s possible that, as I said before, there’s just a bias in the archive itself – a lot of collecting also predates WWII, when documents from France might have been very cheap, but not from Italy. It could be that England and France just had a way more established documentary culture, certainly than Sicily. That’s something I’ve found in my research on spices (which is a different section of the dissertation that I was working on back in the spring) – there just isn’t a really established notarial system in southern Italy until the very end of the 12th century at the earliest, so Sicilian merchants show up only in trade agreements written by notaries in other places. It also might be the case that French and English scientific texts at this point are only working from classical writings that were still available in Europe since the fall of Rome. This is the argument that Brian Lawn makes in The Salernitan Questions – a lot of what seems like classical or Arabic science was already available in Latin Europe because it had survived since the fifth century. The final option that occurs to me is that once documents were translated, they moved north incredibly quickly. This could make sense if they were being carried along pilgrimage routes, since Sicily would have been on the way to Jerusalem or at least near enough to Rome that documents translated there would be accessible to pilgrims. Or if they were dispersed between related monasteries, like from Monte Cassino to other major Benedictine monasteries. I’m not sure yet how to explore these different options, or if I even should, but it’s interesting to consider.

My first unambiguously relevant manuscript. The one thing I’m looking at that I didn’t have to equivocate on is a collection of writings on medicine from southern Italy in the 13th century. It’s a full manuscript, so I have a lot to work with, too. I’m just starting to read the first text in it, which is unidentified, to see if I can get anything interesting out of that, but right now here’s what I know: it’s about urine. I think I’m on the right track. Actually, something about this text is starting to look really familiar – medical compilation, texts on urine, text on the pulse, general discussion of disease and health… I keep seeing this format. It really reminds me of the Salernitan Questions, but also of the Articella. I’m wondering if these kinds of informal compilations are the same genre as the Articella, and if this kind of medical compendium developed in the post-translation era.

The other interesting thing I realized looking at this manuscript (and the accompanying notes from the librarian who studied it) is that there is only one translated text included in this bunch and the translation was made in Spain. So this manuscript is one translation from Spain and three contemporary writings from Salerno. Meaning that there is no indication from this text of translation activities in southern Italy, just original medical work based on translations done elsewhere (or on the ability to read Arabic). The manuscript is also pretty cheap, as far as these things go – possibly reused parchment, very small, inconsistent handwriting, no illuminations, and few instances of colored ink. I think there’s a good possibility this was a medical textbook in Salerno in the early 13th century, which is what the catalog notes suggest. So, if this is what was readily available and being read by medical students in 13th-century Salerno, why are there no local translations?

I have a theory that the first, unidentified, text is Constantine the African on urine, which is still the only local translation I’ve seen. I think this all suggests that Sicily was not so much a center of translation, but a center of information exchange. Spain was producing translations because it had a structured system of patronage that asked for it, and France and England were reproducing these texts again because of a similar structured system of patronage. But Sicily just had people interested in this knowledge doing their own work, as well as, potentially, a multi-lingual community. Scholars were simply absorbing the information available around them, but they weren’t funding large research projects like translations. I’m not sure why, though – Sicily had the money and the interest. Maybe there’s a lull in translation interest per se during the Norman period – Robert Guiscard hosts Constantine the African at the end of the eleventh century, then Roger I, Adelaide, and Roger II are more interested in territorial expansion and maintenance. At the end of Roger II’s reign he starts to patronize scholars, but he’s interested in producing authentic Arabic works because he’s always looking East. William I is terrible and incompetent, so he’s not funding anything like this. William II might have been interested in this in theory, but he was clearly putting his money into architecture and other kinds of material constructions. It’s not until Frederick II that there is a patronage of translation per se, and at that point there really aren’t many Arabic speakers left in Sicily, and the kingdom is falling apart anyway.

So, maybe in the Gutas model, where translation exists as an expression of power (through cultural appropriation), there wasn’t really a consolidated power or a sense of cultural division enough to make a translation movement. The alternative to royal patronage would have been monastic patronage, but aside from Monte Cassino, there aren’t any really rich monasteries in Norman Italy that could have funded something like this, and maybe Monte Cassino’s interest fell off after Desiderius became Pope. I’ll have to see what I find when I look at the archives pertaining to Monreale and such when I’m in Sicily this summer.

Next steps. I need to transcribe that first text in the medical compendium and see if I can identify it – I think it will give more context to that manuscript. I’m also going back into the biomedical collection to look at more Arabic copies of al-Majousi – I want to do more of a thorough look at these kinds of manuscripts and see if there is any variation in how they present the text, to see whether there is any precursor to the urine flask imagery in the Arabic or if it is an entirely Latin invention. Finally, I have one more Latin manuscript waiting for me in the biomedical library. In theory, I’m supposed to be giving a talk about my work, so I should probably plan that.