Research Progress Notes – Week of January 21st

I learned a whole lot about spices and trade.

A lot of things clicked this week. I sat back and took a look at my Geniza research while also thinking about what I’ve learned from the Genoese notarial records, and a picture of medieval Sicilian trade really emerged. I was kind of surprised to realize how much Sicily’s economy was dominated by the textile (particularly silk) industry before the Normans arrived, because I spent a lot of time a few years ago writing about how Sicily didn’t have a silk industry before one particular king decided to make the biggest, baddest piece of silk he could think of. Image result for mantle of roger iiBut that’s just the perspective from the Latin narrative. From the Islamicate narrative, Sicily was a major silk production center right until the Normans arrived. This is important for my purposes for two reasons: 1) it shows how Sicilian culture changed around the Norman invasion, when they (I would like to believe) accidentally upset a lot of major institutions and screwed up both Sicily’s trade connections and their most valuable export (like a bear crashing through the woods) and 2) it outlines a whole category of goods that the Genoese considered to be spices (based on the fact that they are high value and sold in small quantities) but were not spices to the Geniza merchants because they had consistently high demand in the Sicilian market. So, I’ve outlined a third category of goods (in addition to “staple commodities” like wheat, and “spices”) that is “textile goods”, which I cannot consider within my discussion of medicine because it is impossible to know whether these goods were being purchased in Sicily prior to the Norman period for medicinal purposes or as part of textile manufacturing. These include a lot of substances that were used to make dyes (and if you think that’s weird, take a look at the ingredient list on a cup of strawberry yogurt and a tube of red lipstick – you may be horrified to know that the red color in both is made using insect shells).  Outlining this third category also led me to outline a fourth, which has only one spice in it: pepper. The reason pepper is on its own is because, like textile goods, pepper was an inelastic good, and not just in Sicily. Pepper was in such consistently high demand across the Mediterranean that it was often used instead of currency – merchants would ask to have their shares paid back to them in pepper because the value of pepper was more reliably stable than the value of their own currency, kind of like gold today. That doesn’t mean that I can’t consider pepper as a medicinal spice (after all, part of the reason that it was so valuable was because of its medicinal applications), but it complicates things and I need to be careful with how I deal with it.

I also cleared up some confusion about an earlier piece of research. Back when I was at UCLA I found a medical compendium from Salerno with an unidentified text in it. While I’ve been around Columbia this week, I asked my medievalist cohort to help me read it (it’s a fairly difficult example of early Gothic handwriting with a lot of scribal abbreviations), and they discovered the name Theophilus in it, along with clarifying the wording of the first half page. The Theophilus in this case is Theophilus Protospatharius, a 6th-century (or maybe 7th century, it’s not clear) Byzantine medical writer who became famous for writing about using urine as a diagnostic tool (not to be confused with Theophilus of Edessa, who was a famous Byzantine astrologer, or Theophilus Presbyter, which was the pen-name of a 12th century monk who wrote about technical crafts, all three of whom show up a lot in my research). I initially thought this unidentified text might be a translation of Theophilus’s work, but I realized it’s actually a commentary, which is a genre of medieval writing in which a scholar would write an essay about a particular topic by quoting heavily from a famous authoritative source. I already had the thought that this manuscript as a whole might be vaguely related to a type of medieval medical textbook called the Articella, or the Ars Medicine, and so when I was looking through a list of manuscripts of such books, I found one that contains an unidentified commentary of Theophilus’s De Urinis (“On the Urines”) that starts with the same wording. And it’s from the same 50 year period. And it’s at the British Library, so I guess I’m going to see that in a couple weeks. I think there’s a strong possibility that these are the same text, but I need to see the manuscript to confirm.

Why does this matter? Identifying the same text in multiple manuscripts helps medievalists identify both the text itself and the genre of writing with which it was associated. Medieval authors leveraged their audience’s familiarity with certain names and topical associations between certain texts to riff on a theme. As a result, there will be dozens of manuscripts that contain variations on the same set of texts, and this helps us figure out what these texts were doing together – how they were read and in what context. In this case, I think that my UCLA manuscript is incomplete – I think it’s the back half of a kind of Articella, or maybe it’s a variation on that type of medical textbook. If I can link it to this larger and really well-documented tradition, it gives me more evidence to say that this manuscript is thematically consistent with an established type of medieval book, even if it doesn’t perfectly fit the definition. Based on that, I can expand the definition of that type of book a bit.

And now I’m on to the next stage. I’ll be off to London and Pairs soon to look at more medical manuscripts (and probably just hang out on my own to do some writing. So I’m about to have about 30 hours with my husband and kids before I go. I’m excited to go off on my own, and I’m incredibly lucky to be able to, but I also feel sad and a little guilty about leaving my family. I’m going to soak up as much time with them as I can, and thank modern technology for cheap and accessible video calling.