Research Progress Notes – Week of February 4th

Week one of archival research in London has been emotionally difficult but rewarding.

Taking time for my emotional needs. I and everyone around me knew when I started planning this research year that it was going to be hard on me as a new mother. But even without my kids 6,000 miles away, living on your own in a foreign country, even just traveling alone for a few days, can be really difficult. This was the part of the PhD I never wanted to do. At this stage in my life, I’m more capable of being alone and managing my emotions than when I was younger, but it’s still a daily struggle. I still have to plan my work and make daily changes to it to suit my emotional needs more than my research needs – and, honestly, that’s the way it should be. I’m not a machine, I don’t have a regular work rate that can be computed and planned. The PhD is a marathon, and if I’m not taking care of myself, I’m not going to finish.

With that in mind, I’ve taken the philosophy of going slow. It’s easy for me to get riled up and blitz through my work, but then I inevitably crash. I will put off eating and realize two days later that I’m nauseous, starving, and tired, and it will take me days to recover. So I set myself a goal range of work for the week, I try not to plan it too thoroughly, so as to avoid triggering anxiety, and I see how I feel each day. If I wake up feeling anxious, sometimes I’m energized but calm by the time I get out of the shower and eat breakfast, and other times I’m a jittery mess until I promise myself that I don’t have to go anywhere. I push myself as needed, but not so much that it takes something out of me that will be hard to get back. So, Wednesday and Thursday of this week I didn’t make it to the library. Wednesday I stayed home (and ended up writing 11 pages of a chapter) and Thursday I had errands to run and found it was too late to do anything meaningful at the library by the time I was done. I’m going for at least two days a week at the library, which maybe sounds like too little, but is reasonable enough given the way I work and the nature of my research. The real emotional struggle of being here alone is that time alternately feels very fast and very slow – at one point in the day I might think I can absolutely handle six more weeks of this because it’s going by so quickly, and then a few hours later I’ll desperately want to go home because it’s taking so long. Pacing myself neutralizes these feelings and helps me concentrate on just moving through.


A well-loved textbook. At least four different readers plus the original scribe.

I found some really fun medical manuscripts this week. Most of the archival research for my dissertation is for one section of the project. I currently envision three main sections, which might be divided into more chapters, but I probably won’t know until I have more written. The connecting theme (which is rapidly turning into an actual argument) is “how was knowledge about science transmitted through 12th-century southern Italy, in light of a dearth of surviving texts?” The three sections (which I referred to as “avenues” but for some reason was mocked mercilessly for this) are based around different types of sources/ modes of exchange in answering this question. One is copper objects, the most removed from the literary notions of science in the period – there are writings about how to manipulate copper as an alchemical process and even sometimes for medicinal purposes, but none of these writings were produced in southern Italy at this time or can be traced to there (yet). So, I’m investigating how much Sicilian interest in copper (producing, buying, imitating) can be linked to the literary tradition surrounding copper in the Middle Ages as a proxy for direct textual evidence of that knowledge in Sicily (my nomenclature here is confusing – I use Sicily and southern Italy interchangeably, because the region I’m talking about included the island plus mainland Italy south of Naples). The second section is spices – these are more directly connected to medical literature because the medical literature talks about medicinal spices directly and in great detail, so I’m looking at how that is reflected in the trade of spices.

The third section is what I’m mostly doing in the archives – the textual evidence for intellectual exchange. Here, I’m looking at the few manuscripts actually produced in southern Italy, but also manuscripts that were made after my time period in other parts of Europe that make claims about the knowledge produced in southern Italy in the twelfth century. Salerno, a small city near Naples and a major part of the Norman kingdom of Sicily that I’m focusing on, was the center of medical innovation in the twelfth century, and, supposedly, a major effort to translate Arabic and Greek works of science into Latin – this last part happened in conjunction with the nearby monastery of Monte Cassino. Salerno developed a reputation as an intellectual center, to the point that there is a branch, or perhaps more accurately a phase, referred to as Salernitan medicine, which focused on medicine grounded in the physical, practical aspects of the body, like diagnostics and symptoms, rather than a theoretical perspective that was more interested in why the body works the way it does as part of a larger world view and why people get sick. Salernitan medicine was heavily grounded in the work of earlier physicians (that is, people – usually men – who were educated in reading and writing about matters of medicine, and these people were often not practitioners of medicine) who wrote in Arabic or Greek, but there are also half a dozen “masters” of Salerno whose works became highly influential in Latin Europe. So, I’m interested in what was included in medical texts actually produced in or near Salerno, as well as in medical texts produced later that purport to present Salernitan medicine.

This interest has led me to searching for manuscripts of the ars medicinae or articella (two largely interchangeable names, although technically they refer to the same text at different points in time), which was a medical textbook that first developed in Salerno. The ars medicinae is a core collection of 5-6 texts that address the basics of practical medicine – how the body functions, how you can tell if there is a problem, major diagnostic methods, and typical diseases or specialized concerns. In Salerno, this was really a teaching texts, and manuscripts from there are covered in students’ notes and underlines and occasionally doodles. But later on these manuscripts were approached more passively. What I’m realizing is that the Salernitan editions tend to focus on presenting medicine as it was understood in Syria and Anatolia (modern-day Turkey) around that time – even though most scholars will describe the ars medicinae as a collection of classical medicine, the core texts were mostly written by people living in that larger region in the early Middle Ages (in this case between the 6th and 10th centuries), or they were in active use in that region up until the 12th century. But, when Latin Europeans in other places started to produce their own versions of the ars medicinae, they bulked up the collection with the work of Salernitan masters, eliding the eastern Mediterranean into a broad sense of either “classical” or “Arabic” medicine of which Salerno was the keeper. Eventually, even Salerno largely fell out of these manuscripts and their purpose was refocused on the classical – Galen and Hippocrates. But all of these intervening centuries of medical thought couldn’t be erased, so even though the manuscripts might only contain Galen, Hippocrates, and later medieval Latin authors from western Europe, the approach to medicine in these texts was still that of the eastern Mediterranean and Salernitan schools, that focus was now just implicit rather than explicit.


Someone STABBED this manuscript.

I’ve really gotten to use my codicology skills for this research. I’ve been seeing this shift I described even in a single manuscript. Some manuscripts that survive today are frankensteins, cobbled together from pieces of other manuscripts made at different times. Based on the handwriting (as identified by the archivist, not me), we can see that German, French, and English (as well as later Italian) scribes would pick and choose segments of older Salernitan manuscripts to feature and then build a new collection around. The texts that had an air of classical-ness about them, such as works of Hippocrates or commentaries on Galen, were more likely to stick around through the culling, whereas texts written by Syriac or Byzantine authors tended to drop out. This has been a really fascinating process to witness and frankly a lot more interesting than what I expected to find.

The way I’ve been able to identify sections of a manuscript that came from different periods – or even just navigate a manuscript at all – is thanks to codicology, the study of the physical aspects of books (a codex being the technical name for the format that we think of as a book – separate pages bound together). I took a codicology workshop in the summer of 2014, which taught me about the process of making books, paper, and parchment, and then I’ve added to my knowledge over the years as little tidbits about things like ink or handwriting have come up. One of the most useful points made in that workshop was about how manuscripts changed in the modern period, when collectors in the 18th/19th centuries would rebind or make new covers for older books, and sellers would often split up a manuscript or trim the pages down to make it more marketable. This helps me weed out aspects of the manuscript that have nothing to do with the period I’m interested in, but that could still mess with my understanding of the text. For instance, I saw a manuscript this week that was “originally” two different manuscripts – prior to the 19th century. But even before that, each manuscript clearly was cobbled together from numerous other manuscripts before that. I also saw three different segments of the same manuscripts, which were listed separately because the original had been chopped up and sold in separate pieces, which the library fell for and bought separately, only realizing about a hundred years later that they were all the same manuscript.


What do you doodle in your textbooks? ‘Cause I doodle sweet pictures of urine flasks.

I’m definitely going to write about urine. So, a few years ago when I started really getting into the history of medicine in southern Italy, I wrote a paper about uroscopy (urine as a diagnostic tool) in the work of Constantine the African, really the only translator we know of from Norman Italy. And when that paper was discussed in my seminar, my colleagues warned me that I’d become known as the urine lady. So, I guess we’re back to that. Probably because I already did that project, but also because uroscopy is kind of a new technology (to Latin readers) around the turn of the twelfth century, I perk up every time I see uroscopy in a text. And the ars medicinae has a lot about uroscopy, especially since one of the core texts is the sort of foundational text of that theory. So, back when I was at UCLA I became interested in an illumination in one manuscript of a doctor with a urine flask, and I started looking into whether anyone has written about where this image came from. And they haven’t really. And then on Tuesday of this week I found a doodle in one of my manuscripts of essentially the same image. I know from all the other times I’ve seen this image that it’s a formulaic little icon, but it was interesting to see it as a doodle – an unplanned part of the manuscript that a reader inserted. This tells me that the reader was familiar with this image and when he read the text that evokes (but does not in any way describe) the process of uroscopy, he reproduced the image most often associated with it. I think this is an interesting shorthand that developed only among the Latin readership of these texts, and it is one of the clearest indications I’ve seen of tacit (that is, unwritten) knowledge – what people knew that they didn’t say in writing. So, yeah, expect more on urine from me, which should be delightful.

Next week I’m back at the library, probably finishing up with the manuscripts I’ve already requested. That’s about a dozen manuscripts in two weeks, only working about 10 hours each week, just so you have an idea of why I need to take frequent breaks. I’m also going to the British Library to see the Anglo-Saxon exhibit, and I’ll be back there in a few weeks to actually do some research. But my real goal for this coming week is to finish editing my goddam copper article and send it off already. I want to be done with this iteration of this thing.