This week I largely finished with my manuscripts at the Wellcome, reunited with a past professor, and had a fortuitous meeting with a conservator.
I’ve gone through every manuscript I requested at least once. When I was applying for fellowships I had a hard time estimating how much time I would need at a given library, partially because I didn’t always know what I would find. But even in places like the Wellcome, which has it’s entire catalog accurately available online (and updated regularly to reflect changes in conservation status), I didn’t know how to anticipate how much time it would take me to work through a single manuscript. I didn’t really know what I was going to be doing with each manuscript – was I going to read the whole thing, transcribe it, take pictures? And manuscripts vary pretty widely, so I couldn’t know what my average time to completion would be for each one. At UCLA and the Huntington, I budgeted a week per manuscript. If I did that at the Wellcome, I would be at just this library for almost 4 months. The average time estimate is really there to encompass a larger set of activities beyond working on a single manuscript. It assumes that I’ll find other materials I didn’t know about when I first decided to go to that library. It accounts for time writing about what I’ve found (in terms of notetaking, writing reflections like this post, and putting down preliminary chapter drafts). It also just accounts for down time, because personally I need a lot of breaks. All of this to say, I don’t know whether to be surprised or not that it took me two weeks to work through 16 manuscripts.
My approach to manuscripts is necessarily different than other historians’, because I don’t care that much about what the manuscript says. That seems like it’s missing the point, right? Books are there to be read. To me, though, these books are objects, not texts, and so my investigation is into how they were used. I’m also taking into account that when I look at a manuscript at a well-kept library, the entire text of the manuscript has already been studied to some extent. The catalog listing for each manuscript identifies what each text is, and will sometimes even give references for scholarly works that explain that text or list other manuscripts that have the same text or even published books that talk about this particular manuscript. This kind of makes it seem like all the work has been done already, but it just means that the baseline level of work has been done. A lot of research in medieval history through the 19th and early 20th centuries was just finding manuscripts and identifying what was in them, so we have this impression that that’s what history work is. But now that we know what these manuscripts are, we can actually analyze them. Some historians do this by finding multiple instances of the same text and compare them – like revised editions, the texts change over time and take on new meaning.
What I’m doing is similar to comparing changes in the text, except from a material perspective – I’m looking at changes in the physical aspects of the manuscripts. I want to see what texts get put in the same manuscripts over time. I want to see what the format of the book looks like as an indication of how it was meant to be used. I want to see marginal notes that are direct evidence of how people interacted with the manuscript. Over the past two weeks this set of goals has meant that I’ll look at some manuscripts for less than half an hour, and I’ll look at some for four hours. The first manuscript I looked at turned out to be really interesting, so after spending two hours with it the first time, I’m now planning to go back and spend all of next week with it.
So what have I learned from looking at manuscript formats? I’ve discovered that medical manuscripts produced in Salerno up to the early 14th century were made to be read and used actively, whereas manuscripts of the same texts made in England or France or after 1300 were designed for much more passive engagement – so for 12th and 13th-century Salernitans, these texts were living things that required real engagement, whereas other medieval peoples experienced them more passively.
One of the best examples of the importance of format is the two versions I saw of the commentary of Gerard Bituricensis on the Viaticum of Constantine the African/Isaac Israeli. This text is a commentary, which means that it is like a review of an earlier work – the author took excerpts from the original text and explained or interpreted them. This particular text is a lot of layers – the commentary was written in what is now France around the late 12th century, the text he wrote about is from the late 11th century in Salerno/Montecassino, and that text is itself a translation/summary of a late 10th century text from what is now Tunisia. The first time I came across this text (the commentary) was in Wellcome MS 207, which is from late-13th century France, and it looks like this: The first time I saw this, I thought I was looking at a book written with enormous margins that someone had added very neat marginal notes to. But once I saw that every page looked like this, I realized that the manuscript is written to distinguish between the original text (Constantine’s Viaticum) and Gerard’s commentary, so that the reader can experience both together. The Viaticum text sits in the middle of the page, and Gerard’s commentary runs around it in sections. But more than just experiencing them together, the reader looking for the Viaticum has to also see Gerard’s commentary. This manuscript endorses a particular interpretation of the Viaticum, and maybe assumes that the reader isn’t going to find other related texts that might introduce them to another interpretation (whether because the reader doesn’t have access to these or just isn’t invested enough to find them). But this manuscript also tells me that its reader was very rich. The format is huge to begin with – think coffee table book -, which is staggering in terms of materials, given that at this size each page is an eighth of a cow. But it doesn’t use every inch of the page, meaning that even given this enormous format, the materials weren’t treated dearly. And even though there are no illuminations, the presentation is quite rich – the parchment is smooth and thin (thin enough that I could often see the ink on the other side of the page), with a few nicely detailed initials in two colors of ink (keep in mind that there’s no such thing as pre-prepared ink, so every change in color is the scribe grinding up pigment and mixing a new batch).
So imagine my surprise when the next time I saw this text in Wellcome MS 535 it looked like this: Dirty, stained manuscript from Salerno (the catalog notes say this manuscript as a whole was from just after 1300, but this handwriting looks earlier to me, more like early 13th century). A couple of scribbles in the margin in a completely different handwriting. Tons of underlined text. Those holes on the edge of the page? They’re punches made to draw guidelines so the scribe can keep the text even – you shouldn’t be able to see them. The parchment is thick and irregular, and the texture of the animal’s skin shows through in a few places. The text is so cramped, with just enough room around the edge for some very small writing. And even then, this text is written in scribal shorthand – most words are heavily abbreviated to save space. There is some red ink, but it’s not fancy – it’s basically just there to break up the page so that the reader can easily find the start of a sentence in this visually crowded page. And the size of this manuscript is about half of the other one. But of course the most noticeable difference is the format of the page – there is only one text, the commentary. Excerpts from the Viaticum are there, but they are part of the commentary, not presented separately. In part, this is a feature to save space. But it also assumes that the reader has access to the Viaticum in another format, or is at least independently familiar with it. What we see in this manuscript is a well-used text – the reader carried it with him, read it actively, and considered it alongside other books. The first manuscript was pretty much never used (except much much later, when a probably 17th century reader took margin notes) – it was kept in a library where, if it was read at all, it was read passively, and likely aloud by multiple individuals at the same time. It is a fixed piece of knowledge, to be experienced and heard, but not argued with.
I had coffee with my former Carleton professor, which led me to an impromptu trip to the British Museum. Martha was my advisor during my Freshman year until she was overwhelmed with advisees from the Economics department and had to drop all her undeclared advisees (I got reassigned to a lovely but ineffectual advisor in the Spanish department until I declared History). Martha taught my Freshman seminar on the economic impact of the Black Death, which was also an introduction to public health and epidemic disease in the modern world. It was hugely influential for me as a scholar, and is definitely responsible for my active pursuit of medical history. When my husband (who was my boyfriend for all but one week of college) declared an Economics major, he had Martha as a professor, but our most lasting interaction with her was a discussion group she organized. We met on Friday afternoons over tea and scones to talk about economics, philosophy, and current events. The group fluctuated over time, but the regular attendees were about six students and three professors, so it was very intimate. When she retired, Martha moved to England, and so we got the chance to catch up over coffee. After we had talked about my kids, her kids, her grandkids, and the ins and outs of academia, I was telling her about my dissertation and particularly the bit about copper, since she mentioned she’s taking a trip to Sicily. And that conversation reminded me that two years ago the British Museum had an exhibit on Sicily that included a huge number of medieval objects. On Martha’s suggestion, I hiked over to the Museum to find the exhibition catalog. I found it! And most importantly, it had the names of several museums and archives that I’ll need to visit while I’m in Sicily during the summer – unlike the UK archives, Italy is kind of a mess, and so I’m going in not really knowing what I’m going to find. I want to at least have a better sense of where to look.
While I was at the British Museum, I also found some great stuff.
On Friday I had an unexpectedly amazing chat with a conservator at the Wellcome. I was expecting this interaction to be intensely awkward. I went to the conservation lab because two of the manuscripts I wanted to look at (including MS 535, which I talked about earlier in this post) are in extremely bad shape and can’t be taken out of the lab. So I arranged for an hour to look at these manuscripts, with a conservator doing all the handling – meaning I would have to sit there while she turned pages. Luckily, when Stefania arrived in the reading room to take me up to the lab, I discovered that she was extremely nice and we chatted easily. We talked about the manuscripts and what I was looking for – which was in itself a useful conversation, because every time I explain my project to a different person I learn something new about it. We nerded out over the manuscripts together – she kept making note of stains so she could take samples later to find out if they were more than just mouse pee (her words). And then about half way through I discovered she’s Sicilian from Catania, and she gave me all sorts of great advice about visiting her region. Which, most importantly, helped alleviate some of my anxiety about the part of my research where I’ll be going around looking for copper objects. Our conversation reminded me that I don’t need to get all the best access to every object – it’s enough to just find a sample of items in places off the beaten path (which, let’s be honest, is the entire island), and list them together. Even if that means that I won’t have data like exact size or really good images. No one else is doing this or even cares about it. No one else has thought about all these different kinds of objects in the same context before. I have never expected to be the final word on this – I want to start the conversation. Stefania also reminded me to eat granita while I’m in Catania, so important information all around. The last thing she mentioned was a little exhibit (literally just a cabinet and a video) she put together in the museum section of the library on materials that were used as both medicine and pigments in the middle ages, which is a huge topic in my spices research (we had a lot of interests in common). The exhibit didn’t tell me much I didn’t already know, except how lac is harvested, but it was great to just see all the materials I’m reading about all displayed together. Plus I got some cool postcards out of it.
Next week I’m going back to MS 82. Remember that drawing of the doctor with the urine flask? I’m going back through that manuscript to transcribe and translate a bunch of the marginal notes, since now that I know I have the time I realized it would be useful to know what four different medieval Salernitans had to say about foundational medical texts! I’m also meeting with a few people, including someone who works on Sicilian translation in the Byzantine period and an archaeologist who studies medieval North Africa. And I’m going to the British Library’s Anglo-Saxon exhibit.