Research Progress Notes – Week of February 25th

This week was very grindy, by which I mean I did a lot but it also felt like nothing happened.

The British Library. This was my one week at the British Library, my second archive here in London. I could definitely see a difference coming from the Wellcome, which is very modern and very well organized. The British Library has a much larger collection, and I think the curatorial staff has had a hard time sufficiently updating the records. So, one item I looked at, which was identified as having material as early as the 8th century, was clearly from no earlier than the 18th century. Maybe some of the texts reproduced in the manuscript were from much earlier, but the whole thing was made out of paper, which wasn’t available in Europe before the 14th century and wasn’t widely used before the acquisition of the printing press in the mid-15th. The handwriting also looked pretty much like modern cursive. But the record had never been updated to reflect these aspects of the manuscript, so I had to look at it to know it wasn’t what I wanted.

At the same time, a lot of the manuscripts I wanted to see have actually been digitized, at least in the sense that high quality images have been made available online. This helped me rule out another item, which has a urine flask illustration, but not of the kind I’m interested in (I’m still making a note of it, but there’s no reason to look at it further). Ironically, another manuscript that I wanted to look at should be digitized but isn’t, because it also has some illustrations. I needed special permission to look at this manuscript, so I had to submit a written request with a letter of introduction from my advisor. This then initiated a stupid and infuriating back and forth with different people at the library in which they kept asking for information I’d already given them.

Further hijinks involved another ars medicinae/articella, which was very typical for this type. The reason I wanted to look at it was that I thought it had the same anonymous commentary on Theophilus’s De Urinis as my UCLA manuscript, but when I got there, I discovered that it’s an anonymous commentary about urine, but on Isaac Israeli’s text on urines instead. Which is interesting – especially given that the two commentaries share a couple of sentences – but not really substantive. Like with the margin notes I opted not to investigate fully at the Wellcome, I think there’s an interesting study in comparing these two texts, but I also think it’s outside of the scope of my dissertation. If I want to, I can go back and compare (thank you, cell phone photography!), but for right now I’m moving on.

Always thinking ahead. A lot of my work this week was focused on reading through some secondary sources to figure out my next two trips. When I originally set up my research plan, I had this tiny crumb of evidence that said I should go to the archive in Palermo, and this general idea that there are copper objects in local archaeological museums (which is more general knowledge than anything concrete). And since then I’ve realized that I should take a trip to Vienna to see the Siculo-Norman objects there as well. But otherwise, I don’t really know where my sources are and this is starting to drive me crazy. It’s part of the methodological problem at the center of my research – there just aren’t that many texts that survive from 12th-century southern Italy, disproportionately fewer than from other parts of western Europe in the same period. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that Italian archives are notorious for their lack of organization. The really nice manuscripts produced in places like the monastery of Montecassino (the main textual production center of southern Italy in the 12th century) have mostly ended up in libraries outside of Italy, because they’re really pretty and therefore more impressive in a manuscript collection. But as I’ve written about before, most manuscripts aren’t large books with a single text on delicately yellowed parchment decorated with neat little illuminations. Most manuscripts are Frankenstein’s monsters, pieces stitched together from orphaned books written over several generations, covered in scribbles and weird stains and the occasional dick joke. And the manuscripts I really want to see are mundane and boring – internal records from Sicilian monasteries that list inventories of their libraries. So I know one of those is in Palermo. One. The only other lead I have is that most of what used to be in Messina has apparently been moved to Madrid. So maybe I should go to Madrid?

That’s what I’m trying to figure out this week. I’m combing through recent publications by other people who work on this era of medical production in southern Italy. There are a lot of us and thankfully I know a few of the other scholars personally and they are very friendly, so if I don’t find what I’m looking for in their publications, I can always just ask them. My advisor helpfully swooped in and showed me a few online and print resources I didn’t know about – one is a catalog of Italian manuscripts that I can’t look at until I have access to a regular library, and another is a digitized (and therefore probably somewhat inaccurate) listing of Sicilian manuscript holdings – these at least tell me there’s something to be found in Palermo, although maybe not so much in Messina. I’m also trying to figure out what’s in the archive in Madrid to see if I actually need to go there. And I’m working out who is in charge of the collection of Norman objects in Vienna to see if I can get access to them. And I’m reading archaeological site reports to see if I can find out which regional museums are likely to have something so I don’t end up on a wild goose chase around the island for two months. I’m hoping to nail down a research schedule by the end of this week so that I can feel better about my next trip.

Because I’m going a little crazy. Traveling is hard. Traveling away from your family, including your young children, for extended periods of time is hard. But it’s worse when you feel like you’re not doing anything useful, which is where I was last week. I’m caught in this phase that I think is really common for people working on their dissertations – I simultaneously feel like I have nothing to add because there are more skilled people out there who have already said everything I want to say, and that I have so much work to do to make my unique contribution that I cannot possibly get it done. That’s why I keep having to check myself and ask whether a given sub-project is really a necessary part of what I’m trying to do. I’m in the editing phase of my research – before I was leaping at every possible connection and avenue of inquiry, because I didn’t know where I was going or what I’d find. But now that I have some results I also have some direction, and I’m starting to know what my project isn’t. Like I said above, I might hit a dead end and go back down a path I previously rejected, so I’m making sure to take lots of pictures that I can use later. But for now, I’m focusing on the path I’ve laid out for myself. And that’s making me very anxious. It especially doesn’t help that my apartment has a minor moth infestation and that really has me on edge.

The hard thing for me is to gauge reasonable plans without going way too big or whittling down everything I don’t want to do until there’s nothing left. I’m trying to carve out my own way of doing things, in part because I know I’m not good at the methods most people in my field have used in the past (like paleography or close comparison of different editions of the same text), and in part because I believe that what I can offer is a unique method and perspective. But I don’t know what my way of doing things is yet, so I’m constantly reassessing. I have to figure out what is going to be a reasonable use of my time without knowing what the thing really is yet. I have to be able to know where on this planet I should be in any given month. I comfort myself by knowing that most of my planned work is not 100% essential to finishing this project, but that can just turn around and make me feel like nothing I’m doing has any particular value. I’m trying to raise the stakes enough to make this whole crazy year worthwhile, while lowering them enough to comfort myself in case things don’t work out.

But as a side note, I feel compelled to say: my children are fine. I don’t talk about them a lot here because I’m trying not to share too much of their lives generally. But they are fine. They are loved. They are developing happily and normally. Their dad is taking great care of them, as is their nanny. They laugh and play and get to go outside. They cry for a second if they’re hungry or they get hurt – if they’re really tired, they alternate between laughing and crying. They’re getting visits from their grandparents, who shower them with even more attention. And they see me on a tiny screen and perk up when they hear my voice. They lunge at the screen because they’re at an age where to love something is to try to eat it. Or they get wide-eyed and wiggle uncontrollably. My children will never really know I was gone, except that they’ll have souvenirs from my trips and pictures to look at when they’re older. So when I say it’s hard to travel when I have two very young kids, it’s because I feel the pain of missing them, worrying that they’ll forget me. I feel guilt at leaving my co-parent by himself, even though he is very capable, because it’s just really exhausting. I look at my post-pregnancy, post-lactation body, 8,000 miles away from my children, and it makes me feel a little empty, even though I know I’m still just myself and my babies don’t desperately need me.

I’ve been going to a yoga class once a week while I’ve been here. It’s an essential part of my physical rehabilitation post-pregnancy, because I have severe separation of my stomach muscles that gives me a lot of back pain, and yoga both stretches and strengthens all the relevant muscles. But it’s also been an important part of my mental survival while I’ve been away. It breaks up my time and forces me to talk to people. And for the almost 15 years that I’ve done yoga I really never cared for the “setting an intention” part of the practice. This strikes me as a superficial coopting of a real spiritual practice in the service of some kind of self-centered personal discovery. But then again, practicing yoga is inherently appropriative, so you kind of can’t have one without the other, right? But while I’ve been here, for the first time I’ve actually found a lot of motivation in setting an intention. Maybe it’s because I need the confidence boost. The last few weeks, my intention as been “certainty”. Changing my original plans to leave my kids at home, and the ensuing cost to my husband and my mom (who was supposed to come with me for part of the trip), really hit my confidence. It felt like I had made a huge mistake in my original planning and I suddenly had so much trouble being able to make new plans and trust that they are right. I felt like I couldn’t trust my instincts any more, that I would be lying to myself to say that I would feel all right with whatever the plan is and then show up and want to change it. So I told myself during my yoga class to be certain in my decisions. This week I went a bit further with that and made my intention “I am a golden-fucking-goddess”. So I think I’m making progress.

Next week. I’m stopping at the Bodleian at Oxford to check out my last round of articella manuscripts before I leave London.