Research Progress Notes – Week of March 4th

Things are really moving along. This week I finally escaped the moths in my apartment to hang out in Oxford and see some really interesting manuscripts.

The infestation finally got to me. I won’t go into the details, but a new creature showed up and I decided it was time to leave. I had already been thinking about spending at least one night in Oxford so I didn’t have to do the 5-hour roundtrip as many times, especially after what happened last Friday. Ah yes, last Friday. I was on the bus back to London when suddenly I heard a loud pop followed by the sound of air escaping, and I immediately knew we had a flat tire (even if it took the driver 15 minutes to figure it out and somehow half the bus hadn’t heard it). We pulled over, and the driver told us there was nothing to do but wait for the next bus to take some of us, since the bus comes every 13 minutes. Two busses and an hour later (there was an accident on the other side of the highway which really slowed things down) I was squeezed into another seat, back on my way. But it still took me almost two hours to get back, since the Friday traffic made it more sensible for me to get off in a different part of London, take the tube to Victoria, and then wait there for my train which takes a further 50 minutes. By the time I got back, I was pretty committed to doing that trip as little as I had to. The vermin in my apartment was just the push I needed to reserve the rest of my week at a B&B.

And this is when I fully realized that I need to do more seat-of-my-pants traveling. It’s extremely stressful to try to plan where I’m going to be day by day five months in advance, or even at the start of the trip. Things change my priorities as the trip goes on, or I learn new information that convinces me to do things differently. The apartment I was in was a great base of operations for the bulk of my time there – it gave me a community to interact with and a commute to break up my time, when in central London I might have had more accessible food but a lot more loneliness. A lot of my planning decisions are motivated by cost, since I’m on a budget, and efficiency, since my time is limited (even though it often feels like I have endless days to fill). But if I need to change my plans as I go along, sometimes that course correction can cost more because I have to book new accommodations without being able to get a refund for the place I’m already staying, or I waste time trying to fill it up in a place I no longer need to be. So now that I’m at the point that I really have to finalize my plans for my first Sicily trip, I’m wondering if I can get away with just booking my flights and my first two weeks of accommodations, since I know I’m going to be moving around a bit once I get there. We’ll see in a few days what makes the most sense right now.

I saw some truly incredible manuscripts this week. I decided to go to the Bodleian (Oxford University’s library) because I knew I would find things there I couldn’t see anywhere else. My approach to manuscripts has been to try to get representative samples of different types of medieval scientific manuscripts in each place, since it’s way outside of the scope and means available to this project to do a more exhaustive search. At UCLA I saw manuscripts that don’t fit the mold. At the Wellcome I saw the prototypical medical texts. And at the Bodleian, I saw the prestige collection. Libraries like the Bodleian – big, well-funded, prestigious institutions – collect manuscripts that are visually or theoretically impressive. This is why Yale has a Gutenberg Bible it never shuts up about. This is where illuminated manuscripts tend to end up, which I actually think is a huge problem because it limits the collections that most people are most likely to see to only the most impressive stuff, and gives the impression that all medieval books were gigantic and filled with gold paintings. But as a researcher, it’s still nice to see these more impressive items up close, and it fills out the picture more.

One of the ideas I’m working with is how medieval medical students in Salerno interacted with their textbooks. These manuscripts tend to be collections of specific medical texts on a specific range of topics that were written together in the same manuscript all at once, and then scribbled in by many other people for the next few generations. But there’s a range of uses for other manuscripts of medical texts outside of this purpose, and I want to develop a narrative to explain, at least in relation, how medical texts in other parts of Europe are being used differently. One thing that the Bodleian collection exposed me to is medical manuscripts made in Salerno that were not used by students. I’ve seen what I think of as the textbook desk copy, where the manuscript has the same texts as these textbooks, and is made in the same way, but it’s nicer and more expensive, and all the margin notes are in one person’s handwriting, and the notes are themselves organized as if they are an intentional part of the manuscript – in short, they’re lecture notes.

At the Bodleian I’ve been able to see more examples of urine flask images, which it helping me develop a typology for this image. MVIMG_20190305_144318MVIMG_20190306_133510

I’ve also seen some really beautiful examples of manuscripts that have just the translations of specific translators, like Michael Scot (who worked in Sicily in the court of Frederick II) and Gerard of Cremona (who worked in Toledo and is responsible for translating some of the most influential texts of the later Middle Ages, including Avicenna’s Canon of Medicine, which was the foundation of western Medicine through the 17th century). These manuscripts are interesting to me partially because they’re complete – they have title pages and notes of sale in them that tell a lot about their history, which most of the manuscripts I’ve looked at don’t. But these have also added some really interesting features in the form of other kinds of illustrations and figures that I wouldn’t otherwise see. Since these are really expensive manuscripts, they have more in them than just the text. For instance, the astronomical book I looked at by Michael Scot has this curious table of the names of the heavenly bodies (the planets plus the Sun and moon), lower right below. From left to right, the table lists the names in “Saracen” (as far as I can tell, a combination of Arabic and Persian plus something I haven’t identified), Hebrew, Latin, and then the equivalent metal to each body, except it’s not the usual pairing. It was common for medieval scientists to equate a metal with each planet because they theorized that substances that had the same qualities would behave the same way, so they used experiments on these metals to theorize about the impact of each planet on the Earth. But usually copper is paired with Venus and iron with Mars, but here it’s something totally different – I actually haven’t quite figured out what each of those rows says because they’re so odd. The other two images are a T-O style map of the world (left), and an explanation of the phases of the moon (upper right). The map is typical of this period (13th century), a stylized representation of the continents with Asia on top, Africa to the lower right, and Europe on the lower left. What’s interesting about this presentation is that there is a little blurb describing each place.



The particularly fun thing about the Gerard of Cremona manuscript is that it had pages and pages of illustrations of surgical instruments, and I think they were painted with the same metals they would have been made of. It looks like they used iron and copper ink, and it changes throughout the manuscript. Here it looks like the base was painted with copper, maybe suggesting a copper core, and then an iron was brushed on top of it, which has since rusted.IMG_20190306_132454

But by far the most interesting manuscripts I saw were two of the last three I looked at, because they both had bits of actual Arabic in them. As in the chart above, I’ve seen instances where the scribe wrote Arabic words transliterated into Latin script. These are interesting because they show an awareness of Arabic nomenclature, but it’s not clear how much the scribe understood Arabic or expected his reader to, especially because these words never drop the article “al” from the beginning of the word. I saw this in a glossary of medicinal spices at the back of the Gerard of Cremona manuscript: all the Arabic terms were listed under A for this reason. But in a twelfth-century manuscript from Italy (the earliest I’ve looked at) there was a little diagram that is written almost entirely in Arabic, in Arabic script. MVIMG_20190308_125852

I’m showing it here with my fingers so you can see just how tiny this is. The thing is, this is not very good Arabic. The words around the outside of the box are the cardinal directions, or at least they’re supposed to be. But the ones on the right and the left are misspelled. On the left it should say assharq الشرق, meaning east, and on the right it should say algharb الغرب, meaning west. But on the left it actually says assarf السرف and on the right it says algharj الغرج. Now, there’s some room for ambiguity here. Arabic scribes often leave the dots off of letters, expecting that their reader will recognize the word anyway. And it’s kind of possible that that final jim is actually a final baa if you squint. But even in that case, this is a scribe who is not used to writing Arabic. It also opens this question of why it’s in here at all? Is the scribe trying to seem fancy, or did he really expect a bilingual reader for this manuscript? Or, since it’s in the bottom margin, was it added by a reader who was also reading texts in Arabic and was testing out his knowledge? All good thoughts.

The other really amazing bit of Arabic I found was actually not in the text at all. In a ca.1260 manuscript of Avicenna’s Canon, the flyleaf (protective pages at the front and back) was reused from an earlier medical manuscript, and this flyleaf happens to have a scribble in Arabic on it.


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The flyleaf is really unusual – it’s just full on pages of a different manuscript, dropped into this one. Usually the flyleaves come from a larger manuscript and are then turned sideways, or they’re scraped so the old text isn’t distracting. I haven’t spent any time deciphering the Arabic yet – you can see it’s pretty scratchy – but I can tell just from the way it’s written that this was someone who was used to writing this way.

I also did a few fun things. I like Oxford! It’s very cute, in the way that college towns usually are – interesting shops, unusual restaurants. I got afternoon tea with by far the best scones I’ve had here (they were still warm), and walked around an amazing antique prints store. It was a good decision to stay here.

Next week. Although I’m still out and about, don’t expect to hear much from me about my research – I’ll mostly be writing. I’ll still post some other stuff – I’m hoping to do a Robin Reads the Internet or maybe even a Barebones Cooking, which I haven’t done in ages.