Research Progress Notes: Week of April 22nd

This week, I maybe learned something new, or maybe I relearned something I already knew. Who knows? Welcome to academia.

I spent most of this week looking at a single manuscript, just like last week. This is really a change of pace from the 3-4 manuscripts per day that I was doing in Europe, because I’m no longer interested in trying to determine a trend. I have a sense of what scientific manuscripts looked like in the 12th-14th centuries, so my interest now is in closely examining complete manuscripts. Like I mentioned last week, most of the manuscripts I’ve looked at are “orphaned” – they’re missing the beginning or end, which means they don’t have title pages or introductions or colophons (small identifying blurbs at the end) that would explain what the manuscript is, when/where it was produced, and why. Complete manuscripts don’t always have these either, but they’re more likely to have at least some part of them. In the Ptolemy manuscript I lucked out and had an entire introduction about the manuscript and the text, as well as a date at the end (and a really colorful description of what the 13th-century author thought Ptolemy looked like, which may have involved a snaggle tooth).

This week I’ve been looking at a manuscript of Aristotle’s De Animalibus (Book of Animals). I’m pretty sure that I decided to look at this because I haven’t really been focusing on medieval editions of classical texts at all. This is a big topic within history of science, because the current narrative says that the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution happened because medieval peoples (read: white Christian western Europeans) rediscovered classical learning. Some historians only research this idea, which we call the “reception” of classical literature in the medieval world. But I haven’t focused on it at all because most of these big classical thinkers are philosophers and they don’t loom so large in medicine or alchemy (even though alchemists were known as philosophers until about the 16th century).

What I may or may not have known when I opted to look at the Huntington’s 14th-century manuscript of De Animalibus is that it was produced in Sicily from a translation of Michael Scot. Michael Scot (not the boss on The Office) was one of two translators in medieval Sicily whose name we know, the other being Constantine the African. Constantine was never really in Sicily, just the Norman kingdom that was based in Sicily – he spent most of his European days in Salerno and Monte Cassino, near Naples. But Michael Scot wasn’t really in Sicily during the Norman period – he worked in the court of Frederick II, the Holy Roman Emperor who inherited the throne of Sicily from his Siculo-Norman mother. Frederick’s time was decidedly the end of the Norman era, not just in name, but in character – all of Sicily’s Muslim population was driven out and the island basically stopped trading abroad. So, Michael Scot actually creates a really interesting bookend to my study of translation, because his work nominally fits the bill, but is of a different character. And what was really interesting about this manuscript was that it was the only manuscript I’ve seen so far that was actually made in Sicily, rather than Salerno. I’m starting to make a geographical distinction between Sicily and Salerno, where before I just thought of them as two major regions within a small empire. But I’m really starting to see that things happened very differently in these two places. Most notably for my purposes is that there was no scientific scholarship produced in Latin in Sicily during the Norman period. There was plenty produced in Salerno. And plenty in Sicily produced in Greek and Arabic. And there were Latin bibles produced in Sicily (I think). But no Latin scientific scholarship.

And this manuscript really spells that out, because it comes 100 years after the end of Norman rule, and it claims that the translation in it was made directly from the Greek, rather than the Arabic. It’s glossing over that entire era of scientific production in Sicily, and basically claiming that without a Latin tradition, nothing happened there. The manuscript was produced for a member of Charles of Anjou’s family, which was the royal family in Sicily right after Frederick II died and there was a succession war. This manuscript strikes me as a gift more than a commission – i.e. it was made for Charles or his family, but not requested by them – because there isn’t much in the way of a dedication. It seems like it was made without any particular purpose other than to be impressive, whereas most manuscripts of this quality (which is quite high but not fancy) tended to be commissioned for a particular purpose and have a lengthy introduction nominally explaining why. The manuscript is dated to very early in Charles’s reign, so my inclination is to say that a monastery or official in Sicily made this manuscript for Charles right after he became king to show him something of the island’s claim to fame. But because it completely skips over the Arabic involvement in transmitting this particular text, it highlights a sentiment that was very new in that era, a sort of proto-Europeanness. Paired with the Ptolemy manuscript and the later articellas I looked at in England, this manuscript fits with an effort on the part of 14th-century manuscript makers to create a European legacy of knowledge that hinged on Sicily’s role in acquiring scientific information, but forced a focus on classical learning out of texts that actually originated in the early medieval eastern Mediterranean.

Next week is my last week at the Huntington, and mostly I’ll be in meetings with people who know things about art.