Research Progress Notes: Week of June 17th

The biggest thing stopping me from leaving my apartment in Palermo on any given day is how hard it is to open the door. Thank God for scanners and digital editions of manuscripts.

After last week’s venture to the Biblioteca Regionale (BR), I came away with some misgivings about whether the librarians there had actually correctly identified the manuscript I was hoping to find at the Biblioteca Comunale (BC). The issue was this: I came to Sicily with what is apparently an incorrect call number for the manuscript I wanted, and so the librarians had to figure out what the manuscript was without any of us knowing exactly what was in it. The librarian at BR was convinced that she had found the right manuscript, but the description seemed completely wrong to me – as far as I could tell, the manuscript she identified was from two centuries later and on the topic of Norman history, rather than the Norman-era manuscript on alchemy I was looking for. So, when I arrived at BC this week, I pretty much assumed that I would have to find another way to search for the correct manuscript. And I was right – after looking at the one the BR librarian found, it was clear to me that it was not the right manuscript. Luckily, I had thought ahead and taken pictures of the late-19th century book about the right manuscript that explains what collection it’s part of. I showed them to the BC librarians and it took them about 5 minutes to figure out the right one.

They didn’t let me look at it in person because they have a conference going on in their manuscript room, but they did let me see their digital copy and then sent me home with it, which only cost me the couple of Euros to buy a thumb drive in the market across the street. The manuscript is definitely interesting and I’m going to need to dig into it a lot more. Like most of the medical manuscripts I looked at, it’s a compilation of several texts that were written down at different times. The last person who compiled the whole collection also added a preface, a table of contents, and some illuminated initials. But before that happened, some of the pieces of this manuscript spend a long time being pored over but some knowledgeable readers, who added in substantial notes and drawings in the margins.

I came to this manuscript originally for one reason – I needed to know what alchemical texts were available in Sicily during the 12th century. And this manuscript has just about every major Byzantine and Islamic alchemist of the early middle ages in it, in Latin. Currently, we believe that these works were first translated into Latin in the late 12th century in Spain, but I’m inclined to say that this manuscript is evidence that Latin editions of them existed in Sicily at least a few decades earlier. The problem, though, is that I’m not really qualified to date manuscripts, and I think that people who are don’t have a good handle on southern Italian manuscripts. I actually wonder whether one of the reasons we’ve had such a hard time finding manuscripts from 12th-century southern Italy is that we’ve been misidentifying them as late 13th-century. This one certainly looks like all the others I’ve seen.

In the past few months, I had another reason to look at this manuscript, which was to see whether it had anything to say about multilingualism. I have this open question in my research as to whether medieval Sicilians who were writing in Latin were able to read other languages. So far, my impression is that they knew some words in other languages, and occasionally learned to read and write those other languages very badly, but that they were not typically multi-lingual. I have evidence to suggest, though, that some Judeo-Arabic readers could also read Latin. What I found in this manuscript is one instance of Arabic (I think, it’s hard to say for sure) and a lot of Greek. The Greek appears as a kind of alchemical code at various points in the manuscript, and at four different points the manuscript explains the Greek alphabet, and on one occasion it explains the Hebrew alphabet. So I don’t think it’s right to say that the readers/writers of this manuscript knew either Greek, Hebrew, or Arabic, but that pieces of all those languages constituted a specialized vocabulary for alchemy.

This manuscript also has a long list of ingredients/ alchemical substances that I need to go back and read thoroughly. Since I haven’t seen many materia medica or other lists like this, this might be my baseline for what were considered important materials in medieval Sicily.

This week has been a struggle, emotionally. There’s not much to say about it, really. It’s hard being alone, away from people. I’m feeling like I have to create work for myself. There’s plenty of work to do, but none of it seems urgent. This is definitely a feeling of burnout. I’m trying not to judge myself, and just let myself take the time I need. Eventually, I get so bored that I just end up working. But it doesn’t make me happier, and I’m trying to do better for myself there.

Next week: Maybe going back to the archives to look at a few more manuscripts that may or may not be useful. Not committing to anything yet.

And now, some pictures:


An arancina (in Sicily the ending is feminine, but on the mainland it’s masculine) – a deep-fried risotto ball, filled, in this case, with stew. It’s the size of a softball.


Biblioteca Comunale di Palermo. It’s got both the classical and medieval Sicilian architecture: a classical fa├žade with columns, and a medieval red dome (on the right).


The view from the library’s cloister.


The library’s front office. The decorations around the bookshelf are hand-painted, and there’s a fresco of angels on the ceiling.


I made mac’n’cheese in Italy because I’m shameless.


The best shops in the historical area of the city are part of the ALAB collaborative. What I especially love about their acronym is that they use the name “Balarm” for Palermo, which is what the city was called in medieval Arabic.


In contrast, a street blockade with “Palermo” written in Arabic. In the modern Arabic, it’s written as “Balermo”.


Funny, very involved graffiti around every corner.


Mary Poppins tag.


I really did not expect this one.


Palermo is rapidly modernizing to suit worldly millennials who want the kinds of food and eateries that exist other places. They still have a unique feel, but they end up introducing things like craft beer, which is otherwise not very popular here.


Magic hour. Even better with parade lights.