Dissertation Progress: Week of April 20th

This week I checked in with my advisor about my progress and I returned to Chapter 5 so I could jump down a rabbit hole of alchemy.

After reading through all my writing last week, I had a chat with my advisor early this week about where things stand. He said he’s happy with my progress, which is always good to hear. He gave me some feedback that helped me figure out the connections (and, more importantly, the differences) between chapters 3 and 4, which are the two chapters on spices. He also sent me some resources to help me add some weight to my Geniza discussion. The process of contacting him in itself was helpful, since he asked me to put together summaries of each chapter, and while I was at it I had him look at the twelve pages of scattered writings that will eventually be my introduction. Sending those to him meant taking stock of my work and making connections I hadn’t been able to before. It’s just another example of how conversation is a huge part of the writing (and editing) process.

After our talk, I went back to my introduction so that I could emphasize some of the points we had talked about. In particular, I’m realizing that I’ve been shoving the Greek tradition to the side a bit, thanks to some feedback I got from a colleague (my former advisor who moved to another university). Writing out the relationship between Greek, Arabic, and Latin in the introduction helped me make sense of how I’m dealing with the three languages in each chapter and the extent to which I need to bring in more discussion of the Greek sources. Right now, only chapter 2 deals with Greek manuscripts and thereby the Greek tradition explicitly. Chapter 1 just needs a bit more historiography to consider the medical tradition in Greek that might have been equivalent to the Articella (the textbook of medical knowledge that I spend most of that chapter talking about). Chapter 5 just needs a Greek alchemical text as a reference point in my discussion of copper in alchemy. Chapters 3 and 4 are a different matter. Chapter 3 already kind of indirectly deals with the Greek tradition, because the chapter is about the legacy of Dioscorides, who wrote an encyclopedic text on medicinal substances in Greek in the first century. I’ve done a bit to address how Dioscordes’s work continued in the Byzantine Greek world, but I probably need a few manuscript references to round it out. But chapter 4 is about the trade of spices in Sicily between the Fatimid and Norman periods, and within that narrative there’s no room for the Greek tradition – it’s just not in the sources. The only way for me to bring in Greek/Byzantine sources is if I extend the discussion back to the Byzantine period in Sicily. And I can see that being relevant, but I don’t know if it’s necessary or useful. I don’t want to forget the Greek tradition, but I don’t want to include it just to have it either. So I’m not sure yet what I’m going to do about chapter 4 in that regard – I think maybe if there’s good historiography of the Greek spice trade, I’ll just rely on that. Writing that sentence just now sent me on the hunt for historiography of trade in Byzantine Sicily, and based on the results I’m going to be busy reading for a while.

I also went back to Chapter 5 to keep trying to iron out some very wrinkly writing. Chapter 5 started as a combination of all the writings I’ve done on copper in the last three years, including my Haskins article and my MA thesis. I’ve added a good bit of research that I did last year, and I’ve tried to reorient it away from the monumental doors that have been the focal point in my other work. I spent the most time this week on a single paragraph about Geber, or, more accurately, the footnotes of that paragraph.

In my discussion of the scientific literature on copper, I’ve always had at least a mention of Geber, a pseudonym for an unidentified writer of alchemy in Latin around the thirteenth century. Geber is pretty much the inspiration for my entire dissertation. When I first learned about Geber, he was described simply as the Latin version of Jabir ibn Hayyan, a ninth-century alchemist writing in Arabic. Then I learned that ibn Hayyan is also believed to be a pseudonym for about a century of alchemical writers. And then I learned that none of Geber’s works is a direct translation of any of ibn Hayyan’s, leading to a century of scholarly debate on who Geber was and how his work is related to Arabic alchemy. I’m in no real position to jump into the fray on this, and I’m not really interested in the particulars of any one translation story. What grabbed me about Geber was the gap between him and ibn Hayyan. Ibn Hayyan doesn’t exist in Latin until after Geber – Geber is sort of the digested Latin version of ibn Hayyan and the alchemical tradition he represented in thirteenth-century Latin discourse. That gap, where there was no translation, but the essence of scientific ideas moved across a language barrier, became the subject of my dissertation.

As I moved away from the particulars of Geber, his treatment in the section on alchemy got smaller and smaller, and I could consider him as one writer who was largely an epilogue to my area of interest. But after my conversation with my advisor, I knew I had to bring a bit more back into my discussion of him, precisely because he represents that epilogue. I think the main historiographic impact of my dissertation is going to be what it says about the Renaissance – essentially, that the Classical scholarship we think of as the foundation of the Renaissance was extremely removed from that time, and that thirteenth century and later scholars were reading and writing interpretations of interpretations of interpretations of that tradition. I spend all of Chapter 1 making that point, showing that the Articella isn’t a reflection of Salernitan medicine, but an imaginative invention of Salernitan medicine by fourteenth-century French readers. So I wanted to bring that point back around to Geber, because the steps to reaching that conclusion aren’t as clear, since there’s no manuscript trail connecting ibn Hayyan to Geber in the same way there is for the Articella. So, making this argument about Geber as a thirteenth-century digested interpretation of a ninth-century alchemical tradition meant I had to summarize the century of debate about Geber in a single footnote. And that’s how I spent multiple days writing a single footnote.

Next week: I’ll work through the Byzantine trade historiography I just found and hopefully synthesize it in a way that I can add it to chapter 4; I’m also hoping to finish the writing for Chapter 5 so I can move on to smoothing out my footnotes.