Dissertation Progress – Week of August 17th

I maybe finished a full draft of my dissertation this week?

I spent most of this week working on Chapter 5, also known as the copper chapter. This chapter is where my dissertation started, since the basis of it was my MA thesis on copper that led me to ask what medieval Sicilians actually knew about science. Since I began working on this topic, I’ve turned it into two seminar papers, an article, and three conference papers. So making it into a dissertation chapter felt simultaneously like just another piece of writing and an entirely new undertaking. Because a standalone piece like an article or a thesis is very different from a chapter. A chapter is a part of a larger project, so there’s more space to dig into the details, but the claims also need to be at once bigger and more directed toward a purpose. The point of my MA thesis was just to say that there was a connection between copper objects in Sicily and alchemy. The point of my article was about the meaning of copper in the doors of Monreale Duomo specifically. But the point of this chapter has to speak to what copper’s relationship to alchemy, through examples like the Monreale Duomo, says about the movement of scientific knowledge through objects in Sicily. And it has to add something that I haven’t already said in the previous four chapters, more than just “now its about copper!”.

I started writing this chapter in a similar way to how I started Chapter 3. I took everything I had already written and dumped it into one document, then figured out what the themes were, color-coded them, and weeded out all the repeated information. Then I did another pass and removed everything that was no longer relevant to the dissertation, even if it had been important to an earlier format, like the chronology of copper doors. I did another pass after that and shortened things a bit more, summarizing longer explanations that no longer needed the same level of detail. Between the last two sets of revisions, I sent the draft to my advisor, who pointed out that I didn’t actually have an argument. And that was the crux of the issue, wasn’t it? I had all this writing and knowledge of this very specific subject, but I didn’t know how I wanted to use it. So I did what I always do, and took a break. I went and edited Chapter 3. I worked on postdoc applications.

When I came back to Chapter 5, I had new clarity. I remembered what the larger structure of my argument was for the dissertation as a whole and how this piece needed to fit in:

  1. Part 1 (texts) – Norman Sicily didn’t host a translation movement, we just think they did because later writers didn’t want to think that their science came from Muslims and Greeks, and they got around the language barrier by looking at the pictures;
  2. Part 2 (spices) – instead of translating scientific texts, Sicilians read them in their original languages and then wrote new stuff informed by them in Latin, but even when they couldn’t read those other languages, they learned about scientific theory through their culturally-informed use of scientifically-significant trade goods like medicinal herbs;
  3. Part 3 (copper) – Sicilians also participated in the scientific discourse entirely through objects, by using sophisticated alchemical theory to make objects out of copper, particularly to emphasize what they saw as copper’s value, which was its ability to turn green.

Once I was able to articulate the thread of this argument, I knew that everything in Chapter 5 had to be serving this point that scientific knowledge could move without texts and that the object record had a different goal than the literary. Making that happen was actually pretty quick, and involved just a small amount of adjustment to paragraph framing. Interestingly, there were parts where I was changing my argument entirely from earlier iterations of this topic: when I talked about alchemical literature in the MA thesis, my point was that the themes raised in the literature were echoed in the objects, but in this version, I changed it to highlight the fact that even though the themes were the same, the emphasis and the intellectual framework was different. Alchemical literature was still much more interested in gold and if it focused on copper at all it was to make a purely theoretical argument like “yeah, I suppose you could turn copper into gold if you wanted to but why”. But the objects were all about copper, and seemingly obsessed with making it green in every way they could.

Once I had laid this argument framework, I started to do another pass to review what I’d written, and I stopped about a quarter of the way through. Every single chapter of my dissertation talks about medicine, except this one. I think of myself as a medical historian, even as much as I’m more broadly a historian of science, and so even though I wasn’t trying, I kept bringing things back to medicine (I also did a lot of my research at a medical library, so my sources tended to lean that way). But this chapter had nothing about medicine at all. Which is particularly strange because alchemy does a lot with medicine. And even the one book that exists on medieval copper as a category, which is mostly focused on monumental public installations, has a section on medicine (which I rolled my eyes at a bit when I read it). So I had both primary and secondary sources coming at me, telling me I needed to talk about medicine. And that’s where this week got fun.

When I started thinking about where I should look for copper in medieval medicine (after I had confirmed that it was mysteriously absent from my main written source, Circa Instans), I remembered a groundbreaking study from a few years ago that reproduced a medieval remedy to cure a staph infection. The team that reproduced this recipe found that one of the key components was copper, because the ingredients would have been mixed in a copper vessel, and that the copper bonded with juices from onions and garlic at a molecular level in a way that could break down MRSA. So I wondered whether Sicilians were similarly using copper implements in their medical preparations. I found some really interesting archaeological evidence for copper surgical tools, and records in the Cairo Geniza of apothecary’s mixing bowls, spoons, and scale weights being made from copper. But then I also found something I wasn’t expecting, which is that the copper scalpel and measuring spoon had become part of the iconography (visual signaling) for two Byzantine saints, Damian and Cosmas, and that these appeared in the mosaics of almost every church in Norman Sicily. And since I was already talking about scientific messaging in Sicily’s churches in this chapter, this connection tied everything together so neatly.

Here are Cosmas and Damian in the Martoranna, from the 2007 University of Warwick Dissertation “Saintly Doctors: The Early Iconography of SS. Cosmas and Damian in Italy” by Jillian Harrold. Sorry for the image quality.

Once I had this point, the chapter came together beautifully. And with that, I’ve finished a draft of every chapter, plus my introduction. Which… kind of sounds like a full draft of the dissertation?