Dissertation Progress: Week of October 5th

I started this week off with a visit to a class on plague. Most of my work time was spent compiling manuscripts into an appendix that no one will ever read. And I’m taking out my mounting anxiety by sewing a coat.

I won’t go into too much detail about the class. It was a cool opportunity that came up recently to talk about some past work I did on Arabic plague literature and how the medieval Islamic tradition approached the issue of contagion. It was great to talk to students and answer questions (or just to talk to people in general). It did prompt me to think more about how to effectively answer questions in a way that puts the information in a new light. I remembered recently the feedback I got from my advisor after my oral exam, when he said I did well, but nothing was “earth-shattering”. That’s a pretty high standard, certainly, but what he meant was that I was approaching the questions with the idea that my examiners had an answer in mind that they were looking for, rather than asserting my own perspective. When I’ve given talks over the past year or so, I’ve been thinking that I need to figure out how to answer questions in a way that both hinges on specifics to keep me grounded, and also leads the person I’m talking to toward my perspective. Because most of the time I am, in fact, pushing a particular narrative that is not the standard. All that being said, to cap off the class this week, one of my toddlers spent the last 20 minutes perched on my lap wearing a hooded towel with a panda face, and then started talking over me at one point.

I collated some manuscripts. File this under “work I should have done before I started my research”. Back when I was planning out where to go on my research trips, trying to figure out where manuscripts relevant to my project even existed, I went about things the hard way. I combed through archive catalogs for listings that rang certain bells – 12th century, southern Italy, Arabic science/medicine. And doing that got me some really interesting manuscripts that most of the scholarship hasn’t talked about before. I even found something no one had seen before! But in my usual ass-backwards way, I didn’t do a serious dive into the bibliography that already exists in my field. And so my committee has at various points asked what portion of the manuscripts out there I’ve looked at and how representative the ones I have are of the larger bunch. Given that question, I think there’s a good chance that established scholars in my field will also look at my work and ask why I’m not talking about this or that Very Important Manuscript. The truest answer is that I was limited in the resources I had for research – time, money, geography. It was easier for me to look at manuscripts that were collected in certain places, especially when those places gave me money to go see them. And there’s legitimacy to that. But I still need to understand how the manuscripts I’ve seen fit into the bigger picture. And that means I need a list of all the manuscripts I can find that I could have included in my dissertation, but didn’t.

This is a task I’ve been actively avoiding for about a year, because I wasn’t initially sure how to go about finding the manuscripts I didn’t look at. I was also limited by the fact that I don’t have access to the archive catalogs I had the first time, because those almost exclusively exist in physical university libraries, and even before COVID I had very limited access to those spaces. I did a couple of initial searches along the lines of my earlier efforts, based on the catalogs that are available online. This was a tremendous amount of effort for zero payoff, because the majority of libraries don’t have manuscripts that are relevant to my project. So this week I did the slightly less arduous – but still very slow – work of going through publications in my field to look for manuscripts. I would have said that I’m lucky that my field currently has such a focus on locating and identifying sources, but it’s kind of a double-edged sword because it’s that focus that makes it necessary for me to do this work in the first place. But at least for my benefit there are already a few books and articles that have listed a tremendous number (and certainly what are considered the most significant) of the known manuscripts on scientific topics that can be linked to Norman Sicily. Very much of this work was done by Monica Green – her project on the Trotula, and now her work on Constantine the African, which has also led to significant work on the Articella – and as always I’m eternally grateful for her, her drive, and her scholarly generosity. I still had to do a good bit of culling from her bibliography to include only the works that are relevant to my purposes, but all the work she has done made it SO MUCH EASIER.

So far, I seem to have accessed a pretty significant percentage of the surviving manuscripts from Norman Sicily – maybe as much as a third. And the summary comments from Monica and others on their finds generally agree with my observations. So this task, arduous though it is, is certainly giving me a lot more confidence and support.

Meanwhile, my hobbies. After complaining for years that I had lost interest in my hobbies, I’ve gone full force into sewing this year. I’ve learned a lot about sewing techniques from following vintage clothing patterns that I procured through the Vintage Pattern Shop. Between those and CosTube, I’ve given myself a college course in historical sewing over the last year. And I’m gearing up to try to break even on this hobby by starting to sell my creations! More on that soon. My latest project is a much bigger endeavor than others I’ve done – a coat with a removable lining. Since it doesn’t get very cold here in the winter, I haven’t had to break out my winter coat at all since moving to California, except when I’ve been out of state. But I do find that I need a mid-weight jacket, and this is a good opportunity to make it fashion. I also still want to be able to wear it if it does get a bit colder, hence the removable lining (which would be the insulating layer). That means that this coat has five layers – outer fashion layer, regular lining, insulation, and one layer of lining for either side of the insulation – plus interfacing. That’s a TON of material, and a ton of effort to put together. But it’s a fun puzzle. I’m also pretty significantly deviating from the pattern I’m using to add some components that I think are cool, so on top of the five separate times I’m cutting and sewing the same shapes, I will also have made this coat a sixth time from making a mock up to start off.

The coat is coming along nicely. I’ve pieced together the fashion layer (the outside part that will actually be seen) and I’m currently working on hand-sewing the interfacing (a stiffening material that reinforces the shape in certain areas, like the collar and lapels). If you want to follow along, you can check out my progress on my dedicated sewing instagram account.

Next week: I’ll probably need to get back to editing chapters, because apparently I’ve been called up for jury duty??? I wonder how that’s going to play out.