Year 1 (2021-22)
The project website is born!
I intend to use this page to as an academic blog: I'll post research highlights and exciting finds, announcements of CfPs and publications, share my visits to libraries and archives (travel restrictions permitting), etc. Naturally, 'Crossroads' will be at the centre of these posts, though I may also occasionally offer more general comments on life as an early career researcher, balancing research and teaching, and the like. On that note, if anyone has any questions about applying to the Leverhulme Trust and my experiences as an ECF, please get in touch!
So, watch this space for more project updates soon...
Figure 1: CUL MS Gg.5.35 (fols 444v-445r), pages from a recipe collection
Regarding the applications of biocodicology, the final example I gave connects directly to my own research. As Sarah Fiddyment has recently shown in her study of an early modern birthing girdle, the analysis of proteins on the surface of parchment has major implications for understanding the relationship between medical texts and practice. The identification of substances that came into contact with the surface of a folio may provide insights into the contexts in which the manuscript was read and used. The early medieval medical writings that I study often exhibit stains (see Figures 2 and 3) – could these have been caused by substances related to the texts on these pages? Could the red streaks in Figure 2, located near a text on bloodletting, be blood? [I know it's probably ink, but work with me here!] Could the green stain in the corner of the page in Figure 3 be a splash from an ingredient listed in one of the medical recipes on that very page?
Figure 2: Cod. sang. 44, p. 226 - what are those streaks...?
Figure 3: Cod. sang. 44, p. 239 - what is the green spill...?
While I do not (yet) have the answers to these questions, it was such a thrill to be able to share one branch of my research with the students and immensely rewarding to see their excitement and interest in the topic. I'm happy to report that they all aced the worksheet I prepared as the assessment!
Looking ahead, although my teaching will be fairly limited for the time being, I can definitely see the potential for integrating my research into teaching. Here's to getting a new generation excited about manuscripts!
Figure 1: Laon, BM Ms. 199, fols. 1v-2r
Before we consider early medieval medicine, let’s take a closer look at this fascinating manuscript. Produced at Saint-Amand Abbey (present day northern France), this ninth-century codex contains the earliest surviving Latin version of the text of the Lateran Council of 649, a council convened by Pope Martin I in Rome to condemn the eastern Christological belief known as Monothelitism (the doctrine that Christ has only one will). Its conciliar decrees appear to have been widely disseminated, with a Greek version sent to the eastern Mediterranean while a Latin version circulated in the west. For example, a letter records that Pope Martin sent the council’s canons to Amandus, Bishop of Maastricht and the founder of Saint-Amand Abbey, and asked him to convene a Frankish council. A copy of this letter can be found near the end of Laon, BM Ms. 199, our manuscript that was, intriguingly, produced at Saint-Amand roughly two centuries later… For more on the significance of these texts in relation to this manuscript, tune into Prof. Rosamond McKitterick’s lecture at the British School at Rome on 10 November.
So, what does doctrinal drama have to do with medicine?
As far as I can tell, not much. And that's exactly the point: when we're least expecting it, we encounter a medical recipe! After 137 folia of Church council-related content, the final folio contains the Potio pigmentaria ad omnes infirmitates, a ‘potion of spices for all infirmities’ (see Figure 2).
Figure 2: Laon, BM Ms. 199, fol. 138r
Figure 1: BBC Good Food's festive spice recipe
Well, it turns out that our winter associations with these spices aren’t simply a modern phenomenon. While it might be hard to imagine that today’s seasonal love-affair with these flavours, especially given their mass-commercialisation (just think of the many festive menus pushing items with these spices – did someone say gingerbread latte?!), has any parallels in earlier culinary and medical practices, the manuscript evidence suggests otherwise.
Let’s consider cod. sang. 124, a manuscript thought to have been produced at the Abbey of St Amand in the early ninth century. Consisting primarily of exegetical and liturgical works, such as writings by Augustine, Isidore, and Bede, this manuscript also contains a number of other texts, including an abridged version of the Annals of St Gall, a letter from Charlemagne to Alcuin, and, crucially for today’s post, a single page with calendrical health advice (Figure 2). (Note: the manuscript also contains some stunning images – do check it out!)
Figure 2: Cod. sang. 124, p. 309
The first half of the page pictured above lists a set of Egyptian Days (days that were said to be unlucky, especially with respect to matters of health, such as bloodletting) while the second half recommends potions to be drunk over the course of the year. For each month, one or two plant-based ingredients are named. Although some months involve potentially locally available herbal products, such as rue and lovage (March) or pennyroyal (August), others recommend exotic ingredients, including many that feature in our modern festive spice blends. Notably, cloves are listed for October, cinnamon for November (aligning nicely with my current choice of tea!), and ginger (alongside rhubarb) for January.
This is not to say that today’s gingerbread lattes are direct descendants of early medieval monthly regimina! But it is striking that certain products are associated with winter consumption in both modern and medieval contexts. Indeed, given the known medicinal and pharmacological properties of many of these ingredients (see, for example, a recent overview of ginger’s health benefits), that their use is – and was – encouraged during cold and flu season probably comes as no surprise. So, the next time you’re sipping on mulled wine or eating a slice of seasonal cake with a spiced buttercream, you can think about all the health benefits you’re reaping...
Returning to early medieval medicine, calendrical guides to diet, health, and medical practices occur with some frequency. While this type of information can often be found alongside other medical writings and within manuscripts primarily focused on medicine, they also, as in the case of cod. sang. 124, appear in other contexts. In particular, monthly regimina recommending foods and drinks to either consume or avoid as well as records of unlucky days, such as the Egyptian Days, are frequently found with computistical material, that is, texts and calendars related to calculating the date of Easter. Just as last month’s post demonstrated, such examples indicate that it’s crucial for historians of health and medicine to look beyond the ‘typical’ medical manuscripts that have traditionally been studied.
Moving forward, collaboration with scholars working on other types of texts and in other fields will be increasingly necessary – both to find previously unexplored medical texts and to analyse them in context. And on that note, I’d like to a) thank Carine van Rhijn for sharing cod. sang. 124 with me, and b) remind any readers to please let me know if you ever come across medical material in an unexpected context – the more finds, the merrier!
While there’s much more to say about dietary calendars, the intersections between food and medicine, and the medical uses of the plants named in the above calendar, I’ll save these topics for a future post because the kettle is calling!