Project updates

Year 1 (2021-22)

July, 2021

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...

August, 2021

An ode to consulting manuscripts in person

Until last weekend, I had yet to leave Sheffield since my arrival this spring – as much as I’d like to (and need to) visit libraries and archives for my current project, it either hasn’t been possible or hasn’t seemed sensible. But now that I’m double-jabbed (thank you, NHS!), I’m hoping that (some) travel will become increasingly feasible again.

I resumed travelling with a fairly small-scale journey: I first took a train south to the Sussex countryside for a long weekend on my Godparents’ farm and then returned to Sheffield via a 48-hour stop in Cambridge. While I could happily write about farm life (see the post's header image) and long overdue reunions with friends, I’ll stick to the research portion of my past week away.

On this brief visit to Cambridge, I booked into the University Library to consult two manuscripts: Peterhouse MS 231 and CUL MS Gg.5.35, also known as the Cambridge Songs Manuscript (see Figure 1 below).

First, an immense thanks to the UL staff, especially the Special Collections team, for making my visit possible. Thanks, too, for temporarily removing MS Gg.5.35 from the current exhibition for me! (And on that note, there’s one more week to book to see 'Ghost Words' live – or you can check it out virtually.)

Since my study of these manuscripts is incomplete and I’m also writing a post for the UL’s Special Collections Blog, I’ll share a quick reflection on the importance of consulting manuscripts in person instead of highlighting the specifics of the material I was analysing. Inspired by working with a physical manuscript for the first time in months, this project update concerns the research process rather than the research itself.

While I’m beyond grateful for the many recent manuscript digitisation projects that have enabled me to continue my research throughout the pandemic, handling a manuscript provides a reader with so much more. At the most basic level (and frequently the reason given when requesting a manuscript), consulting a codex in person can often help to clarify palaeographical or codicological questions. Smudges, faint writing, or erased sections may be more possible to decipher by examining the text in person (perhaps further helped by holding the page at an angle or using a magnifying glass), and the binding, quires, missing or added leaves, and so on can be investigated more thoroughly.

Yet there’s another layer beyond these fundamental research questions: by working with a physical manuscript, a reader has a full sensory experience. Not only is it often possible to see more and from different perspectives, but a reader can hold the codex and understand its dimensions, weight, and ease (or difficulty) of use; feel the parchment and move the folia (carefully!); and even hear the sound of the pages turning, smell the codex, see how the light affects the pigments, etc. In short, a reader can use all of their senses (except taste!) in their study of the physical object; handling a manuscript opens up a world that is still impossible to recreate fully online. The insights gained from this experience might contribute to a reader’s overall understanding of the manuscript or relate to specific research questions, especially when considering how and by whom a codex was used.

Based on my own experiences, I’m always struck by dimensions and weight: despite seeing these figures listed in a manuscript catalogue, I find it hard to get an accurate sense of a manuscript’s size until I actually see it in person. The folia of MS Gg.5.35, for example, are not particularly large, but the volume is *massive* – an incredibly thick tome – something that can be difficult to appreciate online. Ultimately, no matter the research questions underpinning a manuscript study, I think it remains invaluable to interact with the codex itself.

Thanks again to everyone at the UL for making this visit possible, I hope to be back soon and to visit more libraries and archives before long...

Figure 1: CUL MS Gg.5.35 (fols 444v-445r), pages from a recipe collection

September, 2021

The library of St Gall, Switzerland - a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Sharing the joy:
Introducing students to manuscripts, early medieval medicine, and my research

As the new academic year begins, teaching seems to be on everyone’s mind – mine included. Although Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellowships have a tight cap on teaching to ensure that research remains the primary focus (thanks LT!), I'm looking forward to spending some time over the next few years in a classroom. With that in mind, I'm grateful for the many training programmes in Sheffield designed to support those of us teaching, mentoring, and/or supervising. From Think Ahead’s SuperVisionaries seminars to official courses organised by Elevate, there is something for everyone. So, in honour of having just begun my PGCertTLHE (Post-Graduate Certificate in Teaching and Learning in Higher Education) with a week-long pre-term course, this month's post offers a taste of mixing research and teaching.

We ended the PGCertTLHE 'Workshop Week' with a peer teaching and evaluation session: each student gave a 15-minute lesson – that's no time at all! Adding to the challenge was the need to incorporate interactive elements, group work, and assessment…! What could I teach in this timeframe? While it certainly wouldn't be enough time to get into detailed manuscript analysis, I thought it was just enough time to introduce the topic and share the wonderful world of early medieval manuscripts.

I began the lesson with this post’s header image, the Stiftsbibliothek St Gallen, or Abbey Library of St Gall, Switzerland, and told my students (the rest of my cohort and our instructors) that we were going on a field trip: today, we were going to be archaeologists – but instead of going to an excavation, we would be heading to this library.

'What might an archaeologist do in a library?' I asked. My students had lots of correct answers ('checking references?', 'background research?', etc.) but they did not name our reason for visiting the Stiftsbibliothek…

We were here to study manuscripts as objects – the archaeology of the book.

Given our time limitations, I decided to concentrate on the new and growing subfield of biocodicology, the study of the biological information contained within manuscripts. Over the remaining minutes, I introduced my students to this area of research, distinguishing it from codicology, demonstrating the basic sampling method (see Figure 1), and delineating several ways that it can shed light on manuscripts, their uses, and users.

Figure 1: My portable parchment sampling kit - thanks to the Beasts2Craft project for providing!

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!

October, 2021

A digression into Church history and a remedy for everything
(Even doctrinal debate?!)

Having reflected on in-person manuscript consultation and combining research with teaching in the past two project updates, this month’s post zooms in on a single manuscript, Laon, Bibliothèque municipale Suzanne Martinet, Ms. 199 (see Figure 1).

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

While the manuscript’s main hand has been dated to the second quarter of the ninth century, this recipe appears to have been added a few generations later, between the late ninth and tenth centuries. It presents an interesting mix of ingredients, combining a few potentially locally grown herbs, such as dittany (diptamum) and fennel (feniculum) with many non-local spices and resins, including cinnamon (cinnamon), ginger (gingiber), cloves (cariofile), pepper (piper longum and piper nigrum), myrrh (mirra), frankincense (tus), etc. Of special note are zedoary (zadoar) and galangal (galenga), two plants from the far east, both in the ginger family, that were unrecorded in classical pharmaceutical writings and first appear in early medieval recipes (like this one!).

In a manuscript otherwise dedicated to conciliar material, why was this recipe added to the final page roughly 50-100 years after the main text was written? As a panacea, was it intended to be imbibed as a soothing potion to assuage theologians arguing about Christological controversies and doctrinal debates…? Or used by a reader who had developed a headache after reading an entire manuscript focused on theological dispute? Just some ideas :)

While I don’t have a real answer to the question of why this recipe appears in this particular context, I do think it’s significant that medical knowledge was recorded here – a place that we wouldn’t expect to find it. Someone thought this information was sufficiently valuable to write it down on a spare folio in a manuscript otherwise unrelated to health and medicine, expending precious time, effort, and resources. As part of my current project, I’m investigating pharmaceutical material in what we might think of as typical ‘medical manuscripts’ (i.e., those that primarily contain medical texts) and in these sorts of surprising locations. What are the implications of the diverse array of contexts in which recipes are recorded?

I hope I can begin to shed some light on this topic over the course of my project – in the meantime, stay tuned for more manuscript mysteries!

Ps – My special thanks to Rosamond McKitterick for alerting me to this recipe in Laon, BM Ms. 199 and sharing her thoughts about the manuscript.

November, 2021

Time for tea?
Wintery weather, warming spices, and medieval potions

With the weather getting cooler and nights growing longer (especially up in Yorkshire!), I’m turning to my kettle increasingly frequently. To avoid caffeine overdoses, I like to mix in some herbal teas – the header image shows my current line-up: blends of cinnamon, mint, and ginger. Cinnamon and ginger feel especially warming and wintery, appearing not just in my cups of tea but also in many seasonal favourites, from gingerbread to mulled wine. In fact, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg are often combined in various Christmas-related spice mixes, teas, and treats. Take a look at BBC Good Food’s ‘Festive spice recipe’ (Figure 1), a combination of cinnamon, coriander, nutmeg, ginger, cloves, orange and lemon zest, sugar, and sea salt – a spice blend said to ‘bring festive cheer to many dishes and drinks. Mix into a latte, sprinkle into your biscuit dough, or stir into buttercream.’

But what does my tea-drinking or the BBC’s festive recipe have to do with early medieval medicine…?

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!

December, 2021

Medicinal mistletoe
Holiday-themed health advice from the ninth century

The first and most important thing to note is:

Do NOT try the following recipes at home!

Mistletoe, the common name for a number of related hemiparasitic plants, is toxic. Indeed, in Pliny's monumental Natural History, much more space is given to remedying mistletoe poisoning than to using the plant in medicine, though we'll return to the latter. Mistletoe also continues to be used in traditional medical practices in some parts of the world, and it will be interesting to see how ethnobotanical work on this group of plants develops in the future - but, for the time being, don't be tempted to use any holiday decorations for medical treatment!

So, what does Pliny say about mistletoe?

In addition to his comments on poisoning (noted in books 20, 23, 28, etc.), he addresses its use as birdlime (a sticky substance made from mistletoe berries used to trap birds; 16.48, 24.11), its damaging effect on trees (17.242), and its worship in the Gallic provinces (16.49-51). Its perceived medicinal uses are mentioned several times, including the following overview in Book 24:

'It is emollient, disperses tumours, and dries up scrofulous sores; with resin and wax it softens superficial abscesses of every sort. Some add galbanum also, equal in weight to each of the other ingredients, and this mixture they use also for the treatment of wounds. The lime smooths scabrous nails, but the application must be taken off every seven days and the nails washed with a solution of soda. Some superstitiously believe that the mistletoe proves more efficacious if it be gathered from the hard-wood oak at the new moon without the use of iron, and without its touching the ground; that so it cures epilepsy, helps women to conceive if they merely carry it on their persons; that chewed and applied to sores it heals them most effectively.' (Natural History, 24.11-12)

Interestingly, many of these medical properties fit with the mistletoe-worship Pliny recorded in Book 16, and not only the elements here reported as things that 'some superstitiously believe' (i.e., its connection with hard-wood oak and the moon), but also its general healing attributes:

'[The druids] believe that mistletoe given in drink will impart fertility to any animal that is barren, and that it is an antidote for all poisons.' (Natural History, 16.51)

Moving to early medieval medicine, I have found mistletoe, viscum, named as an ingredient in a variety of medical recipes, many with intriguing parallels to the information presented by Pliny. In cod. sang. 44, for example, the first ingredient in a recipe titled Ad ungues scabrusas, 'for scabrous nails', is oak mistletoe (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Ad ungues scabrusas, cod. sang. 44, p. 332

Later in this manuscript, a treatment 'for lunatics and epileptics', Ad lunaticos et cadiuos (see Figure 2), suggests the following:

'Ribwort, mistletoe from oak, agrimony, milfoil – you collect all this with the Lord’s Prayer and, for four lunar cycles, give [it] to the fasting person to drink with holy water.'

Figure 2: Ad lunaticos et cadiuos, cod. sang. 44, p. 358

A nearly identical recipe can be found in BAV pal. lat. 1088 (f. 33v) and a similar treatment also appears in Bamberg Msc.Med.1 (f. 21r).

Notably, while the moon's involvement in the timing of this procedure has some parallels to Pliny's comments on 'superstitious' non-Christian rituals, the instructions simultaneously include multiple Christian elements, challenging any simple division of medical material into simple binaries, such as 'pre-Christian' vs. 'Christian' or 'medico-magical' vs. 'orthodox', and illustrating the complex combinations of healing practices and beliefs documented by early medieval medical writings.

Finally, given mistletoe's modern associations with a kiss at Christmas, I can't write a post about mistletoe without some comment on this angle! While I have yet to come across any mistletoe-enriched love potions, Pliny wrote, as seen above, that it 'helps women to conceive if they merely carry it on their persons' - do early medieval manuscripts have anything along these lines?

In Paris BnF lat. 11218 (see Figure 3), a recipe titled Ad conceptione mulierum recommends that a woman should drink mistletoe (specifically grown on oak) in wine. Although that may sound like it should be quite a straightforward beverage to prepare, the instructions are fairly extensive and, again, incorporate a number of Christian rituals, including making the sign of the cross, saying the Lord's Prayer, celebrating twelve (!) masses, etc. Pliny's idea of simply carrying mistletoe sounds much easier!

Figure 3: Ad conceptione mulierum, Paris BnF lat. 11218, f. 122v

So, on that jolly note, I'll wrap up this project update. While I decided to focus on mistletoe as a festive end-of-year post, I hope it also shows that tracing any ingredient can be a fruitful exercise. In this case, we've seen links between early medieval recipes and ancient practices indicative of the continuation - and evolution - of broadly shared traditions over time. The integration of explicitly Christian features with pre-Christian rituals speaks to the multifaceted healthscape of the early Middle Ages, a topic that this project is exploring further - and I look forward to sharing more in 2022!

Happy holidays to all - and, remember, don't eat the mistletoe!

Note: references to Pliny's Natural History are from the Loeb series: Pliny, Natural History, trans. H. Rackham, W. H. S. Jones, and D. E. Eichholz, 10 vols (Cambridge, MA, 1938-63).