Science & Medicine at the Medieval Academy of America 2019

Medieval histories of science and medicine were well represented at the Medieval Academy of America this year. And with a few big (or biggish) projects getting funding in the field recently, it was a good opportunity to take stock of some of the things that are going on.

‘Networks and Exchanges of Science and Medicine’ provided a lively opening session. Immo Warntjes outlined how his new project, funded by an Irish Research Council Laureate award, is going to change the way we can use early computistical texts. These texts have not been well catalogued in the past, either because they have been too technical for non-experts to process properly, or else because their incipits have proven misleading, for instance where the same incipit can be found for several different texts. For Warntjes’ team, the challenge is to construct a database that will allow researchers to identify texts by text and themes, while conveying important information on manuscript contexts and possible connections between items. One cluster of texts, to give one example, could be mapped to show a network of exchange in Rhineland area; another along the Loire Valley. This will be a great resource, using medieval science and modern technology to open up new ways of looking at information flows between 500 and 1150.

Medical texts could, in future, reveal exciting things about such information flows too. Meg Leja showed in her paper how medical manuscripts and texts on dietary advice were a regular part of communication between lay and religious figures in the Merovingian and Carolingian worlds. And the ideas involved were not restricted to such texts: Leja highlighted echoes of dietary advice texts in other ‘genres’, such as Hildemar’s Commentary on the Rule of Benedict. One can even find related textual juxtapositions in manuscripts, such as Paris BnF lat. 6428B, which includes a letter on diet from Anthimus to the Merovingian king Theuderic (although it is not clear which Theuderic) alongside Alcuin’s educational treatise De fide.

Similar issues about knowledge networks and the intellectual use of medical texts came out in Faith Wallis’s paper on Batholomaeus of Salerno. Wallis presently has funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada to edit the works of Bartholomaeus, and has quickly found that many scholarly assumptions about him don’t stand up to much scrutiny. For a start, not only is there no evidence that he was based in Salerno, but correspondence between him and Peter the Venerable of Cluny suggested that he was much closer than that, maybe even in France. Charting the transmission of texts only gets one so far, as they spread so widely and so quickly. But charting their use – well, that opens things up, particularly where ideas from medical texts were being incorporated into philosophical and juridical works. It might not, in the end, provide a definitive answer to where Bartholomaeus was based, but Wallis’s journey of discovery did show how he had contributed to bringing medicine more firmly onto scholarly syllabi.

Session two offered ‘Cultures and Practices of Science’. Danielle Joyner began by asking whether historians had been too quick to assume that computus was only a live issue for men. In a wide-ranging paper, Joyner considered examples for women engaging with computus, from the role of Hild at the Synod of Whitby in 664 and as an educator of bishops, to computistical notes in the twelfth-century Markyate Psalter. The evidence is often ambiguous but there is enough to push the balance of the case from ‘speculative’ to ‘probable’.

Gemini Aratea

Gemini in the Leiden Aratea

Next, Eric Ramírez-Weaver provided a great example of Vorstellungsgeschichte and how subtle interrogation of manuscript illuminations can transform how we see some Carolingian astronomy manuscripts. His principle example was an illustration of Castor and Pollux in the famous Leiden Aratea manuscript, dated on the basis of the positions of planets in a diagram to 816. These images are often, lazily, dismissed as simple copies of antique models. But Ramírez-Weaver showed how the image should truly be seen a Carolingian confection, using elements from different classical models to generate something new and meaningful to that moment, when Louis the Pious’s reign as emperor was still in its happier early moments. Even the way the associated text had been chosen and edited, he noted, made the underlying message of Castor and Pollux about filial piety, rather than just part of a catalogue of astronomy and its mythologies.

And last up for the Thursday sessions, it was me, with a crude first effort at comparing cultures of astronomy under the Carolingian and Tang. I have discussed some of the ‘global’ context in another post. For me, the exercise was about getting out of my usual Eurocentric boxes and seeing if the act of comparison helped me to see pre-modern pursuits of astronomy differently. Mostly what I knew going into the mini-project (a 20 minute paper don’t forget!) was that Chinese astronomy was based on some different principles of measurement and was significantly more ‘exact’ than Latin astronomy. But they still had to deal with the same sky and same celestial phenomena. And, more than that, it was quickly striking the extent to which so much in both cultures relied on the patronage of an emperor (or king), how much relied on the juxtaposition of astronomy and prognostics, and how much relied on the international movement of scholars and books. Before it all got too cultural, reading the Tang eclipse records and discussions of eclipse predictions encouraged me to go back to Frankish records of eclipses and to consider whether more of them were predicted than we thought. I think so. The systematic and precise oddities suggest something more complex than dodgy observations. There ended up being more to compare than one might have expected if one had just accepted that the Chinese material was ‘better’ and moved on.

An interesting dynamic at work in these two Thursday sessions was how we all focused on how people dealt with specialist knowledge more than on the nature of that knowledge. This was not because the scholars involved were uninterested. Where early medieval history of science and medicine is making strides at present is in the realisation that there is a lot of it, and that it was part of wider debates about power, time, the body, religion, society, art – everything. The assumption that little of that science or medicine was much good has tended to obscure the fact that people invested time and money in these learning and debating these subjects. Science (of particular sorts) happened! And we haven’t thus far left much space for that fact in the usual tales we tell about the period, because its not the kind of thing that medievalists often know about.

Sometimes, it is striking that historians of science aren’t very much interested in these ‘cultural histories of science’ either. That is a bigger issue, of course, with tensions between older narratives of progress and more recent (= probably the last 40 year…) efforts at historicised histories of science – the kind of thing you get in most fields. Have these debates impeded communication between historians of science and scholars in other fields? These things are never absolute, of course. But at the end of the conference, I asked Elly Truitt what she thought studies of medieval science needed to develop from this point. Her answer was that those involved needed to engage better with the methodologies and languages of History of Science as a specialised field more generally. What we were doing would have little impact on the kind of work one found in, say, Isis, the journal of the History of Science Society, because we didn’t talk about epistemologies and research methodologies in ways their audiences would understand. Which is perhaps doubly unfortunate, because I don’t know that we are yet talking about issues in medieval sciences in ways that speak to people in other medieval fields either. There is, as ever, much to do. (Elly has sent me off to read back issues of Isis for a start).

Having the weight of numbers of people to have productive conversations will no doubt help. Truitt herself was part of an illuminating six-person roundtable discussion on ‘Sciences of Nonmodernity’. This offered a great multicultural smorgasbord of things people were working on from 麻 ‘numbness’ in Chinese medicine (Li) via Hebrew bird prognostics (Hartnell) to flows of medical knowledge around the Indian Ocean (Hamza). People are also working on different ways of conceptualising science as something than can be fixated on lost pasts rather than just the future (Truitt) or interlocking scholarly discourses that are not reducible to a progress measurable by modern standards (Hayton). And sometimes, as Michelle Karnes suggested, we get lost reading early science because we often don’t appreciate the way medieval writers discuss the logically possible as an extension of the verifiably true so beloved of modern writers. (Better, one would have to admit, than the widespread modern tendency to mistake the logically possible for the definitely true).

The final session on sciences brought various aspects of the earlier ones together in a session on networks organised by Elly Truitt. In the first paper, Katie Peebles discussed some issues that brought together food history and climate history, in particular stressing the environmental limits on the production of some food stuffs that limited their spread in the Middle Ages. This had to be balanced against tastes and attitudes towards ‘foreign food’ – something that seems to have left the humble aubergine (or eggplant) rather unpopular at times, and once described as ‘part of the process of death’. Li Parrent, next, returned to us to Bartholomaeus of Salerno (she is working with Faith Wallis) and his contemporary Maimonides to contrast different ways in their correspondence that they felt it was essential that patients understand medicine. Of the two, Maimonides had the more positive attitude, believing that a general instruction in medical matters would be helpful to people travelling, or else to help avoid being tricked by untrustworthy pseudo-doctors. And in the final paper, Xavier Dectot of the National Museums of Scotland (who coincidentally lives in the same village as me) gave a great paper on the cross-cultural legend of medicinal properties of the unicorn horn. Sadly, he pointed out, unicorns don’t exist. (This might still be crucial information for some people in these perilous times). So given that, how come there are so many stories about the horn? He traced the origins of the idea to eleventh-century Persian medical texts translated into China, which were then taken back to Persia, translated into Arabic, and from there they found their way into European manuscripts. It is, of course, much more complicated than that, but you get the picture. And what a session to bring together the themes of the global turn and medieval sciences!