I am a teacher as well as a scholar, and teaching at an undergraduate university means that most of my year is spent teaching the same course to new students. To those who don’t teach, this may seem repetitive and boring. But it’s not. New minds make familiar material fresh, they ask questions born of a lived experience that prompts unexpected readings of texts and their concerns shape their interpretations.

Still, all teachers long to teach something that is genuinely new, where instead of imparting knowledge, new knowledge is created in a seminar. This intellectual hothouse is expected in graduate seminars, but it doesn’t happen every day for undergraduates because most do not have the skills or depth and range of preparation to tackle an original research project.

And yet, this is precisely what happened this past spring at Seattle University, where I’ve taught for the past fifteen years. With a colleague, Monica Green, a specialist in the history of women’s medicine in the Middle Ages at Arizona State University, I taught a class that I never imagined I would teach. It all began in a hot, airless kitchen in a dorm at the University of London in the summer of 2012 with a casual conversation about childless queens and medieval medical knowledge of infertility.

But that wasn’t really the beginning. For that, I now turn this blog post over to Monica:

In 2000, I published what I thought was going to be a comprehensive (even definitive?) list of texts on medieval women’s medicine. I had been scouring manuscript catalogs and reading rooms for the previous two decades, trying to assemble all the information I could on how medieval medicine conceived of the female body.  But then, in 2003, while browsing for the nth time through the old (18th century) catalog of the French National Library, I saw a reference to a text described as “Anonymi tractatus de partu” (Anonymous, Treatise on Birth). I was shocked to discover this right in one of the best-studied libraries in Europe. I wrote to my colleague, Michael McVaugh, and asked him if he perchance had a film of the manuscript (Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, MS lat. 6992); sure enough he did, and I was able to confirm that this was indeed a text I had never seen or heard about before. Neither, it seems, had anybody else.

It became apparent that the work had both an author and a proper title. The former was Petrus Andreus de Pulcrovisu (Pierre Andrieu or André, fl. ante 1435–59).  He was a physician originally from Perpignan (his father, also a physician, had converted from Judaism to Christianity probably in 1414). Pierre taught at the University of Toulouse and served as court physician to at least two counts of Foix and their consorts. Besides this work “on birth,” he is also known to have written a treatise on plague, De bello pestifero (“On the Pestiferous War”), also unstudied by medical historians.

The text on birth, like that on plague, had an evocative title. André called it the Pomum aureum, the Golden Apple, because no fruit was more fragrant or sweet, no metal more gleaming. I found the text to be unlike any other work on women’s medicine I had hitherto seen. A tradition of writing specialized texts on infertility had already begun in the late 12th century, and was furthered substantially in the late 13th and early 14th century by a series of works written at the southern French medical school of Montpellier. But these all focused on aiding conception and ensuring the maintenance of the pregnancy to term. There they stopped.

André was remarkable not simply examining the processes of generation and mechanisms to aid conception and avoid miscarriage, but he takes his reader into the birthing room itself, giving precise instructions on how birth was to be managed, how the afterbirth was to be disposed of, how both mother and child were to be cared for. André even “recycled” the fetus-in-utero images that I had been tracing throughout their travels from their origin in the 6th-century Latin work of Muscio (written in North Africa) up through their many reincarnations with the works of Albucasis (al-Zahrawi), to whose Surgery they were attached, and other newly composed works in the 15th century. Indeed, it was clear that André was very much part of a 15th-century explosion of interest in obstetrics, which I had already documented in Germany, England, and Italy.

The Muscian fetus-in-utero images, meant to show possible malpresentations of the fetus at birth.  Here found in a copy of The Sickness of Women 2, a mid-fifteenth-century work, like the Pomum aureum, that presented expanded discussions of obstetrical conditions.  Credit:  London, British Library, MS Sloane 249, f. 197r.

The Muscian fetus-in-utero images, meant to show possible malpresentations of the fetus at birth. Here found in a copy of The Sickness of Women 2, a mid-fifteenth-century work, like the Pomum aureum, that presented expanded discussions of obstetrical conditions. Credit: London, British Library, MS Sloane 249, f. 197r.

But there my investigations stopped. Everything about this text, save its specific medical content, was a challenge for me: I didn’t have much experience working with 15th-century hands (and this was a particularly irregular one), and I knew nothing about the house of Foix or that of Navarre, the realms of, respectively, the dedicatee, Gaston IV of Foix (b. 1423, r. 1436–72), and his wife, Leonor of Navarre (1426–79). And so I set it aside.

Until last year, when Theresa, in the context of our fabulous NEH Summer Seminar in London (Health and Disease in the Middle Ages) described to me her interests in reconstructing the reproductive lives of Europe’s royalty. Here, I thought, was a perfect case study: a text written for a historically well-documented couple challenged in terms of their ability to produce heirs. By 1444, when the Pomum aureum was written, Gaston and Leonor had been married 10 years—with only one child (maybe) having yet been born. As Theresa will explain in a later post, it is still notoriously difficult to document the reproductive histories of medieval women, even royal ones.

Theresa asked me if I’d like to come to Seattle University to give a talk on this text and other issues regarding medical interventions in infertility. But I said, why give another talk, which will be so much more ephemera? Why not gather a group of students together and have them work on this still understudied text? And so was born our experimental course, “Medieval Medicine and Paleography,” in the Spring Quarter of 2013.

And then, the fun began.

Next up, Part II: “A Very Very Short Course in the History of Medicine in the Middle Ages.”