[Theresa]: Transcribing the manuscript was daunting for all of us, and I think the students got a lesson in professorial humility watching both Monica and I discuss and dispute the meaning and significance of the words on the page. Students are accustomed to thinking of their professors as the source of knowledge, not uncertainty. No matter how much I tell them that I don’t know everything, I think they just nod and say, “Yeah, sure.” They know that I’m the one who determines their grades, and so I must know everything right? Yeah, sure. My Latin was rusty but my paleography was good. Still, I was more familiar with a few fifteenth-century Catalan royal secretaries who rarely abbreviated and used words that didn’t require a dictionary of medieval medical terminology.
Above all, they learned one more valuable lesson in research: It takes time. A lot of time. And it takes a fine-toothed comb, a penchant for persistence, and a love of linguistic nuance. Time was more precious than everything else because Seattle University runs on a quarter system and we were already at the halfway mark when we began the transcription. Monica and I based our schedule on prior transcriptions, so we honestly thought we were in fine shape. But we were wrong.
On the first day of a collaborative transcription, when we were all on a Skype call, it took nearly two hours to get through one sentence. One. In the prologue, where the text was flowery and filled with boilerplate phrasings such as “I am not worthy” and “My esteemed lord.” One sentence. Clearly, we needed to move faster, but how? The answer came from a student.
Students are crafty in terms of technology, and the answer was “Google Drive” (the application formerly known as GoogleDocs). Bingo! If you’ve never done this before, let me tell you that working collaboratively on Google Drive is brilliant. At first, we transcribed as a group with each of us typing along. This was fun, a bit like having a mystery hand in the room, with letters and words taking shape before your very eyes. Each person’s edits were highlighted in a different color, with a date and time stamp. But this got out of control quickly, with overtyping and speed editing making it hard to see where we were. So we decided that each of us would take chunks of the text to transcribe, post it, and with any luck, we’d knit the whole thing together in a jiffy.
Yeah, right. We got about 2/3 of the way through by the end of the term. By that time, we could all agree on one thing: the manuscript was a working copy, not a presentation copy.
One student, with a keen eye and ear for codicology, made a clear argument for this in the final paper and noted that the disparity between what the original text was intended for and what this manuscript offers is significant to a broader understanding of medieval medicine. Comparing this text to André’s other work will shed light on his thinking, how it developed over time, and how he might have revised it for various patrons. Here we see a fairly polished text, but one that was hardly finished, giving us a glimpse into the seams and the stitching of a medieval physician’s handiwork.
As if it wasn’t hard enough to transcribe the heavily abbreviated handwriting in the manuscript of Pomum aureum, we then had to turn to translating it. We did some of this while we were transcribing, just to be sure the jumble of letters made sense. And as we did, our students got increasingly excited about some vexing and problematic sections of the text. Here are some of the issues they lost some sleep over.
We were stumped by the word “virtualitas,” a medieval Latin term that made a few perplexed classicists scratch their heads in wonder at the novelty. Two students took up the challenge. They agreed that it must have something to do with the necessity to balance what André called the male and female “instruments” in the creation of the child in order to ensure that the combined “essences” of the parents are passed down to the child. But one student, whose interest is in political history, translated it as “virtuality,” a word that suggests that André and his contemporaries believed that not only physical but also moral characteristics were passed through generations, through both the male and female seed. “[E]ven if there is disproportion,” which the student argued refers to physical disproportionality, and thus that the “virtuality” of the offspring will still pass down as result of the combination of the mother and father’s seeds.
One other student, a philosophy major, was intrigued by Aristotle’s natural philosophy. This student argued that André plausibly establishes the eternal nature of the cosmos, but had a tough time with the question, “Why do children look like their mothers?” This question was linked to Aristotle’s hylomorphic (“form-matter”) account of generation, particularly so when André states that “when this proportion draws near their own [the parents’] potential essence” [cum sit propinquior ipsorum virtualitas]. Here, the philosophy student differs with the student of political history, and translates “virtualitas” as “potential essence,” turning to both Aristotle and Galen, noting that the essence—the “esse” or being—of an object was derived from its four causes, with form the most important. “Form,” for Aristotle, was the abstract idea of a person or thing; existing beings were instantiated in “matter,” but “form” was what stamped a raw material substrate with its unique characteristics. Form contains a set of potentials to act towards the good, which results in the full actualization of a human being, and this is closely tied to virtue. The key to the medieval meaning of “virtualitas” thus is “virtue,” which is logically connected to one’s physical appearance. Ergo, good kings were kings that looked and acted like a king should. When André asserts that when all three qualities are correctly balanced, the child will draw close to the parent’s “virtualitas” not only looking more like one than the other, but receive the same formal qualities, including the virtues, of that parent as well.
Both of these interpretations of “virtualitas” have serious implications for our understanding of medieval inheritance, and of special interest to those of us who study queens and queenship, a woman’s right to inherit a realm and rule it in her own right. More specifically, this transfer of moral or character traits through bloodlines has political implications for the royalty of Navarre, whose political culture permitted that a ruling monarch could be either a queen or a king. And it has a lot to tell us about the troubled reign of King Enrique IV of Castile, derogatorily known as “el impotente” (the impotent man) because after two marriages he had only one child, a daughter. His death resulted in a decade-long contest for the throne between a daughter allegedly not his own and a step-sister who eventually won the war and ruled as Isabel I, “the Catholic.”
One student took up the question of André’s understanding of biological sex and the cultural construction of notions of masculinity and femininity in the fourth chapter of theorica on the signs of masculinity and femininity in pregnancy. This section outlines the first two of twelve signs of the sex of a child during pregnancy and provides valuable insight into the more intricate nature of gender norms in medieval Europe. Because of the physical subject of medical theory, the descriptions of gender that result from the text are also physical in nature. The student argued that medical descriptions of sex influence, or perhaps serve as the basis for, the social norms which establish physical ideals for masculinity and femininity.
[Monica]: The topic that grabbed the attention of three students concerned what André meant by the term aborsus. As we mentioned earlier, the issue of how to translate this word had already raised questions for them when they were reading the Trotula. Pierre André used the word frequently to describe fetal death, both miscarriage (unplanned loss of a fetus or embryo) and, more rarely, abortion (deliberate termination of a pregnancy). But he also used the term, surprisingly, to refer to situations where no conception had yet happened.
One of the first things the students did was to look up the original meaning of the Latin verb aborior. Yes, it can mean to miscarry; but it also means to disappear, pass away, set (as in the sun), or to fail. It was this last meaning, it seemed, that André had in mind when, under the chapter heading “quot sint aborsus et qualiter regenda sit pregnans ne aborciat” (“how many are the kinds of aborsus and how the pregnant woman ought to be governed so that she does not abort”), he gathered his beliefs on the range of impediments to producing viable offspring. In reading through “the six causes of aborsus due to the male partner and twenty-three due to the female,” it became clear to us that André used the concept of aborsus to cover all circumstances that impeded generation, not simply those that caused the loss of an embryo or fetus already conceived.
For example, among the six causes of aborsus he attributed to males was excessive coitus that produced “insufficiently cooked” semen, or problems in the size or shape of his generative organs. For women, the causes were more what we would recognize as conditions that might terminate an established pregnancy, though situations such as ulcers in the uterus might have impeded conception in the first place. Totally unambiguous, however, was the sixth cause: “si usa est aliquibus provocantibus aborsum que nominari non debent propter abusores” (“if she uses any substances provoking abortion/miscarriage which ought not be named because of abusers”). However, this may not have been as stern as a condemnation as it sounds, since André had admitted that a woman might inadvertently use substances that, in other circumstances, were totally innocuous, such as a fumigation of myrrh. And aborsus caused by thunder was, of course, entirely beyond the woman’s control.
[Theresa]: One student compared modern medical definitions of losing a child that consider fetal death before twenty weeks of gestation as a miscarriage; after that, it is considered a stillbirth. The student noted that the way we talk about fetal death changes based on audience, that among medical professionals terms are straightforward, but when talking to a mother or a family the physician will be more figurative, using gentle phrases such as “losing a child.”
The transcription is still up there on Google Drive, waiting for us to finish it. But that’s a task for Monica and me. And we’ll keep you posted.
This has been a very interesting and useful series of posts—thank you!
Have you tried using the T-PEN transcription tool from St Louis University? I’ve not used it myself for group collaborations, but I know that it does have that capability and I’ve found it quite a stable tool for image annotation and transcription.
Monica Green said:
Hi Yvonne, thanks for your comment about T-PEN. I am in fact already affiliated with the folks at the Center for Digital Theology at Saint Louis University, working on another project: http://www.slu.edu/department-of-theology-home/center-for-digital-theology/projects/tradamus/case-testers. However, we decided not to use the T-PEN program for this course just because we already had the students on such a steep learning curve (codicology and paleography and medical history) and we didn’t want to add something else they had to learn. GoogleDrive had the advantage of not asking them to use any skills besides basic Word functions. I agree that T-PEN is the way to go for professional transcription, and I would certainly use it when teaching at the graduate level.
Brenda M Cook said:
Brilliant project. This is what scholarship should be all about. Breaking new ground, not reworking old topics.