[Theresa]: Would I ever teach a course like this again? Yes, yes, yes. Could I teach a course like this again? Only if my university ponies up the cash to do so. It costs money to innovate, and Monica and I could not have done this without financial support. To some, this may seem a boutique class that only benefits a few students and two professors. But I am certain that this course will ripple widely and that Monica’s aim of training a new generation of scholars working on the history of medicine instead of just talking to an audience will succeed. One of the students continues to work on codicology, another is working with me on a fall project on the history of disability (see below).

[Monica]: I felt it important to try this experiment because medievalists are on the brink of a new world. One of the biggest factors that has distinguished the work we do as medievalists from that of historians working on later periods is that none of our materials existed originally in print—i.e., in multiple, identical copies that came off a printing press. Yes, many other historians work with unique handwritten archival materials. But ours has been the field where students most needed the intermediary of their professor and a host of other scholars (paleographers, editors, translators, interpreters) to gain access. 

The digital revolution in manuscript studies is now making all those unique witnesses available instantaneously to thousands of readers all at once. I was interested in experimenting to see if we could find a way to immerse students, even at the undergraduate level, in the world of medieval books: to let them “handle” the whole raw document and see how we make meaning out of it, literally (in just being able to read the Latin) but also figuratively, in seeing each medieval manuscript as a physical and cultural product.

In fact, this course was a “repeat” for me, as my Dutch colleague, Orlanda Lie, and I had tried a similar experiment at the University of Utrecht in 2007. That seminar (also just 10 weeks long) had resulted in a day-long symposium and exhibition, where the students presented their interpretations of a hitherto unpublished 15th-century Dutch text on women’s medicine. The difference there was that we were working with graduate students, most of whom had no prior experience with the history of medicine but all of whom had several years of training in Dutch philology and codicology. 

Poster for Utrecht symposium, held 27 June 2007.

Poster for Utrecht symposium, held 27 June 2007.

The seminar that Theresa and I did in Seattle, of course, was for undergraduates, who were learning the codicology and the language and the medical science and the political history all at the same time. I can definitely see ways in which we could structure the course somewhat more tightly in the future—say, starting them off with examples drawn from medical manuscripts so they learn the codicological basics while also picking up some medicine on the side. For example, in a blog I just wrote about another manuscript I studied this summer, I talked about the use of images, the placement of the texts in the codex, and questions of provenance (ownership) of manuscripts. That manuscript happened to contain the Trotula, which we were already studying in class; we could therefore have talked about questions of authorship (for example, “Why was the alleged authoress “Trotula” called a sanatrix [female healer] here, a term never used in other copies?”). Or book production (“Why did the commissioner juxtapose works on women’s medicine and surgery and even horse medicine?”). Or the economics of book-making (“How could anybody afford all that gold?”).

Use of gold leaf to decorate a copy of Roger Frugardi’s Surgery.  From New York Academy of Medicine, Surgical and Gynecological compendium, f. 45va.”  Used with permission.

Use of gold leaf to decorate a copy of Roger Frugardi’s Surgery. From New York Academy of Medicine, Surgical and Gynecological compendium, f. 45va.” Used with permission.

[Theresa]: Speaking of gold, I am grateful for another year of funding from the Pigott McCone endowed chair. With funds from this endowment, last February Professor Bridie Andrews (Bentley University) gave the Al Mann Lecture on medieval and modern Chinese medicine. For the coming year, I’ve organized events on campus devoted to the history of disability, a series on the history of women in science called “Galileo’s Daughters” (with Dava Sobel), and medicine in colonial empires with Hugh Cagle presenting the Al Mann Lecture (University of Utah).

As you can see, this project that originally was about queens has taken on a rather larger life than anything I could imagine. My touchstone remains queens and women and power, but working on this text has made me acutely aware of the many meanings of “inheritance.” Only this past year have I connected the dots of an undergraduate human genetics seminar I took many years ago and the politics of lineal descent. Thinking about how Leonor of Navarre and Gaston IV of Foix thought about inheritance of traits as well as inheritance of realms made me realize how narrow my definition of “inheritance” was. I want to know more about how much nobles and royal families knew about patterns of inheritance, about how they made sense of a boy who resembled his mother more than his father, about why a girl was better at governing than her brother, about how to know if a child is really the daughter or son of the queen’s husband.

I’m particularly intrigued by the case of Navarre, which refused to accept the fraudulent French “Salic Law” that barred women from both ruling in their own right and transmitting the right to rule. Did they know something about inheritance of traits that their French neighbors did not? If so, how did they get that information? Or were the Navarrese just more pragmatic? Were they more inclined to let both women and men inherit and rule because they were more “progressive”? A century later, the Habsburg family’s famously distinctive prognathic jaw was a mark of legitimacy, suggesting that certainly they knew a thing or two about the inheritance of physical traits. Was the mental instability of Queen Juana I, known as “la Loca” (the mad), inherited, too? Or was her madness situational, precipitated by the actions of her bullying father Fernando I of Aragon and her aggressive son, Emperor Charles V? What about the Tudors, who started off so well with Henry VII and Elizabeth of York’s brood but then took a turn for the worse when Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, who was pregnant six times but produced only one child, Mary I, who lived to adulthood? We know a lot about the ins and outs of Henry VIII’s divorces, but almost nothing meaningful about the causes of fertility and infertility in the Tudor family. I hope that by studying the patterns of maternity and fertility we can use the history of medicine to extend our understanding of history in many dimensions—political, family, gender, status and class, religious, cultural. Finally, I envision the database including aristocratic families, whose daughters and sons were often the linchpins to a royal family’s success.

This will all inform an ongoing project, also funded by the Pigott McCone funds, that will create a database of the maternity and fertility of royal families. For the past few years I’ve been collecting data on the pregnancies, healthy births, miscarriages, and stillbirths among royal families. This year, with the help of the Computer Science department at Seattle University, all this information will be available on a database publicly accessible on the Internet. Scholars will be able to post information—text, images, sound, primary and secondary sources, links to internet sites—and anyone, scholar or not, who is interested will have access to the site. The information will be both longitudinal and horizontal, including not just the immediate royal family, but also the aunts, uncles, cousins, and so on. Royal families were complex affiliations that bridge time and space. This database will allow us to discern patterns of health and disease, fertility and infertility and shed light on the health of an entire family. We’re still working on the architecture of the database and what it will look like when you access the site, but I can assure it won’t look like this:

Castile & the Crown of Aragon in the Fifteenth Century

Royal Succession in Castile, the Crown of Aragon, and Portugal in the Fifteenth Century

And this isn’t even a complete list of all the pregnancies, not to mention all the cousins and distant relatives. Still, this type of chart can very useful because it is familiar, but it doesn’t always fit on the traditional page format of books and computer screens. I was delighted when Dr. Cindy Wood of the University of Winchester presented an impressively detailed genealogy of the Plantagenet family at the Royal Studies Network conference just this past July at the University of Winchester. It was about 12 feet long, and even though she has a digital version, there has to be a better way to wrangle the data.

[Monica]: I am, of course, thrilled that this database is in development. I’ve long recognized that the one limitation of focusing on the history of books is that in many cases it’s hard to connect them to the histories of real people. I had the amazing and humbling experience a few years ago to be able to work on the trial of a midwife accused of murdering a woman who had died under her care, the first known instance of such a trial in European history. The concepts about obstetrical interventions that were discussed in my texts took on an immediacy they never had before. Likewise, I had known from documentary records something about the midwives who had served at the court of Navarre, tending to Blanca I of Navarre, mother of Gaston IV’s wife, Leonor. But the political import of reproduction to the lives of real women and men was largely opaque to me. Not any more!

[Theresa]: One of the newest bits of information to go into the database is the news of the newest royal baby, His Royal Highness Prince George of Cambridge, and his proud parents Prince William and Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge. Yes, he’s not medieval, but my long-range goal is to make the database encompass more than just the Middle Ages. Why not start now?