Jessica Legacy

Words are Alchemy

The great mid-year post of accountability! (Or, what am I doing with my thesis-life.)

In an effort to stave off procrastination, or at least rebrand it as something semi-connected and still productive-ish, I've decided to finally write a post about my thesis. This is also my opportunity to tell anyone who is reading that I INTEND TO HAND IN MY THESIS BEFORE MY 35TH BIRTHDAY! Which means I have until August 14 at 11:59pm to get this baby finished.

So, what exactly am I doing? Inquiring minds, are you out there? Any minds inquiring besides my mom, I mean? Let's do this.

The Bodies in the Almanac: Ontological Gestures in the Medieval Medical Folded Almanac

The medieval medical folded almanac is a predominantly English technology used in the late-fourteenth to mid-fifteenth century. It is oblong in shape, with roughly twelve folios (pages) that are folded in half horizontally and then in three or four vertically in order to make a long, narrow manuscript that fits nicely in the palm. These folios are stitched together at one end into a sturdy tab binding, and the whole thing can be kept in a pouch or strung onto a girdle (belt). 

Wellcome Library MS 8932

Wellcome Library MS 8932

Wellcome Library MS 8932.  Shout out to Magic Hands!

Wellcome Library MS 8932.

Shout out to Magic Hands!

The content contained in these folios include what I like to refer to as physician's cheat sheets. Medieval medicine was built upon the foundation of the humours. Essentially, it was believed that the body contained four cardinal fluids, or humours: blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile. In order to maintain good health, these humours needed to be in balance. If a person fell ill, it was probably because there was a buildup of excess humour. Some of the treatments included adjusting diet and environment, and bloodletting.

British Library MS Sloane 2435 c. 1285  "I think we're going to need a bigger leech."

British Library MS Sloane 2435 c. 1285

"I think we're going to need a bigger leech."

In order to make sense of the changes in the world and the human body, medieval thinkers looked to the cosmos. It was thought that the planets governed the humours, and the movement of those planets—and in some cases their conjunctions—had a drastic effect on body and health.

Back to the cheat sheet. 

The folded almanac contained calendars that tracked the planetary movements throughout the year. It also included charts of eclipses, tables of planetary information and everyone's favourite diagrams, the zodiac and vein man. 

Wellcome Library MS 8932  Zodiac Man

Wellcome Library MS 8932

Zodiac Man

British Library MS Harley 5311  Vein Man

British Library MS Harley 5311

Vein Man

Along with all the calendars and tables, these two images help the physician to know when, or when not to perform bloodletting in relation to the zodiac cycle, and also where on the body to place an incision or creepy crawly leechy beastie. (Fellas, note that there are two points right there on the dangly bits.)

So what does this have to do with my thesis baby? Glad you asked, mom.

Taking to account that these manuscripts contain material regarding time and space, (calendars and planets), I argue that the folded almanac gestures toward the way medieval physicians engaged with the ontology of the body, which is a fancy term that means to grapple with where and when the body fits into the universe. Since the almanac is filled with content about planetary movements, zodiac cycles, important times in the year, et cetera, the physician effectively carries a vast amount of knowledge about the human body and the universe all folded up neatly in his pocket.

When the physician visits a patient, he takes this almanac out of his pocket or unclips it from his belt. He then unfolds and consults it in order to get a better sense of what is happening inside the ailing body. This unfolding and consulting appears as a ritual performance that situates the body of not only the patient, but also the physician, amongst time and space. 

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Not from a folded almanac, but still, cats are always there.  Always .

Not from a folded almanac, but still, cats are always there. Always.

These manuscripts are vastly understudied, but they are beginning to receive more scholarly attention. Over ten years ago now, Hilary Carey put out two very important essays detailing the folded almanac. Peter Murray Jones has also addressed these almanacs in his work on medieval medical miniatures and manuscripts. More recently, J.P Gumfort wrote a book called Bat Books: A Catalogue of Folded Manuscripts Containing Almanacs or Other Texts (Brepols, 2016), and I am grateful to Jennifer Borland and Karen Overbey for allowing me to read their upcoming chapter on almanacs and performance in The Agency of Things in Medieval and Early Modern Art: Materials, Power and Manipulation (Routledge, 2017).

Focusing on ontology has frequently caused me to consider where this thesis fits into time and space. Why am I researching this? One reason is because by examining the way that medieval medicine incorporated bigger picture thinking and adapted technology in order to—quite literally—keep ahold of it, I think this sheds light on how the body was understood to be vulnerable, but also powerfully connected to something larger. That doesn't seem so far removed from the way many of us think today. History shows us where we're going by reminding us where we've been.

So, that's my brief overview of my thesis. If anyone has questions or comments, I'd be happy to discuss. Also, if you see me staring at my screen but not making any progress, please bring coffee...or wine.