Sunday, 16 January 2011


Greetings, patient awaiter of this very belated blog post. This very moment, as you are reading this, I am preparing my teaching for February, spending much time staring at possibly inappropriate images of zodiac men (like the one below), reading astrological charts from the fifteenth century and transcribing instructions for blood-letting. As you do on a slow Sunday afternoon.
From Wellcome MS 8004
thanks to their fabulous digital online edition

My preparations are speeding ahead at an unusually urgent pace, fuelled by a recent conversation that got my blood racing - rather appropriately in the context of zodiac men, those diagrams indicating veins and their connections to the stars which help determine advantageous times for letting blood. Mine would've been positively spurting out of my body in the Sign of the Phone. You see, the other day a friend I've known for more than a decade called me. She is a journalist, widely travelled and fluent in several languages. This friend and I have some synchronicity going: we call each other, more often than not, at exactly the point where we both need some comfort, a fresh burst of energy or just someone to tell us that everything's going to be all right, and it always works. Used to work, I should say. This time she managed to make my skin crawl when I mentioned a recent success of mine in my pet discipline of the history of science, to be exact an official acknowledgement of my expertise in the history of alchemy. She exclaimed: "Fancy that! There you are, pottering along on a crusty old subject with no relevance to the modern world whatsoever, and you're considered on par with proper scientists!"

Now some of you may agree - why should history of alchemy be relevant to, well, anything? And why should I be looking forward to teaching students of the history of English about medical manuscripts? The answer to the first question could go on forever, but I am keen to get back to my teacher-like plotting and scheming activities. Suffice to say that an understanding of how those who experimented before us thought about matter, about the world and its workings, and the meaning of it all, should give us a healthy impression of uncertainty and passion, the two main movers and shakers of intelligent man. Uncertainty about 'how things really are', and indeed whether there is a fixed inventory of facts that may be discovered for total wisdom and knowledge, keeps things interesting for modern scientists, philosophers, and ponderers alike. The passion to investigate, no matter how long it takes or where it may lead, gets them off their mental and physical butts and into studies, labs and other places of uncovery. For me, the idea that this is a process that keeps going, in waves and spirals, forever, is fascinating and comforting. There are always more 'eureka' moments to be had.

The reasons why I like teaching palaeography (that is, reading old handwriting), manuscripts and old forms of English based on medical manuscripts are also many: firstly, medical manuscripts can be really pretty, contain intriguing images, some of them gory, and hence draw in the eye of even the most reluctant student to the image, and the brain of the same student to the subject at hand. Secondly, the medical context gives a human element to it all: in the fifteenth century, sick people consulted doctors who treated them to the best of their knowledge. Doctor and patient shared some sense of how the human body works (and what to do when it doesn't), and how it fits into God's creation. It all made good sense. Today, we still do the same thing. And although different cultures have different understandings of the body, illness and cures, it is the body itself, and the urgency that drives a patient to seek advice, that is a constant among the many variables which constitute 'medicine' in different times and places. The recognition of this familiar element, and the wonder of (even an initial rejection of) strange methods and cures, gets everyone's brains going. Students will want to read those bits of text around the zodiac man.  And they will have that eureka moment when they realise that, within the late medieval system of medicine and astrology, it all makes as much sense as, say, Prozac does today. One day I'll get my journalist friend on board, too, and take her on this time travel device called history - with a twist.

On that note, this blogging doctor is busy. Go eat your greens, and don't miss your next appointment!

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