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Research Spotlight

2023 MEMS Summer Awards

Figures atop a pillar in Karla

Jahnabi Barooah Chanchani
Project:  Animals in Early Indian Buddhism

With financial assistance from the Program in Medieval and Early Modern Studies, I spent a few weeks in Pune, a bustling metropolis in western India, earlier this year. The objective of the trip was to conduct fieldwork and archival research for the second chapter of my dissertation. The dissertation, entitled “Animals Like Us: Interspecies Relationships in the Sanskritic Literary Imagination in Early India,” investigates a corpus of Sanskrit literary texts to chart modes of affective human-animal relationality between the fourth and sixth centuries. The second chapter will be centered on Jātakamālā (Garland of the Buddha’s Lives), a Sanskrit literary text composed in the fourth century CE by Āryaśūra. It narrates some of the previous lives of the historical Buddha, in many of which he assumes an animal form.

I worked closely with faculty members and scholars affiliated with the Department of Sanskrit and Prakrit, and with the Department of Pali at Savitribhai Phule Pune University. We met every day for at least two hours to read portions from different Sanskrit texts, including the Jātakamālā, and I became acquainted with other texts related to the Jātakamālā that also feature animals in interesting ways. These promising avenues for future research include Haribhatta and Gopadatta’s Jātakamālās, texts modeled on Āryaśūra’s work, and a drama called the Nāgananda.

Buddhist caves near Pune

The time in Pune was also helpful for networking with Sanskrit scholars and getting to know new archives. I was able to arrange meetings at the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, a repository of many valuable manuscripts in Sanskrit and other languages, and made contacts at the Anandashram, which has a library with at least 15,000 Sanskrit manuscripts. I was also able to renew contact with scholars at Tilak Maharashtra Vidyapeeth, a reputed center for Sanskrit scholarship.

Karla cave interior

While in Pune, I also made several excursions to Karla and Bhaja, two sites of ancient Buddhist caves carved into mountain cliffs of the Western Ghats between ca. 200 BCE and 200 CE. My objective was to test a hypothesis that the perspective towards animals encoded in the Jātakamālā–animals as moral exemplars–was a relatively new development of the early centuries of the first millennium. At these sites, I studied the figural reliefs for representations of animals and concluded that the status of animals at Bhaja and Karla had indeed changed over the phased construction of the caves. At first, they were not relevant. But with time, they began to be portrayed in proximity to shrines, suggesting that they had earned a place amongst the Buddha’s followers. Throughout, I found that the positioning of animals reflected a hierarchical relation with humans.

My weeks in Pune were very productive and I returned to Ann Arbor energized and excited to begin drafting the second chapter of my dissertation.

Hamam in Molyvos, Lesbos, with glass panels showing the hypocaust heating system below the floor.

NIcholas Crummey
, History
Project: Ottoman Turkish and Bathhouse Literature

This summer my MEMS funding covered part of the cost of a 6-week intensive Ottoman Turkish language course in Ayvalık, Turkey, to assist with my research on early modern Ottoman bathhouses (hamams). The course included detailed paleographical work and helped familiarize me with a variety of document types and writing styles. Additionally, each week my classmates and I memorized a different Ottoman gazel (lyric poem) by a who’s who of famous early modern Ottoman poets. These we recited, usually standing in the classroom early in the morning or, occasionally, swimming in the clear waters of the Aegean on blistering afternoons. A decent part of each class was devoted to unpacking the references and meaning of these highly symbolic poems. Since poetry was the most prestigious form of literature in the Ottoman Empire and the hammamiye micro-genre (poems about a beautiful person bathing in a hamam and the effect they have on the staff, the building, and fellow bathers) will be part of my research, I found this aspect of the course particularly interesting and useful.

      While Ayvalık itself does not have any functioning hamams, I did go hamam-spotting during weekend trips to nearby Bergama and Lesbos, Greece, which gave me a chance to map their spatial and architectural distribution both in an urban context and in more rural areas. While the only functioning early modern bathhouse in Bergama (partly made of antique spolia) currently has a mixed-gender staff and a sauna and is therefore not historically accurate, I nevertheless suffered a scrubbing beneath the sweating skylights of its patterned domes and tried to imagine the scene at the turn of the 15th century. 

Harley 4887, British Library

Madeline Fox
, English
Project: Tracking Sources of the Tale of Melibee

In June of 2023, I spent two weeks at the British Library to advance an ongoing translation project. I studied three manuscript witnesses. The first contained Albertanus of Brescia’s Liber consolationis et consilli, found in Harley MS 4887. The second and third contained Renaut de Louhans Livre de Prudence et Melibee, found in Royal MS C VII and Royal MS 19 C XI.

This project traces Chaucer’s sources for his Tale of Melibee, noting discrepancies between its original Latin version, its intermediary French version, and its final Middle English version. In addition to my Chaucerian study, I aim to publish an original translation of Albertanus’ Liber—work that is complete but being revised based on the contents of Harley MS 4887.

As I began to transcribe Harley MS 4887, I realized that it is not only an abridged version of Albertanus’ work, it is also corrupt. In addition to scribal corruptions, the text descends into an amalgamation of undocumented works. With permission of the British Library Reference Team, I began working to identify the texts present and transcribed each one for the Reference Team’s system. Ultimately, the text proved to be a mixture of Albertanus’ Liber, Raimundus de Biterris’ Liber Kalilae et Dimnae, the Latin Vulgate, and Albertanus’ De amore et delectione dei et proximi et aliarum rerum et de forma vitae Liber II. While this was not exactly what I had planned, working closely for an extended time with this manuscript not only allowed me to capture what was present of Liber, but also pushed me to work with new texts and experiment with archival work using my skills in paleography and Latin as well as my knowledge of medieval didactic treatises.

End of Albertanus's Liber and start of a new text

I intended for my secondary focus to be on Royal MS C VII, another helpful witness of Renaut’s Livre, but I discovered Royal MS 19 C XI, another Old French witness with undocumented discrepancies, which became for me the most generative Chaucerian source. This version, like Albertanus’ Liber, mentions eyes in a list of wounds suffered, and it additionally contains a metaphor about troubled eyes not being able to see well. While Chaucer chose to replace “eyes” with “feet” in the list of wounds, leaving the character Sophie’s eyes intact, he retains the sentiment that those who are troubled do not see well. I argue that Chaucer’s deliberate choice to allow the injured party’s eyes to remain intact allows wisdom to prevail when her father, Melibee, suffers from the metaphorically troubled sight referenced in the Old French.

I have spent four years working with Albertanus’ Liber, Renaut’s Livre, and Chaucer’s Tale, looking at translational differences that will be the basis of my research on medieval optics in Chaucer’s work. Prior to my trip to the British Library, I used Sources and Analogues of the Canterbury Tales to understand manuscript witnesses and their variants. This source lists only one known French manuscript (Bruxelles Bibliotheque Royal Albert Ier, MS 9551-9552; fold 89r-104v) that references yeux (eyes) in the list of injuries, making it possible to argue that Chaucer’s choice to replace “eyes” with the word “feet” (piez) in his Tale was intentional. Considering my findings in Royal MS C VII, it is far more likely that Chaucer's manipulation of the Old French manuscript demonstrates a nuanced understanding and portrayal of optics.

Royal MS 19 C XI’s revelatory features shift what we know about Chaucer’s sources for the Tale of Melibee. Its idiosyncracies have gone undocumented, yet they very closely align with the Middle English text—a text we know Chaucer translated from French. My discoveries in this manuscript not only contribute to my understanding of Chaucer’s commitment to optical terminology and its philosophical function within texts, but also to a broader understanding of Chaucer’s source material. Could Royal MS 19 C XI be the source manuscript for the Tale of Melibee? While it is virtually impossible to say, this manuscript has proven to be one of the closest French witnesses—if not the closest—to Chaucer’s Middle English tale.

As I continue to integrate these new developments into my project, I will work towards publishing my findings.

Julia LaPlaca
, History of Art
Project: Research Prep -- Advanced Conversational French

During the summer of 2023, thanks to a MEMS Summer Award, I was able to take personalized French lessons with the Alliance française de Détroit from the French Institute of Michigan. While I am proficient in reading, I wanted professional assistance to gain more facility in speaking and listening to French, which will be important in my future research in France and Belgium. The Alliance française is a well-regarded program and their private tutoring is flexible and can be targeted to fit the needs of specific learners. Because of a clerical error made by the Alliance, I was only able to take nine lessons. However, I found them very beneficial. My tutor tailored our lessons to focus on speaking on topics relevant to my area of research and we also worked on research-specific vocabulary. 

I'm very grateful that MEMS has expanded its summer awards to include coverage of language training. In my department, students can only get such support before passing the required language proficiency exams. However, I, and I'm sure other students, have found that we'd benefit from more language training as we continue in our degree programs. 

Archive of the Crown of Aragon

Emma Olson
, History
Project: Tools, Methods, and Paleography

From May 22-25, I attended a summer skills workshop at the Mediterranean Seminar in Colorado, thanks to a MEMS summer research award. Reading Archival Latin, a paleography course, offered hands-on training in reading unedited Latin documents from the Archive of the Crown of Aragon and provided an overview of the physical and digital collections of the Archive. Since I plan to conduct much of my dissertation research in the ACA, the workshop was an invaluable place to start. In the span of four days, my ability to read and make sense of these difficult and rich documents grew significantly.

The course was structured around different research fonds within the Archive. So, each day the instructor provided an overview of the types of materials found in a fond, how the documents are structured, how other scholars have used them, and resources for approaching them, and then, we would work through reading some examples together. I did not expect such an intense focus on the history and makeup of the Archive, but it ended up being one of the most valuable parts of the workshop. The instructor’s extensive experience in the Archive gave me numerous ideas for research directions and approaches based around the Archive’s organization and different collections’ relevance to my work. Now, I will know where to start when I plan a research trip and what types of documents I can be practicing with in the meantime. Overall, I came away from the workshop feeling confident about continuing to expand my paleography skills independently, and capable of navigating and beginning to conduct original research with the Archive’s digital materials. 

Early modern Dutch missive

Jennifer Playstead
, History
Project: Early Modern Dutch in Colonial America

This summer, I took a course in Early Modern Dutch with the University College London, funded by a MEMS award. I chose this program because it started with a module that taught reading in Dutch for non-native speakers. Three additional modules covered early modern Dutch texts (and the grammatical characteristics of the era), eighteenth-century Dutch, and reading Dutch manuscripts. This program’s emphasis on Dutch culture has also exposed me to the historical context of the early-modern Netherlands, which has been helpful for my dissertation research.

 I sought out language training in early modern Dutch because colonial New York prior to 1664 was a Dutch-claimed colony called New Netherland. My study of how race was experienced and changed over time required studying Dutch and Flemish New Netherlanders and their records. While many of the early New Netherland documents have been translated, the older translations tend to obscure colonists’ relationships with notions of race. Colonial Council Minutes in English translation, for example, use a variety of nineteenth-century racialized terms that do not accurately reflect the original Dutch documents. This summer, I was able to go to the New York State Archive and access documents that have not yet been translated at all. Before starting this Dutch-language course, these documents were completely inaccessible to me.

 MEMS support of language-learning is such a beneficial resource! As an Americanist, I am only required to read in one language, but as a colonial historian, I feel the basic acquisition of many more languages is necessary. In year six, it was hard to justify spending time on language learning, but it was very important to me. Without this grant, I would not have been able to begin learning Dutch, and my research would not be nearly as well-informed.

Katherine Tapia
, Comparative Literature
Project: Paleography Two Ways

Thanks to MEMS funding, I was able to advance my paleography skills over the summer. I took two classes  through the Mediterranean Seminar at the University of Colorado, Boulder. The first class was Reading Archival Latin and the second was Reading Aljamiado Texts.

 The first class was an intensive week-long workshop on 15th-century Latin paleography. We worked on documents from the Crown of Aragon archive. It was a very hands-on class, which offered some theory but especially the opportunity to practice reading documents at least 95% of the time. My research focuses on the medieval Iberian Peninsula (13th to 15th century), so this was important training that guided me exactly through the kind of paleography I need to be able to work with. I feel that my skills were much improved.

 The second class was also an intensive week-long workshop. This class focused on Aljamiado paleography from the 16th century. Aljamiado was a crypto language (Romance language written in the Arabic alphabet) used by Moriscos (Muslims under Christian rule who were forced to convert to Christianity) to preserve ideas and religious beliefs and rituals. I had some knowledge of how to go about reading it, but this workshop was very useful because I learned to read different styles of Aljamiado writing.

Entrance to AHRB in Tuja

Hannah Tweet
, History
Project:  Prisons and Escapes in Colonial Colombia

This past summer I spent three weeks at the Archivo Histórico Regional de Boyacá (AHRB) in Tunja, Colombia. As a preliminary research trip, my goals were broad. I wanted to follow an emerging interest in early colonial prisons and prison escapes, and I wanted to practice archival skills and enjoy the slow, material process of it all.

I focused on reading and producing preliminary transcriptions of documents regarding Tunja’s public jail. The most common type of record was the naming of the city’s sheriff and/or his lieutenant, the jailer, though other documents offered insight into the prison’s funding and location. I found little material that directly offered information about the jail’s prisoners or their ascribed crimes. However, there were indirect ways of accessing such information, and one particularly special document that did list prisoners, “crimes”, and the jail’s materials. Through these documents I sought to develop a sense of how an early colonial public jail worked, and even without extensive records from the jail itself, I found that the prison was ever-present in the city’s happenings.

An investigation room

Several documents suggested that escapes from the public jail occurred, even if they were only hinted at. One 1651 petition requested funds to build mezzanine cells (entresuelos). The jail previously had these cells, but they were removed when the prison was fortified “on account of many prisoners having fled.” In addition, I found two specific instances of escape from Tunja’s jail. The first, from 1675, involved a prisoner who subsequently sought refuge in Tunja’s church, from which began a long process of recapture (not without conflict between the sheriff’s lieutenant and the clergy). In 1757, another escape took place, but this time thirteen prisoners broke out at once.

Turning to the materiality of the documents, I noticed that in city council records, most of the appended materials were copies of royal provisions, titles, and so on, rather than the originals. The pages showed little sign of wear, suggesting they were recorded in Tunja and perhaps stayed in Tunja. Meanwhile, in the other collection I used (Archivo Histórico) there were signs that the documents had travelled. For example, several pages were previously folded. Using dates sent and received, I also noted possible travel times for documents, for example between Bogotá and Tunja, or Cartagena and Tunja. These helped me begin to think about the movement of documents and information.

The trip was especially meaningful for developing my research interests, while opening possibilities for new directions. I was permitted to take photos and will (hopefully soon) return to some of the details. Funding from MEMS and LACS (Tinker Field Research Grant) made the research trip possible.