Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Free to a Good Home: Ph.D. Dissertation Topic

The Liber Aphorismorum is the Latin translation of Hippocrates' Aphorisms, one of the most-studied texts in the history of medicine. Learning the Aphorisms, and how to interpret them, was one of the major tasks facing apprentice physicians in the Middle Ages (the interpretation, of course, was mainly through Galen). The translation was made from a “recension or archetype of the early sixth century either at Ravenna, the center of the translating activity under Theodoric the Ostrogoth, or possibly at Corbie” (Kibre, citing Beccaria 1961, 22ff). This translation was used up through the twelfth century, when two other Latin translations were made from the Greek.

There are 22 manuscripts of this first translation, scattered throughout western Europe (the greatest number are in the BN in Paris). As far as I have been able to determine, they have not been comprehensively edited. The standard editions and translation of the Aphorisms are made directly from the Greek text (which of course makes sense).

There are also a great number of commentaries on the Aphorisms, also scattered throughout Europe. Many, if not most, of these have been edited. Some have been translated.

Here's the dissertation project:

First, produce a diplomatic edition (assemble all the manuscript evidence (i.e., in microfilm, photocopy, pdf, etc., transcribe them in machine-readable form).

Then produce a critical edition of the Latin text. For six centuries this was one of the major medical texts, yet it has been ignored because the "better" (i.e., truer to the Hippocratean source) Greek text was edited. That we have a more accurate text is wonderful, but the text that was actually used would be of great interest as well.

In doing this you will have the opportunity to do the kinds of things that the editors of the PL or the MGH did back in the nineteenth century: except you'll have computers, databases, facsimiles, etc.

You'll also be able to market yourself both as a literary scholar (in medieval Latin) and a historian of medicine: there will be more and more interesting job opportunities to come out of it, and funding should be much less of a problem. Medical schools have tons of money, and the money required to support a literary scholar is peanuts compared to what it costs to do most of their research.

And if you take this project, you don't even have to pay me. Just let me have your raw transcription/diplomatic edition.

Why? Well, the project I want to do requires this information, but I estimate that it would take me five years or so to gather it, and my own Latin is probably not good enough to produce a solid edition of a medieval Latin text without missing some significant subtleties. Also, I have about ten years worth of other projects lined up, anyway.

What am I looking for? Memes, of course. It is my gut feeling--supported by the gut feelings of others who know the Aphorism tradition much better than I do--that the Aphorisms change very, very little in their transmission over six centuries or more. They are very stable memes. Yet the commentaries vary a great deal. So the transmission and copying of the Aphorisms compared with the transmission and copying of the commentaries gives us a really interesting data set on the formal stability of prose texts. I am very interesting in finding out exactly how much they vary, what patterns can be seen in the variation and what comparisons we can make to other texts (say, poetry, laws, etc.) that have a long transmission history. The Aphorisms are in some ways on the boundary of poetry and prose, which makes them additionally interesting for my theoretical work.

I would assert--and I'd like to be able to argue, even prove--that there is an inverse relationship between formal stability and interpretive stability. That is, if the form holds still, then the interpretation must continually shift (as the language and culture changes out from under the text). I think this holds true in poetry and proverbs: I'd love to test it with the Aphorisms.

So, if any grad students read this who want a dissertation topic, I'll definitely write a strong letter of support to your funding bodies (and again, this kind of research opens up additional funding opportunities).

My own tentative work suggests that it might not be necessary to scramble all over Europe to get the manuscripts either. I'm guessing that many of them might be included in Johns Hopkins' "Henry E. Sigerist Medieval Manuscript Reproduction Collection," but I won't know for sure until some ILL requests come in.

In the meanwhile, anyone who wants to set me straight about errors in the above or (even better) point out to me that someone has already done most of this work will be owed several beers at Kalamazoo.


Carl Nyberg said...

I'm a blogger listening to your lectures on science fiction.

I have a quibble with how you tarred H.G. Wells for being a fan of Lenin and Stalin.

I think you should have merely said Wells was a fan of the Soviet experiment and Lenin. Wikipedia portrays Wells as giving Stalin mixed reviews and criticizing him for being "too rigid".

According to Wikipedia Wells was not primarily a socialist but a one-world utopian, "His most consistent political ideal was the World-State."

This makes Wells sound more like a World Federalist (like Kurt Vonnegut and Albert Einstein) than a proponent of Gulags.

Narya said...

How does Torah and the centuries of commentary fit with your notion of memes, and textual vs. interpretive stability? It'd be an interesting test case, though probably beyond the scope of anything you could do.

John Cowan said...

There's no doubt at all that the inverse relationship between formal and interpretive stability that you mention applies in law. The very first thing that modern (i.e. 19th-century) comparative legal scholarship discovered was that law progresses from code to fiction to equity back to code.

In the code stage, we have a fixed or nearly fixed text, like the XII Tables, the Code of Justinian, Magna Carta, or the U.S. Constitution. Because every fixed text is obsolete as soon as it is fixed, it is quickly necessary for legal fictions to develop, in which a portion of the text is allowed to cover new circumstances by allowing one party to stipulate things which are not true and nevertheless cannot be rebutted by the other party (see the Wikipedia article) for excellent historical examples).

When this device becomes insufficient to the needs of the time, a new and overlapping legal system grows up, based on the conscience of the King or what is aequum et bonum; here there is no fixed text, as stare decisis is usually disclaimed from the start. Successive interpreters of the flexible principles eventually freeze the whole thing into a mechanism nearly as stabilized as the underlying code, and eventually a new codifier arrives to do the donkey-work of assembling the new fixed text. So it goes.