Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Hands of a Healer: The Culture of Medicine in Late Medieval Ireland | Help fund research

I'd like to take this opportunity to introduce Lauren Jean, a US student seeking funding to undertake interesting and exciting research: The Hands of a Healer: The Culture of Medicine in Late Medieval Ireland. I would urge you to read about her research and consider donating to her fund. Every donation will be matched dollar for dollar, so even a small contribution can go a long way!


Robert M Chapple

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For undergraduates in the United States who hope to apply to PhD programs, the writing of either a senior thesis or an honors thesis is a fairly crucial piece of the overall application. Yet as I approached my junior year, I was somewhat at a loss as to what I wanted to research. I have a strong grounding in Modern Irish history and have spent nearly a decade trying to examine the Easter Rising from a number of different angles. Yet I wasn’t entirely positive that I wanted to do my doctorate in that area—there was just something about Gaelic Ireland that kept drawing me in. Additionally, one of my favorite professors at William and Mary was the medievalist in the department. Thus I spent a good deal of Summer 2013 attempting to find something I was interested in, hopefully a topic that would lie at the intersection of medieval Ireland, the hereditary learned families and cultural history.

Commentary of Isidore on the
Maxims of St John Damascene (Source)
Unfortunately, what immediately came to mind was the Contention of the Bards, an early 17th century poetic dispute that arose in the wake of the Tudor Conquest, between the poets of the southern and northern families. Unfortunate because in 2011 a W&M student had written an honors thesis on Tudor policies towards the Bards during the Conquest; while I have a strong interest in Gaelic poetry and writing history from the Irish perspective, rather than that of the English administration, I also did not need my thesis compared to hers in any way, particularly since it seems likely that our committees will be somewhat similar. Nonetheless inspiration did eventually strike, from a rather unusual source: my younger brother.

My brother is an engineering student at Syracuse University, who recently decided to join the volunteer ambulance corps as well as change his major from electrical engineering to biomedical engineering. Thus a great deal of medical jargon was floated around the house that summer; as I’m not exactly versed in modern emergency medicine, I would respond with examples from history, usually irritating my brother. Nonetheless, one day it finally dawned on me that my amateur interest in medieval medical folklore, my desire to more fully flesh out my family history—which includes the Cassidys of Fermanagh, physicians to the Maguires, and my academic interest in the culture of the learned Gaelic families could lead to some fairly interesting research.

The Book of the O’Lees [‘Book of Hy-Brasil’]: Medical treatise (Source)
Odd topic in hand, I approached my soon-to-be-adviser that fall and began skirting around the topic of my topic. Finally, after he agreed to advise me, I let him know what my plan was. To say he was surprised would be an understatement; it’s not every day that an undergraduate at one of the US’s leading schools for Colonial history announces intent to study the medical manuscripts of Gaelic Ireland, in the original language. Thankfully he still agreed to advise me, but there was little he could do in terms of pointing me towards sources; this was fair and was something I knew going in, as it was nowhere near his area of expertise. As an American student studying Irish history, I’ve always had to conduct my research independently. In a way, I’m thankful, as this sink-or-swim approach has allowed me to hone my skills to such a high level, yet I often worry about the historiographical waters I’m treading in.


As I started digging into the secondary sources over winter break it consistently hit me that there seemed to be a dearth of sources on this topic. There were a few valiant scholars, particularly Aoibheann Nic Dhonnchadha at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies working on the topic, but there wasn’t the sort of preponderance of sources one tends to expect, even with obscure topics. I knew I could lay my hands on any number of secondary sources for the poets, and a slew of primary sources as well, but it seemed odd that another segment of the learned class seemed so comparatively neglected. As I worked, it began to dawn on me precisely why that was. Many of the surviving manuscripts, though written in Classical Irish, were largely translations of Latin or Continental medical treatises; in essence, the period of the Gaelic revival actually represents a break in the continuity of the fascinating native tradition that is described in the early law texts like Bretha Crólige and Bretha Déin Chécht. Additionally, on a more practical note, many of the medical texts—which make up a rather large portion of the surviving texts from the late medieval period—have yet to be transcribed, i.e. it requires a background in paleography and Classical Irish just to sit down and read the treatises.

While there is a disappointing lack of survival of overt Gaelic culture, I tend to view this as highly intriguing. These texts are an implicit challenge to those who accuse the pre-Gaelic Revival learned class of being stagnant and bound in tradition. Nor was it an alteration to Gaelic society made solely on the basis of opposition to English culture and mores as were imposed during the Tudor Conquest. Additionally the mere act of translation is going to reveal far more about Gaelic conceptions of medicine and healing than looking at an Irish text singly would, due to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis concerning how one’s native tongue will shape thought and translation. Essentially, there is not only an opportunity for me to step into a historiographical gap, but to counterintuitively illustrate the pure Irishness of these texts.

Devinish Island, Co. Fermanagh (Source)

In order for me to conduct my research going forward, however, I am going to need to go to Ireland over the summer in order to take advantage of a variety of different archives, not only to access the primary sources (many of which are available through ISOS, though not all are) but to access rare, out of print secondary materials in order to understand the scholarship that came before me. To do so, I will need funding. I’ve applied for a grant from William and Mary, however the way the Honors Fellowships work is that they are crowd-sourced fellowships, meaning my research relies upon donations. To date I’ve raised $3620, meaning I have $2380 to go until I reach what W&M considers “fully funded” a grand total of $6000. To specify how the grant is split up, $4K will go to supporting my doing summer research full-time for 10 weeks, $1K goes to continuing to support my research over the 2014-2015 school year, and the final 1K will go to my adviser to assist with the research; I have no control over these numbers, these are the rules that W&M has set up.


While I’ve clearly raised a lot of money, I would strongly prefer to reach fully funded stage in order to realize the fullest potential for my research. So, with some very gracious thanks to Robert for letting me post on this blog and also for donating, I am reaching out to you, his readers to help me in my endeavor. No donation is too small—in fact, there is currently a donation match going on, so any donation you make to my project would be doubled. I greatly appreciate any support you can give.

Lauren Jean

Donate here!

Update: April 16 2014. I've just checked in on Lauren's funding page and am been delighted to find that she has reached her target amount. My thanks to all readers of this blog who helped fund this interesting and important research.
Robert.