History Class Examines 15th Century Latin Manuscript

August 30, 2013

History Professor Theresa Earenfight took students back into the Middle Ages to translate and examine a 15th century manuscript on medieval medicine this past spring. The medical treatise, Pomum Aureum or Golden Apple, was written in Latin by Pierre Andrée, a French physician, in 1444. Professor Monica Green of Arizona State University, who found the document in Paris’s Bibliotheque National de France, shared it with Earenfight. The original, untranscribed manuscript had never before been translated, studied, or analyzed.

“Our students worked in teams decoding the handwriting, translating passages from Latin to English, and then writing a paper analyzing some aspect of the text,” Earenfight said. “The skills they use are technically known as paleography--reading old handwriting--and codicology which is the study of how books are made in a pre-digital pre-mass market publication age.”

The text was commissioned by Gaston IV, Count of Foix, and his wife Leonor. They had been married 10 years without conceiving a child and called on Pierre Andrée to find ways to promote conception. Leonor gave birth the next year to the first of10 children. The students worked from a digitized copy obtained by Green.

As the current Theiline Pigott McCone Chair in Humanities, Earenfight provided funding for Professor Green, a renowned expert in the history of medicine in the Middle Ages, to co-teach the class. Students were required to have at least one year of Latin to enroll.

While working on the 15th century manuscript, students used 21st century tools. Skype linked students with Green. Goggle Drive allowed for collaborative editing and sharing ideas even when they are not in the same room.

“Our students generally have an eye for linguistic nuances and are rigorous thinkers in all their work,” Earenfight said. “This is the heart and soul of what is often called ‘critical thinking,’ and with this skill, our students will be valuable in whatever field of work they chose.”

Earenfight described the experience of working on an untranscribed manuscript on medieval medicine as “like Dante in the Inferno, we were all in a dark wood wandering, with only our Latin dictionaries and understanding of medieval handwriting to guide us.”

Earenfight received her PhD from Fordham University and joined the faculty in the College of Arts and Sciences in 1998. She is known internationally for her scholarship on medieval Europe and gender issues. In addition to her recently published textbook Queenship in Medieval Europe (Palgrave Macmillan 2013), she is the author of The Queen's Other Body (2010) and editor of Women and Wealth in Late Medieval Europe (2010). Earenfight was awarded the Theiline Pigott McCone Chair in Humanities for 2013-15 by Seattle University President Stephen Sundborg, SJ, in recognition of outstanding teaching and scholarship in a basic humanities discipline in the College of Arts and Sciences.

The College of Arts and Sciences, the largest college in Seattle University, offers 42 undergraduate majors, 37 minors, and 6 master’s degrees and post-baccalaureate certificate.