Friday, February 04, 2005

Projecting Forward

While I'm writing one thing, I'm very often thinking about what else I might be writing. This is partly functional: if I'm stuck on the current project (if not stuck, I am at least slogging very slowly) it's far more fun to turn my attention to Something Else (Anything Else!) than to keep staring at the current work and wondering whether I'm going to win or it is. But it is also a part of that blithe pioneer spirit that looks toward the horizon and a bit of unconquered space. At least, that's what I'm telling myself.

I have had, for several years, an idea for the book I'd like to write next. It was inspired by repeated readings of a lushly illustrated kids' picture book, a retelling of one of the classic fairy tales. Only, if I do it the way I want to do it, many readers might read the book and not recognize the core story (no, I'm not going to tell you what story it is). My thought was to set the story in medieval Italy. This causes a certain tangling up of terminology: while of course Italy existed during the years all the other nations in Europe were having a middle ages, as I read and research I find it hard to pinpoint that era in Italy. There's the Renaissance, and before that the endless decline of the Roman empire and the splitting up of the Empire in to smaller factions, and many invasions by other parties. You can point your finger at France or Germany or England and say, there, that's the middle ages. It's harder in Italy.

One thing that sold me on the time and place was Trotula di Salerno, an early and wildly influential gynecologist in the 13th century who was a teacher at the medical school in Salerno--and a woman. Her texts were still being used by doctors as late as the 18th century, and while some of her information is decidedly of the "you puts a knife under the bed to cut the pain" variety, other of it is remarkably sage. Her name survives in some versions of "Jack and Jill": "then off Jack got and off did go as fast as he could caper/to Old Dame Trot, who patched his nob with vinegar and brown paper." I really want my protagonist to be one of Trotula's students. And of course, I'd love to be able to go to Italy to scope out the terrain.
Unfortunately, Salerno is one of those towns that was pretty much flattened during World War II. While the climate and the physical feel of the city is probably unchanged from 900 years ago, there is very little of the medieval university, or the medieval city, to be found.

So I'm reading up on medieval gynecology and Italian history. I may wind up with a book no one wants to buy (what? another damned Italian fantasy? pfui!) but it won't leave me alone, and the books that follow me down dark alleys are generally the ones I want to write.


Blogger Gregory Feeley said...

Medieval gynecology? We are not talking Golden-Age-of, here. It's a grim subject -- anything medical and medieval is, but this especially.

I have at times thought of writing about Gabriello Fallopio, a genuinely fascinating figure. (Yes, he of the tubes.) Is that the kind of thing you're talking about?

11:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Whadya mean, another damned Italian fantasy?


12:32 PM  
Blogger Madeleine Robins said...

This gets into the history of the University of Salerno, which (if I can ever find the notes I took three years ago!) was the first medical school in Europe, founded by a Jew, a Catholic, a Muslim, and a fourth party whose allegiance I can't quite remember. The school was started in the 1100s, I believe. Dame Trot herself lived about a hundred years later. I'm interested in giving her a student who becomes a midwife/gynecologist of similar standing. This will require some notion both of the obstetric procedures of the time (which, as you say, are pretty damned gruesome) and of magical procedures. I could be researching this for some time before I get down to actually writing.

As for "another damned Italian fantasy"--someone said that a few years ago when I outlined my idea. And Beth Gilligan, who's in my workshop, has a three part fantasy set in an late-Renaissance alternate Sicily. There are Michaela Roessner's The Stars Dispose and The Stars Compel, and Midori Snyder's Italian Renaissance fantasy (the name has slipped my mind, though I can see the cover--even the type--in my mind). Depending on which pew you sit in, one could call The Name of the Rose a fantasy--and I seem to remember its setting as Italian. I guess there are other Italian fantasies out there.

2:40 PM  
Blogger Madeleine Robins said...

Greg--have you ever seen the lovely woodcut which shows a woman, naked and looking rather enticingly at the audience, who stands with one foot on a pile of books, and her abdomen neatly cut open and the flaps pinned back to display the single-chambered womb? Apparently one of the big Hot Topics of medieval gynecology was whether human females had single-chambered or many chambered uteri, and this fetching female was supposed to be a refutation of the mulitiple chamber theory (the books she's stomping on are all of the multi-chamber school).

6:21 PM  
Blogger Gregory Feeley said...

I have never heard of that! Can one read the titles of the tomes underfoot?

6:30 PM  
Blogger claire said...

Lord in his heaven but I would like to read this book.

There, I said it :)


8:57 PM  
Blogger Madeleine Robins said...

I just found it (I believe I've actually seen two versions of the woodcut) in a nifty book called How to Do It, a compendium from Italian Renaissance advice manuals. I had forgotten that her uterus was sitting on a table next to her! Alas, you cannot see the titles on the books. The caption says:

"The model points to her uterus, clearly just one, which is lying on the table to her right, after removal from her abdominal cavity. Now that the truth is displayed for all to see, she stamps triumphantly on the medical books claiming that a woman's uterus has seven compartments." realize what a dangerous thing this is to say to me?

9:14 PM  
Blogger claire said...

Yup. That's what friends (and editors) do :)

That plus it has always sounded like a really cool book to read...


8:25 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The woodcut sounds utterly compelling, but I'm not sure I would have used the term "lovely" as a modifier.

1:48 PM  

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