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In The Archive

Last Friday I posted the picture above on Instagram of a document I was working with in the archive. I was pleasantly surprised at how much interest it generated. I received a bunch of questions and emails asking about what exactly it is I do in the archive (you can read more about what it's like to be a PhD student here). So I thought it would be fun to share a little more about historical research and my project (don't worry I won't bore you with too many details!).

As I am sure you know, Historians rely mostly on primary sources to (attempt to) make sense of the chaos that is the past. What is a primary source? Well it can be a written document, image, or object from the time period of study. This is why I have to spend time in Italy, so that I can access the documents of the time period I study, which is 17th-18th century Tuscany under the Medici Grand Dukes and Duchesses.

Fortunately, Florence (which was its own principality/state until the unification of Italy in the 19th century) has always been good at bureaucratic record keeping, which means there are a ton of documents pertaining to the Medici housed in the State Archive. You can find everything from their financial receipts, to inventories, to millions of personal and political correspondences. 

My research centers on the scientific and medical culture of the Medici court. The Medici Grand Dukes and Duchesses were really into all things science (they patronized Galileo and he in turned named the four moons of Jupiter after them). In particular, I am researching the last Medici Princess's participation in this scientific culture at court. To do this, I look at lots of different kinds of documents in the archive in an attempt to reconstruct her activities and motivations -- her financial records, medical recipes she collected, her correspondence, and the inventories of the Medici court pharmacy (pictured above).

Over the course of my research I have discovered all sorts of interesting medicinal remedies that she either used, collected, or disseminated. Everything from pulverized human skull, to unicorn horn (probably rhinoceros horn), to St. Ignatius beans (a.k.a. strychnine). I am not going to lie, being in the archive is an incredible feeling -- kind of like Indiana Jones, but with less whips and running.

If this is something that piques your interest, you are in luck. The Medici Archive Project is a research institute whose mission is to build a searchable electronic database of each document in what is one of the world’s most exhaustive and complete archives: the Medici Granducal Archival Collection. This archival collection contains over four-million letters and occupies a mile of shelf space in the state archive of Florence (it is so big, it will take decades to digitize). It documents the political, diplomatic, gastronomic, economic, artistic, scientific, military and medical culture of early modern Europe. And you can have access to it (history nerds rejoice)!

Simply go to their website here. You will see a link in the top right of the screen to their online database called BIA. You will have to request a username, but once you receive an email with your log-in information you can start exploring the documents (which range in date from 1537 to 1743). You can search and read the documents in English, so don't be intimidated. 

Hopefully that wasn't too boring!

PS - Can you read what animal was stuffed and displayed in the Medici pharmacy in the document above?

Ashley B
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  1. This is so fascinating! It's absolutely insane how much you can narrow history down to study one particular event/ person/ topic. There's so much history it's mindblowing. I would love to see more posts like this.

    1. Thanks Randi, so happy to hear you found the post interesting. I fear because research topics are so narrow that people in general will be less interested. I will definitely do more research/history posts!

  2. Crocodile?
    THANK YOU for this! I am such a history nerd and actually studied the Medicis (in much less detail than you!) when I specialized in "Early Modern History" for my A-Level History (I went to high school in England). I'm going to have some fun on that site! I love especially that you have chosen to study a woman and her interests, I always love reading the stories of women in history. My favorite research project (granted, this was the equivalent of undergrad level so certainly not advanced!) was on the PR campaign Elizabeth I ran to brand herself when she became Queen of England.

    1. Yes crocodile! So happy I could share something of interest, it is so rare to find others who have focused on early modern history, much less the Medici! Enjoy the online database. And your project sounds fascinating, self-fashioning was no less important then as it is now!

  3. Digging through archives is one of my favorite parts of academia - I was able to go through original documents from the Manhattan Project and it felt amazing to be working with history in that way. I can't imagine what it would be like to work with documents as old and as fascinating as what you are looking into! I'd love to periodically hear about your research, if you'd like to share it on your blog.

    this sojourner

    1. Oh The Manhattan Project, that is very interesting! Old documents can be frustrating -- archaic language, sentence structure, and spelling -- but when you finally figure out what they are saying, it is so exciting. I have to be careful with how much I share, since it is my proprietary research for my dissertation, but now that I know people are interested, I can definitely share a bit more! Thanks!

  4. Sounds like you literally get to journey back in time every single day, how exciting!

  5. I'm currently getting my MA in history and I LOVE your blog. Any tips for making the most of your archive search? I always feel like my brain is mush after an hour or two.

    1. This might need its own post! I think it depends on the archive. If you can take pictures, take as many as possible (but not so many you can make sense of them when you get home). Unfortunately in Florence, I cannot, so I have to read and transcribe. This can be frustrating and time consuming. My advice is to relax and enjoy the experience. Too much pressure on yourself will inhibit your work. Also, don't be afraid to ask senior scholars and archivists for help. They are a wealth of information and were once in your shoes! Good luck and thanks so much for reading and following along!

  6. I loved this post! I agree with Randi and Julia, it would be cool to see some more posts about your research if you would be open to write more! :)


  7. Every time I post pictures of my research in the archives, people are always really amazed that I can read my documents (and almost all of mine are in English since I study 17th and 18th century England!)! That looks like a great place to work, with some really interesting archival materials!

  8. Your blog is one of my absolutely favorites for your bright, fun, and quality style, but things like this just set you apart and are so amazing! I'd love for your to share more about your research and interest in history in addition to your wonderful travel tips. Do you listen to the podcast Stuff You Missed in History Class? I have a feeling you'd love it :)

  9. Id love to see a post on what you pack and how you organize yourself for all this research, especially since you're abroad. Awesome post!

  10. I love your blog! I've been following your Instagram for a year now and this is my first time to visit your blog. I'm a History major from the Philippines. One of the challenges I encountered during my coursework was archival research since most of our primary sources are in Spanish. I'm happy to have encountered your site showing how archival research can be fun and interesting as well. Thank you! You are an encouragement!


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