My Dissertation

People always ask, “What’s your dissertation about?”

It is a seemingly simple question. The problem is that dissertations are never simple and they are often incredibly esoteric. Figuring out how to make it interesting and comprehensible to someone who knows nothing about the period and region you study can be incredibly difficult. But it is a skill you have to master because, in reality, there are only a handful of people who will know anything in-depth about your topic. In an effort to master this skill, I thought I should write a blog post summarizing my dissertation. Are you ready? Here goes…

My dissertation is about the social, cultural, and political importance of science and medicine, particularly pharmacy and botany, at the late Medici Court (1650 – 1750). Basically I ask, why did the late Medici Court devote a ton of time, money, and resources to collecting exotic plants and materials in addition to producing costly pharmaceutical remedies?

At the center of my study, and what prompted my research, is a collection of alchemical and medicinal recipes collected by the last Medici Princess, Anna Maria Luisa de’ Medici. Now, you are probably thinking, “the Medici, aren’t they a show on Netflix?” Yes, yes they are. Italy’s most famous family, the Medici, have come to embody the ideals and values associated with the “Renaissance.” Side note – I place the tern “Renaissance” in quotations because this is a problematic term and reflects more the ideals of American and British scholars who created this term rather than early modern Florence/Italy. Anna Maria Luisa (1667 – 1743) was the last descendant of the famous Medici family.

But back to Anna Maria Luisa’s recipes – Her recipes originally sparked my interest because they were so interesting and in many cases odd. Don’t even ask how her recipe prescribed taking a St. Ignatius Bean! Hint, it doesn’t go in your mouth.

As a collection, her recipes cover everything from chemical formulas for rare paint colors, dyes, and styptic waters, to perfume, fever waters, concoctions to control epilepsy and lung inflammation, and even forms of lapidary medicine (i.e. the use of natural or man-made stones in medicine). What I did not expect when I first started my project was that this collection of recipes–collected by a women who is seen as inconsequential to the larger political and cultural milieu of the 18th century–would allow me to trace the global circulation of early modern medicinal ingredients and “drugs.”

Through Anna Maria Luisa’s collection of recipes and records of the Medici Court’s pharmaceutical expenses, I traced how Anna Maria Luisa and her father collected exotics, such as Goa Stones, various roots and barks from East Africa, St. Ignatius Beans, Cannanor Stones, and numerous exotic plants like bananas and pineapples, through commercial agents, religious missions, and political allies.

So why does all of this matter? Well, it mattered for Anna Maria Luisa because recipes allowed her to participate in the patronage and practice of medicine. Through recipe and pharmaceutical patronage she found a way to stay relevant in the politics of eighteenth century Europe. Not an easy feat for a childless widow who was the last of her family!

Anna Maria Luisa specifically focused her medical authority and knowledge on the health of women and children. She became widely known in circles of correspondence for her the infant convulsion powder that was produced at her personal pharmaceutical laboratory (infant fevers and the convulsions they caused were very deadly in the 18th century). This powder became her most precious commodity for saving the lives of the children of the European nobility. By gifting precious medical knowledge, Anna Maria Luisa was able to ingratiate herself to some of the most powerful courts of Europe. With the good will she established through recipe exchange and medicinal gifts, Anna Maria Luisa maintained a network of communication with the very courts that would decide the fate of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany. With no Medici heir to succeed Anna Maria Luisa’s brother, larger European powers vied to take possession of Tuscany and all of its vast cultural and material riches (remember, the Medici art collection included almost every famous Renaissance and Baroque artist).

Anna Maria Luisa was worried that her family’s legacy and precious collections would be destroyed with the end of their line. Thus, she focused much of her medical gifting on the court of Vienna. By the eighteenth century, the Viennese court was of particular importance as it was both the headquarters of the Hapsburg dynasty and the center of imperial politics. By the last two decades of Anna Maria Luisa’s life, it was clear that Tuscany would become a satellite state of the Hapsburg empire. Francis of Lorraine, the future Holy Roman Emperor and founder of the Hapsburg-Lorraine dynasty, became the Tuscan Grand Duke and ruled Florence from the imperial court in Vienna – a court and nobility that was much indebted to Anna Maria Luisa and her infant convulsion powder.

Are you still with me? Just checking. I am almost finished, I promise. Here is why all of this matters beyond Anna Maria Luisa:

Anna Maria Luisa’s collection of alchemical and medicinal recipes in addition to her father’s, Cosimo III, pharmaceutical patronage reveals the cultural, social, and political importance of recipes and medicine at the late Medici court. Recipes and medicine were objects that not only displayed wealth and knowledge, but also could be gifted and exchanged as meaningful and lucrative forms of social currency in court politics. Thus, an examination of the scientific and medicinal pursuits of the late Medici court, through the lens of recipes, reassesses the previously disregarded scientific culture of the late Medici court, re-centers one woman’s role in the shaping of a scientific and medical court culture, and demonstrates how women negotiated social capital through recipes.

And there you have it. A very condensed version of my dissertation. I would love to hear your feedback. What this interesting? What would you like to know more about?

17 thoughts on “My Dissertation”

  1. This is fascinating! I’d love to hear more about your research and the academic side of your life. (I’m a Spanish literature PhD and a USF grad (BA and MA) so this is my cup of tea 🙂

  2. Hi,
    Thank you for taking the time to talk about your dissertation, it’s so interesting! I started following your blog before I started my history undergraduate degree three years ago and now I’m graduated so its lovely to hear all about what you’ve been working on. It’s fascinating how using different sources such as recipes opens up so much more historical study and really brings women’s stories and lives to the forefront.
    Congratulations again!
    Laura x

    1. Thank you! Yes, recipes have turned out to be an incredible source! I am also fascinated by them because they are both commodity and text.

  3. That sounds so interesting, what a great topic! I work on sixteenth century queens and am always interested in expanding our definition of women’s influence, patronage, and communication during this period. Do you think Anna Maria Luisa’s exchanges were particularly gendered (did she send the infant powder mostly to women, for example?)

    1. I have some correspondence the shows she also sent medicines and even her convulsion powder to men, but for the most part it is specifically sent to women and she even encourages recipients to spread the word to other women.

  4. Really interesting topic! This truly is the type of content I desperately want to see in the blogging world yet I never have until now. I studied Art History in college and really miss all of the historical and visual analysis, so this really helped to satisfy that craving. Would love if you would share more! 🙂

    briana |

  5. Thank you for sharing! I found it really interesting, especially the ‘why is this important’ part. I am PhD student in communication studies but also personally love history. I’ve been following your blog for years!

  6. Thank you for writing about your dissertation. I find it fascinating how something that at first might seem so unsuspecting (a recipe), in fact, was a powerful political tool! I would love to hear about your experiences in the Italian archives. Also, what is the strangest medicinal practice you came across in the recipes Anna Maria Luisa patronized? 🙂

    1. I will definitely share more about my experiences in the Italian archives! As far as the strangest medicinal practice, I would say it is a tie between pulverized human skull and St. Ignatius Beans (which are poisons btw).

  7. So fascinating! I am really interested in hearing more about the academic side of your life, how you researched and what’s next too. (Or just more about Anna Luisa and Tuscany as part of the Hapsburg/Austrian empire…)

  8. I have followed your blog for years. I first discovered it as a history major during my undergrad and you inspired me as I pursued my first Master’s Degree in history in Scotland. It has been a joy to follow you and your work and you have been a breath of fresh air in the wider blogging world. I love that you never let your passion for history dull your passion for fashion. It is a joy to follow along your journey and I look forward to seeing where you will go. Congratulations on becoming a doctor–truly allow yourself to celebrate. Your dissertation sounds amazing and I, like others, would love to hear more about the academic side of your life.

  9. Thank you for sharing about your dissertation and congratulations on your PhD! I have followed your blog for a long time and am thrilled for you. It is refreshing to see a blogger addressing more than just fashion. Don’t get me wrong, I love fashion, but it is only one part of me. My nerdy academic side rejoices in reading articles like this on such an interesting topic and woman, so thank you! 🙂

  10. Just came across your blog and L-O-V-E your dissertation topic! Like super jealous over here – PhD in Marketing (1st year) and currently trying to nail down my dissertation topic. All I’ve got is that it will revolve around branding and more than likely involving fashion. 😂 And let’s be real – there’s no history or really anything exciting to it. You get to explore SO many historic text and collections and that is amazing. But I did my B.A. thesis in 18th century British Lit; Lunacy, Fashion and the Female Mind in Literature. And spent the majority of my undergrad in the special collections library exploring 100+ year old text. I’d have totally made a career out of it but 21 year old me got sucked into the world of luxury fashion marketing by chance and I’ve been in marketing ever since.

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