Researching the Seven-Chambered Uterus: An Interview with Baylee Staufenbiel (Ph.D. candidate)

Thu, 02/08/24
Baylee Staufenbiel

I'm Baylee. I am a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate. I did my undergrad at the University of Washington where I double majored in History and Medical Anthropology and Global Health. I had always planned to go into medicine, specifically I wanted to be a forensic pathologist.  I felt more drawn to the causes of disease and aftereffects of disease on the body, rather than working with live patients. But I grew up in a household filled with people who valued history and books on history and literature. Making History one of my majors was a natural choice for me.

When it came to deciding about graduate education, I discovered the history of medicine and science at the same time as doubts developed about my going to medical school. In the end, I selected an MA program from the University of Wyoming in History. I chose the program after the in-person meeting with my former advisor Dr. Barbara E. Logan. She set her expectations before I even committed to the university, and I just knew that she would push me to become a great scholar. Furthermore, the university offered full conference funding, summer research funding, and allowed me to start teaching as a MA student. A downside, but what became a benefit later, was that I had to learn Latin very quickly.

What is your dissertation topic about?

I began to track into the history of women’s medicine and was drawn to what appears to us as more obscure topics. I stumbled upon the concept that women have a seven-chambered uterus in the medieval medical canon … and I am still working on that in my PhD dissertation. I came to FSU in 2020 to work with Dr. Cathy McClive.

The seven chambered uterus theory states that a woman's uterus had seven chambers, three on the left to hold female fetuses, three on the right for male fetuses, and one in the center for hermaphroditic children. This notion is first found in a pseudo-Galenic text, “De Spermate,” which began circulating towards the end of the 12th century. I believe it enters the medical canon through the writing of Michael Scot, the scientific advisor to Holy Roman emperor Frederick II (1194-1250 CE). After being included in the key anatomical text of its time, Anathomia (1316), by Mondino de Luzzi, it continues to be part of medical literature into at least the 1600s.

I am interested in how this concept continued to survive for so many centuries. Was it really meant to be anatomically specific? How did scholars combine the theory supposedly posed by Galen with their own dissection-based anatomical findings? Why the number seven? And how much did the patronage of Frederick II who sponsored a lot of scientific endeavors influence the importance of this medical idea?

How did you prepare for fieldwork?

The university representative on my dissertation committee, Dr. Svetla Slaveva-Griffin, who is in the Classics department, was a great resource as she had written about the text “De Spermate” before.

I was very lucky that another scholar, Outi Merisalo in “The Early Tradition of the Pseudo-Galenic De Spermate (Twelfth-Thirteenth Centuries)” had put together a list of the existing copies of the text I was interested in. I used her work to email the different libraries for access information. The only place where I needed to get special permission to see the manuscript was the British Library.

What was it like to work in the archives?

My goal was to find the oldest text that contained the idea of the seven-chambered uterus. Sometimes that pseudo-Galenic treatise is published alone and sometimes as part of a larger compilation. There are about 32 extant copies left today. I travelled across Europe and North America to consult the different copies to see if they all said the same thing. During my fieldwork, I went to the British Library and the Wellcome Collection in London. I also consulted the Bodleian and Merton libraries in Oxford as well as the State Library of Berlin. I received a fellowship to the Edward Worth Library in Dublin, which allowed me to work there for a month. Their collection was very extensive and helpful for my project. I still want to go and visit the New York Academy of Medicine as they also hold a copy of the text.

I was away for three-and-a-half months, which was a perfect length of time for me. It allowed me to work very intensely for that time period without taking much time off.  My fieldwork did not involve going through lots of boxes of files where you never know if the box contains anything useful. I was looking for specific manuscripts and folios, and I knew in advance which section I needed to view.

What major challenge did you have to deal with?

The sources I am consulting are not digitized, and in a number of libraries I was not allowed to take any pictures. Sometimes I needed specifically to request access to the part of their holdings that I was interested in, because of the age of the documents. In a couple of cases, the manuscript I was looking for was not listed in the catalogue, and I had to get the archivists to find it for me.  I was lucky, I worked in the British Library before they suffered the cyber-attack. I would not have been able to get my materials otherwise.

One thing that puzzled me for the longest time was not finding the notation ‘seven’ in the original writings. I could identify the words for ‘right’ and ‘left’ as to where the different uteri were placed but the word seven, septum, eluded me. It wasn’t until late in my trip that I suddenly realized, the copyists were using the Roman numeral VII to indicate seven rather than words … and suddenly going back over my past notes and pictures I realized that ‘VII’ was on all of them. It just had not clicked in my mind before. This oversight was especially mind-blowing as medieval manuscripts are full of scribal abbreviations including one called the Tironian sign (⁊) which looks like the number seven. This sign represents the Latin word ‘et’ which means ‘and’ so it was everywhere.

What is it like to hold these old manuscripts?

That was the best part of my fieldwork, holding these old texts. Some of the works are huge and some are tiny. But they are written on vellum which means I don’t need to wear gloves to handle them. You can see the grains in the material based on the different animals that were used to make it. When I held the pages, I thought about the people who had spent a long time copying down these manuscripts. Especially, when the places I consulted the documents were historic like Bodleian Library, it made the whole process very awe-inspiring.

What advice would you give to other graduate students who are preparing to go on fieldwork?

Most importantly, do your research on where your sources are located and then contact the archives and libraries in advance. Sometimes you will need to apply for special permissions to see your material, sometimes they will have a specific day and time when they will want you to consult your docs.

When you are in the library, look around and request anything that looks interesting to you- not just the book or books you came for. Be flexible. You might find some very important things that way. It happened to me in the British Library.

Doing your research is important but outside of working hours, take time to look around, explore the city you are in, and talk to people. People want to hear about your research. Talking to other researchers will help you make connections too.

Be strategic about where you stay. Some cities are very big, and you need to think about the commute to the places you will work in.

Lastly, have fun. This is the time to have fun. Do not stress about things. Enjoy your time away. Because you never know if and when you will get a chance to go back.

Final thoughts?

One thing that I feel strongly about is that we should all look for and apply to external fellowships and awards. While it is great to get departmental support for your research (and I thank the department for all its support), it is even better to receive external funding. Yes, you might apply to a lot of fellowships or other opportunities and get rejections. But it is not too consuming as your prospectus should be at the heart of each application. Don’t be afraid to ask your advisor for help. They will be happy to write for you. Don’t not do it because you think you are not going to get it. Good luck out there, we’ve got this!