The best research goes beyond the book. Leaving the reading rooms and archives behind, I found tangible evidence of the early arrival of New World plants in Europe. A pale cross-section of a sassafras trunk, twisted roots of sarsaparilla, and dark chunks of guaiac bark occupy compartments in a pharmacy specimen tray from the 1940s.
These American plants first began to appear in sixteenth-century German medical books, but they came alive for me when a German pharmacist brought out actual examples from her mother-in-law’s twentieth-century medicinal plant chest. A map in the Fuggerei museum in Augsburg traces the trade routes of merchants from southern Germany to Santo Domingo and Buenos Aires. Multiple species of tobacco plants and maize flourish in the Madrid’s sunny botanical garden in, while the spaces marked for these plants in Berlin stand empty in the damp spring air. Climate, commerce, and medical curiosity facilitated the reception of New World plants in Germany.
I have just completed a yearlong Fulbright Fellowship of historical research in Wolfenbüttel, Germany. There, in the Herzog August Bibliothek, I found a treasure trove of books in German with information about my topic, the adoption of New World plants in Reformation-era German medicine. Each type of book—travel narratives, tracts, medical books, herbals, pharmacopoeias, apothecary regulations—had its own voice and its own way of looking at unfamiliar remedies from strange lands. I systematically started to read every book I could find that was published between 1492 and 1630 that had to do with medicine, medicinal plants, and the Americas. Every morning I walked to the library, settled into a chair and plugged in my laptop, facing a table roomy enough to spread out three or four very old books. I found the months of reading fascinating, seeing through the eyes of another era the first views of unfamiliar plants, foods, and peoples. But even though I could read and take notes for eight or more hours a day, the availability of books was only one of the advantages to doing research in Germany.
Library research is a solitary activity, but the HAB in Wolfenbüttel wisely provides a coffee break for the resident scholars at 1:30 PM. every weekday.
Following this tradition got me out of the reading room and into a comfortable sitting room where I could meet and talk with other academics exploring specialized areas of ethics, religion, art, music, and medicine in the early modern period. I met people from as far away as Japan and Australia, in addition to Europe and the United States. They were of various ages and at different stages of their academic careers, and many of them asked thought-provoking questions about my research and told me about books they had found which were related to my topic. Getting together for coffee, an occasional lunch, pizza night, or the weekly stammtisch in a neighborhood pub brought us together away from the books and turned networking into friendship.
On occasion I left Wolfenbüttel. When I travelled to archives or historical sites in other cities, I looked for the botanical gardens, the museums, the art galleries, especially those that would give me more context to make the sixteenth-century come alive. I saw plants, maps, portraits of Martin Luther, Philip II of Spain, and Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, people who left their mark on sixteenth-century Europe. Now the year is over and I am home in California, thousands of miles away from the books that were my focus for so long, with only my laptop full of notes and photographs and my head full of new connections and memories. How well can I pull all this together? The dissertation will tell the tale.