The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

Q & A: Ashley Buchanan, Associate Director for Fellowships, Folger Institute

The Folger Institute is pleased to introduce Dr. Ashley Buchanan, our new Associate Director for Fellowships. Dr. Buchanan received her Ph.D. in early modern history in 2018 from the University of South Florida and comes to the Folger with experience as the study abroad coordinator at Mercer University and as a postdoctoral fellow in the Plant Humanities Initiative at Dumbarton Oaks. At the Folger, Dr. Buchanan will oversee the Institute’s fellowship program, from the annual application cycle and selection process to building scholarly community within cohorts. With colleagues from the Institute and around the Folger, Buchanan will also evaluate our experiments in non-residential fellowships, among other things and plan new opportunities for fellows upon the Folger’s re-opening and new ways of bringing scholarship into public engagement.

You are a historian whose recent research explores the plants, recipes, and medicinal cultures of early modern Europe. How did you become interested in these particular subfields and what are you currently working on?

I was researching in the state archive of Florence when I stumbled on a curious collection of recipes. The recipes included instructions for creating dyes and varnishes, preparing soups and cakes, alchemical distillations, and the application of exotic materia medica. The more than 200 recipes belonged to the last Medici Princess, Anna Maria Luisa de Medici. As recipes are typically understood in the context of daily or domestic life, I was intrigued by the large number of “exotic” or non-native European ingredients listed in her medicinal recipes and wondered how Anna Maria Luisa learned of and sourced these. My attempts to trace her networks of knowledge revealed interesting threads of local knowledge traditions from Central and South America, East Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia within her collection. Although incomplete and informed by inequitable colonial networks and encounters, Anna Maria Luisa collected, translated, assimilated, and adulterated local knowledge traditions as they were commodified and incorporated into her recipe collection.

I am currently working on a book manuscript based on this research, Recipes, Women, and the Politics of Medicine at the Late Medici Court, 1650-1743. Recipes were powerful agents of discovery and transmission of natural knowledge in the early modern world, especially for women. For Anna Maria Luisa, the provenance of foreign medicinal plants and stones was part of their value. Adding to this social capital were the first-hand accounts and stories of the plants’ origins and local uses preserved in the inventories, recipes, and letters sent to her. Recipes were also objects of material culture that could be gifted, exchanged, performed, and, in the case of Anna Maria Luisa and the late Medici court, translated into political and social currency.

How do these research interests ground your responsibilities for fostering interdisciplinary conversations? How can you use them to open scholarly conversations more generally?

As a postdoctoral fellow for the Plant Humanities Initiative at Dumbarton Oaks, my focused shifted from the study of recipes as singular objects to an investigation of the individual components that made up early modern medicinal recipes—namely plants. I was fortunate to work with a diverse set of scholars who came from fields such as environmental humanities, critical plant studies, history, literature, art history, botany, and indigenous studies. Through these scholarly collaborations, we were able trace not only the cultural histories of plants across societies, but also their ecological significance as well as possible bioactive properties and physiological effects on the human body. The opportunity to collaborate with many different scholars prompted me to ask new questions and examine new forms of evidence. I think interdisciplinary discussions and collaborations reveal innovative lenses to explore the past. As the Associate Director of Fellowships at the Folger Institute, I look forward to bringing together scholars from diverse fields in order to foster generative conversations and to discover new ways to look at research topics and source materials.

You have held several fellowships, from a junior fellowship with the Medici Archive Project at the Archivio di Stato di Firenze to an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Fellowship at The Huntington. Most recently, you were a Postdoctoral Fellow in Plant Humanities at Dumbarton Oaks. Based on these broad experiences, what would you say is the value of a fellowship?

Fellowships provide essential financial support and dedicated time for scholars to research and write. But they also foster scholarly communities, interdisciplinary collaborations, knowledge of and access to resources, and unique intellectual encounters.

I am so fortunate to have experienced a variety of fellowships at several different institutions. My fellowship at the Medici Archive Project allowed me to deep dive into the Florentine State Archive. I spent more than a year exploring the personal correspondence, recipes, inventories, and financial records of Anna Maria Luisa and her father Cosimo III. At the Huntington, I was able to contextualize my archival findings within the context of contemporary European medical treatises, herbals, and pharmacopoeias as well connect with and discuss my findings with a community of scholars. My postdoctoral fellowship at Dumbarton Oaks, as part of the Plant Humanities Initiative, pushed both my methodology and intellectual scope and rigor. It also gave me an appreciation for the value of special collections in terms of fostering interdisciplinary research and cultivating public engagement.

What directions for the fellowship program at the Folger are you excited about exploring?

Support for research, especially during a pandemic, can come in a variety of forms. I think the Folger Institute has done a fantastic job demonstrating this with their non-residential fellowships during the Folger’s closure and over the course of the pandemic. Need money to access electronic resources or databases? There is a fellowship for that. Need to pay for the reproduction of archival images to research from home or hire a local research assistant to access archival materials abroad? There is a fellowship for that. Need to pay for childcare to write an article? There is a fellowship for that! I am enthusiastic about creating and sustaining innovative research support; support that is flexible and that adapts to the changing and individual needs of scholars. I would also love to see the further development of specific fellowships to support scholars innovating in the areas of teaching, digital humanities, and public history. Most of all, I am excited to start working with my Folger colleagues to plan new opportunities for fellows upon reopening.

You are also an advocate for using social media to engage with and encourage the next generation of historians. What inspired you to pursue your online presence and what does it look like in practice?

As a first-generation college student, I had no access to or knowledge of the institutions that support the study of history. While I enjoyed the stories told in my history classes, it was not until graduate school that I began to explore how historians research and write about the past. Social media has the power to show students who would not typically have access to this world the wonders of rare books, archives, libraries, and special collections. Showing students how to access and work with historical sources empowers them to interrogate not only the past, but the present as well. In practice, this means that I make short and engaging videos about my research, interesting rare books or objects, behind the scenes looks at special collections and libraries, career pathways, and answer questions about pursuing a history degree. Of course, I hope that sharing my work and career will prove to other first-generation college students that a humanities degree is worth pursuing. But, at the very least, I hope to show more students, no matter their degree path, the value of the humanities and arm them with the skills and resources to think more critically about our past and present.

We know the collection remains secured and unavailable for the duration of the renovation, but do you have any ideas yet about a go-to Folger collection item or two that can bring the excitement of touching history right into play?

Unsurprisingly, I am very excited to deep dive into the Folger’s extensive collection of early modern recipes, many of which are currently available online. One recipe in the Folger’s collection served as a key piece of evidence for my visual narrative on the history of dittany and women’s health. Since antiquity, dittany was cited by male-authored herbals as an effective means to provoke menstruation. We know that elite and middling European women owned and read herbals and advice manuals, but recipes written and collected by women allow us to investigate the intersection of learned and lay medicine. Recipes collected and circulated by women often incorporated, combined, or refined medicinal knowledge found in herbals. For example, in a set of seventeenth century handwritten recipes dealing with issues of conception, Rebecca Winche (died c. 1713), listed the ingredients for a valued and secret recipe used for “purging the wombe from all hurtfull or superfillus humers which hinder conception.” The ingredients for the potion included mugwort, pennyroyal, and dittany of Crete, all commonly described as substances that provoke menstruation, birth, and afterbirth in early modern herbals.

What excites me about the Folger’s extensive collection of recipes and recipe books is their interdisciplinary value and broad appeal. Recipes can be interesting sources for culinary history, the history of science, the history of medicine, both lay and learned, environmental history, and gender history, just to name a few. Recipes are also an excellent tool through which to engage students and the public. I look forward to working with fellows and researchers as they highlight these materials in a variety of ways to further scholarship and public engagement at the Folger.

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