Medieval medical FAQ

Imagine this: you consult your family physician about an ailment that’s been bothering you lately. To your surprise, she opens up an internet website and starts reading aloud, giving you information about your malady. After some initial astonishment you may realize that doctors are only human, and they cannot be required to know literally everything by heart. In the Middle Ages, medical practitioners similarly needed to be able to rely on data files, even though these obviously weren’t to be found ‘online’ at the time. Their bookshelves were filled with specialized works as well as medical compendia, so-called articella: codices containing several medical texts which together covered most of the basic information required. One such medical collection can be found in Utrecht, University Library, Ms. 680. This manuscript’s comprehensiveness and diversity are quite fascinating. 

Collection overview

The majority of the folia in this manuscript are occupied by the works of authorities from Antiquity, starting with part of the Microtegni or Ars parva (‘the Little Art’) by Galen of Pergamon and followed by Hippocrates’ Aphorismi. These texts propound general views on health and disease, commonly held from Antiquity throughout the Middle Ages and beyond. Next comes Gilles de Corbeil’s remarkable poem De urinis, which promotes urology as a diagnostic instrument. It is accompanied by Gilbertus Anglicus’ extensive commentary. Then we find the Thesaurus Pauperum by Petrus Hispanus, covering a wide variety of illnesses and remedies, including women’s issues such as menstruation and birth control. And finally there’s Henri de Mondeville’s Chirurgia, rounding off the whole with an exposé on anatomy and medieval surgery.

Poetry about your pee

A medical text in verse? To our modern ears this sounds rather absurd. Yet Gilles de Corbeil (ca. 1140 – c. 1224) had a specific goal in mind when he chose this form: he sought to create a mnemonic device to help his students to learn the matter by heart. Urology, after all, was considered one of the most important diagnostic instruments. Physicians studied the colour, smell, texture and – yes – even the taste of their patients’ urine in order to determine diagnoses and consequent treatments. De urinis lists the essential characteristics to which doctors must pay attention; thus, for instance, over twenty different colors of urine were distinguished (Grant 1974, 748-750). Strikingly, although this text was originally conceived as a summary, it would receive extensive commentaries and explanations. Those by Gilbertus Anglicus found their way into the present manuscript. Corbeil also produced another well-known medical poem: De pulsibus, which discusses the diagnostic merits of checking a patient’s pulse. Often found in the vicinity of De urinis, it is nevertheless missing from this manuscript.

Birth control advice from the pope?

Those of us who follow the news may regularly hear about the pope’s strict denouncement of abortion and birth control. All the more remarkable then, that a book about just these subjects has been ascribed to a physician who later ascended to the papal throne (Riddle 1994, 138). This Petrus Hispanus, a thirteenth century Portuguese doctor, wrote several medical handbooks before being ordained bishop and then pope (John XXI, 1276-7). The Thesaurus pauperum was written explicitly for poor souls unable to afford expensive doctors and medicines. However, its inclusion in this collection suggests that even a highly trained medical expert (such as the presumed owner of this manuscript) was expected to benefit from its numerous instructions and directions. The third book of the Thesaurus Pauperum concerns issues such as how to generate menstruation and the prevention of pregnancy. An originally included chapter on abortion appears to be missing from this version.

From father to son

Who might use a medical manuscript such as this? Well, for instance: Master Ghijsbert Goeyertsz. of Ewijck, who died ca. 1538 (Gumbert 1988, 209). One of the flyleaves bears his ex libris in a handsome cursive script. He may even have left the reference book to one of his sons. We know that two of them attended Italian universities, and at least one of them studied medicine (Gouron 1957, 27). Ghijsbert himself was a doctor medicinae who studied medicine at the university of Montpellier, France, around the year 1515. Montpellier was a city known for the fact that everyone was free to teach medicine there. But its reputation was far from spotless: in his epilogue to De urinis, Gilles of Corbeil asserts that ‘the Montpellier physician swells himself with undigested fodder and makes a fool of himself’ (Grant 1974, 750). How would Master Ghijsbert have liked this attack on his alma mater?

Marginalia

Throughout the manuscript we discover several distinct hands, scripts, and colors of ink. The layout of the texts varies widely as well. Clearly this project was not planned and executed from start to finish by a single mind. Instead we see a convolute manuscript in which individual texts have been added at different times. This can also be inferred from the diversity of watermarks present in the manuscript’s paper folia (cf. Van der Horst 1989, 17). A codicological investigation (revealing which hand wrote which text in which quire) might facilitate a more accurate dating of the manuscript’s separate units.

Traces left by various users betray the manuscript’s intensive use. Marginalia range from brief dashes emphasizing certain passages to elaborate notes and commentaries. Who knows what interesting content an industrious transcriber might be able to bring to light.

Further reading

  • Gouron, Marcel, Matricule de l'Université de Médecine de Montpellier, 1503-1599. Travaux d’Humanisme et Renaissance 25 (1957).
  • Grant, Edward (ed.), A source book in medieval science (Cambridge, Mass., 1974).
  • Gumbert, J.P., Manuscrits datés conservés dans les Pays-Bas. 2.1 (Leiden etc., 1988).
  • Horst, K. van der, 'The reliability of watermarks'. In: Gazette du livre médiéval 19 (1989), p. 15-19.
  • Huizenga, Erwin, Tussen autoriteit en empirie: de Middelnederlandse chirurgieën in de veertiende en vijftiende eeuw en hun maatschappelijke context (Hilversum, 2003).
  • Riddle, John M., Contraception and abortion from the ancient world to the Renaissance (Cambridge, Mass., 1994).
ca. 1457
Manuscript
Irene Meekes - van Toer, maart 2017
fol. 42v coat of arms
fol. 71r., missing initial
fol 50r., date 1457
fol. 40v, marginalia

Galenus / ʿAlī Ibn Riḍwān, Microtegni - Hippocrates, Aphorismi - Gilles of Corbeil (Aegidius Corboliensis), De urinis, cum expositione Gilberti Angelici - Petrus Hispanus (pope John XXI), Thesaurus pauperum - Henri de Mondeville, Chirurgia, Hs. 680 (5 B 6)

  • Northern Low Countries (Utrecht region?), ca. 1457, see fol. 50rb27. This date applies to Hand 1; it is possible that a different date ought to be assumed for the rest of the manuscript.
  • Paper, 110 fols., ca. 290 x 215 mm.
  • At least three hands. Hand 1: fols. 1-68, scribe named Hermanus de Renen, see fol. 50rb26. Hand 2: fols. 69-102. Hand 3: fols. 103-110. All three hands appear similar, suggesting a common writing environment.
  • Gothic cursiva recentior (currens).
  • Latin.
  • Rubricated initials (fols. 1r, 50r, 81-102).
  • Modern binding (early twentieth century?), marbled paper over cardboard. One of the flyleaves displays part of a Latin charter about King Henry V of England.
  • Previously owned by Master Ghijsbert Goeyertsz. van Ewijck (died ca. 1538), doctor medicinae, registered at Montpellier University in 1515. Possibly left to one of his sons, at least one of whom also studied medicine. Included in the Universiteitsbibliotheek Utrecht collection between 1670 and 1718 (Eccl. 261a, later 344a).