Surgery as part of a book quarrel

Some cases of complicated diseases, wounds or a heavy bone fracture require a medical intervention, for which you can go to a surgeon. In this respect, the Middle Ages were no different. The Latin term chirurgia 'surgery' does not only refer to the profession that is practiced by this surgeon, but also to texts in which knowledge of this profession is brought together. The text in Ms. 1356 from the Utrecht University Library is such a chirurgia and contains the Middle Dutch translation of the Chirurgia Magna by Guy de Chauliac.

An influential medieval surgeon

Guy de Chauliac (c. 1290-1368) was not just any surgeon. He studied medicine in Toulouse, Montpellier and Bologna and it was in Bologna that he immersed himself in human anatomy. After completing his studies he worked as doctor medicinae in Paris and could call himself the personal surgeon of at least three popes in Avignon: Clement VI, Innocent VI and Urban V. In 1363 he completed his great surgical work, the Chirurgia Magna. The work became very popular, demonstrated by the fact that the work was translated from Latin into French within a couple of years. Translations in other vernaculars followed soon after (Huizenga 2003, 275). In the fifteenth century the Chirurgia was considered the most popular book in England, for both medical and non-medical academics (Huizenga 2003, 83).

A lay translation?

The Middle Dutch translation of the Chirurgia Magna survives in two manuscripts. Apart from the Utrecht Ms. 1356 the text can also be found in a manuscript in the possession of Museum Meermanno (Ms. 10 C 17) in The Hague. Compared to the The Hague manuscript, the Utrecht manuscript seems more modest in terms of lay-out. The translation from Latin looks sloppy and the translations of Greek terms are messy as well (Grapperhaus & Korenhof 1968, 12). For example the regular use of the word 'anathamen' when 'anatomie' is meant:
            Dat vijfte capittel van der anathamen der beenen, knoeselen, naghelen
            ende der haren. (fol. 5v)

It is possible that the copyist himself had insufficient knowledge of the medical jargon to translate the Greek and Latin in an appropriate manner.

Double headings

The more striking it is that in this Middle Dutch translation the headings are bilingual. All chapters have a double heading, both in Latin and in Middle Dutch. The Latin is executed in a Gothic textualis, while the Middle Dutch titles and other text are executed in a Gothic cursiva. An example of these double headings can be found on fol. 134v:

         Hic incipit tractatus quartus et est de ulceribus cuius sunt due doctrine
         Doctrina prima est de ulceribus prout insunt membris cimplicibus               
         Doctrina 2a est prout insunt membris compositis. Prima doctrina               
         quinque habet capitula Capitulum primum est sermo vniuersalis de vulneribus

        Hier beghint die vierde tractaet ende es vanden ulceren zweren des welcx
        siin 2 leeren De eerste leere es vanden ulceren by also dat sij siin inden
        simpelen leden De ander leere es by also dat sij siin inden compoesten  
        vergaderden leden De eerste leere heeft v capittelen Deirste capittel es  
        een ghemeen sermoen van zweren et caetera

It is noteworthy that the copyist has added synonyms for Latin loanwords that are possibly unclear for readers. In this case examples are ulceren (zweren; ‘ulcers’) and compoesten (vergaderden ‘assembled’). Why the copyist chose to use double headings remains unclear. It could indicate the shift from scientific texts in Latin into the vernacular, where this text seems to be in the transitional phase in which headings are shown in both languages (Huizenga 2003, 130).

From monastery to dusty chamber

Ms. 1356 comes from the St. Agnes Monastery in Maaseik, as is written on fol. 175r:

Pertinet Conventui Sororum regularissarum Ad sanctam Agnetam in oppido Maes Eyccken.

Before this monastery was dissolved in 1797, the last prioress made a list of all books in the possession of this monastery. Ms 1356 is included in this list as number 2: "manuscript, handelende van de geneeskonst" (‘manuscript, treating medicine’). This manuscript, together with books of other dissolved Limburgian monasteries, would end up in a dusty chamber in Maastricht, where it fell into oblivion.

Tug-of-war about old books

It was not until 1839 that the books were found again, after which they were offered to several libraries (Hermans 1987, 106-112). In 1840 the Utrecht University Library also received the offer, after which Ms. 1356 and nine other manuscripts of the Maastricht findings found themselves a spot in the Utrecht collection. At the end of 1842 the Seminary of Roermond made another attempt to retrieve the Maastricht collection back to Limburg, but without success (Hermans 1987, 114-116). The various (university) libraries argued why they rightfully owned those books and Roermond was fobbed off with some works of the Dutch Royal Library. The books that were found in Maastricht in 1839 are still scattered throughout the Netherlands. What would the prioress, who made her booklist so diligently, think of that?

Further reading

  • Grapperhaus, M.J. & J.C.M. Korenhof, ’Cijrurgie es …’. Tekstuitgave en analyse van twee hoofdstukken uit twee 15e eeuwse Middelnederlandse vertalingen van de ’Chirurgia magna’ van Guy de Chauliac. (Scriptie Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam, 1986).
  • Hermans, J.M.M., ’Elf kisten boeken uit het gouvernementsgebouw te Maastricht. Lotgevallen van de Limburgse handschriften en oude drukken, gevonden in 1839’, in: E. Cockx-Indestege & F. Hendrickx (ed.) Miscellanea Neerlandica. Opstellen voor Dr. Jan Deschamps ter gelegenheid van zijn zeventigste verjaardag I (Leuven, 1987), p. 105-143.
  • Horst, K. van der, Illuminated and decorated medieval manuscripts in the University Library, Utrecht. An illustrated catalogue (Maarssen, 1989), p. 38 nr. 139, afb. 602-603.
  • Huizenga, E., Tussen autoriteit en empirie: de Middelnederlandse chirurgieën in de veertiende en vijftiende eeuw en hun maatschappelijke context (Hilversum, 2003).
  • McVaugh, M.R. (ed.), Guigonis de Caulhiaco (Guy de Chauliac). Inventarium sive Chirurgia Magna. Dl. 1: Text. Dl. 2: Commentary. (Leiden, 1997).


Femke van Hilten, August 2017
fol 134v two languages
fol 161r. surgical instruments
fol 175r in oppido Maes Eyccken
 fol 253v surgical instruments

Guy de Chauliac, Cyrurgie, Hs. 1356 (5 C 14)

  • Southern Netherlands, 1420-1430.
  • Paper, 279 ff., 292 x 210 mm.
  • Gothic cursiva recentior, Gothic textualis (headings).
  • Three hands.
  • Middle Dutch; Latin
  • Images of surgical instruments, decorated initials.
  • Nineteenth-century binding, sheepskin over wooden boards.
  • Saint Agnes Monastery in Maaseik
    Rediscovered in Maastricht (1839)
    Obtained by the Utrecht University Library in 1841 as part of the Maastricht Collection