Rare medieval medical books and manuscripts on display

May 17, 2000

"Life Is Short, Art Is Long"*

To celebrate the return of a long-missing medieval manuscript, the National Library of Medicine has mounted a small exhibit of treasured medieval manuscripts that date from the 11th through 15th centuries and printed books that date from the 15th through 17th centuries. The exhibit may be viewed between May 22 and June 30, 2000.

"It's always a cause for celebration, when a lost book returns home," said Dr. Elizabeth Fee, the Chief of the History of Medicine Division at the Library. "In this case, we are grateful to Richard Aspin of the Wellcome Library for identifying the missing manuscript and to the Rootenberg family for returning it to the Library," said Fee. The Louise Darling Biomedical Library at the University of California, Los Angeles, assisted by storing the manuscript while negotiations for its return were completed.

The Latin manuscript, "Treatises on Medicine," written in England in the 12th century on vellum (calf skin), mysteriously disappeared from the Library some 50 years ago. Containing some 40 texts by different authors, the manuscript, sometimes known as "Recepta Varia" or "Manuscript 8," typifies medieval attempts to compile all medical knowledge.

The authors emphasize the practical and have little interest in speculation. The texts range from guides for diagnosis by pulse and urine, to recipes, lists of medical substances, and discourses on blood-letting and surgery. According to Dr. Luke Demaitre, a noted scholar with the University of Virginia who has studied the manuscript, the work contains a few magical cures and there are a few references to astrology and divination, but the predominant tone is rational. The texts are bound together with some hymns and the story of an errant monk whom the Virgin Mary saved from eternal damnation.

"This is a very important manuscript because it represents the transition between the monastic infirmary and the university faculty of medicine; and it marks an intermediate stage between the healing art and bookish science," said Demaitre.

The NLM exhibit also features approximately 25 other books and manuscripts, including a splendidly illuminated manuscript from 13th- century Oxford, an Arabic text from 1094 (the oldest item in the NLM collection), and several copies of Hippocrates' Aphorisms, one of medicine's cornerstones. Much of Hippocrates' medical advice can be recognized as today's common sense. He focused on prevention, lifestyle, and dietary medicine -- not magic bullets. "Hippocrates' medical advice has such a familiar ring in our own time," commented Demaitre. "For example, he noted the importance of age, gender, season, and diet on health. He recommended moderation in diet, and that changes should be made gradually."

Other treasures in the exhibit include works by physicians who practiced in Salerno, Italy, between the 10th and 12th centuries and who were famous for their excellent medical knowledge and care; texts that made up the curriculum in the first faculties of medicine; and books that demonstrate the flourishing of medical literature in medieval England.

*"Life is short, art is long, time is fleeting, experience fallible, decisions difficult." These are the words that open the famous first Aphorism of Hippocrates.
The National Library of Medicine, a part of the National Institutes of Health, is the world's largest library of the health sciences. It is located at 8600 Rockville Pike, Bethesda, Maryland, close to the Medical Center stop on Metro's Red Line.

Note to editors: A color illustration from a 13th Century Oxford manuscript is available. Requests may be sent to publicinfo@nlm.nih.gov.

NIH/National Library of Medicine

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