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History of Medicine

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Medieval Manuscripts in the National Library of Medicine Medieval Manuscripts in the National Library of Medicine home National Library of Medicine in blue lettering. National Library of Medicine logo which is a link to the National Library of Medicine homepage. Historiated inital O featuring a physician consulting a book at his patient's bedside which is a link to the History of Medicine Division homepage.
English Leechcraft and Physick written in red lettering.

Manuscripts and incunabula which originated in centers such as Hereford, Winchester, and Oxford, cover the entire spectrum of medieval medicine. "Leechcraft," (from the Anglo-Saxon laece= physician) the primarily empirical art of healing, is richly represented by collections of recipes, largely unorganized, in which indigenous botany plays a prominent role, largely unencumbered by the polypharmacy so common in premodern materia medica. These compilations may be viewed as a bridge between the Anglo-Saxon leechbooks of the ninth or tenth century and the herbals of the Renaissance. "Physick," or the rationalized Art based on the knowledge of Nature (physica) figures in a wide range of treatises in Middle English and Latin, that tend to be more focused and organized. Vernacular texts, such as the English version of the Treasuri of Helth by Peter of Spain, reflect the popularity of diagnosis by uroscopy, prognostication by astrology, prevention by diet, and treatment by bloodletting. Translations from Latin, together with Latin works composed or copied in England, attest to the constant communication with the Continent, the reach of Salernitan and Arabic influences, the progression of bookish theory, and the secularization of authors. Around 1230 the clergyman Gilbert the Englishman devoted the bulk of his head-to-toe Compendium of Medicine to remedies, while a century later the Oxford physician John of Gaddesden preferred to compile learned sources in his practical encyclopedia known as The English Rose. In view of the pervasive concern with practice, surprisingly few English authors addressed surgery, with John Arderne as the best known exception. On the other hand, no field seems to have been cultivated more constantly that dietetics. Thus, translations of the Salernitan Regimen of Health were printed repeatedly until at least 1649, even though they had competition throughout the sixteenth century from a spate of books on "ye government of health."


John Arderne, 1307-1310. Opera chirurgica. ca. 1400.
MS E 9 | View Catalog Record

John Arderne was especially known for his surgery to correct anal fistula, a disorder to which the English were thought to be particularly prone.


Medieval English Leechbook. 15th century.
MS E 30 | View Catalog Record

The marginal note records the frustration of an early reader with the difficult handwriting.

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The Englishmans doctor, or, The schoole of Salerne, or, Phusicall observations for the perfect preserving of the body of man in continuall health. London : John Helme and John Busby, junior, 1608.

Like Hippocrate's Aphorisms, the Regimen sanitatis Salernitanum remained popular for centuries and was published in several different English translations. The opening verse in John Harington's translation still offers good advice, especially the injunction to:

Use three Physicions still; first Doctor Quiet,
Next Doctor Merry-man, and Doctor Dyet.

Regimen sanitatis Salerni. This boke ... is translated out of the Latyne tonge in to Englyshe by Thomas Paynel. Londini : In aedibus Tho. Bertheleti, 1535.
WZ 240 R335 1535 | View Catalog Record

An early English printed edition of the Regimen. The title page is shown in photocopy.

Johannes XXI, Pope, d. 1277. The treasuri of helth contaynynge many profytable medicines, gathered out of Hipocrates, Galen & Avicen. London : Wyllyam Coplande, ca. 1556.
WZ 240 J65tE 1556 | View Catalog Record

Petrus Hispanus (later Pope John XXI) continued the medieval popular tradition in medicine found in many early modern English guides to health. Some of the conditions he described ("For the fallyinge of the Heare [i.e. hair]," "Agaynst forgetfulnes or drousynes") remind us that, though remedies have changed, some human anxieties transcend time.


Hippocrates. The whole aphorismes of great Hippocrates ... translated into English ... of the Greek and Latine tongs. London : Printed by H.L. for Richard Redmer, 1610.
WZ 250 H667aE 1610 | View Catalog Record

The Aphorisms were popular well into the 17th century. Here the first aphorism is translated: The life of man is short, the Art of Physicke long, occasion suddaine, experie[n]ce uncertain, judgement difficult.

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John of Gaddesden, 1280?-1361. Rosa anglica practica medicinae. Pavia : Franciscus Girardengus and Joannes Antonius Birreta, Jan. 24, 1492.
WZ 230 J655r 1492 | View Catalog Record

The table of contents shows the scope and organization of the subject matter of John of Gaddesden's work, typical of many Latin medieval encyclopedias.


Gilbertus, Anglicus. Compendium medicine. Lugduni, 1510.
WZ 240 G464c 1510 | View Catalog Record | View Full Digitized Book

Gilbert the Englishman, who lived in the 13th century, was England's first major medical writer. He intended his Compendium to include all medical knowledge.

Last Reviewed: March 12, 2024