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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 homepage.
Introduction written in red lettering.

This website celebrates the medieval manuscript holdings of the National Library of Medicine, with a special focus on medicine and medical literature in medieval England, on the sources and transmission of the manuscript texts, and on their later manifestations.

The 12th century saw exciting developments in many areas of western European culture. New ideas infused the practice of architecture, music, poetry, and theology. The great European universities were beginning to take shape. Like the Renaissance of the 15th/16th centuries, the educated people of 12th century western Europe sought to restore a connection with the culture of the classical period. Medicine, in particular, was fed by these streams, as the writings of Hippocrates and Galen were translated into Latin, mainly from Arabic translations, but also directly from Greek. England, as part of the Norman-Angevin world, was more closely connected to the European continent, politically and culturally, than any time until the present day, and participated in all these developments.

Though there is much in medieval medical theory and practice that we find fantastical, laughable, or horrifying, the adoption of the Hippocratic corpus invigorated attempts to explain disease by natural causes and to base healing on rational principles. Sound therapeutic foundations were laid in the concern with accurate diagnosis and in the insistence on treating the causes behind symptoms. Though Gothic cathedrals and troubadour songs are as beautiful now as they were 800 years ago, our progress in medical knowledge and application is undeniable. But this progress rests upon the work of many generations, among them the medieval thinkers who embraced new ideas and spread them through their writing and teaching.

Moreover, even among the texts of purely historical interest, we may find ideas and attitudes that are still relevant. The medieval interest in "regimen," that is, diet and "life style," reminds us that the emphasis on preventive medicine and personal responsibility for one's health is not a new idea. The medieval physician's recognition of the inevitability of death and his responsibility to help his patient to a tranquil and orderly departure has resonance in the hospice movement of this century.

So let us honor our medieval medical ancestors as we admire and enjoy these products of their minds and hands.

Last Reviewed: June 13, 2024