The Evolution of Early Medieval Medicine in Global and Local Contexts

A Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellowship project based at the University of Sheffield

In the ninth century, a scribe working in the area around Lyon recorded a medical recipe that included camphor, the aromatic extract from the wood of the camphor laurel – a plant native to southeast Asia – as one of its many ingredients.* The recipe, a general antidote intended to cure a vast range of ailments, also names potentially local products, such as hazelwort and honey, as well as other exotic imports, like ginger and cinnamon, among its ingredient list. Camphor, however, stands out: this recipe offers one of the earliest surviving references to this substance in medieval Europe.

Significantly, camphor appears to have been unknown in the Mediterranean world of antiquity – the world of Hippocrates, Galen, Dioscorides and other ancient medical authorities – and, crucially, the backdrop against which medieval medicine has generally been understood. So, where did this scribe acquire information about such an exotic ingredient? Are there other examples of camphor in early medieval recipes? Are there additional ingredients that appear to have been newly introduced to and/or recorded in the Latin west in this period? Is there any evidence suggesting that these substances were circulating in Europe and potentially available?

Before embarking on the current project, I had documented not only further examples of camphor but also a range of other previously unrecorded ingredients within a selection of eighth- and ninth-century collections of medical recipes. These findings bear witness to the existence of influences beyond the classical corpus and point to the movement of knowledge within both local and global (or at least Afro-Eurasian) networks of exchange. Of particular note are the signs of contact with Arabic-speakers and introduction of eastern pharmaceutical knowledge, exemplified by the case of camphor (the Latin term used in the text, cafora, seems to come directly from the Arabic term kāfūr, which, in turn, is from the Malay kāpūr), especially because the appearance of this substance in early medieval Latin recipes pre-dates the major translation of Arabic medical writings into Latin by several centuries.

But there are thousands of other recipes waiting to be transcribed and analysed… What other surprises do these recipes hold?

Project overview

My Leverhulme Trust-funded project ‘Crossroads’, which runs May 2021-April 2024, is pursuing an in-depth analysis of the surviving early medieval Latin medical recipes found outside of established classical and late antique recipe collections. Although these texts have been largely overlooked by previous scholarship, they present an ideal – and untapped – resource for exploring the introduction of medical knowledge beyond the classical canon. The initial phase of the project concentrates on transcribing several thousand recipes from manuscripts today housed in libraries and archives around Europe. I shall then investigate the potential presence and distribution of non-classical influences – both global and local – by applying recently developed digital tools to this material. The project will consider how, why, where, and by whom these texts were compiled and adapted, providing a much-needed counterpoint to the long-standing focus on the inheritance and reception of classical medical knowledge and contextualising the evolution of early medieval medicine within both global and local frameworks.

This website aims to keep track of the project’s progress and share the results with the public. I’ll try to post regular updates and provide links to the manuscripts under analysis. Under the ‘Resources’ tab, I’ll share links to projects and blogs that are related to this one and/or to those that I follow and are more generally related to the history of health and medicine, early medieval history, manuscript studies, the global middle ages, interdisciplinary research, and so on…

Please get in touch if you have any questions, thoughts, or feedback!

* The recipe in question, the Antidotum gira deacoloquintidis, is found on f. 90r of BAV pal. lat. 1088 you can see this manuscript here.