Project updates

Year 1 (2021-22)

July, 2021

The project website is born!

I intend to use this page to as an academic blog: I'll post research highlights and exciting finds, announcements of CfPs and publications, share my visits to libraries and archives (travel restrictions permitting), etc. Naturally, 'Crossroads' will be at the centre of these posts, though I may also occasionally offer more general comments on life as an early career researcher, balancing research and teaching, and the like. On that note, if anyone has any questions about applying to the Leverhulme Trust and my experiences as an ECF, please get in touch!

So, watch this space for more project updates soon...

August, 2021

An ode to consulting manuscripts in person

Until last weekend, I had yet to leave Sheffield since my arrival this spring – as much as I’d like to (and need to) visit libraries and archives for my current project, it either hasn’t been possible or hasn’t seemed sensible. But now that I’m double-jabbed (thank you, NHS!), I’m hoping that (some) travel will become increasingly feasible again.

I resumed travelling with a fairly small-scale journey: I first took a train south to the Sussex countryside for a long weekend on my Godparents’ farm and then returned to Sheffield via a 48-hour stop in Cambridge. While I could happily write about farm life (see the post's header image) and long overdue reunions with friends, I’ll stick to the research portion of my past week away.

On this brief visit to Cambridge, I booked into the University Library to consult two manuscripts: Peterhouse MS 231 and CUL MS Gg.5.35, also known as the Cambridge Songs Manuscript (see Figure 1 below).

First, an immense thanks to the UL staff, especially the Special Collections team, for making my visit possible. Thanks, too, for temporarily removing MS Gg.5.35 from the current exhibition for me! (And on that note, there’s one more week to book to see 'Ghost Words' live – or you can check it out virtually.)

Since my study of these manuscripts is incomplete and I’m also writing a post for the UL’s Special Collections Blog, I’ll share a quick reflection on the importance of consulting manuscripts in person instead of highlighting the specifics of the material I was analysing. Inspired by working with a physical manuscript for the first time in months, this project update concerns the research process rather than the research itself.

While I’m beyond grateful for the many recent manuscript digitisation projects that have enabled me to continue my research throughout the pandemic, handling a manuscript provides a reader with so much more. At the most basic level (and frequently the reason given when requesting a manuscript), consulting a codex in person can often help to clarify palaeographical or codicological questions. Smudges, faint writing, or erased sections may be more possible to decipher by examining the text in person (perhaps further helped by holding the page at an angle or using a magnifying glass), and the binding, quires, missing or added leaves, and so on can be investigated more thoroughly.

Yet there’s another layer beyond these fundamental research questions: by working with a physical manuscript, a reader has a full sensory experience. Not only is it often possible to see more and from different perspectives, but a reader can hold the codex and understand its dimensions, weight, and ease (or difficulty) of use; feel the parchment and move the folia (carefully!); and even hear the sound of the pages turning, smell the codex, see how the light affects the pigments, etc. In short, a reader can use all of their senses (except taste!) in their study of the physical object; handling a manuscript opens up a world that is still impossible to recreate fully online. The insights gained from this experience might contribute to a reader’s overall understanding of the manuscript or relate to specific research questions, especially when considering how and by whom a codex was used.

Based on my own experiences, I’m always struck by dimensions and weight: despite seeing these figures listed in a manuscript catalogue, I find it hard to get an accurate sense of a manuscript’s size until I actually see it in person. The folia of MS Gg.5.35, for example, are not particularly large, but the volume is *massive* – an incredibly thick tome – something that can be difficult to appreciate online. Ultimately, no matter the research questions underpinning a manuscript study, I think it remains invaluable to interact with the codex itself.

Thanks again to everyone at the UL for making this visit possible, I hope to be back soon and to visit more libraries and archives before long...

Figure 1: CUL MS Gg.5.35 (fols 444v-445r), pages from a recipe collection

September, 2021

The library of St Gall, Switzerland - a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Sharing the joy:
Introducing students to manuscripts, early medieval medicine, and my research

As the new academic year begins, teaching seems to be on everyone’s mind – mine included. Although Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellowships have a tight cap on teaching to ensure that research remains the primary focus (thanks LT!), I'm looking forward to spending some time over the next few years in a classroom. With that in mind, I'm grateful for the many training programmes in Sheffield designed to support those of us teaching, mentoring, and/or supervising. From Think Ahead’s SuperVisionaries seminars to official courses organised by Elevate, there is something for everyone. So, in honour of having just begun my PGCertTLHE (Post-Graduate Certificate in Teaching and Learning in Higher Education) with a week-long pre-term course, this month's post offers a taste of mixing research and teaching.

We ended the PGCertTLHE 'Workshop Week' with a peer teaching and evaluation session: each student gave a 15-minute lesson – that's no time at all! Adding to the challenge was the need to incorporate interactive elements, group work, and assessment…! What could I teach in this timeframe? While it certainly wouldn't be enough time to get into detailed manuscript analysis, I thought it was just enough time to introduce the topic and share the wonderful world of early medieval manuscripts.

I began the lesson with this post’s header image, the Stiftsbibliothek St Gallen, or Abbey Library of St Gall, Switzerland, and told my students (the rest of my cohort and our instructors) that we were going on a field trip: today, we were going to be archaeologists – but instead of going to an excavation, we would be heading to this library.

'What might an archaeologist do in a library?' I asked. My students had lots of correct answers ('checking references?', 'background research?', etc.) but they did not name our reason for visiting the Stiftsbibliothek…

We were here to study manuscripts as objects – the archaeology of the book.

Given our time limitations, I decided to concentrate on the new and growing subfield of biocodicology, the study of the biological information contained within manuscripts. Over the remaining minutes, I introduced my students to this area of research, distinguishing it from codicology, demonstrating the basic sampling method (see Figure 1), and delineating several ways that it can shed light on manuscripts, their uses, and users.

Figure 1: My portable parchment sampling kit - thanks to the Beasts2Craft project for providing!

Regarding the applications of biocodicology, the final example I gave connects directly to my own research. As Sarah Fiddyment has recently shown in her study of an early modern birthing girdle, the analysis of proteins on the surface of parchment has major implications for understanding the relationship between medical texts and practice. The identification of substances that came into contact with the surface of a folio may provide insights into the contexts in which the manuscript was read and used. The early medieval medical writings that I study often exhibit stains (see Figures 2 and 3) – could these have been caused by substances related to the texts on these pages? Could the red streaks in Figure 2, located near a text on bloodletting, be blood? [I know it's probably ink, but work with me here!] Could the green stain in the corner of the page in Figure 3 be a splash from an ingredient listed in one of the medical recipes on that very page?

Figure 2: Cod. sang. 44, p. 226 - what are those streaks...?

Figure 3: Cod. sang. 44, p. 239 - what is the green spill...?

While I do not (yet) have the answers to these questions, it was such a thrill to be able to share one branch of my research with the students and immensely rewarding to see their excitement and interest in the topic. I'm happy to report that they all aced the worksheet I prepared as the assessment!

Looking ahead, although my teaching will be fairly limited for the time being, I can definitely see the potential for integrating my research into teaching. Here's to getting a new generation excited about manuscripts!

October, 2021

A digression into Church history and a remedy for everything
(Even doctrinal debate?!)

Having reflected on in-person manuscript consultation and combining research with teaching in the past two project updates, this month’s post zooms in on a single manuscript, Laon, Bibliothèque municipale Suzanne Martinet, Ms. 199 (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Laon, BM Ms. 199, fols. 1v-2r

Before we consider early medieval medicine, let’s take a closer look at this fascinating manuscript. Produced at Saint-Amand Abbey (present day northern France), this ninth-century codex contains the earliest surviving Latin version of the text of the Lateran Council of 649, a council convened by Pope Martin I in Rome to condemn the eastern Christological belief known as Monothelitism (the doctrine that Christ has only one will). Its conciliar decrees appear to have been widely disseminated, with a Greek version sent to the eastern Mediterranean while a Latin version circulated in the west. For example, a letter records that Pope Martin sent the council’s canons to Amandus, Bishop of Maastricht and the founder of Saint-Amand Abbey, and asked him to convene a Frankish council. A copy of this letter can be found near the end of Laon, BM Ms. 199, our manuscript that was, intriguingly, produced at Saint-Amand roughly two centuries later… For more on the significance of these texts in relation to this manuscript, tune into Prof. Rosamond McKitterick’s lecture at the British School at Rome on 10 November.


So, what does doctrinal drama have to do with medicine?

As far as I can tell, not much. And that's exactly the point: when we're least expecting it, we encounter a medical recipe! After 137 folia of Church council-related content, the final folio contains the Potio pigmentaria ad omnes infirmitates, a ‘potion of spices for all infirmities’ (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: Laon, BM Ms. 199, fol. 138r

While the manuscript’s main hand has been dated to the second quarter of the ninth century, this recipe appears to have been added a few generations later, between the late ninth and tenth centuries. It presents an interesting mix of ingredients, combining a few potentially locally grown herbs, such as dittany (diptamum) and fennel (feniculum) with many non-local spices and resins, including cinnamon (cinnamon), ginger (gingiber), cloves (cariofile), pepper (piper longum and piper nigrum), myrrh (mirra), frankincense (tus), etc. Of special note are zedoary (zadoar) and galangal (galenga), two plants from the far east, both in the ginger family, that were unrecorded in classical pharmaceutical writings and first appear in early medieval recipes (like this one!).

In a manuscript otherwise dedicated to conciliar material, why was this recipe added to the final page roughly 50-100 years after the main text was written? As a panacea, was it intended to be imbibed as a soothing potion to assuage theologians arguing about Christological controversies and doctrinal debates…? Or used by a reader who had developed a headache after reading an entire manuscript focused on theological dispute? Just some ideas :)

While I don’t have a real answer to the question of why this recipe appears in this particular context, I do think it’s significant that medical knowledge was recorded here – a place that we wouldn’t expect to find it. Someone thought this information was sufficiently valuable to write it down on a spare folio in a manuscript otherwise unrelated to health and medicine, expending precious time, effort, and resources. As part of my current project, I’m investigating pharmaceutical material in what we might think of as typical ‘medical manuscripts’ (i.e., those that primarily contain medical texts) and in these sorts of surprising locations. What are the implications of the diverse array of contexts in which recipes are recorded?

I hope I can begin to shed some light on this topic over the course of my project – in the meantime, stay tuned for more manuscript mysteries!


Ps – My special thanks to Rosamond McKitterick for alerting me to this recipe in Laon, BM Ms. 199 and sharing her thoughts about the manuscript.

November, 2021

Time for tea?
Wintery weather, warming spices, and medieval potions

With the weather getting cooler and nights growing longer (especially up in Yorkshire!), I’m turning to my kettle increasingly frequently. To avoid caffeine overdoses, I like to mix in some herbal teas – the header image shows my current line-up: blends of cinnamon, mint, and ginger. Cinnamon and ginger feel especially warming and wintery, appearing not just in my cups of tea but also in many seasonal favourites, from gingerbread to mulled wine. In fact, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg are often combined in various Christmas-related spice mixes, teas, and treats. Take a look at BBC Good Food’s ‘Festive spice recipe’ (Figure 1), a combination of cinnamon, coriander, nutmeg, ginger, cloves, orange and lemon zest, sugar, and sea salt – a spice blend said to ‘bring festive cheer to many dishes and drinks. Mix into a latte, sprinkle into your biscuit dough, or stir into buttercream.’

But what does my tea-drinking or the BBC’s festive recipe have to do with early medieval medicine…?

Figure 1: BBC Good Food's festive spice recipe

Well, it turns out that our winter associations with these spices aren’t simply a modern phenomenon. While it might be hard to imagine that today’s seasonal love-affair with these flavours, especially given their mass-commercialisation (just think of the many festive menus pushing items with these spices – did someone say gingerbread latte?!), has any parallels in earlier culinary and medical practices, the manuscript evidence suggests otherwise.

Let’s consider cod. sang. 124, a manuscript thought to have been produced at the Abbey of St Amand in the early ninth century. Consisting primarily of exegetical and liturgical works, such as writings by Augustine, Isidore, and Bede, this manuscript also contains a number of other texts, including an abridged version of the Annals of St Gall, a letter from Charlemagne to Alcuin, and, crucially for today’s post, a single page with calendrical health advice (Figure 2). (Note: the manuscript also contains some stunning images – do check it out!)

Figure 2: Cod. sang. 124, p. 309

The first half of the page pictured above lists a set of Egyptian Days (days that were said to be unlucky, especially with respect to matters of health, such as bloodletting) while the second half recommends potions to be drunk over the course of the year. For each month, one or two plant-based ingredients are named. Although some months involve potentially locally available herbal products, such as rue and lovage (March) or pennyroyal (August), others recommend exotic ingredients, including many that feature in our modern festive spice blends. Notably, cloves are listed for October, cinnamon for November (aligning nicely with my current choice of tea!), and ginger (alongside rhubarb) for January.

This is not to say that today’s gingerbread lattes are direct descendants of early medieval monthly regimina! But it is striking that certain products are associated with winter consumption in both modern and medieval contexts. Indeed, given the known medicinal and pharmacological properties of many of these ingredients (see, for example, a recent overview of ginger’s health benefits), that their use is – and was – encouraged during cold and flu season probably comes as no surprise. So, the next time you’re sipping on mulled wine or eating a slice of seasonal cake with a spiced buttercream, you can think about all the health benefits you’re reaping...

Returning to early medieval medicine, calendrical guides to diet, health, and medical practices occur with some frequency. While this type of information can often be found alongside other medical writings and within manuscripts primarily focused on medicine, they also, as in the case of cod. sang. 124, appear in other contexts. In particular, monthly regimina recommending foods and drinks to either consume or avoid as well as records of unlucky days, such as the Egyptian Days, are frequently found with computistical material, that is, texts and calendars related to calculating the date of Easter. Just as last month’s post demonstrated, such examples indicate that it’s crucial for historians of health and medicine to look beyond the ‘typical’ medical manuscripts that have traditionally been studied.

Moving forward, collaboration with scholars working on other types of texts and in other fields will be increasingly necessary – both to find previously unexplored medical texts and to analyse them in context. And on that note, I’d like to a) thank Carine van Rhijn for sharing cod. sang. 124 with me, and b) remind any readers to please let me know if you ever come across medical material in an unexpected context – the more finds, the merrier!

While there’s much more to say about dietary calendars, the intersections between food and medicine, and the medical uses of the plants named in the above calendar, I’ll save these topics for a future post because the kettle is calling!

December, 2021

Medicinal mistletoe
Holiday-themed health advice from the ninth century

The first and most important thing to note is:

Do NOT try the following recipes at home!

Mistletoe, the common name for a number of related hemiparasitic plants, is toxic. Indeed, in Pliny's monumental Natural History, much more space is given to remedying mistletoe poisoning than to using the plant in medicine, though we'll return to the latter. Mistletoe also continues to be used in traditional medical practices in some parts of the world, and it will be interesting to see how ethnobotanical work on this group of plants develops in the future - but, for the time being, don't be tempted to use any holiday decorations for medical treatment!

So, what does Pliny say about mistletoe?

In addition to his comments on poisoning (noted in books 20, 23, 28, etc.), he addresses its use as birdlime (a sticky substance made from mistletoe berries used to trap birds; 16.48, 24.11), its damaging effect on trees (17.242), and its worship in the Gallic provinces (16.49-51). Its perceived medicinal uses are mentioned several times, including the following overview in Book 24:

'It is emollient, disperses tumours, and dries up scrofulous sores; with resin and wax it softens superficial abscesses of every sort. Some add galbanum also, equal in weight to each of the other ingredients, and this mixture they use also for the treatment of wounds. The lime smooths scabrous nails, but the application must be taken off every seven days and the nails washed with a solution of soda. Some superstitiously believe that the mistletoe proves more efficacious if it be gathered from the hard-wood oak at the new moon without the use of iron, and without its touching the ground; that so it cures epilepsy, helps women to conceive if they merely carry it on their persons; that chewed and applied to sores it heals them most effectively.' (Natural History, 24.11-12)

Interestingly, many of these medical properties fit with the mistletoe-worship Pliny recorded in Book 16, and not only the elements here reported as things that 'some superstitiously believe' (i.e., its connection with hard-wood oak and the moon), but also its general healing attributes:

'[The druids] believe that mistletoe given in drink will impart fertility to any animal that is barren, and that it is an antidote for all poisons.' (Natural History, 16.51)

Moving to early medieval medicine, I have found mistletoe, viscum, named as an ingredient in a variety of medical recipes, many with intriguing parallels to the information presented by Pliny. In cod. sang. 44, for example, the first ingredient in a recipe titled Ad ungues scabrusas, 'for scabrous nails', is oak mistletoe (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Ad ungues scabrusas, cod. sang. 44, p. 332

Later in this manuscript, a treatment 'for lunatics and epileptics', Ad lunaticos et cadiuos (see Figure 2), suggests the following:

'Ribwort, mistletoe from oak, agrimony, milfoil – you collect all this with the Lord’s Prayer and, for four lunar cycles, give [it] to the fasting person to drink with holy water.'

Figure 2: Ad lunaticos et cadiuos, cod. sang. 44, p. 358

A nearly identical recipe can be found in BAV pal. lat. 1088 (f. 33v) and a similar treatment also appears in Bamberg Msc.Med.1 (f. 21r).

Notably, while the moon's involvement in the timing of this procedure has some parallels to Pliny's comments on 'superstitious' non-Christian rituals, the instructions simultaneously include multiple Christian elements, challenging any simple division of medical material into simple binaries, such as 'pre-Christian' vs. 'Christian' or 'medico-magical' vs. 'orthodox', and illustrating the complex combinations of healing practices and beliefs documented by early medieval medical writings.

Finally, given mistletoe's modern associations with a kiss at Christmas, I can't write a post about mistletoe without some comment on this angle! While I have yet to come across any mistletoe-enriched love potions, Pliny wrote, as seen above, that it 'helps women to conceive if they merely carry it on their persons' - do early medieval manuscripts have anything along these lines?

In Paris BnF lat. 11218 (see Figure 3), a recipe titled Ad conceptione mulierum recommends that a woman should drink mistletoe (specifically grown on oak) in wine. Although that may sound like it should be quite a straightforward beverage to prepare, the instructions are fairly extensive and, again, incorporate a number of Christian rituals, including making the sign of the cross, saying the Lord's Prayer, celebrating twelve (!) masses, etc. Pliny's idea of simply carrying mistletoe sounds much easier!

Figure 3: Ad conceptione mulierum, Paris BnF lat. 11218, f. 122v

So, on that jolly note, I'll wrap up this project update. While I decided to focus on mistletoe as a festive end-of-year post, I hope it also shows that tracing any ingredient can be a fruitful exercise. In this case, we've seen links between early medieval recipes and ancient practices indicative of the continuation - and evolution - of broadly shared traditions over time. The integration of explicitly Christian features with pre-Christian rituals speaks to the multifaceted healthscape of the early Middle Ages, a topic that this project is exploring further - and I look forward to sharing more in 2022!

Happy holidays to all - and, remember, don't eat the mistletoe!


Note: references to Pliny's Natural History are from the Loeb series: Pliny, Natural History, trans. H. Rackham, W. H. S. Jones, and D. E. Eichholz, 10 vols (Cambridge, MA, 1938-63).

January, 2022

New year, new manuscripts
A window onto some of the latest research

Happy New Year!

To kick off 2022, it feels fitting to showcase some of the manuscripts with which I’ve begun the year: a fresh batch of early medieval codices I’ve been exploring for possible previously unrecorded pharmaceutical writings. I must first extend my thanks to a number of friends and colleagues, especially Carine van Rhijn and Bram van den Berg, for flagging certain manuscripts which, though they haven’t been recorded in the standard catalogues of early medieval medical writings, do contain texts relating to health and medicine. Let’s begin the manuscript hunt!

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Figure 1, a-c: These three images capture the same folio from BAV pal. lat. 24 (f. 100r) using different imaging techniques. In this case, a late antique copy of Cicero's Pro Fronteio was written over in the seventh or eighth century tricky to read, no?!

It must be remembered, however, that a manuscript hunt among manuscripts containing uncatalogued medical material does not necessarily lead to medical recipes.... Some manuscripts, such as Vatican, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana (BAV) pal. lat. 24, turn out to be dead ends. Regardless, the process of exploring a manuscript is always fascinating. BAV pal. lat. 24, for example, presents a particularly complex manuscript puzzle: a palimpsest! Scroll through the three images above (Figure 1, a-c) for a taste of the layers of writing - and the challenge of deciphering them.

Made up of ten distinct units, this 177-folio manuscript was produced in the seventh or eighth centuries by recycling pages from manuscripts originally written in the third (!) through sixth centuries. Biblical texts were copied on top of the earlier material, classical texts, such as works by Cicero, Seneca, and Fronto. The manuscript was restored in Lorsch not long after its seventh- or eighth-century creation, and missing texts were added on new parchment. Several more folia appear to have been added in the middle of the ninth century.

So, where’s the medicine? Of the ten late antique codicological units that were reused to produce the present manuscript, nine are in Latin and one is in Greek. Unfortunately, the only medical writings within the manuscript are found in this Greek section and are thus beyond the scope of my project and, crucially, my linguistic skillset. Alas! Although I’m sorry not to be able to analyse these writings as part of my current research, it’s been thrilling to investigate such an ancient, complex manuscript and to think about its evolving use(s) and the many individuals who must have worked with it over the centuries… (For more information about this codex, check out the Vatican's spotlight on palimpsests in its collections.)

On the other hand, two manuscripts from Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, cod. 751 and cod. 1761, have provided interesting material with direct relevance to the present project: medical recipes and charms. While I’ll save the second of these codices for a future post, let’s take a closer look at cod. 751 (see Figure 2 below).

Figure 2: Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, cod. 751, f. 188v

Another composite manuscript (though not a palimpsest!), cod. 751 is made up of five different units, three of which have been dated to the ninth century and two to the tenth century, with Mainz as a probable site of production (at least for the earlier material). The codex is best known for the contents of its first unit, ff. 1-77, which consists of one of the earliest surviving collections of the letters of Boniface, Archbishop of Mainz (745-54). Other sections include texts from the New Testament, a glossary for the Old and New Testaments, sermons, and collections of canon law.

Not unlike the manuscript I highlighted in the October project update, the final folio of this manuscript, f. 188v, contains a surprise: a full page of medical material! Though difficult to read in places, the page records several recipes and charms. Perhaps most intriguingly, this material is written in a mixture of Latin and Old High German. The penultimate entry, for instance, Tribus uicibus de hoc quod spurihaz dicunt, represents an early example of a charm from the ‘Three Good Brothers’ family of charms and has many parallels in later, vernacular manuscripts (on this family of charms and its later dissemination, see, for example, Eleonora Cianci, The German Tradition of the 'Three Good Brothers' Charm (Göppingen, 2013)).

This curious combination of Latin and Germanic medical writings – as well as the location of the medical material in an otherwise non-medical context – raises countless questions. When was this added? And why? Who was the intended audience? What do the internal language changes tell us about the scribe responsible for this folio and the scribal environment in which it was produced? How was this blend of charms, recipes, and bloodletting instructions perceived? And the list goes on…

These questions provide exciting directions for future work and underline the importance of hunting for medical material in unexpected places. Expanding the number of manuscripts under analysis makes it possible to dive deeper into these (and many other) questions, offering new perspectives on the evolution of early medieval medical knowledge.

Here’s to many more manuscripts in 2022!

February, 2022

Lions and Tigers and Remedies, Oh My!

In this month's project update, we turn to a ninth-century manuscript today held in the Bern Burgerbibliothek, the richly illustrated cod. 318. Written around the year 830 and associated with the School of Reims, this codex is perhaps best known for its partial copy of the Physiologus (fols 7r-22v), an early Christian didactic text with descriptions and allegorical anecdotes that largely focus on animals, both real and fantastic (for more on this fascinating work, see Anna Dorofeeva's recent article). As the cover image (from fol. 7r) shows, this part of the manuscript has gorgeous images accompanying the stories - scroll through its pages for unicorns, elephants, and more!

In addition to this impressive text, the codex also contains the Life of St. Simeon, the Chronicle of Fredegar, an extract from the Gospel of Matthew, a brief account of the seven wonders of the world, and two medical additions: a list of Egyptian Days (days thought to be unlucky, especially with respect to bloodletting) and two medical recipes (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: the medical recipes of Bern Cod. 318 (fol. 130v)

In past project updates, I've highlighted the question of context: why, in a manuscript otherwise unrelated to health and medicine, have medical texts been added? What can this tell us about the ways in which the manuscript was used and by whom it was read? And, conversely, can the appearance of medical texts, and especially recipes, shed light on how this information was used, perceived, and transmitted? Naturally, Bern Cod. 318 raises all of these questions, but I'll save an exploration of its manuscript context and production environment for a future discussion. Today, let's focus instead on the two recipes: a treatment for head pain and a potion for 'paralysis' (note: this should not be understood as directly equivalent to a modern medical definition of paralysis).

A lightly edited transcription of the two recipes listed on fol. 130v is as follows:

  1. Ad capitis dolorem . Ruta manipulum . i . Uetonica manipulum . i . Musica manipulum . i . Abrotanum manipulum . <i>i . Migraneam manipulum . i . Ex his omnibus fac potionem . siue coctam . siue crudam . et bibe .

  2. POTIO AD PARALISIN . Piretrum . untia . i . Saluia . manipulum . i . Puleium . manipulum . i . Iuiricum . manipulum . i . Urtica grecanica . manipulum . i . Corticis tremuli . manipulum . i . Persici folia . manipulum . i . Cerasia folia . manipulum . i . Salicis folia . manipulum . i . Agrimonia . manipulum . i . Rutam . manipulum . i . Pionia radice . manipulum . i . Uermiculum unde tingitur . denariis decem . Piper . grana centum . Uinum . staupos sex . aqua staupos tres . Mel staupum . i . Per tres menses bibat . luna crescente nouem dies . et decrescente nouem dies . et utatur balneis decoctis herbis . uetonica . iuniperum . edere . sauina . agrimonia . sal sextarium unum . coquat omnia simul et balneat se in eo . et sanguinem minuat de alia parte .

While the textual environment in which these two recipes are located has already raised many questions, the content of the prescriptions themselves introduces an entirely new set of topics and queries to investigate. Consider, for example, the various units of measurement the recipes employ. The first, Ad capitis dolorem, only uses manipulum, or 'handful', a very practical, if somewhat imprecise, unit. In contrast, the Potio ad paralisin draws on a much wider range of terms, as highlighted below:

POTIO AD PARALISIN . Piretrum . untia . i . Saluia . manipulum . i . Puleium . manipulum . i . Iuiricum . manipulum . i . Urtica grecanica . manipulum . i . Corticis tremuli . manipulum . i . Persici folia . manipulum . i . Cerasia folia . manipulum . i . Salicis folia . manipulum . i . Agrimonia . manipulum . i . Rutam . manipulum . i . Pionia radice . manipulum . i . Uermiculum unde tingitur . denariis decem . Piper . grana centum . Uinum . staupos sex . aqua staupos tres . Mel staupum . i . Per tres menses bibat . luna crescente nouem dies . et decrescente nouem dies . et utatur balneis decoctis herbis . uetonica . iuniperum . edere . sauina . agrimonia . sal sextarium unum . coquat omnia simul et balneat se in eo . et sanguinem minuat de alia parte .

Measurements are named eighteen times in this recipe and include six different units:

  • untia - ounce (a loose translation, not identical to the modern definition of an 'ounce')

  • manipulum - handful

  • denariis - denarius, a Roman coin

  • grana - grains

  • staupus - a Latinised vernacular unit of volume, roughly a cup

  • sextarium - a unit of volume, approximately a pint

Three of these units, untia, denariis, and sextarium, are fairly technical measurements also seen in classical texts, bearing witness to the strong influence of (late) ancient medical writings in early medieval recipe literature - even when, as in this case, individual recipes are recorded in unexpected locations and detached from a wider medical context, such as a recipe collection. Intriguingly, however, each of these classical Latin units only appears once, representing just a sixth of the total number of times that units are used in the recipe.

The remaining units, manipulum, grana, and staupus, have a more 'everyday' feel. While there's nothing to suggest that the classical Latin terms recorded in this recipe caused confusion here, that's not always the case. In the changing linguistic world of early medieval Europe, it's perhaps not so surprising to see a greater reliance on more easily accessible terminology - handfuls of sage and grains of pepper - rather than on a highly technical vocabulary. The unit staupus, as a Latinised vernacular unit meaning 'cup' or 'beaker' (and related to the modern, if archaic, German 'Stauf' and English 'stoup') fits into this user-friendly mix: like 'handful', a 'cup' offers a practical, rough measurement rather than a precise unit of volume. Moreover, it may have been more readily understood by individuals for whom Latin/Romance was not their first language.

This brief overview of the units used in a single recipe raises important questions regarding the evolution of medical knowledge as well as the intended use(s) of these recipes: are there parallel treatments recorded in other medical writings? And if so, what units are listed? Given the practical features highlighted above, were these recipes recorded with the intention of being used in therapy? Or were they recorded and read for other purposes? To pursue these questions further, it is essential to consider other aspects of these treatments, such as:

      • Their ingredients, which range from potentially local herbs (sage, pennyroyal, agrimony, rue, betony, etc.) to non-local imports (certainly pepper, though other ingredients, such as peach leaves, are less clear-cut - see, for example, Noah Blan's recent article on peaches);

      • The full treatment processes they describe - the second recipe not only provides instructions for preparing a potion to drink but also for bathing and bloodletting;

      • Parallel treatments in other writings, both ancient and medieval - the bathing advice, for example, has some overlap with comments in the Medicina Plinii (3.31.1), Celsus' De Medicina (3.27.1E), and Paul of Aegina's Epitomae medicae libri septem (3.18.2-3);

      • And, bringing us full circle, the wider manuscript context - how should these recipes be understood against this backdrop? Crucial to explore are also questions relating to when the recipes were added, by whom, and whether the School of Reims offers clues as to the environment in which this manuscript was read and information about the other texts to which these readers and scribes had access.

In short, this two-recipe addition presents myriad routes into exploring early medieval medical knowledge and its transmission, adaptation, and evolution. Stay tuned for future project updates tackling some of these other topics and watch this space for more on the unit staupus!

March, 2022

Repeated Recipes: A Window onto Local Knowledge Networks?

Last month, we looked at the wide range of units of measurement recorded within just two recipes of Bern Burgerbibliothek cod. 318. Although this ninth-century manuscript is better known for its stunning illustrations than its diversity of units, I think its units are rather exciting, and especially the Latinised vernacular unit staupus. Yet my investigation into the appearance of this unit has not only identified its widespread diffusion in early medieval recipes: by tracing individual examples of staupus, I've also picked up the spread of individual recipes. This month's update highlights one such example.

Let's begin with Stiftsbibliothek St. Gallen cod. sang. 397, a manuscript that’s regarded as the vademecum (personal handbook) of Grimald, an abbot of St. Gallen and arch-chaplain of Louis the German. As such, it can be dated to the middle of the ninth century and tied to locations where Grimald was active, such as Aachen and St. Gallen. The codex consists of a vast and varied assemblage of different texts written by a number of different scribes. The header image above offers a taste of the range of material: on the left page (p. 25), Egyptian Days (days that were said to be unlucky, especially with respect to matters of health, such as bloodletting) are listed alongside an extract from Einhard's Vita Karoli that provides vernacular names for the months and winds.

Within this mixed textual environment, two recipes can be found on p. 22 (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Stiftsbibliothek St. Gallen, cod. sang. 397, p. 22

The first recipe is intended to combat fevers and the second haemorrhoids. My translation of the recipes is as follows:

If a tertian or quotidian fever strikes a person: collect a handful of vervain, which in another way is called isarnina, and nine grains of pepper, and mix them together with wine. Drink one cup [of this mixture] before the onset of the fever.

To help haemorrhoids: take plantain and the sour herb, which by another name is named gundereba, and tallow from mutton, this is unslit, and beat these three ingredients in a mortar and then mix in a small pan. And in this way, the fasting [patient] eats this with bread. Do not drink beer and mead but only water before you are healed.

These recipes are striking for their use and explanation of vernacular names for several ingredients: in the first recipe isarnina is given as another name for vervain while in the second gundereba is given as alternative for ground ivy and unslit for tallow.

The recipes are also striking in that they reappear in two other slightly later manuscripts that were produced in St. Gallen: cod. sang. 752 and cod. sang. 899 (see Figures 2 and 3, respectively). The order of the recipes in cod. sang. 752 has switched, but otherwise they’re both essentially identical to the material in Grimald’s vademecum. And, at least in case of cod. sang. 899, it appears that this vademecum was, in fact, the scribe’s very source for this information: the second recipe ends with the phrase de liber grim tuli and a mark of abbreviation above the ‘m’ in grim suggests that this should be expanded to ‘Grimald’, thereby revealing that the recipes were 'taken from Grimald’s book'.

Figure 2: Stiftsbibliothek St. Gallen, cod. sang. 752, p. 158

Figure 3: Stiftsbibliothek St. Gallen, cod. sang. 899, p. 131

Notably, the two recipes in both later manuscripts, though situated alongside other medical material, appear as distinct units. In other words, they're not simply listed as two recipes within collections of recipes; rather, they are set off from their neighbouring texts and presented as separate information clusters. And it’s this aspect, combined with their shared origins in St. Gallen and use of vernacular terms, that I think marks them as particularly interesting examples of the movement of knowledge at a very local level. Indeed, I have yet to find any additional examples of these recipes, i.e., listed individually or within larger recipe collections – or in manuscripts produced outside St. Gallen.

The investigation of such localised knowledge flows is central to my current project, helping to uncover the movement of information, the spread and reach of communication networks, and, ultimately, the evolution of medicine during this period. I'm excited by the prospect of following this particular recipe cluster further – how many other examples survive? And how are they connected? – and more generally I'm looking forward to digging deeper into local networks and the diffusion of pharmaceutical knowledge. Stay tuned!

April, 2022

Making the most of the Easter Break:
A month on the road

Im posting this project update having just arrived in New York for the American Association for the History of Medicine (AAHM) Annual Conference in Saratoga Springs, the final phase of this stretch of travel. For a brief overview, my journey started in late March, when I zoomed down to London for a few days in the British Library and Wellcome Collection. I then hopped over to Switzerland, splitting my time between Einsiedeln and Bern. I briefly touched down in Sheffield last week laundry was a matter of increasing urgency! before flying over to the States this weekend. I should be returning to Sheffield on Sunday just in time to teach on Monday, no doubt aided by a lot of caffeine.

Having taken on some teaching this semester, its been necessary to organise research trips and, where possible, conferences around my teaching timetable, and especially to maximise this period over the Easter break. In this months post, Ill share three glimpses into my experiences over the past few weeks: well start with a frustration in Bern, turn to triumphs in Einsiedeln, and end with the bigger picture. Before jumping in, however, Id like to say a huge thank you to the Leverhulme Trust for providing the funding that has made these travels possible.


Glimpse #1

The Bern Burgerbibliothek has an outstanding collection of early medieval manuscripts and fragments, many of which have been digitised (for the digitised material, check out e-codices). Their team of researchers and librarians have also been updating their catalogues, adding detailed entries for each item online (start exploring here), which is an enormous help, especially when trying to determine the contents of material that has yet to be digitised.

My experience in the Burgerbibliothek was outstanding and I was able to consult nearly twenty different manuscripts. Most excitingly for my current project, this included transcribing recipes from several codices that are not yet accessible online. So, what was my frustration?

I was also interested in examining a series of fragments that are, in fact, available online. In these cases, I hoped that seeing the folia in person might be able to clear up areas that were difficult to read in the digital image. Take, for example, the top half of the final folio of Cod. A 91.15 (Figure 1) the writing is so faint! By consulting the fragment in person, looking at it from different angles, adjusting the light, etc., I expected that it would be possible to get a clearer reading.

Figure 1: Bern Burgerbibliothek Cod. A 91.15, f. 6v

But I was wrong.

Although in-person examinations have helped me decipher material at other times, I wasnt able to make much progress in this case. Thats not to say, however, that consulting this fragment wasnt useful. As Ive mentioned in previous updates, there is so much to be gained from handling the physical object: it offers insights into the materiality of the manuscript/fragment and provides a much deeper understanding of so many aspects of the item and how it's been used. But Im still working on my transcription of this folio...


Glimpse #2

Working and staying in Kloster Einsiedeln was incredible! As an active monastery, it was fascinating to live on site for several days and experience the daily rhythm of monastic life indeed, although I was there for the manuscripts, I couldnt help but feel like an anthropologist at times. (This posts header image is the grand entrance to the complex.)

But lets get back to the manuscripts: like Bern, the Einsiedeln Stiftsbibliothek has an impressive collection of early medieval manuscripts, a number of which contain medical writings. Similarly, many are available online, but I was particularly interested in examining several codices that are not digitally accessible at present.

One such manuscript, Cod. 356, contains Pseudo-Democritus Liber medicinalis (plus an extra recipe added to the end of this treatise) as well as a number of non-medical writings, such as a beautifully colourful martyrology, a list of martyrs and saints ordered calendrically by their anniversary/feast days (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Einsiedeln Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. 356, pp. 4-5

After consulting the medical material listed in the catalogue, I checked the rest of the codex to see if there might be further hints of health and medicine lurking in its pages... And I found some!

The opening martyrology also transmits some astronomical information information that would have been useful for establishing the dates of moveable feasts. In several places, however, a different hand adds simple notes (i.e., not in the colourful display script of the rest of the text) that mark Egyptian Days, days thought to be unlucky, especially with respect to bloodletting (can you spot two such examples in Figure 2?). That this information was added after the completion of the rest of the text raises interesting questions about who was reading the martyrology, the information that they thought was important to add, as well as the circulation and intersection of prognostic, calendrical, medical, and liturgical knowledge.

Another joy in Einsiedeln was that I was able to give back to the library in a very small but fitting way. Pater Gregor, director of the Stiftsbibliothek, asked for my help with a few palaeographical questions in early medieval manuscripts and with transcribing a medical text in Cod. 29 in preparation for an exhibition in the monastery’s baroque library (Figure 3). I was thrilled to answer his queries and to be able to contribute in this way a tiny thank-you for Einsiedeln’s generosity in sharing their manuscripts and community with me during my visit.

Figure 3: Einsiedelns baroque library

Glimpse #3

To wrap up, I want to turn to the bigger picture: the world outside of research. Not only am I a big believer in mens sana in corpore sano, but I think it’s so important to make the most of the unique opportunities provided by research trips in such spectacular places. In Switzerland, this means daily hikes (though skis might have been better on the first half of my trip!). I will be forever in awe of the breath-taking Swiss landscape – for me, hiking in the Alps is the best way to recharge my batteries. So, to close, the final images capture two of the scenes from my excursions around Einsiedeln and Bern a different picture of my experience on research trips...

Figure 5: Stunning scenery on a lunchtime hike

Figure 6: View of Bern whilst crossing the Aare

Year 2 (2022-23)

May, 2022

Teething babies:
Ancient prescriptions in the medieval world

To kick off Year 2, this month’s post features a guest contributor, Rachael Haslam. Rachael is currently pursuing an MA in Sheffield’s Department of History and, as part of her course, has opted to do a work placement with me, learning more about manuscripts and cataloguing, palaeography and the process of transcribing texts, and medieval medical writings. Here, she shares insights into what she’s been working on this semester.

Thanks, Rachael!


Over the past few months, I’ve been reflecting on the use of medicine in the Middle Ages and in particular the medieval reception of ancient medical writings. In this post, I’ll be comparing how a chapter from the Medicina Plinii, an influential late antique collection of medical recipes based primarily on Pliny’s Natural History, is recorded in two different medieval manuscripts, the tenth-century cod. sang. 752 held in the Stiftsbibliothek St. Gallen and the twelfth-century Royal MS 12 E XX held in the British Library. Although they draw on the same material, these two medieval manuscripts are presented in different ways and make for an interesting comparison. Here, I’ll first consider textual differences between two copies of the same chapter within the Medicina Plinii and then end with a look at Yvette Hunt’s recent English translation.

Unlike modern medicine, where healthcare can be very specialised according to a patient's age, ancient and medieval medical writings do not often record distinct treatments for individuals at different life stages. The chapter analysed in this post is an exception, however, since it considers the treatment of teeth in babies (see Figures 1 and 2).

Figure 1: Stiftsbibliothek St. Gallen, cod. sang. 752, p. 22

Figure 1 shows the chapter in question in cod. sang. 752. In addition to the Medicina Plinii, this manuscript contains a number of other medical texts, such as the treatise Oxea et Chronia Passiones Yppocratis, Gallieni et Urani, and a stunning image of a Sphere of Apuleius, a diagram used for predicting life and death (see the cover image above or p. 82 online). My transcription is as follows:

XIIII . DENTIONI INFANTIUM

Dentes equi[s] qui primi cadunt alligati . facilem dentio /

nem prestant melius si terram non tangant . Lacte capri /

no aut leporino cerbello gingiuae perfricantur . Del /

phini dentium cinis cum melle . gingiuis inlinitur . et eius

dente gingiuae tanguntur . Eundem effectum habent

dentes caniculae. Cerebrum pecudis in cibo datur .

Figure 2: London, British Library, Royal MS 12 E XX, f. 122v

The British Library manuscript containing the Medicina Plinii (see Figure 2 for the chapter under analysis) also includes texts linked to famous names in ancient medicine, with a commentary on Hippocrates and Galen’s De Arte Curativa ad Glauconem. The script immediately stands out as being more difficult to read, as it was written in a protogothic script rather than the Caroline miniscule of the tenth-century manuscript. Here is my transcription:

Dentes equis qui primi cadunt alligati . AD DENTIONEM INFANTIUM . /

facilem dentionem prestant . Melius est si terram non tangter . Lacte caprino aut /

leporino cerebello gingiuę perfricantur . Delfini dentium cinis cum mel /

le gingiuis illintitur . et eius dente gingiuę tanguntur . Eundem effectum . /

Dentes caniculę habent .

When compared, the texts present several notable differences. Given that they were written centuries apart, it is possible that these differences reflect changes in practice, though other manuscripts would need to be consulted to explore these differences further. A very clear difference is that the final recipe of this chapter recorded in the earlier manuscript is not included in this later copy. Additionally, the earlier copy is relatively lacking in abbreviation when compared to the later manuscript. This may reflect the shift towards using abbreviations more frequently in the twelfth century or could merely point to one of the twelfth-century scribe’s space-saving techniques, since the text is also smaller and more crowded generally.

Another difference is that the tenth-century manuscript maintains the classical ‘-ae’ ending while the twelfth-century scribe has shifted to using simply ‘-e’. This is a common difference between ancient and medieval Latin, and a change already observed in other early medieval manuscripts, so it is interesting to see that the tenth-century copy remains more faithful to the ancient Latin text.

The final difference I’ll consider here is one I came across when attempting to locate the text in both manuscripts. The older copy includes the chapter number (14), making it much easier to identify than in the later manuscript. Perhaps another space-saving technique on the part of our twelfth century scribe?

The content of the prescriptions is also interesting, as can be seen with Yvette Hunt’s translation:

14. For cutting babies’ teeth

1) The first teeth which fall from horses tied around are excellent for easy teething; it is better if they do not touch the ground. Gums are rubbed with goat milk or hare brain.

2) Ash of a dolphin’s teeth is smeared on the gums with honey and the gums are touched with its tooth. The teeth of a canicula have the same effect. The brain of livestock is given in food.*

Hunt provides fascinating explanatory notes about these recipes in her commentary. For example, the use of horse teeth was most likely a magical amulet, with which it was common to insist they did not touch the ground. This is included in both the tenth- and twelfth-century copies, as is the reference to the teeth of a canicula, possibly referring to a dog-fish, shark, or even a small dog. Hunt notes that Pliny’s original consideration of these teeth may not have related to teething, so the author of the Medicina Plinii and its various copiers may have based their text on a misunderstanding. This is interesting as it raises questions of whether the medieval scribes had medical knowledge or were simply copying the text without considering its meaning. I find this particularly noteworthy given the most striking difference between the texts: the lack of the final recipe in the twelfth-century copy. Was this an accident or something the scribe deliberately chose to leave out?

This investigation into the same text across different time periods raises interesting questions about knowledge transfer and the treatment of ancient texts in the medieval world. I hope it has shown the benefits of a comparative approach and I’m looking forward to continuing my research into medical manuscripts, having had my interest sparked by this project.


*Yvette Hunt, The Medicina Plinii: Latin Text, Translation, and Commentary (London, 2020), p. 31.

June, 2022

Looking beyond the text:
The biography of a manuscript

After a conference in Oslo (Oslo Fjord pictured above), I’ve been travelling around Scandinavia to consult manuscripts, visiting:

This month’s research update will focus on the Gothenburg manuscript – stay tuned for the others in future posts! – but before launching into the manuscript, I’d first like to thank a) the Leverhulme Trust for funding this manuscript adventure, and b) the many librarians, archivists, and curators who have kindly shared these manuscripts with me – and often much of their own time and expertise, too!

Now lets turn to Gothenburg codex latinus 25 (hereafter, cod. lat. 25), the small manuscript seen in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Gothenburg cod. lat. 25 in-person, a slim volume of just 17 folia

Although this tenth/eleventh-century manuscript is now available online, it has received relatively little attention. This lack of scholarship may be due, at least in part, to how difficult it is to read: some pages are very faint. Since the limited descriptions of this codex note that it contains some prognostic texts relating to health and medicine, and since medical recipes are frequently found alongside such writings, I wondered if an in-person inspection of the manuscript might reveal more medical texts lurking in its pages…

Reader, I’m sorry to report that I didn’t find material of this sort.

BUT I still want to highlight this manuscript because, despite not finding recipes, I was utterly fascinated by it. And don’t let its small size fool you: the codex may have less than twenty pages, but it has many stories to tell. Let’s explore some of the ways in which this manuscript’s users have left their marks across the centuries.

Figure 2: cod. lat. 25, f. 1v. A small diamond-shaped piece of parchment has been cut out along a fold

The first two folia each have two small pieces of parchment cut out: one diamond is near the bottom left corner of the page (if you’re looking at 1v, as displayed in Figure 2) while the other – a triangle (half diamond) – is on the very edge of the page. As you can hopefully see in Figure 2, these pages were folded, and folded in such a way that a simple snip-snip would have produced these double cut-outs. Although this did not result in an ornamental snowflake, it follows the same process of folding and cutting to produce a repeated shape.

When and by whom these cuts were made remains unknown. As does the question of why – was this simply a bored reader? Or were these parchment cut-outs being used for something in particular? Although I don’t know what such small pieces of parchment might have been used for, it seems quite possible that they were being put to some new use given how valuable this material was.

Returning to the folds, I noticed that some folia have them but others don’t. The lack of uniformity with respect to folding suggests that individual parts of the manuscript were originally used in different contexts and then later bound together. Did some of the pages circulate as loose folia folded together? Maybe.

Figure 3: cod. lat. 25, f. 4v. A ripped page?

Unlike the cleanly cut diamonds, f. 4 has what looks more like a rip given the rough edge (see Figure 3), while just a sliver of f. 3 survives. This manuscript has been through the ringer! Meanwhile, all pages have lots of prick-marks – little piercings around the margins, as seen in Figure 4. Based on a previous Twitter discussion concerning a manuscript I consulted in Bern, this patterning of prickings suggests that these folia were reused as part of the bindings of other manuscripts. With that in mind, I think it’s pretty amazing that these pages were eventually (re)united.

Figure 4a (top): cod. lat. 25, ff. 11v-12r. Prickings cover the margins

Figure 4b (right): cod. lat. 25, f. 12r. A closer view of prickings down the edge of the page

Next, let’s consider the array of additions on ff. 2v-6v (Figure 5). These pages contain a varied assortment of written material added by later readers/users of these pages: we can see squiggles (Figure 5a – perhaps pen trials?), calculations (or at least some numbers?), and several very bold, repeated marks (Figure 5b – is this ‘1551’? ‘ISSI’? If anyone reading this has thoughts about these additions, I’d love to hear!).

Figure 5a: cod. lat. 25, f. 5v. Squiggles as pen trials?

Figure 5b: cod. lat. 25, f. 2v. What's been written here?

All of these additions provide further evidence that this manuscript was seen as available to repurpose. Indeed, while I often see later additions in manuscripts, scribes tend to stick to blank spaces, such as margins or spaces between texts – here, in contrast, the later writings spill onto the original texts.

So, although these folia began life as pages dedicated to prognostics, the ways in which individuals used them changed over time. The texts were not simply read, re-read, copied, etc., but rather had an active, if turbulent, life: they were also written over, cut up, and possibly used to bind other manuscripts – and that’s just what my quick overview has uncovered. How many other ways have these pages been used? How many other untold stories do they hold?

Ultimately, each and every manuscript contains much more than a written record. By reading a manuscript's texts alongside the evidence presented by the physical object itself, we can explore how individuals engaged with these materials over time, opening up new questions and areas for research. Heres to more adventures with manuscripts in Year 2!