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A medieval medical textbook

Opening page (folio 1r) of MS A.19Think of a medieval manuscript and the image which readily springs to mind may well be a beautifully illuminated religious work, with precisely penned Latin text and gloriously decorated initials and miniatures. The College Library is lucky to have some wonderful examples of such works in its manuscript collection, but not all are so sublime.  Just as modern books cover a wide range of subjects and vary from the glossily illustrated coffee-table book to the cheap paperback edition, so medieval manuscripts came in a variety of forms. Some were working volumes, designed not primarily as objects of devotion or works of art, but to be consulted for the practical information they contained. Manuscript A.19 is one such book. It is a surgical handbook, the text for which was originally written by Jan Yperman, a Flemish physician who practised in Ypres in around 1300. It is the earliest known medical text to have been written in Middle Dutch Flemish. According to his introduction, Yperman chose to write in his native language in order that his son, who had not mastered Latin, might also train to become a physician. The text follows a conventional pattern for medical literature of the middle ages, covering ailments from the head to the foot, and being divided into books ‘boecen’ and paragraphs ‘kapittels’ to assist the reader in locating the information needed. It provides the modern researcher with the practising physician’s view of the conditions for which a medieval patient would have sought medical assistance: from fractures and wounds, to scurvy and tinnitus.

Illustrations from folio 14v of MS A.19This particular copy of Yperman’s Cyrurgie was made in the 15th century.  The hand in which it is written is clear, but not particularly elegant. Four other copies of this text, all in Middle Dutch Flemish,  are known. The first  dates from 1351 and is now in the Royal Library of Belgium in Brussels. Three further  copies, from various dates in the fifteenth century, survive in the British Library, Ghent University Library and Lincoln Cathedral. The timespan over which copies of this text were made suggests that Yperman’s work continued to be well-regarded and used for a considerable period. The copies at the British Library, Ghent, and St John’s are illustrated. Space has deliberately been left in the text to accommodate the drawings, mostly fairly small spaces between the lines of text. The layout is fairly consistent in all three versions, with illustrations appearing alongside the same passages of text. These are not fine drawings designed to please the eye, but crudely drawn practical diagrams, showing patients and surgical instruments. The copy here at St John’s also has some further jottings and drawings added later in space not used for the original illustrations, possibly the scribbles of a medical student.

 Binding detail showing St Michael slaying the dragon

The manuscript came to St John’s from the library of William Crashaw, whom we have to thank for a large number of our manuscripts. How and where he obtained it is unknown. While many volumes from this period have been rebound, this manuscript retains its original binding, with stamped leather over boards, the panels depicting St Michael and the dragon, and St Francis receiving the stigmata.







This Special Collections Spotlight article was contributed on 3 March 2015 by the Special Collections Librarian.