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Western Medieval Manuscripts : Medical recipes and charms

Western Medieval Manuscripts

<p style='text-align: justify;'>Compilations of recipes - often referred to as 'receptaria' - survive in great numbers from the late medieval period. This is one of several examples among the manuscript collections of Cambridge University Library. It was made around the late 14th or early 15th century and contains over two hundred separate medical recipes, as well as several performative rituals or charms that were likewise designed to heal the sick or aid someone at a time of distress. The recipes begin with a rubric or title, which describes the illness that it will treat. They are almost all written in Middle English, bearing witness to the circulation of medical knowledge in the vernacular language of the day. Some of the charms, and the occasional rubric, are written in Latin, suggesting that some degree of literacy in that language was expected as well.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>Recipes in such compilations are commonly arranged in approximate head-to-toe order. The first in this manuscript deal with headache, cleansing of the head, 'vanity' of the head (i.e. dizziness), 'evil hearing' (i.e. deafness), clearing the sight or red eyes, watering eyes and so forth (f. <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(16);return false;'>1v</a> onwards). They continue down through the body, addressing aching or swelling in the legs and feet, shingles and 'wildefer' (i.e. erysipelas) (ff. <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(30);return false;'>8v-9r</a>). However, there then follows a series of miscellaneous recipes, covering everything from fevers and snake-bites to gout and sores, before starting again with problems of the head: 'þe web in þe ye' (i.e. a film or cataract on the eye), head ache, swelling or scalding of the head and so on, before moving on to other parts of the body (f. <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(47);return false;'>17r</a> onwards). Treatments for specifically female ailments are common throughout and are not placed separately. They include cures for aching in the womb and the 'menisoun' (period pain and bleeding, ff. <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(25);return false;'>6r-6v</a>), soreness in the breast (ff. <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(98);return false;'>42v</a>, <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(105);return false;'>46r</a>) and swelling in the womb (f. <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(106);return false;'>46v</a>). There is also a charm 'for womman þat trauaileth of child' (i.e. having a difficult labour), which invokes the names of important female saints and their saintly children: St Mary, who bore Christ; St Anna, who bore Mary; St Elizabeth, who bore St John the Baptist; St Cecilia, who bore St Remigius, and so on (ff. <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(111);return false;'>49r-50r</a>). These are known as 'peperit' charms, from the third person past tense form of the Latin verb 'parere', 'to give birth to'.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>As many of these examples show, a large part of the contents of this manuscript is concerned with mundane ailments. Some of the remedies are also cosmetic, attesting to a desire to improve one's appearance: how to get rid of freckles (which could be misinterpreted as signs of a disease) (f. <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(48);return false;'>17v</a>), to whiten one's teeth (f. <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(65);return false;'>26r</a>) or face (f. <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(40);return false;'>13v</a>), or solve bad breath (ff. <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(65);return false;'>26r-26v</a>). The recipes mention common household ingredients such as milk, honey, wine or vinegar and animal fats, herbs such as rue, tansy, fennel, sage or rosemary, and plants such as speedwell, hollyhock or betony. The preparatory techniques are simple, often involving stamping, beating, mixing, tempering and boiling the ingredients together, which processes would require the same basic household equipment used for cooking. More serious illnesses or injuries are also mentioned, with treatments for rankled wounds (ff. <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(102);return false;'>44v</a>, <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(176);return false;'>81v</a>), canker on a woman's breast (f. <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(105);return false;'>46r</a>), bleeding (f. <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(186);return false;'>86v</a>), dysentery (f. <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(78);return false;'>32v</a>) and broken bones (f. <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(159);return false;'>73r</a>) providing vivid, sometimes visceral, reminders of the pain and precarity of medieval life. There are also a few diagnostic guides, to determine whether a skull has been fractured or not (f. <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(95);return false;'>41r</a>), to find out where canker breeds (f. <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(115);return false;'>51r</a>), or to know whether a wounded or a sick man shall live or die (ff. <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(99);return false;'>43r-43v</a>). The recipes often conclude with claims as to their efficacy with formulaic statements, such as 'Thou schalt be hool' (i.e. whole / well; ff. <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(17);return false;'>2r</a>, <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(21);return false;'>4r</a>, <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(25);return false;'>6r</a>, etc), 'on warantise' (i.e. guaranteed; ff. <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(47);return false;'>17r</a>, <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(169);return false;'>78r</a>, <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(178);return false;'>82v</a>), 'probatum est' (i.e. proven; f. <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(88);return false;'>37v</a>). Occasionally, medical authorities are invoked: 'a drink for al maner feueres or postumes (i.e. abscesses) or what siknesse is within þe body' is attributed to 'ypocras philosophus' (i.e. Hippocrates; ff. <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(69);return false;'>28r-29r</a>). Towards the end, there are clustered together three recipes for 'gracia dei' with endorsements by more recent figures: 'lady behamp þe erles wif of warwik' (f. <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(170);return false;'>78v</a>), 'þe good Erl of herford...þat was holde a noble surgien' (f. <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(172);return false;'>79v</a>) and someone by the name of 'obkyn fermory of knesworth' (f. <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(174);return false;'>80v</a>). Kneesworth is a village north of Royston in Hertfordshire.</p>As other examples from the Curious Cures in Cambridge Libraries project illustrate, receptaria manuscripts often bear the signs of home-made production, suggesting copying and compilation by medical practitioners themselves (see, for example, <a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href=''>Cambridge, University Library, MS Add. 9309</a>). MS Add. 9308, meanwhile, offers a noteworthy contrast. Its layout is uniform, with a writing frame and sixteen lines ruled neatly on each page; the text is written by a practised hand in a consistent semi-formal Anglicana formata script; and the rubrics are neatly underlined in red ink. There are decorative flourishes too: initials painted in blue at the beginning of each recipe, including two larger ones at the start that are accompanied by marginal pen-flourishing and infill in red ink of a sort typical in late medieval manuscripts. All in all, the material evidence points to this manuscript being a professional production. Textual evidence may be adduced to suggest further that it was made not necessarily in response to a specific commission, but was one of multiple copies made speculatively for sale to potential customers, as a compendium of all of the useful household medical knowledge that one could need. Before the recipes begin, the scribe has copied a short poem, which introduces the contents of the book to its reader and explains its usefulness, much like a modern-day publisher's 'blurb': <p style='text-align: justify;'><br />Þe man þat wele of lechecraft lere<br /> Rede ouer þis bok and he may here<br /> Many a medicyn boþ good and trewe<br /> to hele sores boþ olde and newe<br /> Heryn arn medicines withoute fable<br /> To hele alle sores þat arn curable<br /> Of swerd knif and of arue<br /> Be þe wounde wyd or narue<br /> Of spere of quarel of dagger of dart<br /> to make him hol in eche part...<br /></p><p style='text-align: justify;'>Nothing is known of the origins of the manuscript, however, and the date of its production can only be an estimated based on the style of handwriting. At a very early stage, perhaps before the manuscript was first bound, a quire of six leaves was added to the beginning, onto to which another, less neat hand began to insert of a table of contents. This scribe copied out the rubrics for each recipe, bracketing them together where they occurred on the same leaf, and keying these to the folio numbers he added to the leaves in the main part of the manuscript. Such apparatus initially developed in earlier centuries and primarily in texts for formal study. This addition to MS Add. 9308 illustrates not only that they had spread by the fifteenth century to manuscripts produced for wider consumption, but also that their function and use was intuitive to late-medieval readers who desired ready-reference access to the contents of their books. The manuscript also points not only to widening literacy in lay society, but also to a growing appetite for access to medical knowledge - a demand mediated by the commercial production of small, portable, affordable (though not necessarily cheap) books, whose contents were written primarily in the vernacular, and aimed primarily at readers without formal medical training, who were nevertheless aware of and wished to understand and treat illness.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>The leaves that were left blank at the time of production were nonetheless ruled and ready for copying, whether for the completion of the table of contents at the beginning or perhaps the addition of further remedies at the end. Many of these were were later filled with scribbles and pen-trials - among which is an inscription by a 16th-century hand that attests to the early ownership of the manuscript: 'Thys ys thomas hullis boke of stebbyng' (f. <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(3);return false;'>i recto</a>; the same name is repeated on f. <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(9);return false;'>iv recto</a>). Stebbing is a village in Essex, and the Hull family was of longstanding there during the 15th and 16th centuries, with numerous Thomas Hulls are attested in manorial and other records. One is mentioned in a court record of 1538 as the owner of property in the village's main street, with further occurrences in the records in subsequent years. A will in the name of Thomas Hull, mercer, is dated 1558, and also mentions a son by the same name. The son may be the Thomas recorded in court records of 1584 as 'recently deceased'; again, his son is named Thomas. One or other of these may have been the owner, however it may be that the 'Thomas Hull of Stebbing' who inscribed MS Add. 9308 is also the signatory 'Thomas Hull the elder' of an indenture of a lease from 1553 (now <a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href=''>Essex Record Office, D/DVx/6</a>). Not only is the style of handwriting in both closely similar, but also Thomas Hull is styled in the lease as 'Thomas Hull the elder, barbour' - a title commonly applied at this time to practitioners of medicine and minor surgery. (My thanks to Professor Lawrence Poos of the Catholic University of America and to Graham Jolliffe of Stebbing Local History Society for this information). </p><p style='text-align: justify;'>Dr James Freeman<br />Medieval Manuscripts Specialist<br />Cambridge University Library</p>

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