Lilium medicinae
13 januari 2017 Eloise Ruby Middeleeuwen

In a guest blog, Éloïse Ruby, master’s student at Leiden University and intern at the Koninklijke Bibliotheek, describes one of the most interesting texts she found while cataloguing the unidentified medieval manuscript fragments kept in KW 73 B 23.

Identifying medieval manuscript fragments at the Koninklijke Bibliotheek is both an exciting and a repetitive task. On the one hand, there is always the chance I will find something rare and interesting; on the other hand, I mostly encounter the same types of texts: books of hours, liturgical texts, and commentaries on theological and legal texts. Because of this, unusual finds are truly something to remember, and they make the task of studying fragments especially rewarding.

A few weeks ago, I was working on identifying the texts of the last unidentified fragments in KW 73 B 23. I had saved the hardest for last: an unassuming folio, once used as a pastedown within a binding, whose script was messy and full of Latin abbreviations, and whose ink had faded so much it was not wholly legible. Previously described as an “unidentified theological text”, I did not have much of a starting point and I did not expect it to be anything more than another commentary on a theological text.

Based on the script (an irregular littera textualis from Southern France), I dated the fragment to the first half of the 14th century, and I began to write down a transcription of the fragment’s text in order to identify it. I was occasionally startled by words I did not expect: “coitus” was repeated several times, and the phrase “in the middle of the night” seemed a little out of context. Still thinking of it as a theological text, I ran searches for the phrases I had managed to transcribe, but couldn’t find anything. I asked my supervisor, curator of medieval manuscripts Ed van der Vlist, for a second opinion; and we quickly came to the conclusion that it was not a theological text at all. It was a medical text.

It is not so surprising that this text survived and went on to be recycled as binding material: the Lilium medicinae was very popular in the late Middle Ages. It was translated from Latin into several vernacular languages and circulated widely well into the 16th century, first in manuscripts and then in print. The author, Bernard de Gordon, taught medicine at the university of Montpellier in the South of France from c. 1250 to c. 1310, and the Lilium medicinae is known to have been used there as a textbook from the fifteenth century onwards.

Bernard de Gordon’s outlook on medicine and diseases are representative of his time, and so are the treatments he recommends in the Lilium medicinae. For priapism, a serious condition which can lead to necrosis and death, he suggests bloodletting and vomiting; nowadays, patients would be given specific medication, and in cases where this is not sufficient, specialised doctors would practice either aspiration or shunting of the accumulated blood into an adjacent area of the body where it can return to the circulatory system. Such examples allow us to see how medicine has evolved and what was considered helpful in the Middle Ages.

This fragment is a valuable discovery for the Koninklijke Bibliotheek, whose collection did not, up until now, include any copies of the Lilium Medicinae. It may also be of interest to book historians and scholars in the field of medieval medicine because it is an early copy of the text, likely made during the author’s lifetime. As such, it could add to their knowledge of the text’s early use and propagation.

Fragment KW 73 B 23: 98, front

Fragment KW 73 B 23: 98, reverse