University of Cambridge told why stuff a puppy with snails

(ORDO NEWS) — British scientists have launched a two-year project to translate and digitize 180 medieval medical manuscripts from the Cambridge Libraries collection.

The manuscripts held in the University Library, the Fitzwilliam Museum and the libraries of some Cambridge colleges contain about eight thousand medical prescriptions.

Most of the manuscripts date back to the 14th-15th centuries, some copies date back to earlier times, and the oldest ones are a thousand years old.

These are medical reference books unusual for our contemporary. Among the manuscripts there are, of course, collections of recipes and medical texts, but they also include scientific, alchemical, legal, artistic and religious books, illustrating the many different ways in which medical knowledge of this kind was recorded, disseminated and transmitted to Middle Ages and Early Modern Times.

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Image of a human body showing which veins need to be opened for bloodletting, 16th century

Some of the manuscripts are richly illustrated, leather-bound, academic treatises have complex medical diagrams, drawings explaining the structure of the human body, and an incredible variety of urine color/smell/taste relationships.

But there are also simple pocket books designed to be carried around and most likely made directly by practitioners.

The recipes themselves consist of ingredient lists and cooking instructions. Medieval physicians (who, after reading some advice, I would like to call either alchemists or sorcerers) suggested using materials of animal, mineral and plant origin.

Some of the herbs mentioned can be found in modern gardens and pharmacies: sage, rosemary, thyme, laurel, mint, motherwort. Others, such as henbane and hemp, are better left unused these days. Medieval physicians also used various spices such as cumin, pepper and ginger, often mixed with ale, white wine, vinegar or milk.

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Drawings of urine flasks illustrating the different colors of the patient’s urine, with a description of the corresponding diseases

Separately, there are recipes in which the bodies (or parts of them) of animals were used. For example, one of the ways to treat gout involves stuffing a puppy with snails and sage and baking it on a fire: then, according to a medieval physician, an ointment can be prepared from the rendered fat.

Another way to treat the same disease suggests salting the owl, baking it until it turns into a powder, which is then mixed with boar fat and made an ointment: it should be rubbed on the body of the patient.

To treat cataracts described as “spider webs in the eye” one prescription recommends taking a hare’s gallbladder and some honey, mixing them together, and applying them to the eyes with a feather for three nights.

Behind every recipe is a story of a disease – and in a sense, a story of everyday medieval life. For example, there is a recipe “for a man and a woman to have children.”

In addition to everyday complaints, recipe books tell of some of the diseases that medieval people suffered from: they describe flesh growing in a person’s eye, painful ulcers, fistulas, and cancer.

Some even have the beginnings of forensic medicine: for example, the question of how to determine whether the skull was broken by a blow from a weapon or a stone is being discussed.

The Cambridge Medical Prescription Texts constitute one of the largest collections of medieval medical writing in the UK.

They are of interest to historians, but only a small percentage of researchers have had the opportunity to personally study these books. The fact is that many of them are too fragile for free access and need urgent conservation before they can be digitized.

Many of the manuscripts are in Latin, some in French, but a large proportion are in Middle English, illustrating the beginning of medical knowledge in the vernacular, vernacular language of Britain.

All digital images, along with detailed descriptions and transcripts, will be published on the Cambridge Digital Library, making them available to anyone, anywhere in the world.


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