A printed title page with a botanical border pattern, handwritten annotations and a library stamp.

Reading Remedy Books: Manuscripts and the Making of a National Medical Tradition

Melissa B. Reynolds, PhD will speak on Thursday, November 3, 2023 at 2:00 PM ET. This talk will be live-streamed globally, and archived, by NIH VideoCasting and live-streamed on the NLM YouTube Channel. Dr. Reynolds is a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at the Wolf Humanities Center and instructor in the History and Sociology of Science department at the University of Pennsylvania. Circulating Now interviewed her about her research and upcoming talk.

Circulating Now: Please tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from? What do you do? What is your typical workday like?

Photograph of a white woman posed outdoors in a blazer.Melissa B. Reynolds: I am a historian of early modern European medicine whose research examines popular perceptions of health and the human body as they were shaped by the global circulation of plants, people, and ideas; by religious practices and beliefs; and by access to media, whether manuscript or print.

I’m originally from Montgomery, Alabama, and completed both my BA (in English) and my MA (in History) at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, though I’ve lived in New Jersey off and on since 2013, when I started my PhD program at Rutgers University (completed in 2019). I now live in Princeton, NJ, but this year I’m lucky to be spending a lot of time in Philadelphia, where I am a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Humanities at the Wolf Humanities Center at the University of Pennsylvania. While at the Wolf Center, I’m beginning research on a second book that explores changing ideas about ‘reading’ the human body—both for diagnostic and devotional purposes—in the pivotal period between 1450 and 1650.

A typical day finds my riding my bicycle to the train station in Princeton, commuting by Amtrak to Philadelphia, and then making my way to the wonderful Van Pelt library, where I’m fortunate to be able to see amazing medieval medical manuscripts. Because I’m on teaching leave this semester (I’ll teach in the History and Sociology of Science department this spring), I have the time to read widely both within and outside my field and to really expand my thinking about this second book project—which is such a gift!

CN: What initially sparked your interest in the History of Medicine?

MBR: I came to the history of medicine late in the stage of writing my dissertation, only after I realized how critical medicine was to the everyday lives of ‘ordinary’ people living in England more than 500 years ago. I had planned to write a dissertation about how English society was transformed when non-elite people could use books as tools in their day-to-day lives. That transformation began around 1400 in England as a result of three interconnected cultural shifts: first, lots of knowledge that had once circulated only in Latin began to become available in Middle English translation; second, literacy rates were on the rise; and third, manuscripts were less expensive than they had been because of the introduction of paper. These developments led to a precipitous rise in the number of manuscripts created or commissioned by “middling” English people—artisans, well to-do farmers, merchants, and parish priests.

A page of handwritten text in several paragraphs.
A page from NLM MS E 30 with a remedy for nosebleeds, ca 1400s
National Library of Medicine # 100899916

When I set off for my first few trips to libraries in London and Oxford to begin looking at these manuscripts filled with vernacular knowledge, I didn’t expect to find that nearly every manuscript I looked at would be so full of medical texts. Though other categories of practical knowledge appear in these collections (like agricultural instructions, directions for caring for animals, and craft recipes), medicine predominates. It became clear to me over another eight years of visits to libraries (including the National Library of Medicine (NLM)), that when medieval people were given the chance to own a book that could be useful in their lives, these people were preoccupied, above all, with gathering information about their health, their body, and their bodies’ relationship to the natural environment. Now having seen more than 200 of these manuscripts, I have gained a real appreciation for the centrality of health concerns in the premodern world, but I’ve also been challenged to think more critically about what premodern people thought medicine could do for them.

In my first book, Reading Practice: The Pursuit of Natural Knowledge from Manuscript to Print (forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press next fall), I demonstrate that the same collections of medical recipes, prognostications, pharmacological instructions, or diagnostic aids circulated in England in manuscripts and early printed books for over two centuries, despite the fact that very few of these recipes or instructions “worked,” in the sense that we would expect. Yet English people continued to value these manuscript collections or buy new printed editions of medical knowledge because these texts gave them agency: they promised to impose some order in a world of disorder, where a mild fever or broken bone could mean death. I now think of the history of premodern medicine as much more than a history of successive theories or canonical texts; it’s really a history of people trying go on living in a world where the prospect of doing so was always uncertain.

CN: Your talk, “Reading Remedy Books: Manuscripts and the Making of a National Medical Tradition,” explores fifteenth-century manuscripts, collections of medical recipes. What makes this category of document unique?

MBR: The manuscripts I discuss in this talk, both from the National Library of Medicine’s collection and from other collections in the UK and US, are unique in the sense that they are bespoke objects: they reflect the needs and curiosities of the people who compiled or commissioned these manuscripts more than 500 years ago. Each one has a unique combination of useful texts, most of them medical in nature. This is not to say that there aren’t patterns that repeat across these manuscripts: almost every medical recipe or diagnostic aid or prognostication found in a Middle English remedy book once originated in a Latin collection by a named authority.

A page of manuscript attached to a larger paper.
A page from NLM MS E 4 with a remedy for nosebleeds, ca 1400s
National Library of Medicine #100899906

What makes these manuscripts so interesting is that they show how authoritative texts were gradually amended or excerpted to better suit the needs to individuals. So, for example, in one Middle English manuscript that I’ve written about in an article published in Social History of Medicine last year, we can actually see a fifteenth-century medical practitioner from Yorkshire, Nicholas Neesbett, adapting established recipes from Latin surgical collections with tips and tricks of the trade he’d developed over years treating patients. He used his skills as a writer to participate in a centuries-old tradition of surgical writing, while also amending that tradition with knowledge he garnered from experience. That’s one aspect of these manuscripts that makes them so important to the history of medicine. But the second aspect that makes them so unique, and the one I’ll focus on in my talk, is that fifteenth-century Middle English medical manuscripts became important once again in the later sixteenth century.

Historians have long acknowledged that the Elizabethan era (from roughly 1560 to 1600) was a period that saw the emergence of a new interest in collecting and preserving the documents of the medieval English past, but most scholarship on Elizabethan antiquarianism has focused on collectors like John Stowe, who wrote a new national history of England based on his collection of medieval chronicles, or John Foxe, who wrote a history of the Church of England that made use of medieval church documents. In my talk, however, I’ll show that little-studied sixteenth-century collectors of fifteenth-century medical manuscripts also believed they were rediscovering a uniquely “English” tradition of medical writing, which was a particular concern at a time when foreign medical ingredients were flowing into England via the mercantile networks of Spain.

CN: In the NLM collections you examined three volumes, what can you tell us about the authors?

MBR: While at the NLM, I looked at the 1615 edition of Timothy Bright’s A treatise, wherein is declared the sufficiencie of English medicineswhich was the second, extended edition, with a couple of herbal texts attached to the original. Bright was a practicing physician who matriculated from Cambridge in 1579, and he is best known as the author of A treatise of melancholieone of the first medical texts to address what we would now call depression, which scholars of Shakespeare believe may have influenced the character of Hamlet. He also invented the first system of English shorthand, which he wrote about in another treatise, Characterie: An arte of shorte, swifte, and secrete writing. Finally, he was a devout Protestant. He published an abridged edition of the famous Protestant martyrology Acts and Monuments by John Foxe, and he actually left the medical profession and accepted an appointment as a parish priest in the latter part of his life.

I also looked at two fifteenth-century English medical manuscripts, NLM MS E 4 and NLM MS E 30, both of which are really emblematic of the genre of “practical” manuscript I examined for my first book. The first manuscript has a couple of fifteenth-century names written in its margins: John Shorne (folio 73r) and John Biref or Breff (folio 16r and 20r). We don’t know if either of these Johns were the original scribes responsible for portions of the manuscript, but that’s true for most of the manuscripts I look at. What is clear is that in NLM MS E 4 more than one scribe worked on writing the many medical texts in the manuscript. For example, halfway through a section of charms on folio 67r, the handwriting changes to a much sloppier cursive, indicating that a new scribe took up the job of copying recipes. But that’s not the only change: the handwriting changes again at folio 82r and at 88r, and the contents of the manuscript switch to Latin on folio 95. Probably this means that NLM MS E 4 was once several different manuscripts, and that these different manuscripts were bound together into a single book in the early modern era. However, because the manuscript was at one point very damaged, conservators at the National Library of Medicine dismantled its pages and attached them to modern paper frames which are now bound together into a single book. There’s no way now for us to know how the manuscript was once collated—meaning how its individual parts were sewn together—so we can’t say for certain which parts were added when. Again, this is pretty common for fifteenth-century medical manuscripts, which very often had long afterlives and were adapted and rebound by later collectors.

NLM MS E 30 may have been written by the same fifteenth-century scribe over many days or weeks, though we don’t know who that scribe was. The handwriting stays roughly the same throughout the manuscript, though the color of ink and thickness of the pen nib change—which would be expected if our scribe had to make a new batch of ink and cut a new quill pen in between writing stints.

CN: In researching this subject, were you drawn to any particular recipe or other entry?

MBR: The third chapter of my book focuses on various healing charms in Middle English manuscripts which utilize the power of words to heal. There are lots of these in the manuscripts I study, but I was especially intrigued by two different charms that appear in MS E 4 and MS E 30, respectively, both of which are supposed to staunch a nosebleed. What I found so interesting is that both charms are supposed to cure the same ailment, and both charms invoke the power of words, but neither uses the same words or the same technique.

On folio 61r of MS E 4, the recipe to staunch a bleeding nose is as follows (translated into modern English):

“For to staunch bleeding at the nose: Take of the same blood & write on the forehead these words: amanazappta. Or else take an herb that grows in meadows with spiked leaves, the name is propentary [?] & bleed upon a leaf thereof & it shall staunch.”

A passage from a manuscript about nosebleeds.

On folio 17r of MS E 30, the recipe to staunch a bleeding nose goes like this (translated into modern English):

“If bleeding at the nose drink the juice of cinquefoil or the juice of ache and rub well his forehead then with ore write these letters in parchment on two sides and bind them on […] and these be the letters following: P. C. O. P. E. V. S. X. A. B. Z.”

A passage from a manuscript about nosebleeds.

I think these two charms are a great example of how medical knowledge circulated in premodern society. No doubt lots of people experienced nosebleeds, and these two charms (copied in two separate manuscripts made decades apart from one another) show that there was a general acceptance that this affliction might be treated with powerful words placed on the body. But it’s easy to imagine how individuals might be aware of this general premise and develop slightly different recipes to treat this condition, perhaps inadvertently making changes to an established Latin recipe or charm, either because they misremembered the original, or because they heard that a slightly different technique produced different results. That’s what I love about these manuscripts: individually they show us a person from more than 500 years ago responding to a problem we’ve all experienced, but collectively they paint a picture of a world very different from our own, where nosebleeds were yet another opportunity to tap into the power of words to heal.

Melissa B. Reynolds’ presentation is part of our NLM History Talks, which promote awareness and use of the National Library of Medicine and other historical collections for research, education, and public service in biomedicine, the social sciences, and the humanities. All talks are live-streamed globally, and subsequently archived, by NIH VideoCasting. Stay informed about the lecture series on Twitter at #NLMHistTalk.

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