A Renaissance in Medieval Medical History

by Monica Green (Berlin Prize Fellow, American Academy in Berlin) monica.green@asu.edu

It may seem odd to take the metaphor of cultural rebirth—one that is usually used to contrast the medieval period with its successor—to describe the current state of medieval medical history. But the energy in this particular field, which draws on foundational work done in the first half of the 20th century by physician-historians like Karl Sudhoff, Henry Sigerist, and Ernest Wickersheimer, and cultural historians like Lynn Thorndike, Pearl Kibre, Loren MacKinney, Luis García-Ballester, and others in the middle decades and latter half of the century, has never been greater.

An example of how digitization of unique manuscripts is transforming the study of medieval medicine. Detail of a “phlebotomy man,” a standardized figure showing sites on the body where blood should be let to treat different bodily ailments. From London, British Library, MS Harley 5311, f. 10v, a physician’s almanac made in England c. 1406. The whole almanac is available in digital reproduction here: http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_5311.

An example of how digitization of unique manuscripts is transforming the study of medieval medicine. Detail of a “phlebotomy man,” a standardized figure showing sites on the body where blood should be let to treat different bodily ailments. From London, British Library, MS Harley 5311, f. 10v, a physician’s almanac made in England c. 1406. The whole almanac is available in digital reproduction here: http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_5311.

Several factors have contributed to this shift. First, an e-mail list, MEDMED-L (for “medieval medicine list”), founded in 2008, has connected close to 800 scholars throughout the world with comparable interests. This private list regularly sees traffic of more than 100 messages every month, and keeps subscribers informed of conferences, publications, and research resources (especially digital ones). It is also a forum in which people can pose nagging questions in their own work; these often generate some of the most lively and fascinating dialogues we see. This enhanced connectivity of the field has led to a consequent rise in sessions on medical history at conferences world-wide, which in turn generates new expertise in the field. At the upcoming International Congress of Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo in 2016, for example, there will be at least ten sessions on medical topics.

Second, medieval studies in general are being transformed by the digitization projects of countless libraries around the world, which are making the pre-print cultural heritage available in ways never conceivable before. Every book produced prior to the development of the printing press in the 15th century was “manuscript”—hand-written. The difference between manuscript and print used to be in number: all “manuscripts” were necessarily unique (there was literally only one); printed texts existed in whatever number the press run was. Digitization equalizes that number: there can be as many copies now of manuscript books as of print books. True, a fundamental difference remains: without any optical character recognition (OCR) of the words on a manuscript page, the substance of the text remains an image, needing individual human labor to read and interpret it. But with dozens of eyes all working on the same texts, that labor is greatly hastened. This technological development is especially important for the history of medicine, since so few medieval medical works received critical editions during the heyday of philological work in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Third, historiographical narratives that have presumed disruptions between the medieval and early modern periods are themselves being disrupted, meaning that it has never been more important to look at longer term trajectories and “roots” of modern phenomena. Climate history, for example, has drawn heavily on medieval records to create narratives of change covering two or more millennia. Disease history, too, is showing the importance of long-term processes. Even in book history we find more connections than previously imaged between the culture of manuscripts and that of the printed book. More projects, moreover, look across languages as well as across time to trace cultural traditions, endeavors which (again) are more readily pursued because of new digital technologies and access to original sources. The Ibn Abi Usaybi`ah project at Oxford, for example, will make available a wealth of information on a vast network of physicians in the Islamicate world up through the 13th century. It is no surprise, therefore, that we are seeing a consequent rise in synthetic work in the field, work that is also being read more widely as open-access models of publishing become more commonly used in the field.

Medieval studies has long seemed impenetrable to many non-medievalists because it has had to invest so heavily in philology, the laborious work of simply finding and then making usable the texts scattered in manuscripts at countless libraries throughout the world. That labor is still necessary, in both the history of science and the history of medicine. The kind of work that the great Marshall Clagett invested in his monumental Archimedes in the Middle Ages or that a large editorial collective has been investing in the equally monumental Arnau de Vilanova project (a series focusing on the medical writings of an extraordinarily prolific and influential Spanish physician who died in 1311) remains the foundation of our field. But because of surveying projects like the indispensable eVK and eTK edited by Linda Ehrsam Voigts and Patricia Deery Kurtz (which focus on medical and scientific texts in English, on the one hand, and Latin on the other), or the Sciencia.cat project edited by Lluís Cifuentes in Barcelona (which focuses on works in Catalan), or countless other projects that are creating inventories of specific textual traditions or archival records, we have never had so much of the pre-modern cultural tradition immediately at our fingertips.