Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Medieval surgical pharmacopoeia

I received today in the mail our latest donation from self-published author Leonard D. Rosenman, M.D. We have several of his works already, all translations of medieval medical texts. The latest volume is called A medieval surgical pharmacopoeia and formulary, and like the rest of his efforts, it has plenty of information to delight, amaze, and amuse.

The book includes a glossary; Rosenman notes (with some understatement, I think, given our post last week on mania a potu): "The vocabulary of the medieval surgeon included terms no longer meaningful to most readers." I particularly like the class of substances called cicatrixatives (say that a few times fast!), which of course includes the narrower class, sigillatives. (That's a word form I haven't seen since I was in graduate school and studied under a sigillographer!)

The book has seven appendices, five of which are excerpts from the works of medieval surgeons and two of which include pharmacopoeias from "the millennium preceding the medieval surgeons." People often think that nothing new came around between the fall of Rome (the first one) and the Renaissance, but the men and women of the Middle Ages deserve much credit for advancing sciences as well as arts in that period.

Before I take off my medievalist hat, I must point out one last interesting thing from Rosenman's book: Appendix IV, "A therapeutic incantation," is an excerpt from Theodoric's Chirurgia. Rosenman writes: "Every one of the great [medieval] surgical authors credited his Lord for his successes. However, it is unusual to find a prayer so closely mixed into a treatment as we read in the following..."

What I find so compelling about this short text is the way it resonates with another item here in Historical Collections & Archives. We have three examples of Sinhalese olas, books written on palm leaves, all of which may have been donated by John Weeks (although the provenance is a bit obscure). One of them was translated, in part, a few years ago by a relative of a library staff member who could read the Pali Sinhalese. He reported that the first two leaves of the ola contain the recipe for "King Devil Oil," but that the following leaves (most of the text) are instructions for administering the oil to the patient, including the chants that should be recited during treatment. The whole document, including the recipe, is written in rhyming poetry. It was probably meant to be chanted or sung, and the spacing of the words, as well as decorative flourishes at the end of the lines, indicate the pace at which the words were to be chanted.

How cool is that? Two examples of the interrelatedness of religion and medicine, from two different epochs and two different continents, both in the same library collection!

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