A revealing book: cultural exchanges in 16th century India

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By | Early Medicine

The Library holds a rare copy of one of the earliest books printed in India. The Colóquios dos simples is remarkable both as an example of the emergence of printing in India, and for its descriptions of over eighty Indian plants and other medicinal substances, many of which were unknown in 16th-century Europe. Its author Garcia de Orta was also an interesting figure of his time.

Engraving of cinnamon leaf and stick in 1567 Latin version of de Orta's work (p.72). Wellcome Library reference: EPB/4655/A/1

Engraving of cinnamon leaf and stick in the 1567 Latin version of de Orta’s work (p.72). Wellcome Library reference: EPB/4655/A/1. Photograph by Elma Brenner.

The Colóquios dos simples, e drogas he cousas mediçinais da India was first printed in Goa by João de Endem on 10 April 1563. Written in Portuguese, the work quickly appeared in Latin and Italian  forms, and influenced subsequent medical writers such as Cristóbal Acosta (c.1515-c.1592). Less than 30 copies of the original printing in Portuguese now survive.

Title page of the Colóquios dos Simples. Photograph by Elma Brenner.

Title page of the 1563 Portuguese edition of Colóquios dos Simples. Photograph by Elma Brenner.

Its author Garcia de Orta (1501/1502–1568) was born in Portugal to converted Jewish parents, and became a professor of medicine at the University of Lisbon. Converted Jews, known as New Christians, were prominent among medical practitioners in  16th-century Portugal; throughout the Middle Ages, Jews had made a vital contribution to medicine in many parts of Europe.

In 1534, as hostility towards New Christians became stronger, de Orta left Portugal and travelled to the Portuguese colony at Goa on the west coast of India, where he established a successful medical practice. He also had a herb garden, traded in medicinal substances and precious stones, and owned ships.

The Colóquios is written in the form of a dialogue between de Orta and the fictional Dr Ruano, a newcomer to Goa. Their conversations reflect de Orta’s willingness to correct the ancient medical authorities (Galen, Hippocrates, Dioscorides) upon whose writings much of conventional European medicine was still based. While clearly respecting tradition, de Orta emphasized the importance of practical experience and observation in treating patients, and his work includes case histories of individuals whom he had treated himself.

It also contains the first European account of Asiatic cholera, and the first published work by the great Portuguese poet Luís de Camões:


Poem by Luís de Camões. Photograph by Elma Brenner

As well as transmitting new pharmaceutical knowledge to the West, the Colóquios dos simples reflects the very early stages of printing in India, where the first printing press was established in Goa only a few years earlier, in 1556. The book contains numerous typographical mistakes, and there are many variations between the handful of copies that survive.

This suggests that European standards of typesetting were not yet in place in Goa, and that adjustments were made to the type during the print run. Each surviving copy is thus unique, and some copies reveal how manuscript interacted with print during this era: in the Wellcome copy we can see missing printed text supplied by hand.

Example of a hand written addition to the text. Photograph by Elma Brenner.

Example of a hand written addition to the text. Photograph by Elma Brenner.

The sophisticated knowledge of Indian medicine accumulated by Garcia de Orta was one of the first subjects for the nascent printing technology of mid-16th-century India. While the printing of 1563 was far from perfect, the very existence of a press in Goa testifies to the vibrancy and dynamism of the cultural encounter between Europe and Asia that had brought de Orta to India and lay behind his work.

A recent exhibition at the National Library of Portugal in Lisbon paid special attention to the Colóquios, and the curators visited the Library to view our copy. The book now housed in the Library is remarkable in terms not only of the information it contains, but also the circumstances of its creation.

Author: Dr Elma Brenner is Specialist, Medieval and Early Modern Medicine at the Wellcome Library.

Elma Brenner

Elma Brenner

Dr Elma Brenner is the Wellcome Library’s subject specialist in medieval and early modern medicine. Her research examines the medical and religious culture of medieval France and England, especially the region of Normandy. She is also interested in the materiality of early books and manuscripts, and the digital humanities. For her publications, see She can be found on Twitter @elmabrenner.

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