‘What have you got on the Black Death?’, students occasionally ask in relation to the Wellcome Library’s medieval manuscripts. Surprising as it sounds, the answer is ‘nothing’. How can it be that some 300 mainly medical books, many of which were written and read by individuals who must have lived through the most searing epidemic in recorded history, remain stubbornly silent witnesses?
There are probably several answers to this apparent conundrum, which mostly boil down to one overriding explanation: to expect our manuscripts to speak to us directly about contemporary events is to make a sort of category error. Our medieval manuscripts are overwhelmingly ‘literary’ productions rather than documents; their purpose was to transmit knowledge, often very ancient knowledge, from the past to the future. To that extent contemporary events, even ones of the enormity of the Black Death, were irrelevant.
It is all the more striking therefore when contemporary events do intrude, and remind us that the writers and readers of these books were indeed firmly ensconced in a very real and often turbulent present. In the early summer of 1415 a scribe in Evreux, Normandy, finished copying out a digest of medicine and surgery on behalf of a local practitioner, one Estiennot de Vernon (MS. 790). On the other side of the Channel the king of England was preparing an invasion army.
The writer must have been aware of this, for at the end of his colophon, or the record of date and place of production appended to the end of the text, he has added these lines:
Et estoit apesee la guerre
Fors au faulx anglois dangleterre
Verse moy du vin en ce verre
Si nen ya si en va querre
which might be loosely translated as follows
And so oppressive war must be
Thanks to English treachery
Pour some wine in this my glass
If there is none then go and ask.
He seems to have added these lines on the very day he finished his task, 1 June 1415, or immediately afterwards, as there is no perceptible change in the flow of the script or colour of the ink. He can therefore have had no idea of the calamity that awaited the nobility of France on the field of Agincourt on 25 October 1415, 600 years ago this month. He seems however to have been filled with foreboding about what lay in store, and inclined to take comfort in drink, revealing that he was heavily preoccupied with contemporary realities as he copied this collection of medical texts.