Incunabula and medicine: a report

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By | Early Medicine, Events and Visits

On Friday 20 May 2016, the Wellcome Library hosted a workshop (for the programme, see a previous post) that aimed to bring about new discussions on incunabula, the earliest printed books, and medicine. This was the first time that the Library, which holds over 600 incunabula, had held an event on this theme. The workshop aimed to consider early printed books as unique artefacts, with attention paid to the individual characteristics of each copy.

Woodcut from incunabulum.

Recto of first leaf in EPB Incunabula 3.b.24: Cibaldone ovvero opera utilissima a conservarsi sano (Brescia: B. Farfengus, [1493]). Wellcome Images L0016339.

The first session focused on incunabula that were relatively small, practical and cheap to produce. Often these sorts of editions do not survive in large numbers, which makes the study of surviving copies all the more vital. The first speaker, Sabrina Minuzzi (Oxford), examined the ‘Libro terzo d’Almansore’ or ‘Cibaldone’. The different editions of the ‘Cibaldone’, a regimen of health in the Italian vernacular, are possibly the first Italian language incunabula. The text had 14 editions in the 15th century and is now extant in only 30 copies. Using new tools, such as the ‘Material Evidence in Incunabula’ database, Minuzzi was able to analyse a number of the surviving copies that have copy specific information such as annotations.

This paper was followed by Elma Brenner of the Wellcome Library, who discussed several treatises printed in response to the 15th-century outbreak of the French disease or pox (‘Morbus gallicus’) in Europe, comparing these to plague treatises. These short tracts were often only six or ten leaves long, and were published in rapid response to real world issues. For example, the ‘Tractatus de pestilentiali scorra sive mala de Franzos’ by Joseph Grünpeck was produced as a response to Emperor Maximilian I’s claims that the pox was a divine punishment for sin. Grünpeck, writing in Latin and German, established that the two main causes of the disease were divine will and the movement of the planets, paying especial attention to the latter. The text reflects, therefore, not only the types of printed works that were popular, but also contemporary theories on the causes of disease.

Display of early printed books.

Display of Wellcome Library incunabula at the workshop. Image credit: Elma Brenner.

The second session investigated the owners of medical incunabula, concentrating on how collectors acquired and read these books. Julie Gardham from the University of Glasgow Library discussed the University’s collection of over 1000 incunabula and its recent cataloguing project. She focused on two collectors of incunabula whose books represent most of the university’s collection. William Hunter (1718–83) and Professor John Ferguson (1838–1916) both amassed collections of medical early printed books that were donated to the University Library. Hunter built up a collection of some 10,000 books in his personal library, and above all sought to acquire high-end, early publications. Ferguson, on the other hand, had different collecting aims, seeking a sense of completeness by purchasing many editions of the same works.

The second paper of this session, presented by Laura Nuvoloni (Wellcome Library), considered early collectors of incunabula that are now housed in the Wellcome Library and Cambridge University Library. These collectors sought out printed medical texts because they contained useful, relevant information. For certain physicians of the later 15th and 16th centuries, one can piece together elements of their collections. Nuvoloni explored the collections of physicians such as Thomas Linacre and Ulrich von Ellenbog, whose copies can be identified by their ownership inscriptions. Reassembling these collections is a difficult process. However, copies can be traced in modern-day libraries, such as incunabula owned by the physician Hieronymus Münzer now held by the Wellcome Library.

Inscription in incunabulum.

EPB Incunabula 2.b.37: Aphorismi secundum doctrinam Galeni (Bologna: F. [Plato] de Benedictis for Benedictus Hectoris, 1489). Notes by Hieronymus Münzer on front pastedown. Wellcome Images M0008048.

The third session explored the interface between medieval manuscripts and incunabula. Often manuscripts and early printed books are treated as separate fields, but the two modes of textual transmission are very much linked. Alice Laforêt (ENSSIB, Lyon), demonstrated this in her paper that inspected the popular ‘Herbarius Latinus’ text. Using evidence in printed editions of this herbal alongside Wellcome MS. 335, a later 15th-century manuscript, Laforêt identified a significant similarity in terms of illustrative material. She concluded that the manuscript was copied from the printed herbal, attesting that manuscripts remained very much a key part of textual culture after the advent of print.

Greti Dinkova-Bruun (Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies [PIMS], Toronto) looked at a different kind of interaction between manuscripts and incunabula. A number of manuscript fragments have been found in the early binding of an incunabulum of Boniface VIII’s ‘Liber Sextus Decretalium’ in the PIMS Library. These fragments contain text from the ‘Cyrurgia magna’ of Bruno Longoburgensis. Dinkova-Bruun described how the fragments were identified, and questioned why the manuscript was reused in this way.

The final paper was presented by Peter Murray Jones (Cambridge). He addressed how the change in technologies of producing images in print in the later 15th century impacted on book culture more broadly. He highlighted how manuscripts remained an essential source for visual material even after the printing press was in full operation.

The day was concluded by Vivian Nutton (UCL). Nutton first observed that none of the papers could have been presented without the internet. Prior to the internet and the collaboration that it facilitates, researchers would have had to travel all over the world to reach some of the conclusions presented at the workshop.

The second take-home point was that the workshop highlighted printed works that previous researchers have shown little interest in. Texts that have been ignored for generations are now being fully explored and given pride of place. Nutton also underlined that these texts were being read across geographical and cultural divides in later 15th- and 16th-century Europe, as demonstrated by annotations in different languages and calligraphic styles.

Nutton’s final observation was that the period 1470–1500 is crucial to the medical history of Europe. This period has been somewhat neglected, as manuscripts researchers rarely delve into studying early printed books. Print researchers themselves do not always consider incunabula. The early production of printed works reveals much about the medical information that people valued and how it was disseminated and treated. Overall, the contributors to this workshop showed that the study of incunabula is an incredibly fruitful area.


Patrick Outhwaite was a placement student at the Wellcome Library in 2015–16, and is currently a PhD candidate at McGill University. He holds an MSt in Medieval Studies from the University of Oxford, and recently completed an MA in Medieval English at King’s College London. His research interests include the interplay between medieval theology and medicine, as well as palaeography.

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